Innovation in the Classroom: Inspiring Creativity

How do we teach students to become innovative thinkers? Through exploration and experimentation. In this final part of a four-part audio podcast for educators on innovation and the art of problem-solving, Saikat Chaudhuri, executive director of the Mack Institute of Innovation Management at the Wharton School; and Rob Shelton, global innovation strategy lead at PwC, talk about ways to foster innovation in the high school classroom. They address several questions from teachers in hopes of getting at the heart of encouraging more risk-taking and creativity, as well as helping educators become catalysts for change. Read More

by Diana Drake


This is part four of our four-part innovation discussion. Here, we address strategies for fostering innovation in the classroom.

Welcome to the PwC-KWHS Podcast Series for High School Educators on Business and Financial Responsibility. I’m Diana Drake, managing editor of Knowledge@Wharton High School, and today we are discussing innovation and the art of problem solving. Talk of innovation is everywhere in the business world. To be an innovator is to position yourself on the path to a successful life and career. We tell our high school students that they need to be more innovative, but do they truly understand what that means and how it is related to problem solving? Do they understand that innovation requires critical thinking to see something in an entirely new light – and to possibly inspire real change? We will discuss these and other ideas to help provide high school educators with a framework of understanding for innovation, and to find ways to teach students to be innovative thinkers and problem-solvers. 

We’re excited to have two top experts in the field helping us to explore this important topic. Saikat Chaudhuri [with Drake in the studio] is an adjunct associate professor of management and executive director of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at the Wharton School. Rob Shelton [joining by phone] is global innovation strategy lead at PwC, and specializes in integrating innovation, new business models and new technologies into an organization’s strategy and operations to create growth. Thank you both for sharing your insights today about innovation and the art of problem solving. During our discussion, we’ll also be addressing questions from high school educators around the country.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: Many educators are considering how best to foster an environment that supports innovation, while also meeting the necessary classroom standards. In innovation, rather than identify right answers or wrong answers, the goal is to find a better way and to explore multiple possibilities. Kim Zocco of Archbishop Edward A McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches, Florida, says college has become extremely competitive, and students only seem to want to get that GPA or SAT to a level that will gain entry to their desired college. They’re not interested in doing something for the sake of experiential learning. How can Kim and other teachers combat this and encourage students to embrace that spirit of experimentation in everything they do?

Rob Shelton: I like the fact that she’s got the experimentation aspect right in the question. I don’t have a perfect answer for this. I do think that she’s right. There has been a focus on getting the scores right, getting into college. That’s because that model has worked. We’re moving past the point where a college credential is enough to give you a livelihood or to send you in a direction where you can do fun things and enjoy both your life and your professional career. We’re starting to see that the credential, just getting in, is not enough. It’s what you do while you’re there. What I’m referring to is to learn, experiment, find ways to mix a liberal arts course with a mathematics course. Try something you haven’t done and use that as a way to grow.

That is the future of college. I point to places like Google, companies in Silicon Valley and leaders around the world who don’t want to necessarily know your GPA. They want to know much more. What did you do? What experiment did you run? What new thing have you already shown yourself able to do? Do you think you could apply that where we work? That means attention to detail and the ability to execute. It’s not just [about having] a crazy idea. It means actually [following] through with it. That’s the new model. Kim, who asked the question, is going to be challenged to tell kids that just [having] a degree isn’t going to do it. But it’s part of the answer.

The other part is to let the students experiment and try innovation and get fired up, get their juices flowing about it. There’s nothing better than to see someone try something, really love the process of innovation and then start to have what we call a fire in the belly. They’ll carry that forward. Saikat, I’ve talked all the way around it. Do you have a better way of saying what I was trying to say?

Saikat Chaudhuri: I’ll augment with some of my thoughts. Even when colleges are looking at applicants these days, they’re not only looking at the SAT scores or the GPA. That’s almost a basic. It goes back to what you were saying earlier, Rob…. We do want some sense of aptitude, for example, but it’s not everything. That clears the first screen, if you will. After that, it is those students who are leaders, who have done creative things, who are novel in many ways; they’re the ones who can distinguish themselves. I would argue [that] the more competitive it gets to gain admission to the top schools in particular, the more you need to be creative and different in order to stand out amongst that pool.

The other part of the question deals with getting students interested in doing something for the sake of experiential learning, and encouraging them to embrace the spirit of experimentation. It’s important at that level to associate some kind of outcome with a form of experiential learning. Even if I do an experiential learning approach [in the classroom], like a case study or a simulation, if I just leave it at that, it may not be enough to convey all the material or the framework. Whether I give a straight lecture or I use a simulation or a case study to discuss concepts, at the end I use the slides to make sure that all the key points are understood. People need to feel like it’s not only experiential learning. [They need the concrete things they can] take away from it. That bridge needs to be crossed, as well.

KWHS: Charles Kafogilis of Incarnate Word Academy in Houston, Texas, asks, “What types of problems are appropriate for high schoolers to practice change and innovation?” We’ve touched on this already. We’ve talked a lot about experimentation, but experimentation [doesn’t happen solely] in the science lab. What might be some things that teachers can do in other subjects or other areas that would help to foster this experimentation in the classroom?

Chaudhuri: That’s a tough question, but a very important one. They have to be problems that students can relate to. It could be something as simple as improving the layout of the cafeteria so that the line is not so long. Or, come up with a better way of marketing our school. Or, think of different approaches to making the garden greener. Or, we use too much energy; can you guys do an audit and figure out how we can use less electricity at the school? Giving simple problems of that sort that they can relate to will help foster the creativity and the innovative spirit, especially if they see some kind of outcome and implementation, and they’re able to get a tangible benefit or result out of it.

Students who come [to Wharton] and to other universities already have [business] start-up ideas at the age of 16, 17, 18, which is quite remarkable. I’m very glad that I was admitted at a different time. People are thinking creatively. You have [other] ways of engaging. Create an app, for example, for an Android or an iPhone platform. That’s something within certain people’s reach. Or you’ve got Lego clubs with robotics and other things. That can also be encouraged for those [who are] a bit more technically inclined.

KWHS: You also mentioned case studies. How might they be used?

Chaudhuri: Case studies are a method where you can give a situation and students can respond to it. You need to learn things that are more fundamental in nature. Once you’ve covered those basic principles, then you can go to the mode of case studies to say, “Hey, here’s a situation, how would you approach it?” That works in pretty much any subject area. It’s [also looking at] how you’re approaching it, which is more important than what you come up with in the end.

Shelton: I’ll add some tricks of the trade, so to speak. Case studies are great because they challenge and they [encourage] people to work in a collaborative environment. Another approach is to take a story about someone who did it well. It could be someone who found a new technology or someone who solved a water shortage problem in African villages or dealt with an issue of education in an emerging country. Get the case study, look at it, talk about what they did that worked, what was it that they did, how did they see the problem, what was it that led them to success? And then say, how could we [apply] the learning here to some problems we face? We have a water issue here. We can’t use the same solution that they used in Africa, but what’s the analytical process? What was it that led to success that we might be able to use here? Have [the students] work it out, even begin to think about how they would test whether that approach would work. Experiment, so to speak.

I like the idea of learning from others and saying, “How do I use that?” That’s one of the things that good innovators do, or at least some of the time. Why not teach kids to do it as part of the curriculum?

KWHS: Lou DiCesare of Irondequoit High School in Rochester, New York, wants to know what you recommend to educators to encourage more risk taking, creativity and innovative projects in the classroom, especially in the context of core curriculum assessments that are taking students away from practicing critical thinking skills? I know we’ve touched on this in other answers. But the way he asks it I think is thought provoking. [Do] you have some suggestions?

Shelton: I think you need to educate the educators, if I can be clichéd about it. They need to encourage more risk taking and creativity. It’s not taking away from practical thinking skills; it’s augmenting [those skills]. You need to have the basic critical capabilities. But you also need some additional thinking and creativity skills that will augment it. You need to come out of the curriculum, the school, with capabilities in both. Educators have got to realize that.

[For] example, many universities have suddenly had a wakeup call that a lot of the traditional approaches they were using were leaving out sufficient creativity and innovation, or at least the application of it. Now that they’ve made up for that, some are way ahead in that area, but many of them have stepped up to that and made changes in their curriculum because they were too unbalanced. They were skewed towards the application of what’s known, as opposed to the teaching about how to be innovative and to create the next thing.

That’s what educators need to realize before they’ll change. And by the way, this is the same challenge that you face in business. If what you’re doing is working, it’s hard to convince the senior folks to change it. You have to point out that there are deficiencies and there are opportunities that are unrealized. Those can motivate change. Otherwise, it’s an uphill battle to convince someone to change something that seems to be working very well. People are resistant to change unless they can see the benefit.

Chaudhuri: [I’d like to] tie together the points that we were talking about earlier. Do a lot of projects where you get to bring people together, solve problems in new ways and transfer and apply those things in a different context to learning. Case studies are very useful tools, and possibly simulations and other techniques. Another way might also be to try and engage — per Rob’s point — with people who’ve done interesting things. We’ve got [the technological means], so you can connect with people virtually and have an interesting conversation with interesting people. For me, a lot of this [creativity encouragement] is about inspiration, about seeing the value, about seeing the long-term benefit, about getting enthused and excited about it. And yet at the same time, I’d make the point [that it is also important to] learn the basics, then go have fun and apply this in the context that’s really perhaps of interest to you, as well. Play with it.

Shelton: I like your point about inspiration because if you don’t have inspired people, they may want to change but they won’t make the effort. That key piece of the equation [also needs to be] addressed.

