The Innovation Teacher, PART I: Educating Students on Failure, Change, and Discovery

Filed Under Innovation


June 15, 2015

Editor’s Note: Don Wettrick is an educational speaker, professional, and innovation evangelist. A two-time Microsoft® Innovative Educator award winner, he believes that bringing innovation into the classroom can serve as a community hub of progress and change, and advocates that when you give students a class based on freedom and autonomy, they can accomplish incredible things. Mindjet’s INQ Magazine sat down with Wettrick to learn more about his mission to make innovation an educational standard.

Interview with an Innovation Teacher

You’re an educator with an incredible passion for bringing innovation into the classroom. What does innovation mean to you? What’s your philosophy, and what’s your main objective?

Innovation to me means new solutions to old problems. Because I grew tired of hearing what “education today” lacked, I wanted to innovate. Adding to more frustration was listening to educational experts that had never taught, or even worked with kids. More funding, smaller class sizes, added rigor, and new standardized tests have always been the temporary solutions.

However the economic realities are: less money, greater competition, and fewer “standard” jobs. So working within the same framework of traditional learning, to me, is over. Collaboration, production of real content to an audience outside the school, and entrepreneurship are the new keys to creating change.

So, my main focus was then on opening up my class to as many collaborative experiences as possible as a catalyst to communication and producing content.

My philosophy is that, although I am a teacher, my students can learn best through networking and collaborating with experts from all over the world. Tools like Twitter, Skype, and YouTube have allowed our students to learn from the best.

The two most prolific notions connected to your classroom innovation movement are “Failing Beautifully” and “Opportunities Are Everywhere.” Can you dig deeper into these concepts for us? How do you get your students to embrace these ideas?

“Failing Beautifully” is a concept where the students and I embrace failure. It’s prototype number one! Failure number two leads to further breakthroughs.

Thus, when you take the focus away from the traditional A-F grading system, and put a premium on continuous improvement, enthusiasm takes over. This mindset is critical in wanting to innovate and move forward. My students scan their environment for things that need innovation and change. Solutions would never come about if they feared a letter grade on their first solution. Thus failure, and how to correct what didn’t work, is an important role of innovation, but also in their lives outside of school.

The class mantra of “Opportunities Are Everywhere” is a way to have our students actively engage with people as a means of learning and paving the path for future collaboration. I tell them stories about striking up a conversation with a random person, only to find out that they have an uncle that knows a guy, that works for… (you get the point).

It’s also about serving others and the sheer joy you bring to others by simply wanting to help. I feel that forgetting about my own problems and focusing on helping others gives me a sense of perspective, but also allows me to understand their problems better. And wanting to solve current problems is at the heart of innovation.

This summer, my innovation students have an assignment where they are encouraged to find their own opportunities, then harness the power of social media by reporting what their opportunity was and using the hashtag #OAEproj (Opportunities Are Everywhere project). I do this for three reasons: first, because I want my students to actively look for great opportunities to help others. Second, this is a great way to find future collaborators; third is witnessing the fact that good deeds can be infectious. I want the students to inspire more young people to action! You can watch the video post I made to the class here.

Tell us how you ended up where you are now — what inspired you to bring innovation lessons to the classroom? What’s the goal?

My journey to being an “innovation coordinator” and teaching innovation is a long, strange trip. Basically I took several risks because I grew tired of what the current system thought we should do, versus what would be fun and more authentic. I mention fun because I think that when school is fun and relevant, students see the value and work harder.

I also formed alliances early on, so asking the school to take risks with me were mitigated. Asking to start an “innovation class” was hard, but having commitments up front from professors at top-10 universities made it harder for the school admins to say no. The goal of this type of class is to have students make the shift from consumers to producers. When I say producers, I mean producing real content to a bigger audience than the teacher, or the class.

“Authentic audience” means putting your work out there — YouTube, Tumblr, Twitter, and other web tools have allowed our students to produce content, rather than just consume insights from other “experts.” The best lessons are usually learned by self-discovery; so why not have our students publish these insights? That’s real educational change. That’s innovation!

Why should innovation be taught, and how? What are the biggest challenges?

I would not offer a specific “formula” for how innovation should be taught. However, I would suggest to have a willingness to accept failure, but a hard line against mediocrity. Embracing social media in the classroom is also essential. Twitter has allowed us to connect and collaborate with all stars like Daniel Pink, as well as lesser-known non-profits that still provide valuable insights and opportunities. So, schools shutting down social media is a nail in the coffin to a modern classroom, because at no other time in history has it been easier to connect with people all over the world — instantly. The biggest challenge, however, comes from our universities. Below is an excerpt from my book.

“Convincing students to take risks in school is a difficult task. Getting a good grade often seems more important than learning something new and interesting. Some students have told me they wouldn’t take my class because it isn’t weighted and thus wouldn’t raise their GPA even if they received an “A.” In contrast, AP courses fill up quickly because students know that colleges and universities look favorably on ‘advanced’ classes.

Frankly, I don’t blame the students. They are playing the game in which the rules rely on compliance. In the old [EC1] way of taking classes ‘the system’ suggested ‘preferred classes,’ rather than pursuing classes based on personal passion and interests. Going for the grade, obtaining high standardized test scores, and seeking the other ‘filler’ for a decent college resume are the hoops they jump through. I’m not making fun of the student who lists being on the chess club or organizing the homecoming dance on their college applications. If they are excited about those activities, great! But when students do these activities or take extra AP classes, not out of choice but out of fear, there’s a problem with the system.

Our universities need to reward risk takers and innovators over grade chasers. College admission officers need to re-examine the value of the high GPA and consider it against the initiative of a student who pursues some entrepreneurial interests. Take a second look at the student who chose to take an internship over a class with a weighted grade. Without help from the universities, convincing students to take creative risks will never happen. Students know how to play the game; and the current game doesn’t reward creativity, choice, or risk.”

Stay tuned for Part II.

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