3 Lessons Eighth Graders Taught US About Innovation


No matter what type of activity we work with our clients, an innovation workshop, Chamber of Commerce event, innovation accelerator, invention session, or coaching a team in a development process, there is a common question that always comes up.

Why is innovation such a difficult concept for most adults?

Our role with clients is to understand the very important problems and opportunities of what we are asked to deliver to them. We are focused to recognize death threats (things that will kill the project), and design a series of experiments to problem solve the death threat and learn more. Applying this method, here are some observations on the challenge of why some adults struggle with innovation.

Adults are expected to have a built in ability innovate. In every function in any firm, regardless of size, your boss, company owner, or executive leaders expect that you should know how to generate some ideas for your job or department, convey the benefit of the idea, and maybe design some part of the new idea and be able to drive a plan to deliver the improvement.

Sad fact is, this is not reality. As Sir Ken Robinson shared at his famous TED talk, the reality we must confront is many adults have completely lost the ability to innovate. This natural skill of curiousity, collaboration, creativity and innovation, present in children, was “educated” out of most adults. To quote directly, “I believe this passionately: that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.”

This is a HUGE problem, and it’s not specific to one type of industry segment. We’ve been taught to FEAR FAILURE, and we’ve been taught that there’s a SINGLE, PERFECT, and CORRECT answer to every problem.

As adults, many of us chose a path to advanced technical degrees and further specialized deeply in chosen corporate professions. With that choice, we unknowingly set out to charting a course of solving problems to always find the single perfect and absolutely correct answer. Failure in that answer was never an option.

The fear of failing was reinforced daily with each progression in the education system. Great people present their ideas and concepts. The ideas are not always perfect. The math may not be all there. The concept might need some tweaking, and they may not be exactly sure how to execute the idea. What happens too often is the ideas are presented and criticized by people that claim to know better. Crushing the person pitching the concept. Sound familiar? This reality makes it difficult for adults to re-discover and master skills that were once second nature as children.

How could we create an experiment, fail fast and cheap, and learn something really quickly to answer the question of adults and innovation?

As with most experiments, if we are very honest, at the outset, we aren’t exactly sure how or where to start. We might have a rough idea of what to do, but not sure exactly how to begin.

In watching my own kids interact, play, and build, curiosity got the better of me. What if we taught the basic elements of innovation education to kids? Could it be the same education program and content we teach our adult clients? What would the results be? Would the kids struggle with concepts? Would it be too difficult for them? Would they quit and say they couldn’t do it? Would they say they are too left-brain logical or too right-brain creative and give up?

As always, there’s a cool backstory. Inspiration and stimulus show up in unusual places and not always at the timing of your choosing. Just a few short days after pushing my boat away from the corporate shores to go “all-in” with The Innovation Garage®, The experiment design came in the form of a challenge from my oldest son.

He came home from school and said his 8th grade science teacher was working on an innovation project for the school’s science classes. The teacher asked if the kids knew of anyone with some experience in designing things and innovation. My son, with an innate ability to connect dots, confidently said to his teacher, “My dad does, matter of fact, he just left his real job to do exactly this.” Please note, that at the time, he didn’t consider my choice of next 20 year career plan as a “real” job.

Coming home that night, he challenged me to ensure I’d be up to the task. “So Dad, if you think you are ready, you start Monday. “ “Of course, Yes sir”, I said.

A perfect opportunity was placed in front of us, and we had to see where it would go. We set out on an experiment to understand why is innovation so difficult for adults, with 8th graders sharing their own insights.

As with all experiments, you need a list of materials, supplies, and a procedure… so here’s a quick run down:.

The stuff you need:

  • A teacher looking to do something different.
  • 2-3 Eighth grade Math or Science classes.
  • 40 minute class periods.
  • 8-10 teams of 3 to 4 students per team.

Here’s what you do:

  • Agree with the teacher to meet once a week, to teach some innovation concepts, see what happens and pivot on the content as you go, based on how the kids respond.
  • You’ll need about 8-10 weeks to walk thru the outline below without being rushed.

Here’s how it works:

  • Ask the kids to research and find a problem, anywhere in the world, that the kids are passionate about solving. The big key is that is has to be a problem the kids are PASSIONATE about solving.
  • Have them use the internet to identify some technology to solve the problem.
  • Ask them to make some simple changes to the technology to make it even better.
  • Show them some videos of cool stuff like 3D printing, lasers, and things like that.
  • Download Sketch-up and have them play around with it.
  • Teach them to write a simple marketing pitch and proposal.
  • Show them how to figure out first year revenue.
  • Have them do some sketches of the concepts.
  • Build a looks like prototype. Ask them just to use stuff from around their house.
  • Story board, script and write (with 10-15 slides) a voice over and 1 minute commercial.
  • Build a mock website to bring the solution to market.
  • At the end of the experience, have the students write a short reflection on what they learned.