KWHS: I agree that inspiring the students is important. But I think the teachers need to be inspired, too, around innovation. Patricia Page of East Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Rhode Island, turns this innovation focus to teacher training. She asks, “What systems and structures need to be put in place in the teacher preparation program to ensure those who are entering the profession will use strategies in their classrooms that support innovative approaches to solving problems?” It goes back to that point of educating the educators.

Shelton: Educating the educators is sort of a broad statement, but [it is more about] the practical applications, the inspiration, the stories of what worked and what didn’t, the case studies and the simulations. Teachers need to be exposed to that. Based on what I see in many organizations — government and business and the like — most teachers have not been exposed to all of those items, or if they have they weren’t necessarily delivered in ways that they can take and apply practically in their classrooms. They’re not sufficiently prepared. They need to have modules that help them set up experiments, that provide the case studies [and] the inspirational stories that will allow them to go make this happen.

They need to experiment and figure out which ones work the best and learn as they go forward. This will be an innovation in education. The lesson is, “Let’s experiment. Let’s find out what works and what doesn’t, and then learn from that and make the changes.”

Chaudhuri: This question is good because the teacher recognizes where the issue might be — that they’re not prepared to enact and implement, even despite having good intentions about doing it. Exposure is absolutely critical. [Educators] could be forced to go through the same exercises themselves. Have them do simulations, case studies and projects in order to work on these kinds of problems and develop new ideas.

We see it in the university environment very clearly. Students even at the best high schools are used to certain kinds of work and assignments when they come into the college environment. [Once here], the nature of the activities, assignments, deadlines and responsibilities changes. Some make that transition very easily, whereas others struggle a bit. Preparing everyone, both students and the teachers, is very important in plugging that gap. We take for granted here at college these other tools we have at our disposal. Without a project, a simulation and cases, no course — at least that I teach — would be complete.

Part of the problem might be time and resource allocation. There has to be some recognition at higher levels that [this type of hands-on classroom learning] is important. Teachers might form groups where they’re interested in promoting this. [They could come] together and collaborate across schools, even come up with new designs or modules for curricula. [Teachers] know a lot about [this experimental approach], too. We need to bundle these ideas together and facilitate how they can then turn them into actual curricula.

Shelton:  I think you just developed a business plan for something that we need to go commercial on.

KWHS: Sounds like it. [Can you offer educators] advice on how to negotiate with or persuade administrations to embrace innovation? A lot of times they’re up against core curriculum standards and other things that fit into a tight structure. What would you recommend to teachers who might be passionate about innovation and want to take it one step further, but feel frustrated that they don’t have the ability to do so?

Shelton: My simple advice is to start really small. Sometimes people try to change the whole system. There’s time for that. But I do believe that running a little experiment, trying something, seeing how it works, learning and developing the data, the understanding to say, “Ah, this works,” makes for a more convincing argument than simply arguing the theoretical need to make changes. I’d encourage them to be entrepreneurial and to use their passion to create programs and validate that they really work, as opposed to demanding that people adopt more innovation. Those people may not see the value in it. If you can show that the students loved it — that it was 30 minutes of pure excitement, and look what happened — I think you have a more compelling case than simply banging on the desk or pushing hard and continually to convince people. Showing them is better than telling them.

Chaudhuri: I wholeheartedly agree with that because we need catalyst to create change. I’d go back to what Rob was saying earlier: point out the deficiencies. Our students could do X, if they were only able to do this. Or, look at the kids from that school who did very well; look at what they did slightly differently. Then form groups in the school to try and do these things on the side until somebody picks up on it and supports it with some resources.

Shelton: You made me think of one more thing, which is to reach out to others who are like-minded. Use the network of innovators so that you can learn from others. You may also get a case study of not only what you did, but what others have done. It gives you more information to use to engage people in discussion. It’s not just what you tried in your classroom; you [also provide 10 additional] examples. It makes for a compelling argument. These are the catalysts for change. If you want to innovate in education, you’ve got to use some of the best practices. Be part of a network, an ecosystem — prototype, test, experiment and then go about making the changes and getting people to adopt them. It’s not a case of winning a battle in a [single] room. It’s really a case of going and making things happen.

KWHS: Thank you both for this great discussion about innovation and the art of problem solving.

For the full podcast (about 60 minutes) on “Innovation and the Art of Problem Solving,” please visit the KWHS educators’ professional development page. 


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Conversation Starters

According to this article, do business leaders want to know your GPA? If not, what do they want to know?

Saikat Chaudhuri says, “Have them do simulations, case studies and projects in order to work on these kinds of problems and develop new ideas.” What are some of the case studies and projects you have done that have impacted your learning or teaching on a topic? Share them in the comments section below.

One comment on “Innovation in the Classroom: Inspiring Creativity

  1. Hi, I like the topic discussed here. Innovation can be related to change or an improvement that might help enhance creativity of most students at present. Basically, as a parent, I noticed that my children are easily inspired and motivated when they are expose to new ideas, methods and even devices that will help them very well to gain knowledge. This is a very good article about Innovation linked to creativity for most students these days. Thanks for sharing it here.

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