“Increasingly in 21st c., what you know is far less important than what you can do with what you know.”

“Academic content is not very useful in and of itself. It is knowing how to apply it in new situations or to new problems that matters most in the world of innovation.”

“Transforming classroom experience at every level essential to develop capacities to become innovators.”

“Collaborative, project-based, interdisciplinary approaches to learning have a profound effect on the development of young persons [to become innovators].”

There are three essential  interrelated elements: Play, Passion, and Purpose.  “Whether, and to what extent, parents, teachers, and employers, encourage these qualities makes an enormous difference in the lives of young innovators.”

“High Tech High and New Tech Network provide outstanding examples of educating students to develop innovation skills… Together, High Tech High and Olin College provide an outline of 8 years of educating for innovation.”

Regular readers here will understand with the enthusiasm with which I greet the publication of Tony Wagner’s new book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.  I’ve been a fan of Wagner’s writing since the Global Achievement Gap was published in 2008, a book which has influenced this blog’s educational vision perhaps more than any other single title.   “Creating Innovators” has been a theme both of my educational leadership and my blogging since 2009, when the Board of St. Gregory adopted it as a core component of our mission and our slogan/tag line.

This book, like Dr. Wagner’s previous one, has many different audiences; it is not a book exclusively for K-12 educators, and includes among its targets parents of young and school-age children, post-secondary educators, and, more generally, those many general nonfiction readers who have been influenced by Thomas Friedman to recognize that the “World is [Now] Flat” and it is essential that we confront the changing demands of our fast-changing times.   Frankly, there are times at which as a reader who is an educator I feel a little cheated that there isn’t more attention to and more information about what we should and can do to strengthen educating for innovation in K-12 learning, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recommend this book: I do recommend this book, wholeheartedly.

The book is built upon interviews with an array of outstanding young (twenty-something) innovators, and often also with their parents, teachers, professors and mentors.  Innovation here is defined broadly (which is fine) to include social innovation and entrepreneurship in addition to more conventional technological innovation.   Wagner has a narrative style which is different from that of some other nonfiction authors: as in Global Achievement Gap, but even more so here, he is generous with his interview subjects, allowing them to go beyond sound bites and wax eloquent and elaborate, sometimes for several pages.  (I find myself sometimes skimming the longest of these quotations; perhaps my attention span is too short).

The upshot for K-12 and post-secondary educators?  We are not currently succeeding in  “creating innovators.”

The first and most extended profile interview is of Kirk Phelps, an inventor of the iPhone.  Kirk has twice dropped out of school, both Andover and Stanford, due to the “rigid curriculum” and the fact that there “was not too much innovation in thinking about the objective of the classes.”

In a second example, all we learn about the contributions of K-12 schooling was that she loved her art classes.   In the next chapter, one young social innovator says that “all the pressure from so many tests hurt my creative endeavors.”   And in one of the final subjects, we learn that “the educational system was never supportive…school was a detriment to his learning.”  Though there are a few exceptions, for the most part, young innovators did not become so from their schooling.  This section, and this strong thread, serve to underscore that Wagner’s intent is to inspire us to embrace our responsibility to, as the quote above reads, transform “the classroom experience at ever level.”

Although these young people become innovators not because of their K-12 schooling but in spite of it,  two themes emerge strongly in what made the difference for them: “Outlier teachers” and Project Based Learning.  

 I’ve written before about Wagner’s advocacy for outlier teachers; as important as this is, I think it pales in comparison to the emphasis here on the central value of Project Based Learning.   Throughout the book, again and again, in every profile, his subjects explain that, whether in elementary, secondary school or college, it was a project that lit their fire and sparked their imagination, that allowed them to “play” with a concept or practice in ways in which they then developed a passion which ultimately became their life purpose as an innovator.

  • “Smart Product Design class at Stanford was transformational for me.”
  • “The real learning takes place when they get into the lab.. in hands-on application approach to the material.”
  • “Everything in grad-school was project-based.”
  • Both young innovators had “experience with a transformational project-based course that was hands-on, interdisciplinary, required team-work, and encouraged risk-taking.”
  • “Every class had a research component with a hands-on project.”

It continues throughout the book- the above are just a few snippets.   Certainly Wagner and I agree: schools are not being serious about cultivating students in becoming innovative thinkers and actors if they are not serious about implementing broadly and deeply (though not universally) high quality, rigorous, comprehensive, project based learning.

Wagner doesn’t take a lot of time to describe K-12 schooling which does exactly this, disappointingly.   Two outstanding, outlier, teachers are showcased, and then on page 153 there is a short shout-out to High Tech High, which was thoroughly described in Wagner’s previous book.  It is almost as if Wagner didn’t want to repeat himself or what he has already written, and I understand that, but I was sorry that the book couldn’t be more thorough here in painting a detailed and comprehensive picture of PBL school programs which are delivering the promise.   It was, however, terrific to see what I thought was an oversight in the previous book corrected: I have believed since 2008 that New Tech Network schools provide a Project Based learning curriculum equal to, and in some ways distinctly superior to, High Tech High.  Here in the new book, Wagner refers to New Tech as the second “outstanding example of how best to educate all students to develop their innovation abilities at the secondary level.”

(Fortunately, part of this book’s gap will be filled very soon by the forthcoming (July) book, Bringing Innovation to School by Suzie Boss (Solution Tree), an early version of which I have seen and, I am pleased to say, will include a section about educating for innovation at my own school, St. Gregory.)

Wagner does most certainly offer a marvelously rich portrait of a college program which creates innovators, Olin College; this is the best part of the book.

