DEVELOPING INNOVATION EDUCATION IN THE ICELANDIC CONTEXT
GISLI THORSTEINSSON AND SVANBORG R. JÓNSDÓTTIR, UNIVERSITY OF ICELAND
Innovation education was introduced within
compulsory schooling in Iceland in the early 1990s and formed part of the
National Curriculum in 1999. Its official name within the curriculum is ‘Innovation and the Practical Use of Knowledge’,
but the term ‘Innovation Education’ is more commonly used, or ‘Entrepreneurship/Entrepreneurial
Education’ at upper secondary level.
Responding to Educational Needs
Innovation Education (IE)was initiated in response to a lack of
creativity and diversity within the Icelandic school system. It was also an
attempt to address a call from labour and industry to find and support future
inventors and entrepreneurs in order to strengthen our future economy. The
school system had been criticised for failing to consider students’ lives
outside school and thus not preparing them for active participation within a
democratic society. As future citizens, students should be capable of taking
part in the formation of a humanistic welfare society.
Initially, IE was introduced
in order to encourage elementary school students to participate in the new
Young Inventors’ Competition, which was influenced by the Swedish Finnup
Competition. However, participating schoolteachers saw additional potential in
IE as a cross-curricular subject and realised that the subject could be used as
a tool with which to improve general education. In the early years, IE pedagogy
was developed within craft lessons in the form of after-school classes and a
summer school for young inventors and was supported by The Society of Icelandic
Inventors, The Technological University and educational authorities in
Reykjavik. IE was influenced by the principles of Nordic Sloyd, in that it
aimed to educate children holistically via a carefully structured system
(Thorsteinsson and Olafsson, 2009). Within the context of innovation, Sloyd
offered a carefully structured system through handicraft and supporting of ideation
skills (Thorsteinsson and Denton, 2008).
In 1999, IE was formally
developed into a new subject within the Icelandic National Curriculum under the
name Innovation and Practical Use of
Knowledge. In 2007, it became an optional cross-curricular element of the
National Curriculum in relation to creativity, democracy and sustainability.
Benefits and Challenges
In IE, learners identify
needs that are important to them and work on solving these. They use their
personal social histories and their own life experiences as a foundation for
their understanding of the world (Gunnarsdóttir, 2013). In addition, they
utilise their knowledge and skills, both acquired and by harnessing their
environment, in order to produce new knowledge, either to them personally or
even to the world (Gunnarsdóttir, 2013). IE focuses on the conceptual work of
students via them searching for needs and problems in their own environment,
generating appropriate solutions or applying and developing known solutions
(Thorsteinsson & Denton, 2003). It builds on the belief that everyone is
creative and the theory of innovation work emphasises that a student utilises
their creative powers in order to influence their environment. Innovation work
is intended to encourage this aspect of a child’s character and thereby
strengthen the stability of future societies (Thorsteinsson, 2012).
Innovation education has been successfully employed as a strategy with which to enhance students´ understanding of technology and science; they research their own environments and invent objects and technologies, rather than merely learning ´about´ technology or science. Each year, students develop several award-winning ideas in IE lessons, with some winning prizes in annual innovation contests. Many useful ideas for solving everyday problems and challenges arise from such lessons. One example of this is an idea presented by two young girls in Gnúpverjaskóli in South-Iceland, who found a solution to the problem of the difficulty of students holding up their hand for a long time while waiting for help from the teacher. They designed a simple artefact hey called Hand-e (Figure 1), which can be taken apart and kept in a school bag. When a student requires the help of their teacher, they assemble the Hand-e on their desk and take it down once the teacher has helped them.
A selection of ideas sent
to the yearly Young Inventors’ Competition (YIC) shows a variety of approaches
in making life easier, more fun or assisting people out with their work or
lives. Such ideas demonstrate that children can take responsibility and respond
to challenges in a constructive way, via their work in IE. The following are a
few examples highlighting the versatility of ideas presented and a growing
sense of responsibility: a phone app that shows whether a food product is
healthy, a gadget to collect plastic materials from the ocean, a table game
that helps children learn to read, an app to organise and document family time,
a gadget to collect excess condensation in houses and a reusable bottle for
soda drinks when purchasing such drinks in shops (ideas taken from the YIC
The pedagogy of IE has been
described as emancipatory pedagogy (Jónsdóttir, 2011; Jónsdóttir &
Gunnarsdóttir, 2017), where the learner has significant freedom and the teacher
is often in the role of supporter rather than specialist. IE requires the
mindset of a social constructivist educator (Gunnarsdóttir, 2013) and some
teachers are afraid of losing control of
content coverage and classroom management, often referred to as chaos angst (Jónsdóttir, 2011,
Jónsdóttir & Gunnarsdóttir, 2017). IE requires a willingness to be flexible and accept a level of
unpredictability without losing structure and stability and these are
tensions teachers must come to terms with, which can be challenging for them
(Jónsdóttir & Gunnarsdóttir, 2017).
Similarity to Other Approaches
Education was established due to a call from educators and labour and industry.
