21st Century Skills Innovation Project-based learning

Synergy, Innovation, and 21st Century Skills Come Together


So I was reading a blog post on It’s About Learning, in which Bo Adams writes about the value of synergistic thinking in his work and life.  A must read for a variety of reasons: (1) his insights are spot on; (2) the 4 minute TED talk by Nathalie Miebach is fascinating; and (3) the implications for how we teach students, K-12, is profound in my estimation.

I then decided to watch another TED Talk from TEDGlobal 2011 that deals with the new science and engineering behind prosthetic devices by Todd Kuiken.

This talk was equally as fascinating as Nathalie Miebach’s but for very different reasons.  At the end of the talk, Dr. Kuiken relates a story about all the problems they faced getting things to work for Amanda Kitts (one of his patients) before the talk.  He explains how the problems were solved as a result of getting his team together, probably over the internet, and collaborating on the different issues they were facing at the hotel.  To his amazement, the team solved all the problems.

So here is my takeaway.  Nothing novel here, but again a powerful indicator of why we have to change what we do and how we teach in schools.  Why is Dr. Kuiken and his team so innovative, bright, and successful?  Why is Nathalie Miebach at the cutting edge of innovation and creativity?  I think the answer lies in what they are able to achieve after formal schooling (my assumption).  They are able to achieve great things as a result of their natural talents to think synergistically and/or bring people together who can think creatively across the disciplines.  Granted, they are probably very book smart and were probably very successful at different stages in their educational career.  But their innovations are happening outside the domain of a formal educational setting.

What I hear from colleagues who say that the responsibility of schools is to give students the foundation they need to innovate later in life is this:

  1. it’s not my responsibility to teach students to be innovative.
  2. they can’t do these kinds of things at such an early age.
  3. they need the ‘book smarts’ first before they can innovate.
  4. real life problems as part of the curriculum is hard to implement.
  5. doing projects related to real life challenges makes is hard to cover all the content and prepare for the tests.

Does some of these sound familiar?
What skills do Dr. Kuiken and Ms. Miebach manifest in their work?  Again, this is my projection.

  • depth and breath of knowledge in many areas.
  • critical thinking skills that allow them to synthesized.
  • problem-solving skills that allow them to draw from different disciplines to solve complex problems.
  • creative thinking skills that allow them to see problems in a new light and break down barriers that might restrict their thinking.
  • collaborative skills and predilections that result in them seeking out others with greater expertise than they might have.
  • desire to innovate, to be on the cutting edge of what interests them.
  • desire to impact the greater good in some way

These are basically the skills that 21st Century educators are saying we need to use as we redesign our schools.

In traditional schooling, we might do the first one reasonably well, especially the breath of knowledge in our liberal arts education.  Maybe we do some aspects of critical thinking and problem solving reasonably well, but it varies tremendously on the school you attend or the teachers you happen to get.  Beyond that, I don’t believe we do the other things in the list very well.  I don’t believe we give students the skills to work collaboratively with their peers and create something new or original.  As teachers, we have to script everything out from A to Z.  We leave little room for innovation or innovating thinking.

I question whether our schools are doing a good job of consciously preparing the next generation of Dr. Kuiken, Ms. Miebach, or Steve Jobs.  I think we are leaving it up to chance that these folks will come out of our schools.  Given the challenges our country and the world faces, I don’t think we should leave it up to chance.  I would suggest that schools should have as their mission to create a learning environment where every child is educated with the skill set to become a Steve Jobs, Dr. Kuiken or Ms. Miebach.

We have a long journey ahead of us to produce the kind of synergistic thinkers that Bo Adams advocates for in Its About Learning.  Let’s get going!

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