Innovation in Schooling: Taking Inspiration from Where Good Ideas Come From

Like many  participants here at CP, I find myself fascinated by innovation in our schools, in two ways: how can our schools be more innovative in the way they facilitate learning, and, even more importantly, how can our schools facilitate more innovation in the life-long mindset, habits, and actions of our students?

These topics are fascinating for me not just because of their importance (schooling must improve, and our world desperately needs our students to become life-long innovators for its vexing problems!) but also because of their complexity: I know I am embarked what will have to be a life-long learning project to grow in my understanding and leadership in these issues.

Today I want to try to take a few lessons from the forthcoming (Oct. 5) book by a favorite author, Steven Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  (I am quoting from the advance reviewer's proof.)

One very fun thing about the book for CP fans is its enthusiastic embrace of Twitter as a locus for innovation:  Twitter is a “thriving platform [which] invites variation because it is an open platform where resources are shared as much as [or much more than!] they are protected.”  Johnson himself is at @stevenbjohnson.

How can we promote greater innovation in our schools and in our student learning?

Explore the adjacent possible by enriching your environment with contemporary concepts and tools.

Innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts– mechanical or conceptual– and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts.

Johnson reminds us that innovation is always incremental; we can only do new things tomorrow because we did new things yesterday; yesterday's improvements make tomorrow's possible.   But if we are not engaged with, and surrounded by, recent improvements, we cannot push forward to the future.

Environments that block or limit those new combinations– by punishing experimentation, or by obscuring certain branches of possibility, will, on average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration.

Maybe the above is self-evident, but it nevertheless is so important as to be not ignored.   Our learning environments must open themselves to the world and boldly embrace the new and the cutting edge, and must incorporate cutting edge tools and processes.

Liquid Networks” are much more innovative than closed, atomized, or individuated environments. Johnson's most compelling message may be to discard the notion that innovation happens in isolation as the result of solitary genius: it is anything but.

A good idea is a network… to make your mind more innovative, you have to place it inside environments that share that same network signature– networks of ideas or people that mimic the neural networks of a mind… the most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans sitting around a table, talking shop.

Our schools must become, far more than they ever have been before, “liquid networks” of educators collaborating with other educators inside our schools and across national and continental borders; our students must do the same if they are to become the innovators we need them to be.

Induce serendipitous discovery by easing the exploration of ideas and kno

wledge, especially on-line.

Johnson urges us to read widely, to go on “reading vacations” where we read both widely and deeply in a number of full-length books to stimulate our brain's ability to connect one idea to another, essential for innovation.  I wonder whether our schools should do more to promote this: a week-long “reading vacation” from conventional classrooms where students are asked to read 3-10 books, each wildly divergent from the other?  But even more so, he celebrates the power of the internet to let us pursue our passions, learn more, and discover new connections.

No medium in history has ever offered such unlikely trails of connections and chance in such an intuitive and accessible form…  An online newspaper, [compared to a dead-tree one, for instance], is more than ten times as serendipitous.  The information diversity of the web ensures that there is an endless supply of surprising information to stumble across.

This can only fully happens, it goes without saying, if our students have the tools and the access and the encouragement of the school culture to do so.

Error provides us the greatest opportunities to learn new things and generate new ideas. Far too often schooling seems to insist of teachers they teach always the right way, and students they choose the right answer.  Our schools would do better if they were laboratories of error and then deeper learning.

Error is not simply a phase you have to suffer through on the way to genius.  Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions… Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.  Leaving some room for generative error is important…  Innovative environments thrive on useful mistakes, and suffer when the demands of quality control overwhelm them.

Johnson and I agree: messy environments are far preferable to sterile ones, and risk-taking, making-making classrooms will engage and deepen learning.   Our pressure on students to always be right, and on our teachers that their students consistently test well, may dampen the very goal we want for our schools.

Multi-tasking, and the diversely interested and engaged minds, advances exaptation and innovation.   It is not by narrowing one's focus and digging deeply into a single subject that innovators invent, it is by canvassing widely and taking interest in many things.

Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities– a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity– but they also share one other defining attribute.  They have lots of hobbies.

It is not so much a question of thinking outside the box, as it is allowing the mind to move through multiple boxes.   That movement from box to box forces the mind to approach intellectual road blocks from new angles, or to borrow tools from one discipline to solve problems in another.

Let's ensure our schools are places where students and teachers both can “move through multiple boxes,” teaching and learning in different ways, on widely varied subjects.

Johnson isn't speaking to educators; these are my inferences, and Johnson's book by no means stands alone: it is one lovely and tall tree in a fast-growing forest of books, articles, presentations and on-line blogs advancing our thinking about the advance of innovation.   I look forward to the continuing conversation, here at CP, on Twitter, at our conferences, and in person about how innovation in schooling, both by/for educators and by/for students, can best be facilitated.

For more:

  1. My lengthier post on the book, at my blog here.
  2. Fun video summarizing key ideas.


  1. Great post.
    Loved the line about errors. I believe we need to help our students understand that It is ok to fail and that from failure often comes success.
    Thanks for sharing

    October 3, 2010
  2. Johnson’s ‘Emergence’ stills stands as one of the very best on my bookshelf. And now I can’t wait to get my hands on his new tome, especially considering how applicable it seems to education. Thanks for shining a light.

    October 20, 2010
  3. […] Innovation in Schooling: Taking Inspiration from Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas C… 103 here, 791 at CP.   This one spiked at CP, to more than 500 visits in 48 hours, when author […]

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