How Are Schools Fostering Innovation For Kids Who “Think Differently”?

| By Editorial Staff

As recently as just a few years ago, the buzzword shouted through hallways in schools across the country was STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math.Creativity In Schools

By merging each of these subjects into one mega-disciple, the goal was to make the U.S. competitive and help teachers foster problem-solving skills and collaborative learning.

Of course, while more focus – and budget – was invested on STEM, districts saw their arts programs slashed. These days, however, companies are looking for creative thinkers and multimedia communicators – people who excel in the creative arts.

As a result, we’ve seen a shift from STEM to STEAM (adding the A for arts).

But the addition of a letter into some acronym isn’t enough to foster innovation and ideation. School districts have to make systemic changes if they want their students to become independent thinkers that companies value – and hire.

Some schools are already doing this.

Take, for example, the 13,200-student Albermaie County school district in Virginia, which was featured in an article in EdWeek.org.

Superintendent Pamela R. Moran actively reaches out to business owners in the community to discover what skills these business leaders believe are needed to create innovative minds. She then takes these ideas back to her district.

“The factory school model of the 20th century [was] designed to mimic what factories needed in their workers,” Ms. Moran said. “Now, [the workforce] wants kids who can really work through issues to generate solutions that work without being dependent on someone at the top to solve it for them.”

Some of the methods Moran has put into place include offering computer-programming workshops so students learn how to code, while providing teachers the support they need to turn their classrooms into true learning environments.

For Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, a “true learning environment” means completely shifting the concept of the conventional classroom.

Mazur believes that students should have the ability to learn material on their own time, with classes saved for making sense of how it applies in the real world. This approach may not be fully realistic for elementary-aged students; however, it does introduce an interesting question: why can’t school districts use the power of the web to allow students to go at their own pace, and learn in an environment that’s comfortable to them?

Technology, it seems, is a driving force for any district noted for their progressive approach to innovative education.

The 5,500-student Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina has become a model for systematic digital conversion by rolling out a 1-1 program for every 4th through 12th grader. Now, visitors from all over the country come to the district to see how it embraces and uses digital innovation to tap into the minds of young students.

But it’s not just technology that’s key to fostering innovation. Superintendents, like Mark Edwards (Superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District) stress the importance of continuous learning for both students and teachers.

In other words, students are expected to use their own curiosity, and access to technology, to expand their instructional knowledge. They’re taught to realize that education isn’t confined to a classroom. Discovery isn’t something spoon-fed by lesson plans or tests. These future leaders of our country are taught to embrace their own potential and fall in love with learning.

Edwards is quick to note however, that such a culture can’t exist without teachers being encouraged to experiment without the fear of repercussion if their efforts result in “failure.”

Go straight to the source

One other common approach innovative districts have embraced is to listen to students. Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise (a Washington-based nonprofit technology advocacy organization) recommends districts allow young people to help sculpt curriculum.

“Young people have different kinds of ideas, and it’s really helpful to understand them, listen carefully, and take it to heart,” Ms. Cator told EdWeek.

This offers a world of benefit. For starters, by allowing students to help participate in curriculum design, districts are encouraging them to become invested in their own education. But secondly, the very practice of deciding how best to prepare themselves for their futures is an exercise in innovation in and of itself.

It’s true that many of the most successful districts in the country admit that technology is a foundation to fostering innovation; however, innovation existed long-before computers came to life. Even without access to these devices, districts can support teachers who think outside the box, encourage students to get involved in their education, and reach out to business leaders to determine what skills they feel are most needed in the workforce.