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A Message from the Chief Learning Officer
Be a coach for the next generation of innovators!
By Paula Gangopadhyay, Chief Learning Officer

Dear Educators:

These days, it’s very easy for educators to get “de-motivated” when faced with ongoing funding challenges, accountability pressures and a wide array of other uncertainties. We all agree that education in America is on the cusp of transformation, but many people seem to be talking more about the challenges than the opportunities. Rather than getting burdened with negatives, let’s remain optimistic and resourceful. Let’s leverage the power of the “perfect storm” and impart some simple, inexpensive, teachable skills to our students this school year that might not even exist in your school’s current curriculum — skills that can inspire students to think and act like innovators, something most education reform initiatives are aspiring to implement. These skills can spark an innovative mind-set in students, empowering them to think critically and solve problems in any subject, at any grade level or in any of life’s scenarios. The process of teaching and learning about the five keys to innovation will generate much excitement and enthusiasm in your classroom and will invigorate you as an educator as well.

As a teacher, you probably won’t have to add lots of time to your instructional schedule to do this. Just create a little room for creativity in your classroom so that it becomes a part of a new learning ecosystem. How about right at the onset of this school year? Feel free to adopt or adapt the keys to innovation as they fit your instructional needs. But remember — to instill these keys in your students, you will need to change the way you teach. You will need to become more of a facilitator of learning and allow your students some overt opportunities to practice these skills in the classroom. Are you ready to do that?

Curiosity: There’s a saying that “curiosity evolves into ambition and ambition into vision.” But in reality, with our mandated curricula, testing of set expectations and structures everywhere, do we really allow our children to be curious and ask the “whys” and “hows” versus simply teaching them the “whats”? If we don’t encourage and allow them to be curious, how can we expect them to be creative?

Let me introduce you to Caine, a 21st-century role model. Watch these motivational videos with your students to see where curiosity, if nurtured, can take a child.


Consider making room to allow your students to simply explore, reflect, dream and find out more about things for which they are intrinsically passionate. Allow time for them to wonder about things. Have students jot down, ponder and discuss those thoughts throughout the school year. You might allocate time for informal “student innovation forums.”

Watch this video http://epicenter.stanford.edu/story/paula-gangopadhyay-the-henry-ford to hear the story of how Charles Elachi’s intrinsic curiosity helped him become successful in his desired career at the Jet Propulsion Lab. You, the educator, can unleash the innovator in your students.

Collaboration: This is one trait that our education system and society does a pretty good job of nurturing. Whether it is a group project or partner presentations, educators find ways to encourage teamwork in the classrooms at all levels. Now let’s try to do something over and beyond generic teamwork! Frankly, the definition of collaboration has changed in the 21st   century. Collaborative thinking now transcends boundaries of geography, time and disciplines. Proactively construct “co-creation” or “think teams” in your classroom or within state, national and global classrooms for the whole year, putting together teams of students with complementary personality traits. They will initially struggle to adjust but will eventually learn how to leverage each other’s strengths to make a project successful. Encourage students to respect the “outside-in” perspective. Present them with scenarios that allow them to assess the levels of impact they can achieve if they do something individually, juxtaposed with scenarios where they do the same work in a group. Help them appreciate the fact that “the idea of a lone genius is a myth.”

Empathy: Sometimes we underestimate our children and assume that they are not interested in bettering the lives of others. The recently conducted 2012 Gallup Hope survey, based on a study of 1,217 fifth through 12th graders, found that “many students in the U.S. have the entrepreneurial aspiration and energy. Four in 10 students (42%) said that they will invent something that changes the world.”

At the core of this innovation and entrepreneurial spirit is empathy, the desire to make the lives of others better in some way. Rather than giving students kits to assemble projects or make things just for the sake of making them, pose issues that they confront every day. Simulate activities and conversations that allow them to “walk in another’s shoes” so that they can connect and relate to the problems of others. Watch this video with your students to find out how caring about babies led Dean Kamen to innovate in the field of medicine.

If you find that some students are really getting inspired to be a great social innovator like Rosa Parks, encourage them to be “change makers” by exploring or getting involved with Ashoka’s empathy initiative http://empathy.ashoka.org/.

Breaking the rules: We are often afraid to allow our students to break rules because we take the phrase “breaking rules” too literally. If we never break rules or push boundaries or go beyond our comfort zone, we cannot challenge the status quo and cannot improve anything. Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay says, “There's something about an entrepreneur that is somewhat sort of antiestablishment, somewhat disrespectful of the previous generation. And although that can grate people the wrong way a little bit, that's a really important element actually.”

Encourage your students to ask “what if” and “why not.” Perhaps you break your own norms and push the boundaries of your own comfort zone by allowing your students to teach segments of a class in their own way, just to see what happens.

