Tag Archives: innovation and Creativity

Most Innovative Schools

“Innovation happens when people think big

Public education is facing enormous challenges.  Take your pick: Economic stress causing  pressure on education funding, more dual income families where parents can’t spend as much time with their kids, the continuing march of technology, pressure from the community,  state and federal level for achievement test progress, the growing rate of poverty, social changes related to bullying and childhood obesity, etc.   The need to respond to these issues in a proactive way seems obvious. It is exciting to report that there are some amazing school districts that are taking up the challenge with remarkably innovative and creative approaches.

Take for example, the Chafford Hundred School in Thurrock, UK.  Its campus contains nursery, primary and secondary schools and houses community services. It has a public library on site, and accommodation for community groups (e.g. mother and toddler groups). The campus entrance is designed to represent a shopping mall, and in this way presents a familiar and welcoming environment to the local community. Despite the high levels of technology (each student has a personal PC enabling access to the wireless network and learning plans and curriculum resources that are stored on the school intranet), the classrooms are laid out in a traditional manner.  Students are mainly home class-based, however there is a lot of individual movement between the library and resource areas. There is an emphasis on individual learning, with each student’s curriculum planned uniquely via learning plans and journals.  (Source:  21ST CENTURY SCHOOLS:  LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS OF THE FUTURE.)

Or, how about this one from the same report?  The Australian Science and Mathematics School in Adelaide, South Australia created an environment for interaction between educators, professional scientists and mathematicians. There are no ‘subject classes’ or ‘year groups’ at all. The school is ICT-rich, and focuses on inquiry-based project work and research, within different settings, including workplace and university-based learning. The school is situated on Flinders University campus and is designed with a strong sense of identity, giving a clear “home base” to the students who spend a considerable time learning elsewhere. Clear viewing angles, and a culture of “openness” are embedded in the design of the school, with glass walls and open alcoves used for different functions and activities. The school clearly illustrates how radical approaches to learning organization impacts upon every detail from the architecture to the school-parent relationships.

Microsoft’s Most Innovative Schools Program asks the important question “How can we INCREASE productivity AND maximize learning?   This seems an interesting call to arms in an emerging world of scarcer public funding and questionable student achievement.

What are some of the innovations that emerge from some of the top “pathfinder” schools?   Here are just some ideas that emerge:

  • Do more with less (like virtually everyone in the world)
  • Learning environments can enhance learning (architecture and design are a part of the learning system)
  • Teachers are not the only people who teach (students learning from students?  Why not? Or how about parents, or business community resources?)
  • Flipping classrooms (as advocated by the Khan Academy – doing what we thought of as school work at home and homework in class)
  • Smart use of technology ( How about having students posting their writing sample on a social media site where others comment on it to critique and praise?  How about Using Google Hangouts (video conferences) for in-class students to speak live to guests anywhere?)
  • Connect with outside groups, like universities, businesses  all over the world (not just seeking money, but to leverage external knowledge, content and people who can teach.)
  • Applied learning (inquiry-based hands-on learning like students doing projects to help close the learning-doing gap)
  • Re-thinking measurement (while there is a need to measure progress, tests are limited as they only measure one dimension of student ability)
  • Mentor-schools (Especially those who lead in curriculum innovation (experimentation)  and then teach the best practice ideas to other educators)
  • Not all teaching should be preparing people for college (teach professional and industry certifications in addition to traditional content aimed at the college-bound)
  • Serious thinking about teaching (recording in-class activities with a Lucy Camera to share events with other teachers so we can all learn and improve.)
  • Invest in teacher innovation (students have a half-day each Wednesday, allowing interaction time where teachers collaborate, work on their learning and develop new program ideas.)
  • Cross Disciplinary Learning (don’t teach in isolated pockets by subject, but integrate science, technology, and  language arts – helping students connect the dots through interdisciplinary projects)
  • School Turnaround Program (Intensive leadership development and intervention for problem schools with flexible approach to curriculum, schedule, teaching times and student support)
  • Student Empowerment (engage students in co-designing their learning journey incorporating projects, internships, shadowships, community service and multi-age learning.)

Many of us think about innovation in the context of an R&D function in a large company or university research center.   But Innovation is about implementing any idea that makes things better.  What more important place is there to do this than in our schools where we are preparing our youth for the future?

You may feel your own local district is already innovative and is changing in response to the world we live in.  If not, then forward this article and some of the links below to some of your neighbors, and start a conversation about what you would like your schools to be.


Microsoft Reveals the Most Innovative Schools in the U.S., from Microsoft

Innovation Schools, Massachusetts Executive Office of Education

Innovation Schools are Catching On, Boston.com

10 Major Challenges Facing Public Schools , from Public School Review

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Think Better (Through Biochemistry)

Have you ever felt that it would be useful if you could “amp up” your thinking and problem solving skills?  Who wouldn’t?   Would you like to be a more creative thinker?   I know I would.  What if you could do things by yourself that would help you on all accounts?