Quoting the founding President, Rick Miller “We’re trying to teach students to take initiative– to transmit attitudes, motivations, and behaviors versus mere knowledge.  Today it’s not what you know, it’s having the right questions. I see three stages in the evolution of learning.  the first is the memorization based, multiple choice approach, which is still widely prevalent; then there’s project-based learning where the problem is already identified; finally, there’s design-based learning where you have to define the problem.

In reflecting upon Olin’s outstanding program, Wagner states “The culture of Olin is radically different from the culture of most high schools and colleges in five fundamental respects,” and in doing so offers the best outline in this book to frame the key parameters of educating to innovate.

  • Collaborative more than Individual Achievement.
  • Multi-Disciplinary Learning more than Specialization
  • Trial and Error more  than Risk Avoidance
  • Creating more than Consuming
  •  Intrinsic Motivation more than Extrinsic Motivation

It is not all-inclusive, but this could be a valuable starting place or foundations for schools and universities seeking to conduct review, self-appraisal, or planning toward becoming better at “creating innovators.”  Wagner situates his book’s three word slogan, play, passion, and purpose within the last of these five, explaining that “Teachers at Olin have an explicit goal of strengthening students’ intrinsic motivations to be lifelong learners, to be the architects of their own learning, their own careers, to bring into being that which they desire.”

Project-Based Learning doesn’t get its own bullet, but is contained especially within the fourth bullet, Creating rather than Consuming: “In classes at Olin, the primary goal is the acquisition of new knowledge.  The goal is to develop a set of skills– or competencies– by solving a problem, creating a product, or generating a new understanding.”   He goes on to discuss the way courses require final products and that seniors must complete a pair of Capstone projects.

The role of appropriate, mission aligned assessment is essential to in the work of educating innovators, and though it doesn’t earn its own bullet, but this too is embedded within the five concepts; one outcome discussed is the proficiencies of its graduates: “the evidence is that Olin students are very well prepared for graduate school and better prepared for work , with managers reporting that graduates act as if they’ve had three to five years of experience.”

Trial and Error as an approach is essential, and I am delighted to see it get this prominence.  What can we do to better incorporate a mindset that innovation is iteration, and that we can only develop and advance by trying, failing, and trying again?  Olin, as described here, offers a whole class in failure analysis, which has an assignment of a project: “choose an example of a failure, analyze it on their own, and present it to the class.”  I love this quote Wagner provides from an Olin student:  “I don’t even think about failure here. It’s not a word we use. Instead, we talk about iteration.”

Problem-Finding is missing a bit from the five part framework.  It is highlighted in a valuable way earlier in the book, when one of the social innovators explains that the specific skill she wishes she had been able to learn in school was “problem identification.  It’s just so important.  I didn’t know the problem I needed most to work on when I started my organization. It would have been to helpful if someone had taught me to think about problems systematically.”   For more on Problem Finding, see Suzie Boss’ great edutopia piece, “Secret to Better PBL: Focus on Problem Finding.” 

Design thinking, which Wagner quotes the Olin President identifying as the third and culminating stage of quality education– going beyond project-based learning– is about exactly this systematic process of problem identifying, but we only touch on the surface of it in the Olin discussion, as as a component of the capstone SCOPE project.  Design thinking gets more attention in a subsequent, and also very valuable, discussion in this chapter of the Stanford Design School.  It is important for all of us working in this field to put more of a spotlight on schools which are advancing design thinking instruction.

As critically important as it is to transform learning in our schools to cultivate more innovative mindsets, it is in no way a smooth or swift process, and it will incur challenging disruptions.   Outlier teachers are outliers for a reason: they are not conformist.  Wagner asks toward the very end “are we prepared to not merely tolerate but to welcome and celebrate the kinds of questioning, disruption, and even disobedience that come with innovation.”

I know one of the questions I am left with is the challenging issue: at what cost?  What is it that we value that will be lost as our schools, many or most of them bastions of the liberal arts, the humanities, and the perpetuation of a canon of human knowledge, “transform” learning in the direction of High Tech High and Olin College?   Can we identify these losses, and then decide whether they are worth sacrificing for the value of “creating innovators?”

In my ideals, we teach and our students can learn the liberal arts deeply and more lastingly via an approach that is more situated in Project Based learning, and nothing is lost.   In the Olin discussion, Wagner celebrates the way the college “actively encourages students to pursue both engineering and the liberal and fine arts,” and that it is by standing at the intersection of humanities and science (Land) that we can be most creative.

But as I wrestle with advising my son on his ninth grade course choices– and see that in his final, 8th block, the options are Design Build Technology Innovation or Latin 2, (Spanish being already on the plate), I am stuck.  I think it would be so great for him to continue Latin– so as to better understand and appreciate the deep roots of Western society, so as to better understand the vocabulary and formal grammatical structure of our own modern English, so as to better recognize the myth and literature which informs so much of our culture– and I think it would be so great for him to take a course we teach at St. Gregory which is exactly aligned with Tony Wagner’s book, a PBL, problem-finding, design theorizing, collaborative, risk taking, trial and error, intrinsically motivated, open ended, iterative, playful, creative course.   How do my son and I choose? How do we as a society of 21st century educators choose if or when we are reduced to these zero-sum dynamics.

Surely let’s seek to rise out of the zero-sum equation– let’s look for the reconciliations, and help all our teachers and all our students, in every course, have the opportunities to pursue learning in the way our Design Build class runs, and with the methods of High Tech High, New Tech Network, Buck Institute for Education, and Olin College.