Are we creating innovators? 22 Insights



“Too many teachers and employers still reward
the ‘old school’ behaviors
of deference to authority and striving for ‘success,’
conventionally defined –
and count on carrots and sticks
for motivation.”
-Tony Wagner

Generation Innovation
Your Parents’ Education?  Not.
 PLUS Video Below

by C.J. Westerberg

Educator and author, Tony Wagner, and I sat down for lunch recently to talk about his new book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.

This is most definitely not — oh-another-book-on-why-we-need-to-be innovative.

Sure, Wagner gives us a terrific primer as to why innovation is absolutely critical for our future growth and success.  But what is most compelling is his meticulous dissection of how innovators are raised, challenged, supported, and developed, after an extensive process of
identifying and conducting over 150 interviews.

He gives specifics, examples, and wonderful
narratives, true to his signature Wagnerian style,1494905636-9649-00x300-914-thumb-300x300-915
that are written with both a tone and language not meant to impress the academic world he travels in, but to inspire and communicate to both educators and laypersons who have more of a “get real” attitude and desire to make change happen.  This is a book for parents, educators, mentors, and those who understand that education and innovation are inextricably linked.

In this case, how do we create the conditions at home, in our schools, and in our communities for students to create, learn, produce, and to innovate?  I’m convinced Wagner is on a true mission to make change in the way we view and “deliver” education, and, fortunately for us, the world wind is moving in that same direction, so better get on board.

Having not yet read his book before our meeting, when I asked Wagner, “Okay, what’s the premise?” his response was, “We follow young STEM and social innovators- mainly in their 20’s  – to find out how they got there; what made them that way – the influences, the thinking, the type of parenting, education, the backgrounds, which are varied, but show similiarities.  “What are some main take-aways?”   Wagner, without missing a beat, gave these:

1)    Higher education still drives everything that happens in  K-12, and that is going to change due to disruption already happening.
2)     It’s the students who have an outlier teacher, parent, or mentor (or two or all three) that become innovators.
3)    The trajectory of play to . . . passion to  . . . purpose is essential to create an innovator
(think: developmental steps).
4)    Student work portfolios should/could overtake reliance on standardized grading and test scores as credentials.
5)    Innovators all had something in common: they wanted to make a difference in the world.
6)    Parents and teachers play an important new role in creating innovators.

Wagner also elaborated, “Innovators do not necessarily have to be an entrepreneur – on their own initially creating a business; or a bigger-than-life roguish personas (like a Jobs, Einstein, Zuck, Oprah, Martha Stewart, or Richard Branson), but they can be those people who can be innovative even working within organizations, corporations, and non-profits.   They are imbued with a purpose, style of behavior and attitude that allows them to create something original of value, make a difference, or change a process, service, system or way of thinking.”

  “Innovation doesn’t have to be about creating the next iPad.
It can be the way you treat a customer.”

Joe Caruso, a retired business executive, Creating Innovators

So, with book in hand, I dove in, having to pause to realize the enormity of what Wagner was bringing to the public conversation:  Innovators are being groomed all around us who will be leading the charge.  However, presently, they are outliers.  Will non-outlier students be prepared for this new society and market?  As what?  Will they have the ability to help solve some of our most pressing challenges this generation faces?  When even certain facets of our prestigious institutions have grown obsolete, what do parents and educators do next?  Fortunately, Wagner does give answers, not just laments.

Walking the innovator talk, Wagner collaborated with 2 Million Minutes producer Bob Compton to create 60 web-link interviews available via smart-phone QR codes that complement the narratives and major points from each chapter segment, such as Parenting an Innovator, and Sengeh (one of the eight young innovators featured) and the Value of Mentors.  Book trailer below this post.

Below are 22 quotes from Creating Innovators, offering a glimpse of the kind of insight that can be found from both the book and the related videos.

Teacher evaluations

1) “I am frankly appalled at the idea, that the best measure of teacher performance are standardized, multiple-choice tests.  I am not a fan of teacher tenure, and I believe strongly in accountability for improved student learning.  However, most policymakers – and many school administrators – have absolutely no idea what kind of instruction is required to produce students who can think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, and collaborate versus merely score well on a test.  They are also clueless about what kind of teaching best motivates this generation to learn.  And the tests that policymakers continue to use as an indication of educational progress do not measure any of the skills that matter most today.  We need more profiles of quality instruction – and better sources of evidence of results – to inform the education debate.”

What Makes an Innovator

2)    “Dyer, C. Gregersen, and Christensen discovered that five skills separate innovative from non-innovative individuals:  associating; questioning; observing; experimenting; and networking.  The divide these skills into two categories:  doing and thinking . . .”

Innovation Generation: The Parent Gap and The Institution Gap

3)    See quote at top of this post.

4)    “The result is that many in the Innovation Generation are skeptical of adult authority and the institutions that their elders have presided over.”

5)    “School is a game the Innovation Generation knows they have to play to get ‘credentialed,’ but they do it with as little effort as possible.”

6)    “Most have no desire to climb the corporate ladder and wait twenty years to do something interesting or worthwhile.”

The Importance of Play in Childhood

7)    “Play:  What do you suppose the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin; Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon);  Wikipedia founder Jimmy
Wales;  author and chef, Julia Child;  and rapper Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, all have in common?   . . . .  they all went to Montessori schools, where they learned through play.”   (Editor’s Note:
This is one of many examples of play and was not intended as a singular endorsement.)

