Innovation is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the introduction of something new, or a new idea, method or device.” By this definition, there is nothing especially innovative about innovation, since people and societies have been adapting and finding new approaches to problems and opportunities throughout time. 

And yet, in recent years, the dialogue about innovation in schools has been ubiquitous, especially as schools consider how to help children thrive in our ever-changing world; in my opinion, there is significant consensus that an “innovator’s mindset” is at the top of the skills needed by individuals and organizations in order to thrive in the future.  So what of our approach to innovation in schools needs to be new and different, and in what ways can our timeless approaches suffice? Is an innovator’s mindset more imperative now than it was 30 years ago, and if so, how do we best develop it in children? Two of my recent reads have helped me ponder these questions about developing and fueling innovation.
The book City of Thieves tells the story of two soldiers who set out during the siege of Leningrad to fulfill a bargain. If they can find a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake, desertion charges against them will be dropped. The story takes these two friends on a bit of an odyssey, and the characters come up with many innovations to survive. For example, residents of Leningrad find a way to eat books; they eat bricks of protein made from boiled book bindings, since the glue was made from horse’s hooves and contained protein. They did what people have done for generations, and found new ways to do things and adapt when the circumstances required it. The characters also sparked and deepened a wonderful friendship, and used their relationship to fuel their learning and motivation; they were connected to each other, and this fortified both of them as they came up with innovations to help them survive. The book is set during WWII, and demonstrates the idea that innovation is not new.
While there are elements of innovation that go back for generations, other aspects are new. The soldiers in City of Thieves were able to respond to their time, but their baseline mindset was not tipped towards innovation. If they had been able to continue their routines and do things in their old ways, they likely would have done so. Perhaps what is new about innovation today is that it is needed as a baseline capacity that is proactively brought forward, and not just a special skill that can be brought out as circumstances demand. Given the pace of change in our current culture, I wonder if innovation is necessary as a proactive stance in ways it was not required in the past.
The book The Innovator’s Mindset considers the ways innovation is required today. It describes innovative schools as ones that can fully capture the natural curiosity of children and empower them to become forward-thinking leaders; the book also explores the idea that this process begins when the adults in a child’s life model an innovator’s mindset. Its author, George Couros, defines an innovative school in the following way: It is about creating a culture where people are willing to take risks in their learning and create better learning opportunities for their students when they see a need or opportunity. DCD’s motto, Learning Is a Way of Life, allows us to embrace a learner’s stance. The process of reflection and questioning enables us to affirm practices that serve us well, and reconsider those that may no longer be well-adapted to our time.
And just as the relationship between the soldiers in City of Thieves fueled their capacity for innovation, Couros sees relationships as key to the process of innovation. In The Innovator’s Mindset, he writes, “The three most important words in education are: relationships, relationships, relationships. Without them, we have nothing.” When we root an innovator’s mindset deeply in relationships, the desire to learn, and curiosity about how we can make the world around us better, we’ll arm children with a sensibility that will serve them well now and in the future. 

For more information about both of these books use the following links:

City of Thieves by David Benioff
An Innovator’s Mindset by Geoge Couros