First a Science Lesson

I came across some interesting work in an article called Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box, by Swedish neuro-researchers Manzano, Cervenka, Karabanov, Farde, and Ullén.  (Warning: it is pretty heavy reading if you don’t have a chemistry degree.)

These people were looking into the link between dopamine (the chemical substance commonly associated with pleasure and some addictive behaviors) and creative thinking.  One crucial skill correlated with creativity is called divergent thinking.   In fact, this skill can be tested.   Such tests typically involve generating a multitude of novel and meaningful responses to open-ended questions.  For instance participants might be instructed to propose different uses for certain artifacts, such as a brick or a shoe, within a limited time.

Dopamine’s are neurotransmitters in the brain that promote information flow between different parts of it.  So in theory, the more information you have flowing between and within different parts of your brain, the more ideas you will be generating.   In fact, the Swedish study found high correlation between one’s divergent thinking ability and the flow of dopamine in the frontal lobe of the brain.

So how do we increase dopamine production?

It turns out that you can do quite a lot, including:

  • Improve your diet.  Eat bananas, and other antioxidant rich foods like blueberries and red beans.   Reduce saturated fat, sugar and alcohol consumption.
  • Exercise more. Studies show that even mild exercise (30 min) will stimulate natural dopamine production.
  • Get adequate sleep.  Sleep relaxes the mind, and therefore aids dopamine production.  For most of us, 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

OK, you should be doing these things already.   But among the most interesting ways to increase your dopamine’s, is to experience new things.

If you want to read this article, it is called Exposure to New Experiences Rewarding, from the University College of London.

This seems right, doesn’t it?  When our lives are filled with sameness every day, we get bored, even lethargic . . . like going through life on auto-pilot.  Our brains are not stimulated and we are not at our best in terms of our cognitive output.

When you think about most of the innovation tools and methods out there, they are mainly designed to “surprise” participants with a new situation or assignment they did not expect and then challenge them to look at things with a totally different perspective.    For example, you could ask a group of engineers to list all of the assumptions that they felt were behind the design criteria for a certain product.  Once they have listed their assumptions, try reversing them, asking “What if none of these constraints were true . . . how would that change your design criteria?”    In an environment where it is suddenly OK to think in a different way, people can become amazingly energized and creative.   One assumption they might have listed is the need for a specific low price.   Instead of thinking about how to drive costs down, what about making the ultimate high-priced, high-performance version of your product?   (Why do some companies, for example, think about motorcycles as a low-cost means of transportation (like Suzuki with its TU250X that sells for under $3,800) while others see a bike as the ultimate luxury good (like Harley Davidson whose Electra-Glide CVO motorcycle sells for more than $37,000)?

So challenging people with new ways of thinking can be an effective catalyst for creative thought. Here are some other strategies (guaranteed to stimulate dopamine production):

  • Get out of your office.  Meet offsite.  A new location, venue, or destination can help you clear cobwebs.   Combine your meeting with some activity that your people have never done.   (Personally, I prefer ones that have a learning purpose, like our Cincy Chef program that teaches team planning, problem solving and executions skills in a competitive time-constrained cooking challenge that we do in a specially designed kitchen design studio.)
  • Visit and talk with customers.  Be prepared to have you assumptions challenged, all you need to do is go out where customers are, ask them questions, and listen without getting defensive.  Conduct surveys, or have a focus-group.    Be on the lookout for the unexpected things that they dislike, find value in and where they find it disappointing to do business with you.
  • Visit other companies.  I have never visited another company (whether a supplier, customer, client or competitor) where I did not learn something valuable.   Everyone is good at some things that you are probably not.   At some level, many of us are trying to solve the same problems (like drive down cost, improve our customer experience, safeguard our information, develop successful new products, etc.)   Sometimes others will have thought of solutions you have NEVER considered.
  • Look outside your industry, or region.  In my business, we operated in Asia, Europe, and North America. When traveling throughout our markets, I was always struck by how differently customers in these regions saw our products, defined quality, sought features, or expected support differently.    Each difference (even subtle ones) you observe just might trigger ideas that could be applied elsewhere.  Also your “home team” is not likely to have a monopoly on all clever ideas.
  • Play (like you once did).  See also my article Play . . . Seriously?   Take a group of adults, give them pile of Lego blocks or Tinker Toys and then challenge them build something in a way that relates to a business problem they are facing.  Here again, in the right environment, the inhibitions will melt away, increasing dramatically the flow of ideas. Good facilitation helps.
  • Go to a conference.   I’m convinced there is a conference addressing almost every imaginable problem or issue you can imagine across the globe.  Do your homework by researching the conference, checking out the social media comments, and evaluate the speakers before you sign up, but pick some that are strategically important to you and your business, and go immerse yourself in a world filled with thought-provokers and thought-leaders.   You only need to meet one key person or hear one key new idea to make the event worth it.   Then come back home and talk with your colleagues about what you learned and how it might be adapted within your business.

