Innovation is a skill many employers are searching for but not finding much of in the current talent pool of engineers. Why? Because engineering schools don’t nurture and address innovation as a required skill, even though many service-related entities thrive on innovation in engineering and technology.
Perceived as a function of business and entrepreneurship, innovation isn’t taught to engineers and it’s doing them a disservice in the real world. Engineers are problem solvers, and it takes an innovator’s mindset to solve problems in any discipline.
Academia must change their approach and teach innovation so that employers get employees who are more well-rounded, possessing a variety of soft skills. These employees will lead from the front, be flexible and adaptive in their approach, and will be able to ramp up to face new challenges.
But How Can Teachers Teach Innovation?
Thom Markham, Ph.D., psychologist, author, and school redesign consultant, suggests these ten ideas for teaching innovation:
- Move from projects to Project Based Learning (PBL). The methods associated with high-quality PBL include developing a focused question, using solid, well crafted performance assessments, allowing for multiple solutions, enlisting community resources, and choosing engaging, meaningful themes for projects. PBL is the best method for combining inquiry with accountability.
- Teach concepts, not facts. Standardized curriculum is fact-based and rote-oriented, and does not teach ideas and deep understanding. Concept-based instruction does.
- Distinguish concepts from critical information. It’s important to find the right blend of open-ended inquiry and direct instruction. After all, to innovate, students need to know something. They need information.
- Make skills as important as knowledge. Innovation and 21st century skills such as collaboration or critical thinking, are closely related. Incorporate several 21st century skills into lessons, using detailed rubrics to assess and grade the skills.
- Form teams, not groups. Teach students to work collectively and become better collective thinkers. Markham offers these tips: Use specific methods to form teams; assess teamwork and work ethic; facilitate high quality interaction through protocols and critique; teach the cycle of revision; and expect students to reflect critically on both ongoing work and final products.
- Use thinking tools. There are hundreds of interesting, thought-provoking tools for thinking through problems, sharing insights, finding solutions, and encouraging divergent solutions.
- Use creativity tools. Cutting edge tools can help stimulate creativity and innovation by playing games and participating in visual exercises.
- Reward discovery. Our system of assessment rewards the mastery of known information. Use rubrics with a blank column (Markham calls it the Breakthrough column) to acknowledge and reward innovation and creativity.
- Make reflection part of the lesson. Reflection is necessary to anchor learning and stimulate deeper thinking and understanding, so don’t move too quickly from one chapter to the next. There is no innovation without rumination.
- Be innovative yourself. Innovation requires the willingness to fail, a focus on fuzzy outcomes rather than standardized measures, and the bravery to resist the system’s emphasis on strict accountability, but the reward is a liberating creativity that makes teaching exciting and fun, engages students, and helps them find the passion and resources necessary to design a better life for themselves and others.