Last but not least, encourage students to think differently and respect what others bring to the table. Sometimes the most innovative ideas come from suggestions that appear shocking at first but have the power to change paradigms.

Learning from failures: Do you agree with me that our education system and society do not allow failure? Have you debriefed after a failure the same way you debrief after success — with celebration? Debrief after successes and failures alike! If we don’t embrace risks and don’t allow our students to embrace risk, fail and learn from failure, how will they improve? Many corporations now have a “failure wall” where they encourage employees to be candid about failures and share the steps they would take to learn from failures. Many other forward-thinking organizations allow their employees 10% experimentation time to develop a new concept or find an improved model that addresses a problem. How cool would it be if we could import these philosophies to the world of education?

This summer at The Henry Ford (THF), we had the opportunity to inspire the top 10 winners of the 2012 PBS-THF Teacher Innovator Awards through an Innovation Immersion Workshop. The winners left totally geeked and ready to teach the five keys to innovation in their classrooms across the nation. In fact, many of them have already launched their school year with the keys and are thrilled to see their students reflecting and starting to act in completely new and different ways.

Photo of Mark Rogers, TX, and Bryan Zevotek, NY, winners of the PBS-THF Teacher Innovator Award, with their spaghetti marshmallow tower from the “learning from failures” exercise.

“I just spent the last week preparing for students that arrive to school tomorrow, and I had an extra spark because of the wonderful workshop you thoughtfully and generously prepared for us. I shared stories with my colleagues, and they too are excited to utilize oninnovation.com this year. … The students loved the chat about Edison and innovation. We segued into the spaghetti tower, and each group presented their constructions to the class. … This was an incredibly collaborative and positive experience for the students, and it was a joy to watch. We've just started what will be a great year of learning and growth.” — Mark Rogers 2012 PBS-THF Teacher Innovator Award winner, mathematics teacher, Meridian High School, Round Rock, TX

If you are able to use these five keys to innovation and see a difference among your students or in your teaching practice, please share your observations by writing to me at paulag@thehenryford.org.

Thank you for what you do! I leave you with this inspirational quote from one of the respected innovators of our time. He urges us to remain optimistic during adverse times and stay focused on being the coach for the next generation of innovators.

"Optimism is an essential ingredient for innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places? A significant innovation has effects that reach much further than can be imagined at the time, and creates its own uses. It will not be held back by those who lack the imagination to exploit its use, but will be swept along by the creative members of our society for the good of all. Innovation cannot be mandated any more than a baseball coach can demand that the next batter hit a home run. He can, however, assemble a good team, encourage his players, and play the odds."

                                        — Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel Corp.


Paula Gangopadhyay
Chief Learning Officer
The Henry Ford
20900 Oakwood Blvd.
Dearborn, MI, 48124
(313) 982-6063-Direct
(313) 982-6221-Fax

Read More
Read more articles written by Paula Gangopadhyay on History Education and Museums

Paula contributes a monthly column to History Matters, the newsletter of the National Council for History Education

The Chronicle, Historical Society of Michigan

Paula Gangopadhyay is the Chief Learning Officer for The Henry Ford which includes the Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, Benson Ford Research Center, Ford Rouge Factory Tour, IMAX and Henry Ford Academy. She brings more than 17 years of experience in the cultural sector with education, policy and business leaders, to her position.

In her current role as one of the core members of The Henry Ford’s senior management team, Gangopadhyay is responsible for providing leadership, strategic direction, concept, design and development of ‘education’ in a broad and comprehensive sense at The Henry Ford. She’s responsible for a vast array of onsite, online and offsite student, educator, youth, family, adult and leadership programs, products and experiences for The Henry Ford’s five sites, which in turn collectively attract over 1.5 million visitors a year, and boast of a mammoth collection of 26 million artifacts. She led the visioning of a dynamic education strategic plan as well as the conceptualization and development of many paradigm-shifting educational products and programs. She spearheaded the development of compelling K-12 curricula, Innovation 101 and Reading Inspiration which are currently being enthusiastically adopted and implemented by teachers nationwide through the Henry Ford’s Innovation Education Incubator project.

Prior to joining The Henry Ford, Gangopadhyay served as executive director for the Plymouth Community Arts Council, curator of education, public programs and visitor services at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, executive director of the Great Lakes Center for Education, Research and Practice and executive director of the Commission for Lansing Schools Success (CLASS). Gangopadhyay is heavily involved in several professional organizations. She serves as a reviewer on state and federal grant panels as well as a thought-leader on several national forums. She has served as the Project Director of National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grants. Gangopadhyay has a master’s degree in history, certification in archival, museum and editing studies and a fellowship in education policy.

President Barack Obama nominated Gangopadhyay as a member of the National Board of Museums and Libraries for a four-year term. She also won the 2012 American Association of Museums (AAM) EdCom Award for Excellence in Practice.

Email: paulag@thehenryford.org
Work: 313-982-6063