Innovation: How can we teach it?

I recently saw a Ted talk titled “Play, Passion, Purpose” by Tony Wagner. He talks about the skills needed by students today, and the idea of innovation and how we can nurture it. It’s an eye opening talk and many parts hit close to home when it comes to coding, technology, and what we do at Start Code. How can we create an environment that builds these skills and, more importantly, encourages innovation?

Mr. Wagner’s first point hits the current education system hard (he is an ex-high school English teacher). Knowledge is essentially free today. “It’s a commodity.” We live in a time when we can search for anything online and have the information almost instantaneously. He points out that he can Google the capitals of the 50 states before you can even begin to recite them. No one cares what you know anymore.  The question is what can you do with what you know? The repercussions of this simple idea to the education system are enormous. Reciting and regurgitating facts for a test becomes almost meaningless unless you can do something with it. Simply knowing something isn’t enough anymore.

Given this scenario, what skills do young people need to get and keep a job in the new economy? Mr. Wagner goes on to give a list of skills that he thinks are important today and a few of them really ring true based on my own experience from working in technology, programming, and information systems. The skills are critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, agility, and curiosity.

1. Critical thinking and problem solving.  Visit any website that talks about the importance of teaching coding to students and this usually comes up at the top of the list. To write a program that solves a problem, one must first break it down into pieces and think about how it all fits together. Critical thinking is essential to coding.

2. Collaboration. Coding is much easier when working in pairs or a as small group. We find potential stumbling blocks more easily and we even spot those darn syntax errors in our code that can be so maddening (missing symbols, misspellings and such). Start Code students get together every week and have the opportunity to bounce ideas off each other (and just as important, they have fun).

3. Agility and Adaptability. The pace of change in the technology sector is unlike any other industry. It actually thrives on change. Companies that can tear down an entire industry with one new idea are celebrated. Students need to be comfortable with this and have the ability to change constantly. Agile learners have an advantage in this world.

4. Curiosity. A sense of curiosity fuels internal motivation and the desire to keep learning. We look for this at Start Code in our students when they tackle difficult projects and especially if they want to extend it and do something new. When this happens they are showing a mastery of the material beyond their classmates who might be simply following the instructions. It’s striking to see the difference in students with a genuine curiosity and those who might be just going through the motions.

Finally Mr. Wagner talks about the idea of innovation. This term gets thrown around a lot and what does it really mean? We want our society to produce new ideas and when we do so it’s called innovation. But how can we foster and encourage our students to be innovators? After interviewing successful young innovators, their parents, and their teachers and mentors, Mr. Wagner suggests five things we can do to create future innovators. 

First we need to stress collaboration instead of celebrating the individual. Students need to learn teamwork and do things that are project-based. Second we need to stress problem-based, multi-discipline learning. There is that problem-solving and critical thinking idea again! Third, students need to be allowed to fail.  With trial and error comes failure and this is OK, even if it’s not OK in schools. Innovation cannot happen without trial and error. Failure and errors come with the territory when it comes to programming and we let our students know this. Next, students need to be creating things and not just passively consuming knowledge. This idea is right in our tagline – Start creating. Start programming. We want students to use the tools at their disposal for creation and not just consumption. And finally, successful innovators show an intrinsic motivation to learn. Here we come back again to curiosity and the desire to learn for internal reasons, not for grades or money. We need to celebrate curiosity and give kids the opportunity to use it.

When you put all this together, you get an idea of the importance of a sense of play. This is a key part of Start Code.  We strive to instill a sense of play while creating with technology. We put students together to collaborate weekly and tell them to create something without a fear of failure. Try new things, be curious, but ultimately find your passion and make something.