Netla – Online Journal on Education
School of Education, University of Iceland
Article published 20. March 2009
Svanborg Rannveig Jónsdóttir
This article is about innovation education, a compulsory school subject
in Iceland, somewhat similar to design and technology education in
England and other countries. Innovation education has been used
successfully as a strategy to enhance students´ understanding of
technology and science as they research their own environments and
invent objects and technologies that they make themselves, rather than
only learning ´about´ technology or science. The article describes how
two creative science teachers in Iceland have approached innovation
education as a subject and as a tool to enhance and develop creativity
in children, making use of knowledge from different subjects and from
life. The article builds on fieldwork with two compulsory school science
teachers and on written documentation, such as the national curriculum.
The stories of the teachers and the story of innovation education in
Iceland are told, the characteristics of the two teachers described and
examples of their teaching introduced and threaded together by the
authors own experiences of teaching innovation education in primary
school. Svanborg Rannveig Jónsdóttir was a compulsory school teacher for
28 years in a small rural school, currently a Ph.D. student at the
School of Education, University of Iceland and her reseasch is about
innovation education in Icelandic compulsory schools.
In a recent issue of School Science Review Jonathan Osborne voiced his concern about the attitudes of students to science and pondered about possible reasons and solutions to this problem (Osborne, 2008). We might develop more positive attitudes by fostering excitement, and activating curiosity and the students’ own processes of learning, of posing questions, looking for answers and creating new knowledge. These attributes are all elements of what has been called ‘innovation education’, a compulsory school subject in Iceland that has similarities to craft, design and technology education in England and other countries such as New Zealand (Banks and McCormic, 2006), Canada and Australia (Haché, 2006; Williams, 2006) and others. Among many aims that they have in common is the emphasis on design and problem solving, to develop the ability to use a variety of methods and processes to solve problems (Hill, 2006). Some of the pioneers of innovation education in Iceland were science teachers and the purpose of this article is to show the appeal of innovation education and creative teaching for science teachers. A practical and creative use of knowledge might be one way of making science interesting to students. Innovation education has properties that are useful in daily life, at school and in the work place.
I have been a compulsory school teacher for almost thirty years in a small rural primary school in Iceland and when I started teaching I soon discovered that not all students liked school or some even hated it. I always felt for those children but when I started teaching innovation education I finally felt that I was able to engage all of my students in active participation in learning. I taught innovation education for ten years and found that it included many elements of what I considered good education. The most rewarding experience would be to see students that formerly hated school were now working enthusiastically even in the free-periods to finish their creations for innovation education.
Innovation Education in Iceland
Innovation education (IE) is as mentioned before, a compulsory school subject in Iceland that first started to develop in Icelandic schools around 1990. It has many similarities to what in other countries is called technology education or design and technology education. Both technology education and innovation education aim at building an understanding of technologies in the widest sense giving prominence to problem solving and the design process (Haché, 2006; Jónsdóttir, 2005). In 1999 innovation education became a formal school subject in Iceland within the national curriculum for information and technology education (Ministry of Education, 1999). It is based on conceptual work which involves searching for needs and problems in the student’s environment and finding solutions to them (Denton and Thorsteinsson, 2003). In innovation education creativity is believed to be a generic personal trait in all individuals, which can be developed as a skill (Gunnarsdóttir, 2001). Innovation education requires schools and teachers to adopt a special frame of mind. It is a subject where the students influence their own learning and their own ideas provide the basis for their projects. Students have to be active and the teacher’s role is to facilitate and support the creative processes in the innovation work (Gunnarsdóttir, 2001; Jónsdóttir, 2006; Þorsteinsson and Denton, 2003).
Teaching Materials in Innovation Education
The pedagogy and methods of IE were developed originally within the
compulsory school Foldaskóli in Reykjavík the capital of Iceland
(Jónsdóttir, 2005). Two pioneers in innovation education that were at
the time teaching in Foldaskóli, Gísli Þorsteinsson and Rósa
Gunnarsdóttir, developed and published four units of resource materials
for teachers (Þorsteinsson and Gunnarsdóttir, 1996) for the 4th to 7th
grades and that have since been the main basis for teaching innovation
education in compulsory
All of them have a core that includes training in the working ways of the inventor. This includes looking for needs, working on solutions, making notes in a small notebook, drawings and making models.
The materials also emphasize a connection to the life of work, as each unit contains a suggestion for a visit to a firm or an establishment that is relevant to that unit’ theme. In these materials a learning process is created that gives students opportunities to utilize knowledge from everyday life and knowledge that they acquire in school (Þorsteinsson and Gunnarsdóttir, 1996). These teaching materials have been a source of influence in those schools that offer innovation education, the content of the National Curriculum and of the development of IE in Iceland.
