Innovation, innovation, innovation

April 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

This is the second post in The Ignatian Educator’s Book Club discussion on Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators: Making Young People Who Will Change the World.

I’m almost halfway through Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. I have my questions and qualifications, but it’s been well worth the download and, before I get into my questions and concerns, I thought I’d provide a short overview of the first half of the book.

Wagner’s basic argument, the book’s leitmotif, is that the United States, to remain competitive in the world, must have an education and economic system rooted in innovation. “The long-term health of our economy and a full economic recovery,” writes Wagner, “are dependent upon creating far more innovation. New or improved ideas, products, and services create wealth and new jobs.”

Early in the book, Wagner reviews many of the statistics and trends that greet us in headlines: the rise in poverty, the loss of middle-class jobs, the growth of the Chinese economy, the shift toward careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. He also notes the unsurprising but still disturbing statistic that, on average, “young people between the ages of eight and eighteen now spend more time on their electronic devices than they do in classrooms.” This generation, the “Innovation Generation” as Wagner calls it, is “skeptical of adult authority and the institutions that their elders have presided over. 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.”

These changes have many consequences, he says, one of which is that old educational models have to be discarded, particularly the model that dominates most high schools and colleges. Wagner doesn’t hold back:

I am frankly appalled at the idea now widely held that the best measure of teachers’ effectiveness is students’ performance on standardized, multiple-choice tests. I am not a fan of teacher tenure, and I believe strongly in accountability for improved student learning. However, most policy makers — 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.

Pretty frank rebuke, but there are a lot of teachers who’d say, “He’s absolutely right.” The solution, says Wagner, in general terms, is to turn to a model, or a way of education, that prioritizes innovation and the skills, habits, and mindset that go with it. Drawing upon venture capitalists, engineers, CEOs, academics, and others, Wagner offers various definitions of innovation, including:

  • The process by which new things take place
  • Novel and creative ways to create value through new products and services
  • The process of developing original insights and then translating them into value
  • Creative problem solving

Obviously, innovation is a slippery concept, and he’s content to let it morph as necessary. It’s kind of like art. It eludes formulas and is definable only in impressionist terms or in reflection upon concrete examples. Having said that, Wagner himself surveys the research to cull “some of the most essential qualities of a successful innovator”:

Curiosity, which is a habit of asking good questions and a desire to understand more deeply

Collaboration, which begins with listening to and learning from others who have perspectives and expertise that are very different from your own

Associative or integrative thinking

A bias toward action and experimentation

The next part of the book introduces the reader to a number of individuals who Wagner believes are model innovators, both in the STEM fields and also in areas connected to the liberal arts and humanities (the field of “social entrepreneurship”). We hear about their projects, about how they were parented, about where they went to school, and about who they connected with to create, or assist in the creation of, new ideas, products, or services.

As I said, I have my critiques, especially as an Ignatian educator committed to a well-rounded, whole person education that explores deep theological and philosophical questions. But I will save those for a future post, when I have finished the entire book. I wouldn’t want someone to judge my own work based on a partial read. In the meantime, pick up or download the book and join the discussion!

Posted by Matt Emerson.


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