…and Inspiring the Next Generation

Innovation and the ability to innovate successfully, dramatically improving on what went before, is an important life skill just like reading, writing and arithmetic, and certainly preceded them.  So why don’t we teach it in schools?  Even a rudimentary skill and knowledge would form a solid base for future development throughout life, and could make a considerable difference to any student’s future prospects in his or her chosen career. The ability to innovate successfully time after time is also very liberating and fun.  Can we really just hope that some people are naturally good at it, without instruction, and for others that is their misfortune?

Innovation is not the same as invention (thinking up something completely ‘out of the blue’ which may turn out to be useless) or incremental improvement (making something a little better), but instead looks at coming up with a major improvement, usually by doing something differently.  However, in many cases innovation is based on re-using existing knowledge (of the innovator) in new ways, the issue is how to do this successfully on a particular subject or problem; a methodology would help.

Yet as a nation we too often muddle-through and the same applies to invention and innovation, these are supposed to just happen and aren’t we naturally good at inventing things? Sometimes we confuse innovation with creativity, thinking up bright ideas, or just focus on problem solving; there is more to successful innovation than that including overcoming smug insularity.  What happens if there is no apparent problem to solve? Also thinking up ideas is only part of a much longer process to make them successful.  How can we move beyond our usually ramshackle approach and compete against the best in the world?

Finding the best ways of teaching innovation needs some careful planning for success and a stream of improvements to stay ahead. Some ideas include: teaching an innovation method or methodology; running a national competition for practical innovative ideas; establishing mutually beneficial links between innovative organisations and schools (learning from each other); and most importantly effective management.

An innovation method or methodology could be a way of thinking, analysing and developing innovative ideas into successful practical applications. Or it could be several different methodologies which help students be more innovative and to understand why some inventions and innovations succeed and others fail.  Scientific method made science possible, with all its study and resulting progress, so we can expect an innovation methodology to help innovation.

A particularly interesting simple, yet sophisticated, innovation methodology is concerned with low cost, low risk, fast innovation and improvement of products, services and processes and to facilitate collaboration.  It is intended for use in seconds on a practical application; ideal then for anyone who can understand a few simple concepts and visualise them in different applications.

Including an innovation perspective in other subjects makes them more interesting and provides extra depth; for example, find some innovation in Shakespeare.   Or discover the brilliance in the design of the Spitfire, beloved by pilots, or of future smartphones.


Spitfire smartphone

Innovation brings students together in a shared interest or project and can build respect between them.  It also develops observation, analysis and practicality skills, in addition to creativity, discipline and a competitive spirit.  Overall it could inspire the next generation whatever their academic ability and improve their social mobility.  It can be done cheaply and quickly.

And so to William Horman, the headmaster of Winchester and Eton schools, who is the earliest written source, 1519, of the saying linking Necessity and Invention, Mater artium necessitas. He included it in a Latin textbook which used common English sayings; practical advice then.  And even more advice because the Latin phrase is subtly different; necessity being the mother of all skill, cunning and art; the mother of the ‘state of the art’. Innovation and applying ideas successfully were seen as everyday activities arising through circumstance.  These days we need a similar attitude to combining innovation, education and skills if we are to create high value-adding jobs in good working conditions and prosper in a highly competitive world.

I KEEP six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

(from The Elephant’s Child by Rudyard Kipling)

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