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Learning Library Blog Here's how you teach innovative thinking
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Here's how you teach innovative thinking

By Team ISTE
January 19, 2016
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If it’s true that most K-12 students will eventually have jobs and careers that haven’t even been invented yet, how then do educators prepare them? According to author Sharon Sakai-Miller, author of Innovation Age Learning: Empowering Students by Empowering Teachers, the key is to shift from acquiring knowledge to using it.

Sakai-Miller, who is director of technology integration services at San Lorenzo Unified School District near Oakland, California, encourages educators to get to the heart of innovation age teaching by asking three questions about the lessons they’re preparing: What? So what? Now what?

Here’s an excerpt from Sakai-Miller’s book Innovation Age Learning: Empowering Students by Empowering Teachers.

New Demands on Students

Students who understand the innovation process and develop traits that successful innovators possess will have a distinct advantage when they enter the workforce. Because skillsets needed for success in the Innovation Age are not as clear-cut as they were in the information age, we must incorporate the ability to handle ambiguity and change into education. According to a 1999 U.S. Department of Labor report titled “Future Work Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century,” 65% of today’s grade school kids will end up at a job that has yet to be invented. Skeptics have challenged the validity of the 65% figure and called it “teacher myth,” but Google had not been invented by the time any of the 11,333 employees at the Mountain View, California, headquarters were out of grade school (The Verge, 2014). Many innovative companies such as Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Instagram did not exist when their current employees were in grade school.

Students who grow up in a high-tech age and global economy will face a more complex world. Whether students pursue careers in retail, research, or racing, the problems they tackle will be more complex. For instance, 50 years ago a coffee shop could use manual cash registers, but businesses today require computerized registers, credit card readers, and other forms of digital currency. Digital sales require security, programming, and computerized recordkeeping. Cancer researchers have access to far more data, precision tools, sophisticated techniques, and pharmaceutical compounds than ever. Racecar drivers have far more to contend with than the course; they must understand more complicated cars, security and safety measures, and social media.

In order to thrive in a more complicated world, students will need to understand how to work collaboratively with collective intelligence. Collaboration necessitates communication. Solutions require tenacity, creativity, and critical thinking. While students need to possess core knowledge and skills, they must be adroit with technology and prepared for the demands of the Innovation Age.

Students can no longer be content with finding the right answer because the questions are constantly changing. Consider the classic word problem: How long will it take a driver traveling at a constant speed of 60 miles an hour to complete a 600-mile journey? The correct mathematical answer would be 10 hours. A more useful answer could be found using Google maps because one could find current or predicted traffic conditions, alternate routes, and rest, gas, and food stops along the way because the driver could not make a 10-hour drive without stopping. Embracing ambiguity is one of author Michael J. Gelb’s seven steps to thinking like Leonardo da Vinci (Gelb, 2000). Instead of focusing on the right answer, he directs us to seek the right questions.

Students need to observe how they learn because the Innovation Age demands lifelong learning and finding solutions to unmet needs. They need to be able to research new or related topics that emerge during the fluid innovation process. In the iterative solution development process, they must be able to adapt to the unexpected, such as user feedback from multiple perspectives, product failures, unforeseen market conditions, and competing solutions. Students must develop metacognition—cognition about cognition—as they learn core knowledge and skills.

Makers, Coders, Inventors, Entrepreneurs, Authors

Some students are already answering the call to innovate. 2014 Google Science Fair winner Ann Makosinski created a flashlight that works off the power generated from the palm of the human hand so students without electricity could study at night. 2013 Intel Science Talent Search winner Sara Volz won $100,000 for her research on algae as an alternate fuel source. She built her lab under her loft bed.

2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Palestine activist Malala Yousafzai has been working courageously for the right to education for all children, especially girls.
What makers, gamers, coders, inventors, entrepreneurs, and student authors have in common is that they are “prosumers”—they produce something of value while consuming information. They are not passively acquiring knowledge and proving mastery solely through summative content-based assessments.

In the March 17, 2014, edition of Adweek, Joan Voight defined the “maker movement” as:

…the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers. A convergence  of computer hackers and traditional artisans, the niche is established enough to have its own magazine, Make, as well as hands-on Maker Faires that are catnip for DIYers who used to toil in solitude. Makers tap into an American admiration for self-reliance and combine that with open-source learning, contemporary design and powerful personal technology, like 3D printers. The creations, born in cluttered local workshops and bedroom offices, stir the imaginations of consumers numbed by generic, mass-produced, made-in–China merchandise.

