Education is highly criticized these days for (a) costing too much and (b) achieving too little. And, if we are perfectly honest, those criticisms are not just idle chatter. I have long argued that much of college education is not radically different than what I experienced when I started as a college freshman 47 1/2 years ago. (Okay, we do have PowerPoint now and teachers did not have that back in 1966, but I am not sure if that is progress or regression.) The world has changed radically over those decades but a lot of education has barely flinched.
I believe that there is not enough innovation in education. Think of the sheer number of teachers working in the United States. Why are there not more innovative ideas flowing from those minds? If each teacher came up with one innovative idea, the world of education would be radically transformed almost immediately. We would be flooded with serious improvements.
We live in a risk-averse time. People are so fearful of failure that they are afraid to take any chances. They try to live in a cocoon. Yeah, failure is tough but you can never accomplish anything if you let fear push you around. (Perhaps, we should all start bragging about our failures just to show we are not so timid.)
Last week, a friend of mine sent me a quote that he thought I would like. It comes from Peter Drucker, one of the most famous business writers and consultants to ever live.
The quote said: “People who don't take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”
We need to stop being so risk averse. It does not improve things. It is not good for us. It is not good for the world of education. We hide our ideas under a barrel and the world is not improved. Innovation is the cure for risk aversion.
I believe that the real problem today is that our organizations (schools, departments, businesses, and the like) do not encourage innovation. Organizations fear innovation that does not come from “the chosen few.” Therefore, organizations neither reward nor encourage innovation. They do not create a path by which innovative ideas can be put forth. You likely work at a school or in a school system. If you suddenly had a great idea to radically improve education, is your organization open to the idea? Would the administration encourage you and help you make it happen? Well, if so, you are probably luckier than most.
Most administrators claim to want innovation until someone suggests making a change.
Organizations have a wealth of talent in their people. The real question is how to jump start that talent pool to produce new and creative ideas and reach its potential. Schools will never get better without a system to encourage and reward innovation.
As I have mentioned, I have a new book on Amazon (Don’t Just Dream About Success: Stack the Odds in Your Favor). I have one entire chapter on the idea of becoming more innovative. I end that chapter with the following suggestion. Okay, it is directed toward an individual and not to an organization but you get the idea. Innovation does not happen by accident. Each organization must truly go out of its way to make sure that every person within its ranks is encouraged to think about improvements.**
“I have long argued that the world’s economy would improve dramatically if a single action were taken. All organizations should be required to create an annual employee award (with a significant cash prize) to be titled ‘The Weirdest Idea of the Past Year that Worked the Best.’ Every worker immediately has a good reason to look for innovative ways to create practical benefits. Currently, too many employees lack the motivation to think differently. Incentives do matter. Scores of fantastic ideas undoubtedly remain locked inside heads at every organization and never emerge to make operations more effective. Innovation is needed from everyone, not just a few. A monetary prize should stimulate different thinking on a wide scale. Ideas will pour in from every corner of each company. The best are implemented and become eligible for the next award ceremony.
“Of course, organizations cannot be forced to provide prizes for creative thinking. But, you can use this same logic to help develop a mind that is more inclined toward innovation.
“The first part of this closing assignment is to study the past year—at work, at school, at home, wherever you have been. Consider all the ideas you produced during those 12 months. Take the time to write them down. Pick the one that best meets both of the above criteria. It has to be weird or unusual. It must have actually worked well. This award is not for theoretical accomplishments. Reflecting on the results of the past helps you evaluate your current level of innovative thinking. Are you in a rut or has your brain been pumping out one great suggestion after another? Thinking (like success) is habit-forming. I used to tell my children: the more ideas you have, the more ideas you will have.
“Next, create a computer file titled ‘Weird Ideas to Increase Productivity.’ Over the next 12 months, whenever you have a unique thought, type it into this file. Also describe what eventually happens to the idea. Was it implemented and, if so, what was the outcome? Monitor your thinking. Push for results.
“During this period, encourage the incubation of new ideas by studying the ordinary aspects of everyday life. Reconsider accepted assumptions. Where can changes be made? Where can you envision improvements? Can you stack the cannonballs in a different pattern; and, if so, what possible avenues does that open? Remember that insightful questions provide the energy to power innovation.
“At the end of the year, look back at the ‘Weird Ideas’ file and judge whether the depth of your thinking is improving. Becoming more aware of the innovation process helps stimulate you to think differently as a normal part of life. That is the goal! Creative thinking should not be a special event that happens on occasion, but one that occurs every day on a continuous basis.”