Creating Innovators: Why America's Education System Is Obsolete

Posted Saturday, May 26, 2012 in Innovation by Scott Jordan

In his latest book, “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World,” Tony Wagner identified five ways in which America’s education system is stunting innovation:

1. Individual achievement is the focus: Students spend a bulk of their time focusing on improving their GPAs — school is a competition among peers. “But innovation is a team sport,” says Wagner. “Yes, it requires some solitude and reflection, but fundamentally problems are too complex to innovate or solve by oneself.”

2. Specialization is celebrated and rewarded: High school curriculum is structured using Carnegie units, a system that is 125 years old, says Wagner. He says the director of talent at Google once told him, “If there’s one thing that educators need to understand, it’s that you can neither understand nor solve problems within the context and bright lines of subject content.” Wagner declares, “Learning to be an innovator is about learning to cross disciplinary boundaries and exploring problems and their solutions from multiple perspectives.”

3. Risk aversion is the norm: “We penalize mistakes,” says Wagner. “The whole challenge in schooling is to figure out what the teacher wants. And the teachers have to figure out what the superintendent wants or the state wants. It’s a compliance-driven, risk-averse culture.” Innovation, on the other hand, is grounded in taking risks and learning via trial and error. Educators could take a note from design firm IDEO with its mantra of “Fail early, fail often,” says Wagner. And at Stanford’s Institute of Design, he says they are considering ideas like, “We’re thinking F is the new A.” Without failure, there is no innovation.

4. Learning is profoundly passive: For 12 to 16 years, we learn to consume information while in school, says Wagner. He suspects that our schooling culture has actually turned us into the “good little consumers” that we are. Innovative learning cultures teach about creating, not consuming, he says.

5. Extrinsic incentives drive learning: “Carrots and sticks, As and Fs,” Wagner remarks. Young innovators are intrinsically motivated, he says. They aren’t interested in grading scales and petty reward systems. Parents and teachers can encourage innovative thinking by nurturing the curiosity and inquisitiveness of young people, Wagner says. As he describes it, it’s a pattern of “play to passion to purpose.” Parents of innovators encouraged their children to play in more exploratory ways, he says. “Fewer toys, more toys without batteries, more unstructured time in their day.” Those children grow up to find passions, not just academic achievement, he says. “And that passion matures to a profound sense of purpose. Every young person I interviewed wants to make a difference in the world, put a ding in the universe.”

“”We have to transition to an innovation-driven culture, an innovation-driven society,” says Wagner. “A consumer society is bankrupt — it’s not coming back. To do that, we’re going to have to work with young people — as parents, as teachers, as mentors, and as employers — in very different ways. They want to, you want to become innovators. And we as a country need the capacity to solve more different kinds of problems in more ways. It requires us to have a very different vision of education, of teaching and learning for the 21st century. It requires us to have a sense of urgency about the problem that needs to be solved.”

For the Full Article, See Forbes.

1 comment


  • Patty_author
    Patricia Seybold on May 26, 2012 at 10:26 p.m.
    Thanks for this, Scott. I agree with the points that Wagner makes. Our educational system is really antithetical to innovation and creativity.
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