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Lighting The Fire: 4 Ways To Teach Innovation

William Butler Yeats said, “Education should not be the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Innovation is the very spark that lights the fires of change and development, and we should be educating children to be innovators. What we are doing, instead, is teaching them to be rote memorization robots.

This is not to say that rote memorization is all bad. Teaching rote memorization allows students to flex their memory muscles and quickly recall important basic facts. We want our surgeon to have a proper grasp on rote memorization; it’s important for him/her to know the difference between a kidney and a spleen.

We need rote memorization for math tests, or to master the rules of spelling (i before e, except after c). It’s a great skill to have in the professional and social world, to remember names and make meaningful connections with colleagues.

What it doesn’t teach us, however, are social skills, making meaningful connections between subjects, understanding concepts, or to be actively engaged in learning. Rote memorization is, at its core, filling the pail.


Here are 4 ways to light the fire, instead of just filling the pail:

1. Teach Big Concepts & Critical Thinking

If you teach big ideas, you allow students to consider the context of a scenario. They must use their understanding of this big idea and apply it to whatever situation they are in. This is the foundation of critical thinking. A student is able to creatively solve a problem with their knowledge of a larger subject, instead of trying to pull miscellaneous names and dates from their “pail.”

Teaching children universal themes encourage them to be active learners. It creates connections to prior experiences and personal situations, creates relevant learning, creates a deeper understanding of subjects, and allows children to learn how to react to their learning. The ability to create these connections is a skill they can carry through to higher education and in the field.

2. Leave Room For Teamwork

The ability to work well in a team is extremely important in teaching innovation tools. It’s a common misconception that innovation is a rare skill that leaders are born with and must wield on their own. Great innovation often comes from great teams of a diverse group of people. Innovation is about creation (the idea), advancement (the implementation of that idea), refinement (poke holes, tighten it up, try again), and the execution (the actual follow through). It takes a team to do that process! This four-step process is lengthy and involved, and it calls for a group of diverse talents and intelligences.

In order to even contribute the team-based process of innovation, however, a person must know how to work well with others. This involves communication (talking and listening), creativity, problem-solving skills, and collaboration. We can only become good teammates through practice, and that practice can start in the classroom.

3. Reward Risk Taking & Destigmatize Failure

No innovator hesitates to take a risk. No big scientific discovery or new idea was created by someone who was too afraid to take the first steps or to color outside of the lines. Failure informs the next try. Reward actions of creativity, innovation, and risk-taking by including in on the rubric.

If we, as educators, show that hard work and effort achieves results and reward, students will be more willing to step out of their comfort zones, venture a guess, and think outside of the box. While stepping outside of the box may not immediately provide the right answer, it’s the first step on the path to the right answer or, maybe, a new answer.

4. Reflect & Ask Questions

Reflection is just as important as failure. We cannot continue to learn from both our achievements and our failures if we do not reflect on them. This reflection allows us to improve future processes and help clear the brush from the path to success for the next person to walk down it.

Don’t just move on once students have finished a chapter or lesson–reflect on what you’ve learned. What did we learn? Have we actually mastered this lesson? Where are the holes, and how can we fill them in? How will this knowledge inform future lessons and problems? Encourage students to ask questions. Afterall, we can’t find answers without them.


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