Fostering Innovation in High Schools

Kelsey Sheehy

Social media manager. App designer. Offshore wind farm engineer. Sustainability manager. Ten years ago, none of these jobs existed. Today, they are hot careers.

So how do you prepare high school students to work in - or create - a field that doesn't exist?

By injecting collaboration and creativity into the classroom, says Stephan Turnipseed, president of LEGO Education North America. Beyond their iconic building blocks, LEGO offers curriculum and professional development for teachers and sponsors robotics competitions for students.

"At 2 years old, when you do the standard creativity test, we are all - almost 100 percent of us - creative geniuses," he says. "By the end of 12 years of education only 3 percent score at that same level."

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Turning that trend around requires occasionally tossing aside some steadfast notions in the education world, he says.

"We should be stressing things like collaborative test taking," where each member of the testing team has a role, Turnipseed says. "When I was a kid that was called cheating."

Tasking teens to work in pairs to solve problems more closely mimics real-world problem solving than traditional testing environments. It also boosts student achievement, according to studies.

One high school English teacher found that her students scored 20 percentage points higher than those who had taken the same test in previous years, according to one report. The difference: team testing.

"Students were listening to one another, talking to their peers about test items, trying to decipher the correct answer and debating why an answer was or was not the best response," the report notes.

Traditional testing methods are often criticized for promoting memorization over actual learning, but they can also stifle creativity, Turnipseed suggests.

"We ingrain in our students and our children that there is only one right answer," he says, adding that while two plus two equals four in a normal math problem, in certain realms of physics, it doesn't. "That's probably not the best way forward."

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Instead, teachers should create an environment where there are a variety of correct answers to a given challenge, Turnipseed says. That could mean having students devise a solution to an irrigation issue, or build a robot and then figure out how to make it go faster.

"You can't do this everywhere. But in STEM, it is absolutely doable. It is eminently doable," he says. "Of all the disciplines that we learn in school, STEM is an area where you can always have a world where there is more than one right answer."

Giving high school students opportunities to create and solve problems - and the freedom to devise multiple solutions - helps give classroom activities relevance and better prepares students for the workplace, he says.

Pulling that "imagination-creativity lever" can also inspire a student to be the next great inventor, he says.

"Start pushing kids to use their imagination and to use creativity in the appropriate environment and that would drive a lot of the results we need in innovation," he says.