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July 7, 2021

7 Must-Have Instructional Strategies for Innovation

In a recent conversation with one of my favorite educators, Professor Fariss Mousa (James Madison University’s Zane D. Showker Professor of Entrepreneurship), we explored some important questions related to innovation in teaching and learning today. At the core, our conversation centered around supporting middle and high school teachers who have been plugged into a deeply established system that more-often-than-not drives teachers to present content knowledge in isolation, to reward students for correct answers rather than creative thinking, and to reinforce a myth that failure is bad.

With this idea to correct this misguided instruction, we asked ourselves: “What can a good teacher incorporate into the teaching and learning equation that will rekindle innovative thinking and inspire creative problem solving?”

Here are our top seven answers!

1. Use history.

Many people think of innovation as futuristic and anchored in technology advancement. Let’s not dismiss the lessons we can take from looking back through time. Teachers can take any period of time and identify the challenges of that moment, inviting students to recognize the innovation that solved problems throughout history.

2. Focus on options.

Instead of working towards a standard “correct answer,” invite students to see how many different ways that can arrive at the solution. Encourage students to ask themselves if there may be another path to get where they want to go. Similarly, give a problem with the answer and ask the students to spend their time in the space between the problem and the answer, pushing towards more understanding of the process, stages, and progress.

3. Rename problems.

There’s something discouraging about the word “problem.” New language along the lines of “challenge,” “adventure,” or “mystery” can actually spark excitement and curiosity. If you feel habits may be hard to change in your own delivery of material, invite students to “catch you” talking about problems and equip them to reframe the thinking. A friend shared that his high school Spanish teacher renamed “tests” to “opportunidades” to convey that they were opportunities to show how much the class had learned.

4. Disrupt the status quo.

Innovative thinking can be inspired by asking students to think about any context, event, story, or circumstance with the addition of a new character, factor, or influence. Likewise, how might they re-invent the lesson by considering the absence or removal of a character, factor, or influence?

5. Swap the lens.

In almost every content area and lesson, a teacher can ask students, “Could there be another way to think about this?” “How else could this be understood?” or “How can we use this information?”

6. More people.

If there’s one thing we learned recently, it’s that technology allows us to connect through time and geography. Why not invite a guest speaker to “drop-in” to your class virtually and share a real-world use of your content area or subject?

7. Spotlight failure.

Great lessons come from mistakes and from taking risks. Why not create a classroom award for creative answers? Imagine an award name like “My Favorite No” “Didn’t see that coming!” or “Your inspiring brain.” Of course, you’ll want to create a safe space for students to fail and to be creative. Fear of failure and looking foolish in front of classmates can be a significant reason for students not to engage or not to take risks. Allow students to fail – and teach them how to celebrate one another’s bravery without being critical. Growth, creativity, engagement, learning ­­– all of these thrive in safe spaces where failing is part of succeeding.

Bonus strategy!

Unexpected Ice-breaker/Warm-up. Kick off your class period with a quick brain teaser, song lyric swap out, optical illusionjoke of the day, or other unexpected ‘do now’ activity that reminds students that everything in your class is not predictable, rote, or mechanical.


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