How to Fuel the Innovation Engine in Learning

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By Jennie Rose

Can creativity be taught? If innovation is truly the key to this country's success, then it's time to think strategically about engendering creativity into our education system.

That's part of Tina Seelig's thesis in her new book Ingenius: A Crash Course on Creativity. Case in point: In schools, when we give students math problems to solve, we ask simply, “What’s the sum of 10+10?” to which there is only one right answer. But Seelig says we should turn the question on its head, and ask, “How many ways can you add 10+10?” The question you ask is the frame in which the answers will fall, Seelig says.

This approach is fundamental to Seelig’s work as a professor at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. The Institute (or “”), renowned for incubating inventive new businesses, is committed to teaching students about design thinking. And it’s in her course on creativity where Seelig introduces students to her celebrated Innovation Engine, which she says represents all the values we need to unlock creativity.

The Engine has six parallel lines in a Möbius strip design. Three internal human factors comprise our knowledge, imagination, and attitude.

As Seelig describes it:

  • Your knowledge provides the fuel for your imagination.
  • Your imagination is the catalyst for transforming knowledge into ideas.
  • Your attitude is the spark that sets the Innovation Engine in motion.

The other three lines include external influences of resources, habitat and culture.

  • Resources are all the assets available to you.
  • Habitat includes the space, rules, constraints, and people around you.
  • Culture is the collective beliefs, values, & behaviors of your community.

These inside and outside strips are woven together because nothing can be looked at in isolation. The best part? You can start anywhere.



If this strip is the engine, then the chassis is a modest idea that failure gives us useful data.
“I crafted the Innovation Engine dozens of ways before finding one that clicked,” Seelig writes. Failure is not a waste of time, rather it is constantly testing new ideas. “The big idea is by looking at ‘failures’ as ‘data’ we enhance everyone’s willingness to experiment.”

A willingness to experiment in order to unlock creativity drives Seelig’s outlandish lessons. In sync with some of the au courant ideas about students and failure, Seelig created a workshop called “The Failure Faire” for her students to experiment with failure, and to challenge their assumptions about its definition. In traditional educational settings, students are encouraged to perfect their material before they share it with others. Seelig takes an altogether different tack, suggesting that the sharing of all kinds of unedited ideas, even the bad ones, is a practice that cultivates collaboration and innovation in earnest.

Seelig’s classroom exercises and experiments carry the same message over and over: Everything you see is ripe for innovation. In one example she cites in the book, Seeling asked students in Osaka to squeeze out as much value as they could from the contents of a single trash can in two hours. As a challenge, it's actually not that far removed from the realities of what most cities around the world -- especially high-population areas in Asia -- are tackling.

Another popular approach Seelig mentions is the “Marshmallow Challenge,” which all types of people can use: everyone from cross-functional corporate teams, to kids in Destination Imagination programs. Teams are given 18 minutes to build the tallest freestanding structure possible out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of string, one yard of masking tape and one marshmallow. The marshmallow goes on the top of the structure. Of all the different teams who've tried this, it might come as no surprise to teachers to learn that children are the most creative and had the most fun with the challenge.

Teachers and students of all ages may want to consider starting toward the back of the book with the chapter “Move Fast, Break Things.” This chapter is particularly useful for educators who want to reframe how they envision brainstorming, or turn their classrooms into fruitful idea labs.

Quoting Henry Ford, Seelig reiterates: “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”