Planting the Seeds of Innovation in Education

by Stephan Vincent

Don Wettrick is on a mission: revolutionizing the world of education by training the next generation of innovators.

A reformed teacher (he taught to middle and high school students for 17 years), Don started planting the seeds of innovation at the Franklin, IN High School 3-and-a-half years ago, having found inspiration in Daniel Pink‘s book “Drive”.

Because of the State’s education standards, he had to find an innovative way to start his class as it was not part of the state catalogue. One class called “group discussion” was the platform for him to start his journey, as it encompassed most of the ingredients needs: group setting, brainstorming, discussion…

After a short stint in Franklin, Wettrick was hired by the Noblesville, IN High School to be their innovation coordinator. There he has found the perfect environment to carry on his mission: trust and transparency. Unlike many other schools across the nation, Noblesville HS does not block social media, such as Twitter, Facebook or Youtube. “It is a very progressive school”, Wettrick explains. “Everything we do is transparent and open to everyone to see: students, parents, teachers, mentors…”. He created his own channel on Youtube to explain what his students do on a weekly basis.

Soon, Don Wettrick and his students will be able to work in a brand new innovation center. But above all, what makes the environment so prolific to his mission is the school’s willingness to fail and to celebrate failure. The philosophy there is trial and error, and experimentation. “By empowering students to take risks, we’ve made them be more responsible. As a matter of fact, we’ve not seen any abuse of social media for instance. It is a very special and unique environment, which you don’t find in many other schools, unfortunately”.

What does an innovation class look like?

First, with each new group of students, Don has to teach them different skills: how not to be compliant, how to think differently, how they should challenge and confront him instead of taking his words for granted. “Right now, it is natural for kids to be compliant, to sit and listen to what their teachers have to say, without questioning. The system beats the creativity out of them. Kids have been trained that way; my first job is to unteach them”. He hears new students in his class asking him what he expects them to do. His answer: “I won’t tell you, you need to find your own opportunity, find collaborators, I’m only here to help you, not to tell you what to do”. At the beginning, some kids freeze up because it is such a foreign and disruptive concept to them. However, they quickly grasp the benefit of it.
During the first weeks of the class, students will identify their own opportunity to develop a project. They will formulate a plan of action and time table, find collaborators and resources, like any entrepreneur would do. “Online collaboration enables access to information, resources and mentors.

With Skype, Google Hangout or Twitter, my students talk to a mentor in the Silicon Valley or an app developer in Beijing”, Wettrick explains. “Teachers don’t know everything. If a student wants to work on a solar panel, I can’t teach them. I will lead them to connect with experts (collaborators) around the world”. The response from such experts is amazing. They are baffled when a high-school girl tells them she is part of an innovation class and she is developing an app. Social media is at the foundation of this innovation class, enabling students to connect 24/7 around the globe. “If we want to study neck injury, we may contact Peyton Manning. He will probably not respond, but his doctor will”, says Wettrick. Professionals are shocked by the boldness of students and are willing to help these students who are curious, want to learn, and who are responsible.

Students meet three times a week in their innovation lab. Monday is the time for an open forum, a debate on a specific issue chosen by the students, or an exchange on how to solve of problem that a student is facing with his project. Students learn from TED talks, magazines such as WIRED, blogs… “The goal is to get kids interested in what’s next”, says Don Wettrick.

Tuesday or Wednesday is for planning, in groups of 2-3. Some times students leave the building, other times they skype, google hangout, looking for the next collaborator, doing research…

On Friday, students reconvene, a bit like a congress. They recap the week, reflect on what they’ve learned, write group and individuals blogs, record Youtube podcasts…

Students have worked on app development, one of them is coding for Google glass. The “Pass system” used at Noblesville High School was developed by a 15-year-old student and his collaborator out of Launch Fishers. They are working on a project to redesign hospital gowns. Students also collaborate with Universities such as Stanford.

Don Wettrick has taken his students on field trips to the Silicon Valley, is planning trips to the East Coast, to meet with some of their collaborators and other influencers.

The innovation class at Noblesville HS is elective. Because Don is the only innovation director in the school for the time being, he interviewed and selected the students himself. He does not care about the grades, he wants motivated, creative students. “My model student would be a skate boarder, because he is non-conventional, doesn’t like a structured environment, succeeds by trial and error, is not afraid to get back up after falling painfully, and because he is artistic”.

Controversy coming up…

Don Wettrick’s innovation class is not easy to replicate in all schools because on the culture lying in the very traditional world of education. In his book to come out in the next couple of weeks – Pure Genius: Creating A Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level – Don explains what his philosophy is and how he created this unique curriculum. He even dedicates 3 full chapters on the use of social media as the foundation of teaching innovation to kids.

He expects a lot of blow back once the book comes out “because it is unconventional”. He admits doesn’t own the truth, he simply wants to offer an alternative. “Do I believe I have the right approach, absolutely. But I understand not everyone will agree. Innovation is not for everyone, but everyone can be innovative. The next idea can come from anybody, if they know how to think differently”.

The earlier kids can learn about creativity and non-linear thinking, the better.

“Don Wettrick has turned the traditional classroom experience on its head, allowing the students to take control of their own education. The results are stunning! This book should be the blueprint for the future of education.”

– Tina Seelig – Professor, Stanford University, Author, inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity

“Can school be a place where risk-taking and creativity flourish?  Don Wettrick offers and emphatic “yes” — and shows how he’s done it. Wettrick has incorporated a range of creativity-generating concepts into his teaching and turned his classroom into an innovation factory. This book teaches you how to do the same and still maintain rigorous educational standards. You’ll be amazed by his students’ accomplishments and eager to put his ideas into practice.”

Daniel Pink, author of DRIVE and A WHOLE NEW MIND

image credit: www.siue.edu553

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Stephan Vincent is the Indiana Editor for Innovation Excellence, covering innovation in the Hoosier state and beyond.  He is the Innovation & Brand Catalyst at Think Unique, an innovation & branding consulting agency in Indianapolis, IN. He is also Founder and President of s.p.IN and Collide Summit Indiana, a first-of-its- kind un-conference unlike anything else. Connect with Stephan and gain more of his insights on his own  blog.