How to encourage innovation in the learning environment

Zarifa Mohamad
M.A. German & Cultural Studies (University of Copenhagen + Humboldt University Berlin)
M.A. Intercultural Education (Free University Berlin)
Teaches “Cultural Intelligence” and “Survival Skills”.

One of the first teachers, students at the Bauhaus academy in Dessau (Germany) would meet was Johannes Itten, who taught one of the introductory courses. Itten later revealed that before he could begin teaching, he first had to “decontaminate” students by removing their educational ballast. Itten later revealed that before he could begin teaching, he first had to “decontaminate” students by removing their educational ballast. Instead of providing a foundation on which to build, this ballast of previous knowledge rather hindered the learning process.

Almost a hundred years later, education expert and Harvard professor, Tony Wagner, came across the same complaint from a number of educators he interviewed during his research (Wagner 2011). With each passing day, jobs evolving around routine procedures and fixed schedules are becoming fewer. Nonetheless, most higher education institutions are producing graduates for a world that is rapidly ceasing to exist. This, says Wagner, is doubly troubling, seeing as innovation is the key to economic growth, yet current education systems seem to be working against this goal, practically preventing innovative thinking.

At a forum in Medellin last week, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, said, “Colombia must focus on education for innovation.” Also at the meeting was Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, who insisted that innovators are “heroes who teach us how to think big and transform the country.”1 So far so good, but how do we encourage innovation in the education system? How do we help our students develop the skills necessary to take on the challenges of the future? While the methods and focus vary across the board, there seems to be a common agreement among researchers and educators on two main factors, which can help catalyze innovation: Creativity and Diversity.

Innovative people are often people who are able to see things from different perspectives. Not because they were born especially gifted but because they have exposed themselves to different environments and engage in diverse teams. For David Kelly, founder of IDEO and Stanford creator, diversity is about empathy: an “understanding of what other people want, and how the world is put together from a social and emotional point of view”.2

In order to come up with new ideas and solutions, creativity is key. Traditionally, creativity was viewed as something for the gifted few, for people with special talents such as filmmakers, designers or architects – or perhaps the offices at Google and Apple. Fortunately, a new understanding is surfacing, where creativity is no longer confined to art ateliers and start-up lofts but recognized as a powerful potential that anyone can develop as well as a skill to be taught and trained alongside with algebra and grammar (Robinson 2011, Tanggaard 2014).

In traditional schooling, creativity is, at best, disregarded or even discouraged. Often this goes hand in hand with fear of failure and, as a result, risk-aversion (Wagner 2011). Instead of trying out new approaches or testing theories, people repeat processes that have worked in the past and are thus “safe”. But as any economist will tell you, no risk, no fun. Teachers and students alike need to allow more “failures” as a natural part of the learning process. Shifting focus from the end result onto the process in itself often renders better outcomes as it allows for new goals to develop, that perhaps were not planned at the outset but proved the better alternative.

For this, we need to allow for more “trial-and-error” or for what some people refer to as “iteration”, which means to repeat or rehearse a process. This approach takes away the notion of failure, of doing something the wrong way, which in turn encourages higher risk and more experimentation. Besides, how can students be expected to be risk takers if the curriculum and assessment policies don’t allow for it?

If decision makers in education resist an obvious need for change – in the classroom as well as in academic administration, then today’s students will not only be denied the opportunity of learning and growing but, in the long run, society will be deprived of its most valuable asset: young innovators and entrepreneurs with the skills and the motivation to change the world.


Kelley, T., & Littman, J. (2001). The art of innovation: Lessons in creativity from IDEO, America's leading design firm. New York: Currency/Doubleday.

Livermore, D. (2011). The cultural intelligence difference master the one skill you can't do without in today's global economy. New York: American Management Association.

Ries, E. (2011). The lean startup: How today's entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses. New York: Crown Business.

Robinson, K. (2011). Out of our minds: Learning to be creative (Revised/Expanded ed.). Oxford: Capstone.

Tanggaard, L. (2014). Opfindsomhed. Kbh.: Gyldendal.

Wagner, T., & Compton, R. (2012). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. New York: Scribner.

1 “Colombia debe enfocarse en la educación para innovar”, dice Steve Wozniak. Retrieved August 15, 2014.

2 New Designs for Learning: A Conversation with IDEO Founder David Kelley By Claus von Zastrow on January 20, 2010 - See more at: Retrieved August 14, 2014.