I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

What Innovation Is And How To Teach It

What Innovation Is And Teaching Innovation

Hello Tic Tac Toe Lovers!

I'm about to burst your bubble.


Tic Tac Toe is a bad game. Yep, I said it. Unless you're six, running around a playground, and need a quick break... playing Tic Tac Toe gets boring really quick. Once you figure out how to play no one ever wins. Cat's game. Each game ends in a tie.

I know. I know. We live in an age of collaboration and inclusiveness and I for one like it that way. But... If I'm playing a game, I want to outplay or outstrategize my opponent and win. I'm just not that into crossing my fingers and hoping he has an obvious lapse in judgement and makes a mistake I can capitalize on and connect my three marks in a row.


But it doesn't have to be this way.

Enter Ultimate Tic Tac Toe

A new trimester began 2 weeks ago in my school. While 4 out of the 5 classes I teach remained largely unchanged I received a new set of students in my Learning to Study Effectively class. Last Friday I learned something my inner geek thinks is really cool. I noticed 2 students playing a version of Tic Tac Toe I have not seen before. It's called Ultimate Tic Tac Toe and looks like this:

How To Teach Innovation and Ultimate Tic Tac Toe

How do you play?

Basically, winning the small board converts it to your mark and the objective is to win the big board by getting 3 marks in a row horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. The twist is that your opponent's move determines which one of the nine smaller squares you get to play in. For complete game rules go here. Just be careful - it's addictive. 

It's addictive because it's fun. No longer the mind numbing same old Tic Tac Toe. In addition to longer game play you have to consider multiple outcomes and make decisions that pertain to the 9 smaller boards and the big board all at the same time. There are many possible permutations and thus outcomes and the strategy resembles chess at times. 

I did some digging and found out that the game has been around for at least a few years and that it was perhaps invented by a group of mathematicians. More importantly: it's cool, the kids are playing it, and it shows what innovation really is.

What Is Innovation?

Students tend to think innovation is about inventing new things; stuff that didn't previously exist. In reality though, most innovation occurs when people take an existing product or idea and change it in a way that meets some need. It goes something like:

  1. Traditional Tic Tac Toe sucks. (Empathy)
  2. Let's figure out why it sucks. (Definition)
  3. Let's create something better. (Ideation)
  4. Enter Ultimate Tic Tac Toe, which is a spinoff on steroids. (Prototyping)
  5. Let's play! (Testing)
  6. If it still sucks? (Redefine, Re-Ideate, Prototype Again, Test Again etc.)

The above is a simplified way of using Design Thinking to improve a product; a game of Tic Tac Toe, but it shows that most of the time innovation is about making something that exists better. Often, innovation involves continual idea/product improvement.

Why Is Understanding What Innovation Is Important?

Most students I encounter do not see themselves as innovators. They might not consider themselves creative. They don't realize that creativity is a skill that can be learned and improved. When practiced and channeled toward a goal of bettering something, creativity and creative problem solving can lead to innovation. The Ultimate Tic Tac Toe is a great simple-to-explain and understand example. Why not use it in the classroom?

Three Ways To Teach Innovation

First and foremost it's important to debunk the myth that creativity is something innate and some people just don't have it. Teachers must explain creativity as a skill that can be improved with practice. Then, we must provide students with opportunities to apply creativity in problem solving which leads to innovation. 

There are many approaches to teaching innovation. I want to focus on these three: 

  1. Designing and Creating
  2. Exercising Student Creativity
  3. Embracing Failure and Promoting Reflection

Designing and Creating

Knowing how to approach problem solving is essential to innovation. Models such as Design Thinking (DT) or Project Based Learning (PBL) work well in developing the student problem solving repertoire, because the more students use DT or PBL the more experienced they become and the more ways of problem solving they come up with.

This is why it's important to give students many opportunities to design and create in the classroom. The best approach is one that combines conceptual knowledge with what students are interested in because if one is motivated she will find the project meaningful and will learn from it as a result.

Students could design experiments and test their own hypotheses in science. They can make products they read about in various classes to gain insights into how our predecessors solved common problems. They could create new and fun vocabulary games by studying what's out there and improving upon it. We could ask them to write stories or plays and perform skits that are sequels to works they study in class. Imagine having teams of students writing part 2 to Romeo and Juliet. Maybe each team is tasked with writing a chapter? Perhaps these two were destined to be together after all reincarnated in the 19th-century America?

The possibilities are endless. We just have to allow them; give our students the opportunity to create. 

Exercising Student Creativity

There's problem solving and then there's creative problem solving. The best ideas don't always win, but creative solutions, or ones that are often simple but obscured, tend to have the best shot at success. But simply explaining to our students that creativity is a skill they can develop and improve is not enough. We also need to practice creativity in our classrooms to make this point a reality for our students.

