The value proposition of the course is that it will cultivate a mindset and develop a set of skills that help the student solve problems and create value.

Teaching Innovation

But what do we even mean when we say "teach innovation"? In what ways is it a topic for learning? Like any hot topic, "innovation" means different things to different people.

The most common element is creativity. There are debates about whether "creative" is more trait or more skill, whether it can be cultivated, whether it can be learned. We believe that people's "creativity" can at least be enhanced and that one can improve one's ability to access and deploy one's creativity. It is also a social phenomenon: unleashing creativity in an individual is partly a product of the structure of relationships in which they are embedded. Thus, our first two principles:

  • We can teach people to access/enhance their creativity.
  • We can teach people how to structure work with others in a manner that facilitates and enhances everyone's creativity.

The right solution almost never simply appears out of thin air. An "inspiration" is often the seed of the right idea, but there are proven ways to cultivate and develop the seed into what it can become.

  • We can teach people techniques of prototyping - including the use of tools and technologies - and the discipline of prototyping.

Ideas move toward becoming innovations by incorporating the world's feedback on prototypes. A working model becomes an innovation when it can be produced at scale and be a going concern in the world.

  • We can teach the habit and discipline of iteration.

In this program we will learn how to see problems and imagine solutions, to build prototypes and iterate, to balance "why?" with "why not?", to work on teams, to communicate ideas in a manner that generates enthusiasm, questions, and critique, to assess the feasibility of ideas and to formulate plans for sustainable realization. We will blend hands on exercises, field work, and "book learning."

At first glance, this will sound, to some, like it is too practical, too vocational, insufficiently intellectual, and a dubious fit for a liberal arts college. I think these are all misreadings. The program we are imagining borrows pedagogies from practice areas like art, design, and engineering as well as the traditional liberal arts, but it's underlying pedagogical goals are solidly resonant with the deep value of a liberal arts education. We can identify seven imperatives shared by the two.

1. Learn to See

The training of an innovator starts with the power of observation. She learns to see what is there as well as what is not there. To accomplish this, we borrow techniques from art and photography, psychology and anthropology, taking pictures, reviewing video, carrying out interviews, doing fieldwork.

This imperative permeates the liberal arts. In biology, astronomy, and art history it is literal, but every subject in a traditional liberal arts curriculum involves learning new ways to see and be observant. We learn about framing and reframing. We look for the assumptions in an argument or theory and we can create whole new fields by discarding them. In art and psychology we learn about figure and ground. In literature and statistics we learn to detect patterns. In cross-cultural and historical studies our eyes are opened to see the taken for granted as taken-for-granted rather than as real, fixed, and given. Each of these is a critical item in the innovator's toolbox.

2. Know Lots of Stuff

A foundational lesson of the "innovation curriculum" is that innovation is not invention: the NEW new thing builds on what already exists by novel juxtapositions and combinations, applications that never were. Innovations like the original iPhone, for example, depend not on new technology, but on diverse teams of individuals with broad knowledge that can be brought to bear on the problem at hand. We cannot just train students in the "art of innovation" - we must encourage them to become intellectual and cultural omnivores.

This pedagogy parallels something long cultivated in the liberal arts student: the arrogant presumptuousness that everything is worth knowing and that "why do I need to know this?" is never an appropriate sentiment. It is this attitude and the stock of knowledge it can engender that makes the liberal arts graduate the person you want on your team. She studied history and literature even if she is a biologist. She learned about immigration and demography although her degree is in poetry. The math major minored in classics. The history major applying to law school took courses in computer science and ethnomusicology.

Innovation cannot be practiced by the empty vessel.

3. Break Down Walls

Walls are anathema in innovation education. We speak not of inter- but trans-disciplinarity. The tools we need to solve a problem are often "over there." Potential innovators learn right away that there is no such field, no such discipline. The skills and knowledge they will need will be found in history courses, education, psychology, sociology, computer science, and business courses. Real world problems do not respect disciplinary boundaries.

