01/29/2013 04:22 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

How Are We Preparing Students to Be Tomorrow's Innovators?


Follow the discussion on Empowering Education Leaders to Innovate on Wednesday Jan. 30 at 3pm PST.

According to the just-released Gallup-HOPE index for 2012, developing a world-changing invention is an aspiration shared by 42 percent of youth in grades 5-12. That's good news. Given the scale of challenges facing us--in our own backyards and around the globe--it's easy to see that we're going to need every good idea the next generation has to offer.

What are schools doing to prepare today's students to be tomorrow's innovators? I recently went on a hunt for schools that are serious about teaching students to innovate. I found many promising examples (described in Bringing Innovation to School). There's plenty we can learn from these "skunk works" for a new kind of teaching and learning.

Given the right conditions, students eagerly step up to the challenge of becoming not only better thinkers, but also makers, doers, and problem solvers. They're developing mobile apps, designing neighborhood gathering places, reducing their schools' carbon footprint, and reinvigorating Main Street with their economic analysis. Such projects typically involve serious academic study along with real-world problem solving, introducing students to a process for innovation that they can use again and again.

What can school leaders do to encourage more of these kinds of experiences? For starters, think about your own strengths and weaknesses as an innovator. How do you encourage--or discourage--innovative thinking among your staff? Who are your own role-models for innovation?

Are you willing to take risks? Innovators are willing to step out of their comfort zone. If a new idea doesn't work as planned, they treat failure as a learning opportunity. How do you foster a fail-fast, risk-taking attitude among your staff (and among your students)? At High Tech High, a network of innovative schools in San Diego, Calif., teachers use a protocol for sharing student work together at the end of projects. They critically evaluate what worked well and where things fell short, which leads to ongoing improvements in projects. It's part of a school culture that welcomes risk-taking.

Do you know how to network? The most innovative teachers and school leaders I've met regularly use blogs, Twitter, #edchats, and other Web 2.0 tools to think aloud about what's working and what's hard in their classrooms and communities. Their online reflections open a window on ideas at the formative stage, when they welcome feedback and invite suggestions from others in their network. They use their networks to expand opportunities for students, too. For instance, students in rural Oklahoma were mentored during a recent project by expert educators from around the globe. How did they connect? The teacher leading the project put out the word to her Twitter network. As a school leader, do you model how to use networks effectively? Do you encourage teachers to leverage their connections to create new opportunities for students?

Do you help good ideas grow? Innovators are eager to see good ideas take hold and spread. At Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, teachers are invited to submit innovation seed grants to fund classroom ideas they want to try. Superintendent Pam Moran uses the grants as a way to encourage grassroots innovation, finding out in a low-risk way what works (and what doesn't), and then spreading promising strategies.

Join - A Community for Education Leaders

Follow the discussion on Empowering Education Leaders to Innovate on Wednesday Jan. 30 at 3pm PST.

Learn more about Cisco's Corporate Social Responsibility:

Connect with Cisco CSR on: