President Obama’s call to “Educate to Innovate” has become a favorite catchphrase of the STEM movement. But it really doesn’t address the problem – the assembly line nature of our education system. The model of large scale commodity production doesn’t work in modern U.S. manufacturing. Companies have to be nimble, innovative, and responsive; they must continually adjust to new competitors, new markets, and new problems. So why do we expect an education system born out of the need to educate a workforce for the industrial revolution to be able to meet the needs of a future we can barely imagine? It makes no sense – rows of desks in rectangular classroom spaces are the physical mainfestation of the box we try to force students into. We cannot talk about innovation, creativity, and education in the same sentence without recognizing the mismatch between learning spaces, curriculum, and assessments and the need for a workforce that is collaborative, inventive, and responsive. We need to identify the real problem and begin to innovate how we educate.
Innovation is not invention. It is an evolution not a revolution of a product, process, system, or idea. Innovation implies that we can do better, that there is room for improvement, and that parts of the old can provide a solid platform. The goal of education has always been to prepare young people for the future. It is an admirable goal and one that defines human civilization and society. The goal doesn’t need to change; but how we reach it does. In a future defined by multi-modal mobility, lack of clear boundaries, and endless opportunities, the convergent skills so highly valued by schools will not matter. Finding the one right answer when the question is constantly changing is a useless endeavor, but it is the primary focus of most assessments and of entire school systems.
We give voice to valuing out-of-the-box thinking. “Educate to Innovate” embodies that idea. But our actions need to reverse the focus. Walk into any modern classroom, where rows of desks hold students listening to the same material that has been presented for many years. Watch them focus on what they need to know to pass the test, to find the right choice to mark with their No.2 pencil. Education is very much a box. It needs to be improved, modified, and re-thought. Innovation needs to happen in our classrooms. We need to get out of the box to get it right. To educate for the future, educators must first recognize that there are no straight lines, no clear answers, and that products packaged today will be obsolete in a few years at best. Innovative education must be nimble and responsive. Our system has good basic features – access for all, accountability, resources, and talent. But the old system is not designed to “educate to innovate”; it was designed to populate factories and large scale manufacturing. Parts of it are worth saving, but we must all work to innovate it to educate future citizens.