For our experiment, we used the Innovation Engineering® Create, Communicate, and Commercialize classes for most of the content. We opted not to change ANY of the content, just to get a comparison against grownups. We did not simplify or do anything that alters the content that we’d teach adult clients.

The three lessons 8th graders taught me:

1)      The adult mindset IS the challenge with innovation. Totally validated and proven by the experience. Adults find barriers all the time for why they can’t do something, or for how difficult it might be. Although there  were some areas we’d refine and change, we recognized that 8th graders understand basics of Create, Communicate, and Commercialize enough to be very effective at it.

2)      Have fun! It should feel like your playing. If it does, you’re on to something.

3)     You have to be “all-in” and never give up.  Embrace challenge and have passion for what you do.

In summary, over 20 product concepts were created.  Several, if pursued further, definitely had patent potential. Rather than give all the detail, we’ve included all the direct quotes from the end session reflection. As with most things, not everybody will embrace, but even for the kids that didn’t not enjoy the experience, they all reflected deeply and identified what they learned.

So, if you are in need of some motivation, and may be struggling yourself with innovation, print out this page of 8th grade wisdom and keep it for inspiration.

These are the comments of the future inventors, visionaries, and kids that WILL put a dent in the universe.


8th grade Science Student comments to the question; What did you learn, and how can it help you in the future?

  • “What surprised me was how energetic our group was, and how fun we made everything. I learned that you need to give it your all, and that you can create anything as long as you try.”
  • “Success with the project will help me with my goals in life, because if I can do this, I can do anything”
  • “The Most fun moment was when we estimated how much of a profit we would make. I learned that I like money.”
  • “With this project, I realized that any idea can be innovative, no matter how big or how small.”
  • “I loved learning about Google trends and how to use the internet to research my ideas”
  • “I’m not going to work with creating new inventions, that just doesn’t seem cool at all.”
  • “I learned that I can be a leader. “
  • “I was surprised at how boring it was. I hate business because I don’t like to work hard, I thought it was easy, but it’s not.”
  • “I didn’t understand innovation before, but now I do, because I’m an inventor.”
  • “I learned that I can be creative and invent products that can help others.”
  • “I learned that I am a very creative person. When I was making the model I really liked it and I think I could make things for a living. I now know things that I didn’t know before.”
  • “It give’s me confidence to grow farther and beyond the project.”
  • “I could use what I learned for my graphic design career.”
  • “This helped me a lot. When I’m older, I want to take over my dad’s business and now I know how to advertise. I can help my dad right now with a new website design.”
  • “I learned that I don’t enjoy creating new products. This helps me to rule that out as a career.”
  • “ I Iearned that hard work will pay off. I thought inventing was easy. It’s hard, but not impossible. I will work harder on what I love to do.”
  • “I learned marketing strategies to grab somebody’s attention.”
  • “What I learned makes a connection to my life because I now know I am capable of coming up with good ideas and working towards them.”
  • “This made me realize that I would really like a job as an engineer. This helped me find that making a product was easier than I thought.”
  • “I learned that with success, comes innovation and eventually, hopefully a better, safer future. I know that I will have some failures with my concept, but with my failures later comes success, and learning to excel. I plan to develop aircraft for missionaries to reach remote villages as an engineer.”
  • “This helps me be able to achieve my life goals by just keeping at it, and not giving up. It will help me learn stuff I’m passionate about, so that I’ll work to learn more about what I’m doing. This conflicts with what I used to believe. This helps me be able to not give up on whatever I do. I learned that I can persevere in my faith or sports when we are losing bad. I can also persevere when my faith is tested.”
  • “It helps me realize that in my life if I share my ideas with others, I might be more successful. It encourages me to work hard at whatever I do, even if it is difficult and to do my best. I should aspire to accomplish my goals no matter what may stand in my way.”

Jon is Founder & Proprietor of The Innovation Garage, a business Innovation Firm driving long-term growth of companies and non-profits, from start-up to fortune 1000. Visit: http://www.the-innovation-garage.com email: info@the-innovation-garage.com to learn more, request real world deployment case studies, or contact Jon directly.

2 responses to “3 Lessons Eighth Graders Taught US About Innovation

  1. Pingback: Three Lessons Eighth Graders Taught Innovation Garage About Innovation | Maker Faire Detroit·

  2. Pingback: Building Communities of Innovation | Press The Go Button·

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