Is Innovation the Answer?

Last week I had one of the best professional development experiences in my entire career at the “Big Ideas Fest” in Half Moon Bay. The BIF is a 3-day gathering that brings together educators, entrepreneurs, and reformers to brainstorm innovative solutions to challenges in K-20 education.

So what’s so unique about BIF? The BIF uses design thinking to help participants create innovative solutions as a team, and then helps those teams bring the best concepts to reality. Conference attendees are assigned to teams (called “Action Collabs”) that go through a process of designing a solution to a challenge in real world education. Our team’s challenge was improving educational supports for adults seeking better employment opportunities, and after two days of intensive work (or was it play?), our team’s concept was chosen to move forward as a supported project throughout the year (see a description of our project “MYNE”, and the other projects here).

What was it like?  Although I’ve always been an education reformer, I’m new to design thinking and I was a bit intimidated at first (both by the process and the participants). I was one of only a handful of community college/K-12 educators at the Fest, and as much as I love teaching at City College, it’s hardly a place that supports innovation.  In fact, our resistance to change is a major factor in our current accreditation crisis. Had I spent too much time in a culture that all too often says no instead of yes? Would I be able to find my creativity again?

Thankfully, BIF’s structured design process squelched all my fears.  The best way I can describe the process is to say that it promotes purposeful creativity – by asking questions and facilitating activities that lead the team to solutions we hadn’t thought of before.

What did I learn? I learned a few really important lessons over the 3 days:

  1. Innovation is about crossing boundaries. In order to come up with the best ideas, you need to hear and cultivate many different perspectives. Our team members are from vastly different institutions in different regions of the country, and we play a variety of different roles in education – no one of us could have come up with such a great idea on our own.
  2. Innovation is about risk and, surprisingly, failure.  In order to encourage innovation, you have to go beyond traditional solutions and be willing to fail. The design process encouraged us to take risks with our ideas and to support each other’s risk-taking.  When an idea failed, it made room for another, better idea. Failure has never felt this good.
  3. Innovation is about curiosity, imagination and asking questions.  Too often in education we dispense information to students, rather than encourage their passion and inquisitiveness. My three days in the Action Collab was full of passionate, imaginative dialogue – it was truly a model learning experience, one that I already have brought home to my classroom.

What does it mean for CCSF? So, here’s the $64,000 question: is it possible that the design approach used at BIF could help us meet the extensive challenges we face at City College? This is my first experience with design thinking, and I don’t know enough yet to say resoundingly “Yes!!” What I do know is that we need new approaches, and creating a culture that supports innovation is a fundamental first step if we are going to survive.

Thanks for BIF2012 for helping me get a glimpse of what that future might be like, and inspiring me to help bring it about in any way I can. (And GO TEAM MYNE!!!!)


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