Phase Two:  Passion, Perseverance and Failure

8)  “Passion:  I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance . . . So you’ve got to have an idea, or a problem or a wrong that you want to right that you’re passionate about otherwise you’re not going to have the perseverance to stick it through.”

9)  “In this journey from play to passion to purpose they learned what Amabile calls ‘creative thinking skills’ and gained real ‘expertise,’ but most often in ways that encouraged intrinsic motivation.    They also learned the importance of taking certain risks and persevering –
and why IDEO’s motto of ‘fail early and fail often’ is so important.”

10)  “When asked about the role of failure in his learning one Olin College engineering student said, ‘I don’t think about failure – I think about iterating.”

11)  “The lives of young innovators whom I interviewed, I discovered a consistent link and developmental arc in their progression from Play to Passion to Purpose.”

12)  “These young people played a great deal, and they opportunities to explore, experiment, and discover through trial and error – to take risks and fall down.”

Parenting an Innovator

13) “In Chapter 1, we explored the importance of intrinsic motivation as an essential aspect of the desire to create and to innovate.  I suggested that the developmental arc of moving from childhood play, to adolescent passion, to adult purpose was fundamental in the development of intrinsic motivation.  As a child, Kirk was encouraged to explore and to discover the world and what most interested him through play.  Along the way, he developed a passion for science – and for creating things.

But what was important, I think, is that his parents did not then assume that he would become a scientist and try to manage him toward a career, as I’ve seen many parents of precocious children do.  They continued to encourage him to explore.  As Kirk said of his parents, ‘they didn’t care all that much about what I was interested in; they were far more interested in the process of my finding out what it was that I was interested in’.”

14)  “They took an evidence-based, trial-and-error approach to parenting . . .moving them through a buffet of opportunities.”

15)  ” . . .one (goal) was to get our children out of their privileged enclave.”
(parent of Kirk, one of the featured STEM innovators, who comes from a higher socio-economic background).

16)  “I had a lot of books about incredibly creative people around the house.  . .  A couple about Richard Feynman, the physicist at Caltech;  a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, about creativity;  another called Art and Physics; and another Mathematics and the Imagination, which had some great puzzles and ways to think about problem solving; my Beowulf; Teaching the Buddha.”   (quote from Kirk’s parent)

17)  Kirk’s critique of the Harkness method at Exeter, one of the prestigious prep-schools: “Every class had a path that they are trying to take you on.  They tout the Harkness method (a Socratic approach to learning, where students sit together with the teacher at a large oval table), but there was not too much innovation in thinking about the objectives of the classes.  Even though there was good dialogue through the Harkness model, at the end of the day the results of the class were pretty predictable.”

18) “Annmarie Neal is chief talent officer and vice president of Cisco System’s Center for Collaborative Leadership.  With a PHD in child psychology . . . She told me that much of the executive education she does for Cisco (about which we will learn more later) is about helping executives to unlearn many of the bad habits that school had taught them.”

19)  “Dealing with their children’s schools, creating space to let their children fail, and being ‘different’ parents were recurring themes in my conversations. . . .
The parents also had to frequently define and defend their children’s ‘differences’.  . . .
Parents’ struggles with their children’s schools often centered on the conflict between learning for a test or a grade versus learning as an expression of their children’s intrinsic interests – especially as their children grew older.
Leslie Andresen said, ‘There is a tension between my own goals for my kids as learners versus the public schools’ goals for them . . .’
‘We felt it was much more important to teach our kids to be learners and to know where to go for learning’.” (parent of an featured innovator)

20) “Ultimately, to parent in the ways that I have described requires trust:  First, trust in yourself as a parent – your intuitions, judgments, and values.

21)  “Then trust in your child – in his or her unique interests and talents, in the hunger to learn and create, and in the innate drive to realize one’s full potential.  It also requires a reconsideration of your authority as a parent.  This is no longer a ‘father knows best’ world.  What limits to set; when to say no versus letting a child decide; when to protect versus let go; when to push the homework versus when to support learning out of school; when to trust a child’s ‘wisdom’ versus your ‘better judgment’ as an adult – all these are decision that successful parents of young innovators struggle with daily.”

22)   “The future of innovation depends on developing a deeper understanding of this new role for parents.  But parents and teachers cannot create an innovation economy by themselves.  Innovators also need a different kind of mentoring and management in the workplace in order to thrive.”

Creating Innovators is a kind of missing piece to the foundation Wagner lays out in his two prior works, both previously featured in The Daily Riff.  The first is his book, The Global Achievement Gap, which is still one of my favorite recommended reads about what’s wrong with K-12 education and what to do about it; and The Finland Phenomenon, a documentary film collaboration with producer Bob Compton, which was arguably one of the top stories in education last year, particularly how the Finland school systems operate almost counter-intuitively from how and what American schools promote and endorse, whether it be homework, standardized testing, teacher training, autonomy and status.

With this new book, Harvard-educated Wagner also takes on higher education very pointedly, the professor tenure system; its connection to sub-par student learning; and how innovators are squelched as often in college as they are in K-12 schools.  No marquee name is immune to Wagner’s analysis – and he is not reluctant to name names and share specifics.

Innovators, both inspired and inspiring, is more than an important read. Wagner is also an accomplished speaker (to parents, educators, business groups), in addition to his work as the first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard and the founder and former co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Coupled with Compton’s short videos, a most formidable combination that can significantly help steer education where it needs to go.

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