Imagine an ordinary school day, when suddenly, the principal appears at the classroom door. Curious, the students watch as their teacher and the principal engage in a hushed conversation.
Finally, the principal leaves, and the teacher turns to the class. “Students, I’m afraid I have some challenging news. A drought across the continent is causing a severe food shortage, the number of the world’s homeless is doubling every year, we need to clean up the planet, and we need to figure out ways to give everyone the best quality of life.”
He leans against his desk, looking earnestly at his students. “Our society needs you to be innovative thinkers, to come up with solutions to help solve these complex global problems.”
At first, no one says a word. Finally, one student at the back of the class tentatively raises her hand.
“Sir,” she asks. “Is this going to be on the test?”
Our students are growing up in an Age of Complexity
We do have a love affair with standardized tests – those seemingly pure and simple indicators of student achievement and potential. But the world has become far more complex than the age the tests were originally designed for. Today, our schools (and our workforces, for that matter) must focus on not only the basics, but also on fostering brilliance and innovation if we are to resolve multi-faceted problems and make the world a better place. Contrary to what one might think, that doesn’t mean teaching individuals to be brilliant, but changing our classroom environments to bring out the natural brilliance in each individual.
So what does a classroom that fosters innovation look like? Here are five unique things to look for in your own classroom:
1. The conviction that every person has a seed of brilliance
There is an irrefutable belief that every child in the class (and every teacher) has a seed of brilliance. It may not be apparent what special capability that seed contains; the individual may not even know themselves. But whether it is a passion for cancer research, a gift for diplomacy, imaginative inventions, or increasing food production, it is there beyond a doubt.
An innovative classroom is like a fertile garden for that seed, with strength-based thinking, acceptance, and cultures of belonging embedded in the soil. This environment encourages students, and their teachers, to share their passions, interests, knowledge and ideas without judgement. When something sparks their curiosity, they naturally want to know more, and that seed of brilliance begins to grow.
2. Curiosity guides the curriculum
Once a student (or a group of students) show an interest in something, the teacher guides them in an age-appropriate real-life learning project to find answers to their questions or solutions to problems they’ve identified.
In other words, the student’s curiosity forms the basis for the lesson plan, rather than the curriculum directly. The curriculum basics are baked into the project, as students use research, writing, math, social skills, project design, etiquette, and much more to create the multi-dimensional project.
We’ve seen hundreds of such projects, and found that since the students are personally engaged in their learning, they’re highly motivated to do the work. In fact, a visitor coming to the door, such as the principal in our fictional classroom above, would not even be noticed.
3. It’s okay to question assumptions
Nearly everyone has sat in a meeting where they were asked to share their opinions or ideas. Too often, people clam up because they fear their ideas might be criticized, or they feel pressured to agree with the most senior person present. It’s not hard to see how such an environment kills innovation.
In an innovative classroom, students are encouraged to question assumptions – and the assumptions on which the assumptions are based. Teachers don’t view such questions as challenges to their authority or an assault to established knowledge, but rather as a learning opportunity to help the student research and discover the truth for themselves.
4. Viewing a collision of ideas as an opportunity to innovate
In our Age of Complexity, global issues are often perceived to be in opposition to each other from multiple stakeholders: a new technology solves one environmental concern while creating another, for example. Too often, these collisions of ideas are perceived as points of conflict where only one side can “win” by forcing the other to capitulate, rather than opportunities for innovation, collaboration, and compromise.
Since students need to thrive in this Age of Complexity, the innovative classroom encourages their abundant curiosity and the courage to fearlessly question and challenge the status quo throughout their lives. In innovative classrooms, we need to prepare them to embrace instances of collision and give them the tools and the permission to do so.
5. The environment is assessed, rather than the students
Standardized tests and the like have their place, providing important information about what a student or school may need in math or language, for example. But in the innovative classroom, teachers recognize that innovation is something that goes beyond the basics that have been taught: a student may memorize a list of spelling words, but it is innovation and imagination that enables them to write a best-selling novel.
A student’s seed of brilliance, then, can’t be measured, any more than you can assess a seed for the rose bush that it has yet to grow. A seed of brilliance usually takes much longer than a school term to reach full bloom, and trying to grade its progress could actually extinguish its growth.
That doesn’t mean a project can’t be graded, but in an innovative classroom, there’s more focus on assessing the environment that the student is in. If the environment is healthy and fosters curiosity and imagination, then the students will have the soil they need to thrive and grow in our Age of Complexity.