One way is to be creative in lesson design and do things students have not experienced before. I recently watched a TEDx Talk by Dr. Gillian Judson on imaginative education in which she described a project she assigned to preservice teachers. She asked each student to research an educational theorist and explain this person's views on assessment in education as if they were this person. Doing this made a somewhat boring topic come alive as students brought in props, wore costumes, and role-played these previously unknown to them individuals and their ideas.

The students practiced creativity and learned on a deeper level because they were asked to engage more of themselves; their perceptions, emotions, and thoughts. No longer were the students just asked to give an answer. They were asked to interpret who these researchers were and how they might have thought, felt, and behaved. Then they were tasked with being these people for a moment in time. 

Creativity can be practiced in many other ways.

Ideation that occurs in DT or PBL is a solid vehicle. Teach it. Guide it. Then, let students use it repeatedly. Introduce constraints on projects. Nothing brings about human creativity as much as telling someone they can't do something because they'll find a way to hack it which is precisely the point. Check out this article for more on constraints and creativity.

Becoming more creative is as simple as living new experiences, changing up routines, and doing new things. While stepping out of the comfort zone may be difficult it does not have to involve grand moves.

All it takes to start becoming more creative is committing to learning to look at life through multiple lenses. If you always tend to sit in the same spot when you work sit somewhere else tomorrow. If you order the same coffee every morning get the weird one you're rational mind tells you not to get this morning. Sleep on the other side of the bed tonight. Try a different show. Read a book you'd never consider. 

Increasing creativity is all about awakening the various parts of your brain that you don't normally tap into. The connections might already be there but are weak due to lack of usage and it always helps creativity to connect new neurons that reside in different brain locations. Check out these 32 Easy Exercises to Boost Your Creativity Everyday as many can be applied in your classroom and life. 

Also, take a look at this Creativity Infographic and use it to help your students develop and leverage creativity.

Embracing Failure and Promoting Reflection

Failing and learning from failure is perhaps the most important piece of the innovation pie.

According to multiple sources Apple's founder Steve Jobs was apparently such a big screw up that he managed to screw it all the way up to success. Ironically, few are aware of his screw ups because most of us are too busy admiring him and Apple, as this creation of his is set on becoming the first trillion-dollar company the world has ever seen. It's because he failed forward, each time Steve failed he learned and applied this learning to new ventures.

This is what we need to teach our students. The best way to do this is to cultivate a classroom culture in which mistakes and failures are looked at as not flaws but as essential innovation tools. Our students must hear this from us. They must know that we want them to take risks and they will not be penalized in any way when they fail.

To humanize it for them talk about personal failures. Then tell them how you learned from them. Then teach them how to reflect on their own failures. Make it part of the learning process. Metacognize. Metalearn. Meta-everything! 

Teach students to ask and answer questions such as:

  1. Why did I fail? What were the main reasons?
  2. Did I make false assumptions? What were they?
  3. Did I miss anything? What was it?
  4. Was I missing information or skills?
  5. What concepts do I need to understand better?
  6. What skills should I work on to help with this?
  7. What can I learn from this failure?
  8. What could I have done better? Differently?
  9. Where and who can I get help from?
  10. What now? How can I improve?

Reflection leads to change. Change leads to improvement. Improvement leads to progress. Progress allows more innovation. 

Innovation In A Nutshell...

I keep hearing and reading about schools churning out smart but pre-programmed young people. The average university grad is commonly portrayed as a 9-to-5er who can follow directions and fulfill requests really well. Creativity is often amiss. But I for one am convinced it's not entirely gone. It just goes unpracticed.

The education of today seems like a repeat cycle of read, listen, transfer onto paper or digital media, and take a test. Schools don't slow down enough to process information by meaningful application. We rush to get to the next list of essential questions figuring prominently in the curriculum pages to thoughtfully and patiently practice skills such as creativity, reflection, and real world problem solving. There's no time to do it in multiple contexts either. 

But this is precisely what innovation requires!

Perhaps we can sum it up in an equation. How's about:

(Creative Problem Solving + Failing Forward) x A Lot = Innovation

And then each one of us might ask himself/herself:

Do I provide enough opportunities for my students to do this?

Do I model this or do I always go by the book?

Do I encourage new ways of solving problems?

Do I use class time for practicing creativity?

Do I allow my students to design and create solutions to problems that matter to them?

Do I create and promote a classroom culture that makes failure an essential part of the learning process not punishable by an F?

Do I observe my students learning from mistakes and improving as a result?

Do my students innovate?

Do I?

Act accordingly.

You have the power to change lives. Use it often.

Thanks for reading! If you found my article useful you might want to sign up for my newsletter below. I send it out on Wednesday and Sunday mornings. If you are looking for a new book that can help you add to your teaching arsenal and help teens learn check out my books on Amazon. Every paperback is $11.97 or below until 12/31. Take a look here.