Fostering a culture of innovation

Last week, I was listening to an interview with Neil Degrasse Tyson on NPR last week and was really taken with his views on education, science, society and innovation.  Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York and the host of the new Cosmos series that starts next week.  In the interview, Tyson was asked about the economic impact of space programs.  Rather than focus solely on economics, Tyson chose to talk about the culture fostered by innovative efforts.

The real driver here is the stimulation in your culture to become an innovation nation. And when that happens, when we find an asteroid headed our way, what’s your first thought? Is it run, or stockpile toilet paper or – no. If that’s your first thought, you are not in innovation nation. If you have enough people who are influenced by this way of thinking – the innovative way of thinking – their first thought is: How do we deflect that asteroid? How do we destroy that asteroid? How do we mine that asteroid? That’s the kind of thinking that that environment stimulates.

What we need, Tyson argues, is a culture of innovation where risk taking and creativity is embraced.  America’s space mission in the 1960’s didn’t just land a man on the moon.  It also set the cultural tone for a whole generation.  Tyson explains, “Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were 13 and 14 when we landed on the Moon.   Those are ripe ages to want to invent something new. Just look at that influence from that era.”  While the mission to the Moon had tangible impacts on technology and science, the culture of innovation fostered by the mission inspired a generation.

I would argue that same “culture of innovation” needs to be fostered in schools and on campuses.  While many aspects of society have undergone significant changes in the last fifty years, the nature of schools and classroom activity have remained virtually unchanged.   A culture of innovation would promote more scholarship of teaching and learning, more risk-taking, more creative teaching and more out of the box thinking.  In its Six Design Principles for 21st Century Schools, Apple recognizes a “Culture of Innovation and Creativity” as one of the essential elements to restructuring schools that focus on student success.  Innovation is “the fuel that drives the global economy and it needs to be fostered in our nation’s schools.

But, how do we create a culture of innovation at our institutions?    One key way, Apple suggests, is “to abandon efficiency as a primary working method and instead embrace participation, collaboration, networking, and experimentation. This does not mean that focus, process and discipline are not important; just that innovation and creativity require freedom, disagreement, and perhaps even a little chaos-especially at the beginning.

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, sees other factors as critical to the culture of innovation.  In an interview with Yale School of Management, Brown says what’s important is to have “an ability to create spaces where trust can happen, where risks can get taken. We tend in our operationally minded view of the world to try and mitigate and design out as much risk as we can, but if you want to innovate, you have to take risks. And to take risks you have to some level of trust within the organization, because if people get penalized for failure, particularly the kind of failure that’s most useful which is where you learn a lot, then they’re not going to do it, in which case you’re not going to get any innovation.

Connecting it more directly to the work of schools, however, Jennie Magiera, writing for Education Week, sees the starting point a little differently.  Schools, Magiera writes, need to “start with a problem of practice.”  It could be “too many students in a classroom, too little time to teach a subject, not enough supplies or resources” but the key is identifying the problem and channeling energy into finding a solution.

While I’m sure there are a host of other factors that create cultures of innovation on campuses, I’m offering these points of views as reflective lenses to consider.  Is there a focus on problems of practice at your institution?  In your department?  Do systems build trust, collaboration, participation and experimentation amongst faculty?    Do people get penalized for failure or are they encouraged to learn from it?  The answers to these questions will help you better recognize whether your institution is positioned to be one that “stockpiles toilet paper” or sets out to deflect the next approaching asteroid.


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