Innovation Education in the Curriculum
The need for creativity and innovation is commonly acknowledged and is often heard in official discourses about business, science and technology. There is a contemporary need for people to be self-directed and a need for universal creativity world today (Jeffrey and Craft, 2006). Enhancing innovativeness and creativity should benefit science and arts, business and personal life. These needs for innovativeness and creativity were formally met in Iceland by introducing innovation education as a subject in the official curriculum for compulsory schools. The experience from the work in Foldaskóli and other schools in Iceland that followed its lead, led to a formal recognition of the subject of innovation education as part of the General Curriculum for Icelandic Compulsory Schools in 1999. In the curriculum it was placed in a section called Information and Technology Education with Carpentry and IT in a chapter called Innovation and Practical Use of Knowledge (Ministry of Education, 1999). The forewords to the chapter indicate a new way of thinking as a response to a changing reality:
The modern day worklife is increasingly built on working with knowledge and ideas. The conditions are constantly changing because of new technologies and knowledge. To be able to act in such a work environment individuals need to be able to adapt to innovations quickly, spot new possibilities in new knowledge as well as have the skills to utilize new knowledge and work it into valuable products (Ministry of Education, 1999, p, 9).
The subject did not get a special time allocation in the curriculum and it was either to be taught as a special subject or integrated with other subjects. There are four independent chapters in this curriculum: The use of computers, information education, innovation education and design and carpentry.
Pioneers of Innovation Education
Some schools in Iceland have been offering innovation education since it started around 1990 although the majority of compulsory schools offer no formal teaching in innovation education (Jónsdóttir, 2005). But there are teachers who have become deeply committed to the subject including the author. Rósa and Kolbrún are compulsory school teachers that were involved with instigating and developing innovation education in compulsory school work in Iceland. I interviewed both of them separately in the summer of 2008 and build the information presented about them on those interviews and available documentation. Both are initially educated science teachers and both had excellent experience with teaching innovation education.
Rósa taught in a new compulsory school (ages from 6-16 years, student population growing from 600-1200 students in the years of Rósa´s teaching) in Reykjavík and was responsible for teaching science in the oldest classes (14–16 years). Kolbrún was and is a teacher and the headmaster of a small rural compulsory school in the south of Iceland in the town Vík. Both have a teacher´s degree from the University of Education (three years B.Ed.) and specialized in science teaching (Rósa in physics and Kolbrún in biology). Kolbrún told me
In the compulsory school of Mýrdalshreppur we tend to mix it all
together so to speak. I have been teaching IE from 1990 and before that
I had in some ways been teaching like that. In the rural areas we have
been thinking about making new job opportunities – often as extra work
alongside other work. So the issues of employment and work have been a
sort of midpoint, we know we have to teach our kids to be able to do so
many things and often on their own. This has been the spirit of all this
innovation work. There are not many job opportunities in Vik in Myrdalur
but there are enormous opportunities for human resources. There is a
limit to the fisheries quota in Iceland but there are no limits to the
creative capacities of children, there is no one that can set limits to
those ‘fisheries’, so of course we should let them blossom, all of them.
Both teachers Rósa and Kolbrún, expressed abundant respect for children and their abilities to be creative, to spot possibilities, to learn, and to make decisions about their learning. Kolbrún finds children very creative and good thinkers: “Finding solutions and being creative, that’s how children think all the time, they are so open and they constantly have new ideas”. Rósa had a great belief in what her 15 year old students could do and gave them opportunities to take part in a science contest for 15–20 year old participants: “I would let them analyze the task by themselves, design a research plan, build the research tools, conduct the research and make a poster to show the findings and give an introduction for the judges.“
Both teachers seem to have a creative mind that they actively used in
their teaching and at times showed inventiveness and initiative. Rósa
said that when she started to teach science she wanted to do it without
the textbooks so she spent the summer vacation organizing the teaching
so she could implement the necessary learning opportunities. “I taught
this semester without textbooks and used them only as tools, literally
as tangible tools; we used them for throwing out the window to measure
the force of gravity. We were on the first floor and it was suitable to
put ten books together because it made 1, 5 kilograms and throw them out
the window connected to the meter and we got a very nice printout. It
worked very well to have the students try this out. I let them organize
the experiments and just said:
Picture 2 - Hands-on as a part of seing ideas realised, here doing a
Both teachers I interviewed taught some lessons as ´formal innovation
education´, i.e. a consecutive period of lessons focusing on learning
and practicing the methods and thinking processes of the inventor. They
both also used innovation education as a tool in other lessons,
especially in science. Kolbrún said she thought using innovation
education was especially useful in environmental studies. A new project
on Educational Action for Sustainable Development (Action ESD), in
Icelandic schools, has included innovation education as one of the tools
to be used in project schools (Bergmann et al., 2008). In my own
teaching I have found innovation education useful as a way for students
to understand technology and science as they researched environments and
invented objects and technologies that they made themselves, thereby
gaining a deeper insight than only by learning ´about´ technology or
science. Although it seems clear to me that both of the teachers I have
been describing are very creative and probably are great teachers
without innovation education, I think it is no coincidence that they
were pioneers in innovation education as it allows creative ways of
teaching which builds on creative ways of student learning. I found
innovation education to be a kind of all in one ´packet´ that included
everything that education should have: relevance to students´ lives,
their own building of knowledge and understanding through creativity,
connections to ordinary life and the workplace, versatile ways of
teaching, diverse ways of learning, the use of many kinds of knowledge
from other school subjects and ‘from life itself’ and finally every
student had the opportunity to become somewhat of a specialist and to do
something well. I also noticed that when students had come to grips with
the main tools of innovation education, they could use them within most
other subjects, though particularly in technology and science.
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