Subsequently, during the curriculum development period, teaching methods were
formulated by elementary school teachers and were based on their experience of teaching
IE firstly as after-school courses and later as cross-curricular activities within
conventional classes. The development was supported by experienced Icelandic
inventors, technicians and designers who understood the value of developing a
pedagogical model in support of general education in order to develop
creativity and entrepreneurial spirit in students.
In their research projects
on IE, Gunnarsdóttir (2001) and Thorsteinsson (2012) examined how students
learned in IE classes via social activities during ideation. Both similarly
concluded that the IE paradigm is related to social constructivism (Edwards,
2001) and this was supported by the work of Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky
(Thorsteinsson and Denton, 2008). The hypothesis was based upon the theory that
new knowledge is an active product of the learner integrating prior knowledge
with new information and perceptions. Social constructivists study how people
use social activities to change their conditions of existence and their
self-image (Shotter, 1993) and subsequently become active participants in the
culture that surrounds them, both inside and outside of school (Edwards, 2001).
Based on the work of Gunnarsdóttir (2001) and his description of the innovation process used within IE, Thorsteinsson (2012) put forward an initial model for IE (Thorsteinsson & Denton, 2003), as below.
The model illustrates the
way students work through the innovation process in IE classes and is based on
a series of steps, relationships and iterations. Students employ ideational
skills at all stages and learn via the innovation process within the overall IE
pedagogical framework (The Ministry of Education, 1999; 2007), which is managed
by the teacher (Thorsteinsson and Denton, 2003). The stages of the innovation
process are as follows:
1. Identifying needs.
3. Creating and choosing
4. Concept drawing or
modelling, in order to develop the technical solution.
5. Creating a description
of the solution, in addition to the drawing.
Students work through the
IE innovation process iteratively, with the overlying direction being ‘finding
needs’ to ‘presentation of solutions’. Innovation relates to the usefulness of
ideas and/or how they can be implemented as solutions to the many problems
encountered in daily life. IE students use appropriate knowledge and
information from different sources in order to find solutions to identified
problems or opportunities, which mirrors Vygotsky’s (1978) Zone of Proximal Development.
When students participate in the innovation process, gaps in their knowledge become
apparent. They subsequently find it essential to examine and gain new
knowledge, in terms of completing a specific innovation process: this process
is paramount as subject knowledge consequently develops. As students gain
helpful experiences and knowledge via their ideation work, they can employ this
in new contexts, using different sources, in order to find solutions to the
problems or identified opportunities (Gunnarsdóttir, 2013).
Public Response: Innovation Sustainability Prospects
Although IE has been a part of the compulsory curriculum in Iceland since 1999, it is not yet generally accepted as a school subject in its own right (Jónsdóttir & Gunnarsdóttir, 2017). In some ways, this is understandable as it can be defined and viewed in different forms. It may be seen as a method or an approach, a methodology, an area of learning or a specific subject. In terms of entrepreneurship education in Iceland, IE has been identified as an important aspect of this and is often referred to as innovation and entrepreneurial education, in which the emphasis is more on creativity in the early years and moves towards enterprise or action as students grow older (see Figure 3) (Jónsdóttir & Macdonald, 2013). The general viewpoint is that IE is a positive addition to school work but is not a necessity for the next generation. This is an area that requires research in order to confirm or deny this conclusion.
From 2011-2014, new
curricula for compulsory schooling in Iceland were introduced. These did not outline
IE as a subject, but elements and approaches of IE are apparent in the
curricula of various subjects; e.g., design and crafts and information
technology. Elements of IE are strongest within the science curriculum, with
direct links to the innovation process and IE. The new general curriculum
emphasises integrative and holistic thinking, as it mandates six important
issues (pillars) to be addressed by all schools. These are illiteracy,
sustainability, democracy, equality, health and well-being and creativity (Ministry of
Education, Science and Culture, 2011; p. 25). Such issues, integrative thinking
and organisation are very much the ethos of IE.
The annual Young Inventors’
Competition (YIC) has taken place in Iceland since 1992 and has in many ways
been the face of IE, commanding attention and interest in the subject. The YIC
is open to elementary school students and has encouraged schools to employ IE in
a variety of ways. The competition is supported by the Ministry of Education,
the Welfare Ministry and the Prime Ministry, along with the University of
Iceland, the University of Reykjavik and the Icelandic Innovation Centre. The President
of Iceland is ambassador of the competition and awards prizes for excellent
designs and inventions. Prior to the prize-giving ceremony, there is a two-day
workshop for participating students, supported by adults, teachers or businesses
in helping them to prepare their idea for exhibition during the award ceremony.
The media has described the competition as an important national event
encouraging both entrepreneurship and innovation in young people.
IE is still a peripheral
subject in the Icelandic school system but changes towards a modern education
in the 21st century seem to support the kind of education inherent
in innovation education. Therefore,
the authors call for a policy from the educational authorities in Iceland where
a continuity and progression in Innovation Education is secured.
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