“The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.”
Welcome to the Innovation Age. Today’
How do you train an innovator? Which schools are doing it better than others? Are teachers equipped with the new skills required to educate students in this decade? Are curricula incorporating the essential content that will help young people become more innovative? Are parents playing their part so as to ensure their children can face tomorrow’s challenges and ultimately lead richer, fuller lives?
In his must read new book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World (Scribner, April 17, 2012), Dr. Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center, Harvard University, addresses these issues. I had the pleasure of chatting with him about the most talked about subject in education today.
There seems to be a wide range of what constitutes innovation, and innovation can also be a matter of degree. How do you define an innovator?
There are different kinds of innovation — incremental and disruptive — and so there are different degrees of the capacity to innovate. Not everyone can create brilliant “disruptive”
How do you train an Innovator?
We are born curious. We are born with imagination. The first challenge is to ensure that these very human qualities are not schooled out of us, as Sir Ken Robinson says. Beyond that, in my research, I identified five essential education and parenting practices that develop young people’s capacities to innovate:
1. Learning to work collaboratively (innovation is a team sport!).
2. Learning to understand problems from a multi-disciplinary perspective.
3. Learning to take risks and learn from mistakes.
4. Focusing on creating versus consuming.
5. Reinforcing the intrinsic motivations of play, passion, and purpose versus the extrinsic carrots and sticks.
Information may be free but knowledge also includes understanding, problem solving, communication, and collaboration, none of which is free. Many schools “teach” these aspects of human endeavor to some degree. How much of this is relevant to your model for creating innovators?
Knowledge has become a commodity and is free, like air or water. Knowledge is also changing and growing exponentially. Based on the old premise of knowledge scarcity, the assumption is that it is the job of the teacher to transmit knowledge to students. When only a few people had the knowledge, that model made some sense, but because knowledge has become a commodity, the world no longer cares what you know. That is, there is no competitive advantage today to knowing more than the person sitting next to you. The competitive advantage for someone going out into the world is what they can do with what they know. And this kind of learning needs to take place at all levels. Right now it is more common in some elementary schools where students do projects. The problem arises as students move up through school. While there is a lot of professed interest in teaching the so-called 21st century skills you mentioned, which I wrote about extensively in The Global Achievement Gap, in fact most teachers feel compelled to teach to the tests for accountability purposes—and increasingly so as their jobs may depend on students getting good test scores.
Some examples you’ve seen in better schools to nurture this kind of learning?
In Creating Innovators, I profile schools and colleges that are doing an outstanding job of educating young people to become innovators. In the better schools I visited (both high schools and colleges), in every single course, students have to produce real products for a real audience as a significant part of their academic experience. In one high school I visited, every student is required to do a team-based service learning project: to go out into the community, research a problem and then figure out a way to solve it. One student I interviewed was a part of a team that discovered there was a local food pantry that had a problem storing all of the food donated to it. And so the team went back to school and used a computer assisted design program to design a new storage system for the pantry. Then they returned and actually built it. What students need is practice in applying their learning to new situations, not just in the classroom, but in the community. Another example at the college level is the Olin College of Engineering, which requires students to spend an entire year working in teams to solve a problem in a corporate setting. It is what they call their Senior Capstone Project in Engineering. These approaches demand a radically different approach to teaching. Teaching students to apply what they have learned requires relinquishing a degree of teacher control, relying far less on textbooks, and encouraging students to take initiative and be responsible for their own learning. Teachers are no longer the experts; they must become coaches. Many teachers find these transitions very hard to make.
Teachers follow the accepted process required to get kids into good colleges — the colleges their parents and the kids think they should go to. Thoughts?
Things are changing more quickly than most people realize. Three points:
1. The Advanced Placement curriculum is already radically transforming all AP tests, beginning with AP Biology this year and then AP US History next year. They are moving towards students having to demonstrate that they can apply knowledge learned and not merely regurgitate it. So AP tests, which are themselves considered a gold standard, are redefining what is “rigor” and students will need a different kind of teaching to do well on these new tests.
2. There are now 750 colleges and universities that do not require any kind of test scores for admission. Last year, Tufts University became the first in the country to encourage students to submit YouTube videos with their applications, and they were stunned at the quality of work that was produced and how much more they learned about their applicants.
3. If you look at the CEO’s of most major companies, the majority did not go to an Ivy League school for undergraduate. What matters much more are what graduate school you go to and having had work-based internships where you have had to apply what you have learned. Being preoccupied with getting kids into top colleges, I think, is misplaced. Admission into “name brand” schools is more and more a matter of luck and no longer offers the competitive advantages it did 20 years ago. The push to get all A’s distorts the purpose of school and distracts from acquiring the skills that will give kids a real competitive edge...
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