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Catalyze Empowerment Through Problem Seeking

Empower Learners as Problem Seekers

In talking with one of my best friends, Beth Gibson, who is the Worldwide Product Engineering Director of Corning Incorporated, she shared that reverse innovation is shifting the way companies approach and view innovative solutions. The term reverse innovation stirred curiosity in me. I’ve always considered innovation as the process of building or improving upon something to adapt and evolve to meet the needs of individuals. Reverse innovation, on the other hand, is the practice of taking a current product and making necessary adjustments that make it more marketable to developing economies that cannot afford the models designed for the western world. I never gave it much thought before, but numerous products we utilize don’t necessarily meet the needs of those in other parts of the world. To reverse innovations, individuals have engaged as problem seekers to succeed as a multinational company.

So, you may wonder, why is this of importance to us as educators?

The concept of reverse innovation is vital to us because it shifts how we approach facilitating learning experiences with kids. Even though the word ‘reverse’ is included, it still requires us to employ the process of innovative design thinking. With the focus on fostering divergent thinking as Empower co-author John Spencer’s recent post highlights in 7 Ways Foster Divergent Thinking in the Classroom (also discussed here) and the process of innovation, learners can be empowered as problem seekers. Our brains are naturally curious! When we envelop learning within problems or scenarios, it catalyzes empowerment that leads to the deepest form of learning. Intrinsic motivation and synergy develop amongst learners. One activity I use that embodies this is when learners are tasked to create a new kind of wearable technology. Through inquiry, students explore the progression of wearable technology over the course of time. Learners assume the role of engineer designers with the goal being to consider current problems that exist in our everyday life, and how wearable technology can either alleviate the problem or meet the needs of individuals. By leveraging a variety of texts, videos, and engaging in in-depth conversations that support understanding, students use the design process to craft either a new or improved version of the wearable technology. Learners then participate in the process of redesigning when constrained by limited materials. This is when creative, divergent thinking takes flight!

Challenging Traditions

While learners are empowered through problem seeking, in reflection, I’m not sure that the problems we are identifying are often genuine “problems,” but rather inconveniences that are being made more convenient based on our western world perspective. However, this serves as a means to unleash innovative thinking that pushes our creative limits by inventing new or improved ideas for products. While this concept certainly cultivates divergent thinking skills, catalyzes empowerment and is an excellent approach to developing success skills, I challenge us to incorporate the notion of reverse innovation.

In Learner Centered Innovation, Dr. Katie Martin challenges us to rethink traditions. Traditionally speaking, we engage in STEM challenges or exploring problem and project-based learning that focuses on topics that are relevant to our learners. Now, I’m not saying that we move away from these as they’re incredibly valuable approaches to learning, which I embrace. I’m fortunate to have been coached to teach project-based learning through the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), and PBL in particular, provides our learners with extremely significant and purposeful learning opportunities that foster learner agency. What I am suggesting is that we broaden our approach to include the concept of reverse innovation. Not only does reverse innovation foster the skill of identifying problems and creating innovative solutions, but it promotes empathy by exposing learners to the unique needs of individuals living in developing countries. Our learners benefit from gaining the perspective of those who face vastly different challenges than what we are accustomed to hearing or experiencing.

Reverse Innovation Promotes Problem Seeking Through a New Lens

Let’s explore the concept of reverse innovation to develop a better understanding. One example involves a team of designers from MIT. Individuals from MIT were charged with the task to create a wheelchair that would perform well on rough terrain in East Africa. The wheelchairs that we are familiar with weren’t a viable option for individuals in East Africa. While MIT successfully designed a prototype to conquer the rough terrain, they had to retool their design as the wheelchair was unable to be maneuvered through a doorway. Designers stressed the importance of not merely creating a model that solved one existing problem but considering all of the possible issues that may exist with each redesign. MIT approached this by testing the product in the field with individuals who may potentially use the product. By doing this, it allowed them to look at the effectiveness of their design and continually seek potential problems that influenced their final design. In the classroom, we need to support learners to embrace the understanding that, “design is iterative; you can’t get it right the first time, so be prepared to test many prototypes.”

Learning experiences within STEAM challenges or problem and project-based learning, often provide students with constraints to work within. Constraints can lead to more significant creative thinking, as learners are encouraged to identify ways to innovate inside the box as George Couros has discussed in his blog and book, Innovator’s Mindset. Considering that design is meant to be iterative, we want our learners to be exposed to multiple problems in addition to constraints to create a vibrant learning process leading to testing and retooling a variety of prototypes. I employ each of these throughout the school year to expose learners to a wide range of learning experiences. To catalyze empowerment through problem seeking, we can blend in the practice of reverse innovation, too.

Sample questions we can pose to foster divergent thinking and catalyze empowerment:

  • What are you wondering?
  • What more do we need to know?
  • How will we locate the information?
  • What materials do we require?
  • How can we best improve our designs?
  • How do you want to monitor, track, and demonstrate your learning journey?
  • What does success look like to you?

In our classrooms, scenarios can be created to empower learners to examine specific products that they’re accustomed to seeing, and explore if they would be of value in a third world country. Within learning, we can layer new information about the product, clients, or the environment in which they live. The idea that one product may be conducive with the terrain (as in the example from MIT), but now won’t suffice in the home, encourages learners to look at a design from all angles and gather more information to drive the learning process. Furthermore, learners would have to consider if the product would even be affordable, and if not, they would have to contemplate how we could market the product through reversing the innovation to decrease the cost.

Brief Detour

Let me pause here, and go off track for a moment. In my experiences working with educators, and as a classroom teacher myself, I know that we agonize over the amount of time we have and how we will possibly cover all of the standards and content we’re expected to teach. I validate your feelings when it comes to these pressures. As educators, these constraints will always exist. While we cannot create more time in our day, I am confident that by embedding learning standards into the experience we facilitate, we will create the time needed while also catalyzing empowerment. Learning must be meaningful and impactful. When we craft learning experiences that are interdisciplinary, we can incorporate numerous standards. In the sample I provided above, we could easily integrate english language arts, science, technology, engineering, math, social studies, and art. It’s essential that we carve out time to foster future success skills by creating opportunities for learners to develop the ability to seek problems and create unique solutions while embedding standards to ensure optimum learning for all.

Tips and Takeaways

  • Empower learners to ask questions and write down as many wonderings as they can.
  • Encourage learners to consider all the possibilities by facilitating inquiry-based learning.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to think innovatively about how we can seek problems in the western world and developing countries.
  • Create authentic, meaningful experiences by incorporating interdisciplinary learning that integrates multiple learning standards and fosters success skills.
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