You might feel that these ideas or activities take too much time, or cost too much.   You may feel “how can we afford it?”  I would ask you “How can you afford not?”

Other Source:

Here is an interesting TED talk on the chemical drivers behind creativity and how we interpret patterns.

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Preparing Students for the Age of Innovation

Education was a luxury of the aristocracy, but in the 18th century the revolutionary idea that education should be offered to the masses began to take hold, leading to a rapid growth of schools colleges and universities.   While education has been a fact of life for most of us for the past three centuries, our concepts of intelligence and of intellectual success (in school) have not undergone a major transformation since then. However, the world has.

Our education system has its roots in the age of enlightenment.  The goal was to create an egalitarian society by educating citizens to reason for themselves. This was a pretty big idea, and must have been threatening notion to the nobles and Church leaders of the time who up until that period were the main disseminators of “truth.”   Knowledge really IS power.

So, our modern college curriculum evolved from this period of thought.  Later, with the dawn of the industrial revolution in the early 19th century, concepts like problem solving skills, business acumen, and innovation (which came from people like Henry Ford) were introduced to help support the evolving industrial market.

If you think about what your children are being taught in school today, they are all taught the core fundamentals: mathematics, science, literature, language, vocabulary, composition, and history.   Art, music and foreign languages have been around, but usually rank secondary in importance.  And these non-core subjects have become increasingly under scrutiny in today’s time of budget cutting.   So it seems that our curriculum is decidedly aimed at the LEFT side of our brains.  This is what we measure on the SAT and ACT tests, and how we mainly define success for students across the land.

The priorities, reflected in our education system, match our value systems as a society, too.   The jobs that rely on these analytic skills pay the most money.   (Just check out this list of the 15 highest paying jobs in 2011.)   Dancers, actors, musicians, and artists do not make the list.   While we all want our kids to pursue their dreams . . . whatever they are . . . don’t most of us cringe a little when our kids say they want to pursue an artistic career path?

However, in spite of our LEFT BRAIN bias in our schools, the evidence suggests that at least US kids in the US do not perform well.   In the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) comparison, American students ranked 21st out of 30 in science literacy among students from developed countries and 25th out of 30 in math literacy. On the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math tests, 4th graders showed no signs of progress for the first time in many years, and 8th graders tallied only modest evidence of progress.

In response, there seems to be a renewed call for more and better focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).  The White House calls the initiative Educate to Innovate.

As a person with multiple degrees in engineering, I certainly appreciate the ideas behind this new call for education reform, but I wonder if something else is missing?

Today, more is being written about the need for more innovation, and why innovation and creativity are suppressed in our schools and our society.   If we truly want an age of innovation, then don’t we want to educate the RIGHT side of our kid’s brains as well (where creativity is thought to reside)?

That’s exactly the conclusion the State of California may be coming to.   In his article It’s All About  Creativity, San Diego State University professor John Eger describes new initiatives in California intended to transform classrooms by incorporating the arts and creative education.

Eger reports that there is currently a bill before the State Senate (number 789) which calls for the Governor to create a school “creativity index” on the premise that if you can’t measure it, you can’t tell if you are making progress.

The thinking in California is not about adding more arts classes to the curriculum, but about integrating arts into the remainder of the curriculum.  This seems a revolutionary idea, and California does not seem to be alone.

Professor Eger writes,  “This movement by California matches the legislation signed by the governor of Massachusetts last spring, and is much like a bill working its way through the state legislature in Oklahoma to also establish a creativity index. Equally significant, Maine, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Colorado and Wisconsin are beginning similar discussions and Nebraska is getting itself organized, according to CreativeChallenge, Inc., which monitors creativity discussions worldwide. The group notes that Seoul, Korea, and Alberta and Edmonton in Canada — and probably other cities and nations around the world — are following these efforts closely.”

Perhaps this makes sense.   Some of you may recall reading the book called The Jobs Revolution: Changing How America Works, former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley predicts, “The top 10 in-demand jobs in the future don’t exist today. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

It seems like time to rethink what and how we teach.

Other related articles:

Opening the arts to children

The New Children’s museum is a model of fostering creativity

Students get hold of augmented reality

Educating for the Knowledge Age

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Unlocking Creativity

Creativity and innovation are words often used together.  We see creativity as the act of generating new ideas or patterns of thought, while innovation is the act of implementing them into something tangible and useful.