This feature of innovation education also dovetails nicely with the liberal arts. In fact, we consider breadth so fundamental that we make it mandatory - we require that students break through, climb over, and dismantle walls, and study what's on the other side.


Another core lesson in the innovation curriculum is to disabuse students of the idea that creativity is a muse-inspired solo act of the lone genius. Inventions seldom emerge from a single brain. Innovation never does.

Aware that there is nothing natural about working effectively on a team, we spend a lot of time teaching people how to do it and then practicing it. One must learn both to be a team contributor and to use the contributions of others. One must acquire new ways to talk and new ways to listen. A well functioning team is not a division of labor, but a multiplication of labor. When a team works well, I see new things because of your ideas, and I thrill when I see my idea transformed by you, and in the end nobody can tell where the brilliance came from.

Team work has a cousin in a hallmark of liberal arts education: the seminar. A seminar is more than a group of students sitting with a professor intensely focused on a text or artifact or problem. The great seminar is one in which classmates hear each other out, push the logic of insights, suggest alternative takes, and help one another go beyond where they could go by themselves. The professor has a big role -structuring the interaction, maintaining the focus, modeling inquisitive thinking - but the magic emerges when the students' minds gear into one another.


One of the most important parts of the innovation process is the creation and iteration of prototypes. We make students create models of their ideas sooner rather than later. Whether the proverbial napkin sketch or simple wire frame, clay model, cardboard mockup, or role playing exercise, we move our ideas from head to world so that the world can talk to us about them. The brain is a powerful organ, but we don't need it to simulate the world when the world is sitting right in front of us. By putting ideas into tangible form, touching them, having people pick them up, walk through them, try them out, reality tells us what to try in the next prototype.

We learn to structure our work as trials and errors that are always "iteration forward." This iteration of prototypes goes beyond "OK to fail" to make it normal to fail (along the way to success). We teach how to use prototyping tools that allow us to try and re-try quickly and inexpensively. And we learn to keep track of our revisions, so that we not only learn from each iteration, we also learn from our learning.

This practice recapitulates the practice of essay writing that is a mainstay liberal arts pedagogy. The word essay, after all, is related to the French word ESSAYER, to try. We expect students to learn by trying out ideas and by sharing the results with teachers and peers who contribute constructive critique. The best final products and optimal learning result from a series of drafts. Thinkers the world over know that nothing improves an idea like putting it on paper and then revising and revising and revising again.


An old aphorism about innovation says: If you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door. Aside from the fact this this is often not true - it takes a massive PR campaign for people to find out about your mousetrap no matter how good it is - it suggests a question: which part of it is the motivation? When we teach the innovator's mindset, we cultivate the urge to improve the mousetrap, rather than the hope that the world will come to your door. Sure, we might all fantasize about being the next Mark Zuckerberg, but the true innovator is driven by the sad state of mousetraps.

This component of innovation education resonates with contemporary liberal education about civic responsibility and social justice. Both want to cultivate in students the urge to make a difference and to provide them with the skills to do it. Both endeavors believe there must be more to education than the promise of a bigger paycheck. The point, as Steve Jobs said, to make a dent in the world. Why else be here?


The epitome of a liberal arts education is probably "the great books" curriculum. Almost no one who studies the philosophy of Kant, the plays of Shakespeare, or the art of the renaissance ever expects to apply what she learns to later life. You do not read Moby Dick in case you find yourself in a contest with a whale; you read Moby Dick because you are a human being living in human society. To grapple with the mind of Herman Melville through the novel or to ponder with Rilke an archaic torso of apollo or a panther pacing back and forth behind the bars of a cage is to have an encounter with human excellence. It raises the bar on your everyday thoughts, it changes who you are, it shows you something of human possibility.

So too in innovation education when we say "surround yourself with…" the sharpest people, the most beautiful objects, the best design, the smartest solutions. Our goal is not to train aesthetes, but practitioners who take seriously their taste across the range of human activity from the design of everyday objects to the logical coherence of social policy, from the visual look of document to the efficacy of a new organizational practice. We expect that when innovators see things that never were and say "why not?" those will be the things that make the world a better place as well as making the heart sing.