Schools as innovation incubators?

This is the third post in a series, sharing some reading I have been doing recently.

This post is about the book “Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world.” by Tony Wagner.

Front Cover

A bit of a summary:

Tony Wagner’s key idea in his book “Creating Innovators” is that, in order for America (and, I dare say, little old New Zealand) to remain competitive economically, schools need to change so that we create innovators. He states that schools aren’t failing, they are obsolete and, to make them relevant, we need to switch focus to thinking more about what students are able to do with what they know. Wagner brings in examples from schools of different levels, teachers and parents to illustrate his points.

Wagner highlights a few aspects of school culture that are incongruous with the idea of creating innovators and suggests alternatives:

  • Focus on collaboration instead of individual achievement
  • Problem solve using multiple disciplines, instead of teaching in a highly specialised/silo-ed manner
  • Encourage students to be OK with failure, instead of teaching to the test and playing ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ – leading to risk aversion.
  • Encourage creation and problem solving instead of passive consumption of information
  • Ensure students are intrinsically motivated, through “Play, passion and purpose”
  • Ensure teachers model themselves as innovators, by doing the above.

My response to/thinking about this text:

I very much enjoyed this book, building on Wagner’s previous work, “The Global Achievement Gap,” which identifies seven essential skills for students in the 21st Century: critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, entrepreneurship, analytics, communication and curiosity.  I would recommend it as it was easy to read, good to get you thinking and I liked the fact it looked at education from a broader perspective  (i.e. not just schools, but home too).

The book did bring up a few questions for me:

  • I have been thinking about whether you need independence or collaboration (or, of course, a mixture) for good entrepreneurship. I wrote a blog post about this earlier in the year and it still perplexes me. I did find it interesting that the examples of your entrepreneurs given in the book were all individuals who had collaborated in terms of their relationships with key mentor figures, but perhaps not with other like-minded individuals to enhance a product or idea. I do wonder whether we need to focus on both collaboration AND independence and proactivity, in varying proportions for different people. Perhaps it comes down to building self-awareness; of when it is best to collaborate and when it is best to stand on your own two feet. When I think about this, I’m always drawn back to the video “I Choose C” which made be wince the first time I watched it – how many times to we get students to ‘think, pair, share’ prior to giving a response? Is this always the best strategy?
  • As I mentioned before, one thing I really enjoyed in this book was the focus on both school and home. We forget sometimes that ‘education’ isn’t just from 9-3 within the walls of the classroom. I think we need to explore the idea of parent and school partnership further than what exists in the schools I have experienced. It also brings up the question – how do we change public and parental perception of what is important in education? Or the other way around, as  the entrepreneurial parents in the book demonstrate – how do we change school’s perceptions of what is important?
  • I also question the idea that we all need to be innovators. It seems like an overly simplified panacea to the problem to me. I wonder whether there actually is a successful one size fits all approach that would solve all our education system problems. Or is it about thinking in an ‘onside of the box’ kind of a way, that could be useful for lots of careers?
  • Wagner asserts that “we live in a credentialed society” where “college has increasingly become merely ‘a sorting and credentialing mechanism’” – So does this mean that universities need to change, in order to allow everyone else to as well? It seems to me that you can only make so many changes in ECE, primary and secondary before you hit a bit of a wall – hang on, put the breaks on, what if Johnny wants to go to university? Won’t he need to be prepared for that system?
  • Wagner also states that “our education system is charged with an essentially ‘conserving’ task – preserving and transferring our knowledge ‘capital’ to the next generation” – which begs the question, when is this OK? What knowledge is worth transferring, so students can learn from the generations before them? Are social things worth transferring? What about basic literacy skills? What about life skills? I think there needs to be a balance between working it out for yourself and just being taught how to do things that don’t really need reinventing, like ironing a shirt.
  • Another quote from the book – “We need Accountability 2.0…to assess the quality of students’ work and teachers’ effectiveness. I believe all students should maintain a digital portfolio, beginning in first grade, that follows them through school and contains their best work, and that students should have to periodically demonstrate what they know. Progress from one school division to the next— say from middle school to high school— should be based on evidence of proficiency in students’ oral and written work. Think of this as the “merit badge” approach to learning and to accountability. We need clear evidence of students’ progressive mastery over time of the skills that matter most…” – This begs the question, what are the standards we would assess? What is important to be proficient at? What happens if you don’t meet the standard? Are you stuck in middle school?
  • Lastly, Wagner mentions the “…dangers of student being pressured to specialize too soon…” – So what do we teach before they specialise? What is worth knowing?

Lots of big questions from this book! Perhaps some for a future EduCafe session…


One thought on “Schools as innovation incubators?

  1. This is extremely pertinent for us at the moment. As we look to the colleges and intermediate to which our students move. As primary teachers how much do we actually know about the curriculum our students will be facing. We trust that the NZC plans for a consistent progression, but I wonder how our primary writing or Maths programmes are providing well prepared students filled with relevant and necessary skills attitudes and knowledge?

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