I have written about the innovation process, but today I wanted to turn my attention to creativity.  So what distinguishes any new idea from a creative one?  Creativity is  defined as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns,relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, or interpretations.”

This begs the question, though, how does one gain the “ability to transcend ideas….and create”? Are people just born with creativity–like artists, musicians, and some scientists? Or is creativity something that can be taught and then practiced?   Let’s look at Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Stephen King, Albert Einstein, or Crick and Watson. Were they just born creative geniuses? How did they gain that “ability” that defines creativity?

Let’s first de-mystify what creativity is.  Wired magazine had a piece some years back in which Steve Jobs opined about creativity.  Jobs put it this way:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things… A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design [they] will have.”

Reading that, creativity sounds a little easier, doesn’t it?   Have more experiences. Get outside of your normal frame of reference. Let the problem soak in, and reflect.

There is an adage that asks: “How do you get a good idea? . . . start with a lot.” Creativity requires both divergent thinking (the generation of lots of fresh ideas) combined with convergent thinking (channeling those ideas into a practical solution). The tension of toggling between right-field thinking and pragmatism generally leads to the greatest creative insights.

So what things can you do to increase your flashes of creative insight?   Here is a list I came across in an article by Ann Creamer (former Executive Vice President, Worldwide Creative Director, for Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite). Her perception is that the best paths to innovation and creativity are so deceptively simple, that they are easily overlooked.   Here is her prescription:

Reduce stress.  Stress reduces your creativity and problem solving effectiveness. Northwestern University psychologist Mark Jung-Beeman and his colleagues completed a study where they concluded that your emotional state of mind is a significant factor in determining your problem solving effectiveness.  His research suggests that we solve problems with a process called insight, accompanied by an “Aha!” moment when we finally see the dots connected.   Jung-Beeman’s research points to the fact that stressed individuals generate far fewer brain waves associated with insight when under stress.   Want a simple way to reduce stress?   How about:

Take a Walk, and BE MINDFUL.   It sounds like the best thing to do when you are under stress, is to get away.   But, Michael Craig Miller, M.D (from Harvard Medical School) suggests that while it may be counterintuitive, the best prescription to your stress is to think about what’s going on at that moment.   The concept of being mindful probably has its roots in Buddhism. Walk and mull it over in a fresh space away from the office environment where you normally work.   The article referenced above offers some techniques for practicing the art of mindfulness.

In Ann Creamer’s article, she recounts how Verlyn Klinkenborg connected Charles Dickens’s extraordinary creative output to his nightly walking. “He is lost in a kind of mental ventriloquism,” he wrote, “calling up his emotions and studying them. Every night he walked a dozen miles, without which, he said, ‘I should just explode and perish.’ Dickens wrote, ‘There is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy, walking through London as though ‘the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind.’”

Try it (for me it works best when I am by myself).  You can always use your DVR to record any program you might otherwise miss.

Aim for ambivalence. Christina Tong-Fong (from the University of Washington) did an interesting piece of research, reported in her paper: The effects of emotional ambivalence on creativity.   She describes that emotional ambivalence is the state where you experience a combination of both positive and negative emotions.   She says this is an under-explored state in organizations. The state of emotional ambivalence is perceived as having an ‘unusual emotional experience” which in turn increases sensitivity to unusual associations. This helps you make connections and generate new ideas.

What is the best way to get into this state?

Get out of the office and into unfamiliar environmentsOne to the most creativity-killing things we do is to lock ourselves within our own business environment, surrounded by people who think like us and help us reinforce the same ways we tend to think about our world, business, customers, products and services.  We trick ourselves into believing we are experts.  This is a pretty dangerous assumption.

Get out of your office. Talk to customers. Take their pictures. Talk to customers of your competitors. Take public transportation.  Go to a remote resort. Visit a foreign place or country.  Oh yes, it also helps a lot to first open your mind to the possibility that all that you currently know or believe . . . just may be wrong.

And when you do go for your walk or into other unfamiliar environments . . .

Let your mind wander.  Throughout our lives, we struggle to learn patterns, behaviors, rituals, customs and practices that help us become accepted in society and within our respective organizational cultures.   Conforming give us security and comfort.  But it can also be constraining.

Think about how we learned these new initially unfamiliar behavior patterns, like when we first went to school or arrived in our first job out of college.  We assumed we were in a strange new world.  We watched, we listened and we experimented.  By trial and error we figured it out, and became who we are.   Wouldn’t it be good to allow ourselves the freedom to seek our new physical, intellectual, and emotional behaviors?   This is how we grow.

Allow yourself the privilege of being more child-like, inquisitive, and naive again.

What do you have to lose?

Related Article:

Creativity Lessons From Charles Dickens and Steve Jobs By Anne Kreamer, Wired, March 27, 2012

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