The pendulum is swinging the other way. In a time where many schools have dropped home economics, shop, and arts and crafts, people are turning away from mass-produced goods in favor of unique products made by individuals. New technologies have made it possible for makers to market their wares—eBay and Etsy connect millions of buyers with sellers. Paypal and BitCoin have increased payment options that were once limited to merchants.

Maker Faires are becoming increasingly popular as lifelong learners of all ages gather and participate in viewing and testing self-made products. The White House hosted its first Maker Faire in June of 2014 to “encourage a new generation of makers and manufacturers to share their talents and hone their skills.” Maker Faires are held across the U.S. and in countries such as Africa, Japan, and the UK.

Students learn by making. A 2014 article in Edutopia magazine advocated encouraging teachers to be makers themselves. In the article, “Supporting the Teacher Maker Movement,” author Heather Wolpert-Gawron suggests that teacher makers will in turn bring this rich learning experience to their students.


Whether they are writing code, or cracking it, students are mastering vital digital- age skills, honing their problem-solving skills, and finding subjects like math more interesting through coding. Students of all ages can write code using a number of applications and apps. MIT Labs’ Scratch has been free of charge for many years, and students use it to create games, animations, and stories. Tynker is a free web-based app that teaches students to code at their own pace. Codecademy offers free interactive courses on programming in Python, JavaScript, PHP, Ruby, and HTML.
The opportunities coding affords students are many. In 2014, the San Lorenzo Unified School District partnered with the REACH Youth Center and County Office to run a “hack-a-thon,” where students competed to create the best app to solve a health issue. At this event, coding apps were the mediating tool for constructivist learning about the health issue, local resources, and coding. Students were fully immersed in an innovative learning environment where they collabo- rated, researched, experimented, problem-solved, questioned, and used creative thinking. Teams also competed for prizes.

Cracking code involves deciphering code written by others. In this digital world where encryption and data security are so critical, students need exposure to code at an early age. One interesting program is CryptoClub. Created by Janet Beissinger and Bonnie Saunders of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois, the program teaches cyphering and middle school math concurrently. In this instance, students develop problem-solving skills by decoding cyphers and applying math concepts. The creators of believe every student should have the opportunity to learn computer science. They offer anyone an introductory First Hour of Code, as well as teaching and learning resources.

The terms programming and coding are often, and erroneously, used inter- changeably. Coding, which is the language of programmers, has gained popularity and visibility with events such as Hour of Code. Like any language, coding needs to be practiced regularly to build fluency. Creating special events, code days or code weeks, offers gateways for exposing students to coding and to apps like Hopscotch, Daisy the Dinosaur, Tynker, Scratch, Scratch Jr., and Lightbot Programming Puzzles.


Entrepreneurship is “the undertaking of significant new projects or activities through management, organization, and assumption of the risks,” according to Yong Zhao (2012), a leading authority on how globalization and technology impact education. He advocates taking project-based learning a step further by providing opportunities for students to produce marketable products. The concept is almost an amalgamation of the Maker Movement, project-based learning, constructivism, and Innovation Age learning. Zhao believes that students will be more intrinsically motivated to produce something of greater quality if the result is marketable (2012). This experience will engage students in skills they will need for jobs that do not currently exist. In fact, Zhao goes so far as to say:

Forcing [all] children to master the same curriculum essentially discriminates against talents that are not consistent with the prescribed knowledge and skills. Students who are otherwise talented but do not do well in the prescribed subjects are often sent to spend more time on the core subjects, retained for another grade, or deprived of the opportunity to develop their talents in other ways. (p. 45)

Students should learn to take ownership of their learning and set high standards for their projects (and products), but educators should not abandon the concept of core content. In the Innovation Age, educators need to be flexible so that students have a variety of innovative approaches or learning opportunities to put their ideas into action. In addition to knowing how important it is to understand how they learn metacognition), students should also have a firm grasp of the innovation cycle so they can develop their entrepreneurship.

Student Authors of Curriculum

The idea of students writing and marketing curriculum is intriguing. The benefits for student authors are obvious: They develop deep content knowledge and strengthen their communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking skills. By creating works that matter to them, students also want to produce higher-quality projects and explore opportunities to self-publish—podcasts, YouTube, and peer-editing sites. If they are enterprising, they can learn business skills as well.

Order your copy of Innovation Age Learning: Empowering Students by Empowering Teachers to learn how schools are using student-authored interactive media to teach science.