How to foster future innovators at home and school

Coeducation is education for life. Naturally


Is it possible to teach innovation, or is it just an innate skill we are born with? Laura Strentz, the Head of Propeller Enterprises, – All Saints’ College’s new hub for innovation and entrepreneurship – thinks we can and examines concepts from the best-selling book Creating Innovators – The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World written by Tony Wagner; and the 2015 Australian Government Report Boosting High-Impact Entrepreneurship in Australia – A role for universities; as well as discussing what we can do to foster innovative thinking within our young people.

Laura Strentz with Creative Industries studentsLaura Strentz with Creative Industries students

We keep hearing about the ‘Innovation Economy’ and how the jobs of the future are yet to be defined or created. So what then can we do as parents and educators to prepare our young people for a future career that is undefined and evolving?

How can we best prepare our youth to develop 21st century skills at home and at school so that they can become creative, flexible and innovative thinkers? And does everyone have potential to be innovative?

Some may believe that innovators are “born and not made” – that there is just something special about certain people that makes them pioneers in how they see, act and create. However, research shows us that we can foster innovative habits and skills.

Firstly, what is innovation?

Innovation is not the same as invention. The definition I draw upon is that innovation usually involves a fresh perspective on an idea, technology, or material (or aggregating several) and then considers how to create a positive impact in a new and better way. Innovation is tied to thinking and habits – the intellectual, creative and empathetic sparks – that lead to the doing, creating and inventing.

What can families do to nurture future innovators?

Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators – The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World argues that nurture seems to be a more powerful factor than nature when it comes to successful innovators. So, what does nurturing for innovation look like?

Wagner suggests that while growing up, innovators had adults in their lives who “nurtured creativity and sparked their imaginations.” He sees a pattern where childhood play led to passion and purpose.

What are the qualities of a successful innovator that you can nurture at home? Wagner puts the research together and lists the most essential skills an innovator needs:

  • Curiosity – a habit of asking good questions and a desire to understand more deeply.
  • Collaboration – begins with listening and learning from others who have perspectives and expertise that are different from your own.
  • Integrative thinking – holistic thinking across reason, intuition and imagination.
  • A bias towards action and experimentation – a desire to do, to play, to create and to take apart.

He and other leading researchers agree that these are all teachable skills and that innovation is not a “genetic predisposition, it is an active endeavour.” So we need to get active in encouraging and building these skills.

Take things apart with no intention of putting them back together. Build new things from old things. Get out the old Lego and play and build while the TV hums in the background. Create a box of craft supplies to keep hands and minds moving. Get outside and get moving, building and playing.

Discover books that will inspire conversations and activities. For children aged between four and 12 years, have a look at The Most Magnificent Thing or 11 Experiments that Failed. For children aged 12 years and over, check out The Art of Tinkering – the book’s cover has ink that conducts electricity and lets the tinkering times begin.

Collaborate and Question
Start talking and sharing. If car rides or the dinner table are a bit too quiet or screens and headphones are hijacking eyes and ears, you can ask questions such as: “What if…?”, “How could we…?”, Who might need…?” You can even pursue further depths by asking Innovation Genome Project’s six questions that successful innovators have been asked:

  1. What could we look at in a new way?
  2. What could we use in a new way?
  3. What could we recontextualise in space or time?
  4. What could we connect in a new way?
  5. What could we change, in terms of design or performance?
  6. What could I create that is truly new?

A lot of this sounds like common sense and like the parenting books of past decades. What is different now is that technology itself can be an obstacle, if children only passively consume and watch. Children and youth need to question, make, play, struggle and fail, and most screen time doesn’t offer these opportunities.

All Saints' College students engaged in a Creative Industries lesson.All Saints’ College students engaged in a Creative Industries lesson.

What can schools do?

We have all spent years in school with bells, classes, peers and teachers. A familiar and comfortable rotation through subjects, where some would find a favourite and pursue it a bit further outside of class. Others found the most joy in the co- and extra- curricular activities where they could explore, play and learn about what interested them. Some just waited until graduating from school, when they could pursue what they liked and wanted in work and life. As we now know, the economy has greatly changed but education hasn’t – yet.

A 2015 Australian Government Report for the Office of the Chief of Science, Boosting High-Impact Entrepreneurship in Australia – A role for universities identified factors that influence an individual to become an entrepreneur.

Much like Wagner’s work, the report looked to single out behaviours that influence entrepreneurship and the qualities of the innovators.  It is one thing to be an innovative thinking and another to put those ideas into action and into the market as an entrepreneur.

The report then focuses at the university level and how experiential programs, not just classroom-based learning, are central to creating innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs. Experiential programs aim to develop these attributes and provide access to local start-up eco-systems with attention to creating a culture of innovation.

This is why All Saints’ College has launched Propeller Enterprises, our new hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. Drawing upon this and other research, Propeller is already: building networks with Spacecubed, Perth’s innovation incubator and hub; redesigning the demountable buildings by the tennis courts into a Collaboration Space (the Co-Lab) and a Maker Space; offering its first workshop that bridges electronics and the arts; working on a weeklong innovation workshop for the July Holidays; and beginning to offer a speaker series where students can come and hear from leading thinkers and innovators.

As another way to foster innovative thinking, the College launched Creative Industries for Year 7s. The course is facilitated by a multi-disciplinary team of teachers who are working with students to co-design the curriculum so that the class draws upon students’ own interests and concerns. At the core of Creative Industries sits problem-finding, collaboration, and Design Thinking, which is a thinking framework used globally for developing innovative ideas and solutions.

With Propeller Enterprises and Creative Industries as its newest additions, All Saints’ is a leader in innovative teaching and learning. From the research we know that participation in experiential entrepreneurship programs positively influences both attitudes and actions. According to the report, experiential programs (like Propeller and Creative Industries) can help students take concrete action by:

  • Cementing learnings from classroom-based courses and providing context to apply the theory.
  • Allowing them to experiment with entrepreneurship as a career path.
  • Expanding networks well beyond the school.
  • Providing role models in the forms of mentors and coaches.
  • Reducing their fear of failure by allowing them to fail in a safe environment.
  • Increasing confidence in their ability to succeed by meeting those who have started successful start-ups.

These are the aims of All Saints’ College as we prepare students to be innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs who are engaged and active citizens of the 21st century.

Teachers and students working together in a Creative Industries session.eachers and students working together in a Creative Industries session.