By Jennifer Vermillion, Director of The Center for Innovation and Learning
Failing Forward: “Defining Innovation”
How do you know if something is innovative? If I asked you to name three things that exemplify innovation, what comes to mind? Innovation is certainly a prevalent topic these days. Universities have started offering degrees in innovation. A quick Amazon search for the term yields 1,158 books about innovation published in the last ninety days alone. Here at St. Mark’s, we have an entire center dedicated to innovation in teaching and learning. Innovation is essential for addressing complex social, environmental and economic challenges, but without careful reflection and discussion, the term can feel vague and even trendy. So how do we define and value innovation at St. Mark’s?
We might define innovation as “the introduction of something new” or “ a new idea, method or device.” But innovation is not just about developing and implementing new ideas and products. It’s not just about novelty. New developments should add value. A few years ago I read an article in The Wall Street Journal about Kellogg’s “innovative” new peanut butter Pop-Tarts. I do love a good Pop-Tart, but what value does a peanut butter version of the breakfast classic add to society?
St. Mark’s has done a remarkable job devoting resources and space for faculty and students to explore the concept of innovation while ensuring that this work remains grounded in our mission. Our teaching methods will continue to evolve and shift, with the goal of helping students develop the skills and mindset needed for lives of leadership and service in a complex future. Nationally recognized educator and author Grant Lichtman recently embarked on a three-month road trip in search of examples of innovation in schools. In his book, #EdJourney, Lichtman writes that innovation in education is about “preparing students for their futures, not our pasts.” His words echo those of renowned educational theorist Jean Piaget:
“Education, for most people, means trying to lead the child to resemble the
typical adult of his society… But for me, education means making creators…
You have to make inventors, innovators, not conformists.”
–Conversations with Jean Piaget (1980) by Jean Claude Bringuier
There is great debate about whether innovators are created or born; if you are interested in reading more on the topic, I recommend The Innovator’s DNA by Hal Gregersen or Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner. The process of innovation can be broken down into discrete skills that are teachable. In fact, you will find many of these skills being developed throughout St. Mark’s classrooms, athletic fields, and programs.
Innovation requires the ability to analyze and solve problems, and, as Ewan McIntosh explains in his 2011 TED Talk, it also requires an ability to find problems that need solving. As one example, students in Kim Berndt’s Advanced Environmental Science course are exploring this very concept as they pursue a challenged-based learning unit on energy use. Rather than being handed a problem to solve, students in this course constructed their own essential questions as they identified real world problems to solve.
Innovation requires crossing knowledge boundaries between academic disciplines. Genuine problems are rarely understood or solved in the context of a single academic discipline. Students at St. Mark’s are often asked to carry knowledge across courses, and St. Mark’s faculty have been working this year to develop robust collaborative structures for our academic departments. Programs like St. Mark’s new Saturday program will provide the perfect time and space to tinker and experiment with new ideas across disciplines.
Innovation thrives in a culture that encourages experimentation with new ideas, embraces intellectual risk-taking, and provides a safe space for failure. Yes, failure. Certainly the word “failure” carries a negative connotation in our society. But one of the key tenets of innovation, and learning, is a willingness to take risks and to fail. As educational theorist John Dewey wrote in 1934, “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” The key is that when failure happens, don’t panic—identify it, learn from it, and start moving forward again. This notion is known as “Failing Forward,” and it is a critical skill for true growth.
This is where we all have a responsibility for innovation at St. Mark’s. Have you ever held back from asking a question or sharing an idea for fear that you would be judged? Have you ever laughed at a classmate for tossing out an idea that seemed silly? It might seem strange to celebrate failure after taking an intellectual risk, but I encourage you to try it. Who knows what you’ll come up with. Maybe you’ll develop the next big Pop-Tart flavor; maybe you’ll develop the next big breakthrough in medical research. In the words of inventor (and innovator) Thomas Edison: “There’s a way to do it better. Find it.”
Jennifer Vermillion is the Director for the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at St. Mark’s. She earned her B.A. in Gender Studies from the University of Virginia, an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from The College of William and Mary, and a post-Master’s Certificate in Learning and Instructional Technology from the University of Connecticut. She has taught students from kindergarten through college, and in 2014 she was selected as an emerging leader by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).