Why Content and Knowledge are Important for Innovation

There seems to be a disconnect in education about the idea of “consumption vs. creation,” especially in a time where the word “innovation” is so prevalent.  Let me make this clear…content knowledge is crucial in a time of innovation.

Katie Martin recently posted this:

There is a common saying in education lately that we need kids to create not consume. I definitely want to see learners creating and not just consuming (or regurgitating facts). But as I read the book Empower by AJ Juiliani and John Spencer the section on critical consuming really pushed my thinking about the importance of both in learning. What I believe the intention is behind this phrase is to curb the traditional learning experiences that are more about consuming and regurgitating like providing a reading passage (consume) and assigning multiple choice questions about the main ideas (regurgitate). Instead, AJ & John propose this cycle where the key here is critical consuming that leads to inspiration and creative work.


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Image from Empower by AJ Juliani & John Spencer

Here is an example just from my experience yesterday.

I worked for a second time with a group of teachers from Del Mar Schools in Del Mar, California. The first time was when I spoke to the school district on the opening day of this school year. They sat and listened to content that I shared that day, so the group coming in was familiar with my work what we would be focusing on that day.  Working with them, I had shared that I wanted the day to be about their questions, not what I wanted to teach them.  I asked them to introduce themselves, what they did, but then share one thing that they had hoped to get out of the day.  I warned them that I might answer their questions on the spot so this could take awhile with around 30 teachers in the room.  About 3 hours later, we got through the introductions because questions led to answers, as well as more questions while sending us down a rabbit hole based on the needs of the group, not the wants of the presenter.  For me to be able to a day like this, I need to know my stuff.  If I don’t, this day is not necessarily possible.

Personally, I love having days like this.  It gets me away from the repetition because I do not know what is coming my way, but participants seem to enjoy it as well because they were getting exactly what they are asking for during the workshop.

The connection I make here is to that of a jazz musician.  The best jazz players are known for their ability to improvise, but that is based on an in-depth knowledge of music.  They are not creating new sounds out of anywhere, but their years of practice and ability have led to a more profound understanding of content, giving them the ability to creating something new and powerful.

This same connection was made in the article, “Jazz musicians can teach surgeons how to improvise“:

In a collaboration with jazz pianist Liam Noble, for instance, we’ve looked at the idea of improvisation. The ability to improvise is highly valued by jazz artists but few patients would like to think of their surgeon improvising on them. But being able to put together skills in new combinations in response to the unexpected is crucial. Although “resourcefulness” would be a more acceptable term for surgeons.

Again it’s a question of language. Working with musicians has already made me think in unexpected ways. By looking deeply at what we think we know, perhaps we can find ways of doing it better – and this goes for surgeons too.


I have often made this little connection between the “Growth Mindset” and the “Innovator’s Mindset” in regards to math; I do not simply want students to be good at math (growth), but to be able to do something with the math they have learned.  To be able to do something with math, you have to have a deep understanding of math. This is why the growth mindset is crucial to the idea of the “Innovator’s Mindset”. To innovate, knowledge is crucial, because it takes the idea to a different level.

Seeing John Medina speak years ago (author of “Brain Rules“), he said something to me that has always stuck out.  Paraphrased, “Creation without content would be the equivalent of playing the air guitar; you know the motions but do not understand how to play the instrument.”

I hope that we get off of the topic of “consumption vs. creation”, as the first is crucial to the other, yet if we limit ourselves to the first, we limit the doors that we open for our students, as well as what they will open for the world.

Source: George Couros