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Charles Sosnik: “Innovation” remains out of schools’ reach

Recently I had the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend, Chris Besse. I met Chris a few years ago when he was CEO of a company called Freshgrade, a Canadian education company that displays, saves and documents student work – energizing students and bringing parents into the equation in a big way. One of the things I always admired about Chris was the way that he saw education as a mission, not a job.

Chris called me last week to tell me about his new gig. He is CEO of a company called Edgemakers. If you haven’t heard of them, you are not alone. They are a new company that is bringing one of the missing ingredients to education: innovation.

If you read my column, you know I am calling for changes in the way we educate our children. It’s imperative that we prepare our children for a different economy and a different world. Employers of the future will demand creativity and innovation from their employees and contractors. Specific knowledge will be much less important than adaptability and the ability to innovate. The main skill we currently teach in schools is the short-term memorization of facts that are readily available on the Internet.

Chris was a poly sci major and went into the education business at an early age, becoming president of Gage Learning just three years after college. From there, he became senior VP at Nelson Education before moving into the top spot at Freshgrade. Along the way he attended Harvard Business School to find out what they knew. Chris has now logged 30 years in business, all with one singular goal. Helping kids to succeed.

At this point in his life, Chris can do anything he wants. The fact that he is working for a start-up, still helping kids succeed says a lot about Chris. The fact that he is working to teach kids innovation says a lot about our current education system.

Teaching Innovation

As I was researching innovation in the classroom – specifically to see if it can be taught – I found this great article on Forbes. According to the author, “It is possible to create an innovative, open, creative and trustworthy place for students to grow, take risks, and feel comfortable in their own patterns of learning. It begins with the teacher. She sets the tone of the class from the minute students walk into the building. Most teachers were trained to educate solely from the teacher’s point of view. To change this type of delivery and make the classroom more innovative, she needs to think about her students as leaders too–acting as a guide rather than teaching content and asking students to spill out information on a standardized test.”

The author goes on to write about ten ways to make classrooms more innovative, but two are particularly important: using problem solving and allowing students to take risks and fail.

A friend of mine in the tech business grew from a handful of employees to over 100 in the last seven years, and he still has 90 percent of all the employees he hired. That’s unheard of in the tech biz. When I asked him how he did it, his answer was very simple, “I give them interesting problems to solve.” He doesn’t pay more than other tech firms. He doesn’t have a Disney-like campus. He doesn’t build rockets or electric cars. What he does is foster an environment of innovation, posing interesting problems, not getting involved in the solutions and allowing employees to get to the solution in any way they want. Failure is expected and even encouraged. His employees stay because they are motivated and interested.

This is the definition of modern industry and in many ways, the future of education. Successful employers now encourage innovation. Schools can create an innovative environment. But the question remains, can innovation be taught?

California and Texas are betting on it. Both states just approved Edgemaker’s courses for use in their high schools. According to John Kao, innovation guru and founder of Edgemakers, “Innate creativity is inside every student, waiting to be unleashed. But without intentional programs in our schools, creativity is underdeveloped, and students’ passion, talent, and energy remain some of our most underutilized resources. We cannot allow this to continue, as our society is faced with ‘wicked’ problems that appear unsolvable unless we innovate to find solutions. Our goal with these courses is to combine students’ natural creativity with purpose, helping them develop as innovators whose work is truly meaningful and makes a difference on issues that matter.”

The World of the Future

Dell Technologies’ Realize 2030 report suggests that 85 percent of jobs in 2030 haven’t been invented yet. That’s a staggering statistic. And whether you believe it or not, it’s a safe bet to say that many of the jobs we know now will be gone and many more will be needed. So how do you prepare a workforce for jobs that don’t yet exist?

Dell Technologies surveyed 3,800 business leaders from around the world to gauge their predictions and preparedness for the future. Included in their recommendations were these:

  • 85 percent said to task senior leaders with spearheading digital change
  • 85 percent said to put policies and tech in place to support a fully remote, flexible workforce
  • 79 percent said to teach all employees how to code / understand software development
  • 75 percent said to appoint a chief artificial intelligence (AI) officer
  • 74 percent said to automate everything and encourage customers to self-serve

A majority said: “Schools will need to teach how to learn rather than what to learn to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet.” Half weren’t sure what the next 10-15 years will look like in their own industries. 82 percent expect that humans and machines will work as integrated teams within their organizations in less than five years.

It appears that our current education system has a long way to go. Jamie Bricker, author and long-time school administrator and teacher from Toronto, said “Young children enter school full of curiosity and wonder, but for far too many learners this unbridled enthusiasm for discovery is systemically stifled throughout their educational journey. Teachers inhibit creativity in many students by prioritizing the covering of information far more than the uncovering of innovation.

“Embracing students’ innate sense of creativity greatly enhances both their personal passion and professional preparation.  It helps motivate and energize them in their current studies, as well as better prepare them for the challenges and opportunities that will undoubtedly present themselves in a future world full of so many unknowns.”