Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Thinking about Innovation

This year's theme, Innovation in History: Impact and Change, can be tough for students to wrap their brains around. This summary of four different perspectives on innovation from NHD Curriculum Director Ann Claunch is a good launching point for classroom discussion:


The litmus test of a good NHD theme is the complex thinking it inspires in our students. This year's theme "Innovation in History: Impact and Change" has offered many opportunities for evocative conversations. A great start for a new theme!


In answering emails and posting H-History Day questions/responses, I found the following four exemplars especially helpful when planning classroom presentations or teacher workshops. Each response poses an important question in negotiating the theme that we want our students to ask.


Please remember-students will approach the theme in many different ways. The important aspect of topic selection is in the articulation of the connection to the theme.


The conversation continues…






How does "time and place" influence innovation?


The NHD in Minnesota staff recently sat down to ponder the "Innovation" questions passing over H-Net as we prepare for our own workshops and classroom visits. A new idea entered our conversation that I thought was worth sharing.


As we all know, context is such a large part of historical understanding. It was no surprise then that much of our "theme" discussion in brainstorming topics focused on ways students might use different contextual angles to argue innovation. The student intern attending our meeting asked if she could look at Paul Wellstone and his grassroots campaign strategies. While grassroots campaigning was not a new idea, it was certainly unique for his time and place. Despite the access to mass communication tools being used widely by his peers, Wellstone became known for taking politics back to the people. In thinking back to questions posed here about originality being required for innovation, we wondered if students might be able to use the concept of "innovative for the time and place" in supporting their central argument.


Naomi Peuse

NHD in Minnesota



What is the historical significance of the innovation?


I've been struggling with the idea that there may be a subtle distinction between something that is "new" and something that would qualify as an "innovation" - historically speaking. To me, it seems like what makes something innovative is not just that it is new, but that it takes root in some way (leading to historical significance). To innovate in my dictionary is to "introduce something new; make changes in anything established" – the latter piece of the definition offers the more interesting aspect of historical thinking about innovation in my mind.


The same entry suggests that innovation can sometimes be "to introduce (something new) for or as if for the first time" - which might suggest that an idea unearthed after being long buried, or used in some new way, may still be innovative in some way, even though there is a historical context or prior precedent which good student historians will reference.

Regardless, it seems it should be up to the student to argue why they think it's innovative and provide evidence for what was new about it, like every other theme. Then again, I may be a sucker for a kid who has challenged themselves intellectually and historically by taking a more complex historical thinking path with a topic that may not provide the most obvious slam dunk on theme connection.


Crystal Johnson

Chicago Metro History Education Center



How do innovative ideas evolve over time?


I've been watching this with interest. My concern about introducing ideas like civil rights is that often students' natural inclinations lead them to events or individuals. That isn't the focus here. This theme is about tracing ideas, methods, and inventions. As a judge for many years, I can say this is where students falter. The innovation has to be clearly delineated, and not just another nice project on the Central High Crisis which has not been connected to the theme.


The Civil Rights Movement was not an innovation in 1965 -- it was being more broadly applied, but it was not an innovation as much as the Constitution was.


If a student wants to trace nonviolent protest as an innovation, it is involved. The origins are not in the 1960s, but with Christianity (turn the other cheek & the martyrs), Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, and then Gandhi. American Civil Rights should only be the tail end of such a discussion.


You would be better off tracing the evolution of the sit-in -- where does it originate? How does it evolve?


Julie E. Harris, Ph.D., Arkansas History Day State Advisory Board



What is the difference between invention and innovation?


The crucial difference is that between the relatively discrete creative act that invention represents and the far longer process of innovation where introduction is the key word in the definition, convincing a public to change its material or intellectual habits and replace old behaviors with new ones.


Within that process, invention is only the first step. Given the traditional emphasis in education and popular culture about inventors, it is not easy but very rewarding to explain it as part of a bigger system of material or intellectual change. Last winter we conducted a field trip program for some local sixth-grade classes, "Video, Vision, and Innovation." After an engineer reviewed and demonstrated the science and perception of video, I switched to the problem of making a nose-picking machine that people would buy. When they weren't laughing, the kids were astonished at the steps that go into taking an idea to a lab demo (conception and invention) to a factory prototype, test market, and mass market acceptance. Their teachers said it was the best field trip on issue of invention and innovation they'd seen in 20 years.


The NHD selection of the theme of innovation cheered me immensely, as it suggested that the concept is gaining currency beyond the business and investment communities. I cannot imagine a more useful way to introduce school children to the fact that the act of creation, of making something new, is only the first step in a long, twisted, and contingent path to historical change in materials and culture, one that involves a wide range of people. Because the innovation process is more inclusive in the array of participants—from inventors, scientists, artists to producers, entrepreneurs, marketers, publishers; to consumers, users, and citizens—it can attract far more engagement by students who have no interest in engineering or invention.


Moreover, as the definition above indicates, innovation applies to the innovation of ideas: the divine right of kings or civil and human rights or scientific theories of heliocentrism or evolution or quantum theory.

All of these were new when their proponents initiated movements in their favor. That the diffusion and acceptance of the concept of civil rights may date nearly 200 years and hasn't concluded yet is no reason to deny it as an innovation. It took 140 years for facsimile technology took for commercial success and several hundred years for the stirrup's diffusion in western Europe. We might agree that Darwin and Wallace's innovation of the theory of evolution by natural selection still has not succeeded among the general population of the U.S.


I regard the theme and subject of innovation is a wonderful one precisely it is inclusive, provocative, and yes, new. I hope we can all agree on a more robust definition, one that extends beyond hardware to methods and ideas, as I would hate to point the 300 New Jersey students that I will speak to in the wrong direction.


Alexander B. Magoun Ph.D.

Curator and Executive Director, David Sarnoff Library

No comments:

Post a Comment