In last night’s Presidential debate, Tom Brokaw asked the candidates whether they’d “fund a Manhattan like project that develops [the equivalent of] a nuclear bomb to deal with global energy and alternative energy or should we fund a 100,000 garages across America, the kind of industry and innovation that developed Silicon Valley?” Great question: my answer is the latter, and I think those of us who are educational leaders need to provide homes for many of these “100,000 garages” in our schools. Much of the focus on “greening” our schools is spent of recycling and the reduction of energy consumption, but I think we need to recognize that an educational program in which kids have the opportunity and support to innovate may be the most “green” program of all.

This blog is dedicated to examining the essential 21st century aptitudes, and there is a growing recognition that the capacity to innovate may be the single greatest of them. In a previous post we looked at Estrin’s Closing the Innovation Gap (which I suggested would be better titled Widening the Innovation Window.) Today it is the more felicitously titled Innovation Nation, by Jazz musician and Harvard Business School innovation guru John Kao, (dubbed Mr. Creativity by the Economist.)

Much of the book makes the case for the centrality of innovation in the 21st economy, a point I will stipulate here. Instead, I am going to identify ten of his observations and recommendations regarding educating for innovation.

1. “It has been well, and painfully, documented in opinion polls that most US high school students would rather take out the trash, clean their bedrooms, or wash dishes than study math or science.”

2. Innovation is about more than just science and high tech. Kao defines it as “the ability of individuals, companies, and entire nations to continuously create their desired future. Innovation depends on harvesting knowledge from a range of disciplines besides science and technology, among them design, social science, and the arts. It is about new ways of doing and seeing things as mcuh as it is about the breakthough idea.”

3. Kao cites Finland as a model for its innovation success, and for its commitment to education, where schools are rarely larger than 500 students and teachers hold very high esteem.

4. “Educators have to establish an ongoing linkage between learning and purpose.”

5. I appreciate Kao’s attention to the IB curriculum as one well suited to develop excellence in high school thinking skills; he says in IB “there is greater focus on testing students’ mastery of material.” That said, his example of IB learning in action is atrocious: “your first assignment– memorize the map of Europe tonight and show up tomorrow ready to draw every country, along with ten capitals, ten rivers, and ten bodies of water.” Now, I want students to have a better sens of geography, certainly, and I can’t say that this kind of assignment is always a mistake, but to choose it as the examplar of IB schooling misses the point. Memorization of a bunch of geographical facts that can be attained at any moment via Google is not good learning– analyzing why the cities are where they are, and why certain wars have occurred, or how economies have developed differently, due to the location of rivers and bodies of water: that is the kind of thinking IB demands.

6. “We need to develop rigorous curricula that excite and challenge our children at every level… NCLB, with its focus on mandatory testing, has only worsened the problem… One of the problems of education innovation is that results need to be measured, yet measurement can be a core piece of the problem. [Quoting Sternberg] ‘The increasingly massive and far-reaching use of standardized testing is one of the most effective, if unintentional, ways we have created for suppressing creativity.'”

7. Kao cites a 2005 report, Education in China: Lessons for US Educators, which makes the following suggestions: “Make American high school curricula more globally attuned; foster global student exchanges; increase language study.”

8. “If teenagers don’t see the point of being in school, if they don’t understand how their schoolwork connects to what they care about or what they will be doing in the outside real world, they’re not likely to stay around long enough to graduate… Changes in the structure of the school day– fewer but longer instruction period, for example, instead of the current succession of hour-long classes, could help make schools ‘stickier.'” Kao then goes on to cite the example of one of my favorite schools in the world, a school I have been to often, Oakland’s Park Day School: “At this innovative school, a seventh grade math teacher introduces students to the notion of a minimum wage and the cost of living to help teach statistics.”

9. “Many schools are actively seeking curricula and textbooks that develop students’ critical-thinking abilities, as opposed to the tendency in far too many US schools to bury students in quickly forgotten details [jm: such as Europe’s ten largest rivers!]. A teacher of tenth-grade science class in Michigan, for example, assigned students to select a consumer product, describe its impact on the environment, and then come up with a way to change the product’s design and/or manufacture to make it greener while retaining its consumer appeal.”

10. And finally, Kao leans on the excellent thinking of Silivon Valley gury John Seely Brown. “Brown argues that the rapid pace of change means that students must have the capacity to learn independently, work comfortably on cross-disciplinary teams, and know how to use multiple methods for thinking through problems– mathematical, linguistic, artistic, and so on… He advocates very different learning environments, such as the classroom as architecture or design studio. ‘All work in progress is made in public.. every student can see what every other student is doing; every student witnesses the strategies that others use.. and ther is public critque, typically by the master and perhaps several outside practicioners.’ Education environments need not necessarily be physical. JSB reckons that today’s high school and college-age generation may have a deep love of learning and problem-solving that comes alive especially in the conjunction with video and computer games, not the classroom. Success in these games, he avers, requires ‘extremely good pattern recognition, sense-making in confusing environments, and multitasking… Continuous decision-making in conditions of uncertainty is the essential skill.'”

Finally, let’s step outside the topic of education for innovation and instead take a look at promoting innovation in education. Regular readers know that I have a great interest in supporting schools where innovation in teaching thrives and is the norm. Many of the points made here are not entirely pertinent to schooling, but I am intrigued by his discussion of Building Dream Spaces. I really want to support transparency, open-ness, and collaboration in our schools, believing that this is the path to better innovative school cultures. Kao discusses Mayor Blooomberg’s New York City Hall, where his desk in the center of a big open floor, nicknamed the “bullpen.” Similar to an air-traffic control center, or trading floor, it is a “bustling, open set of desks where everyone has a line of sight to everyone else.” Can this happen in schools? I love the idea that I could re-structure the administrative offices in my next school, where there are no offices (you’d have to have a conference room or two when privacy is required), and the administrative team shares a big open floor, working off of laptops and cell phones, in a constant stream of collaborative communication. Frank Boyden, legendary 66 year long Deerfield Academy Headmaster, set his desk in the midst of the school’s main entry hall, and did all his business there amidst the hub-bub. I want to be Mayor Bloomberg, with a desk amongst a true leadership team.