America's Schools: Innovation Killers?
Some commentators have called the current crop of young people entering the workforce the most entrepreneurial generation in years. But for every tale of a young person building a start-up in their dorm room or boldly launching a career in social entrepreneurialism from their parents' sofa, there are plenty of press reports of grads who are underprepared for the rough-and-tumble realities of today's economy and fail to find their professional footing.
What sets the former group who are capable of rolling with the economic punches apart from the latter cohort that's less than innovative regarding their careers? That's what Tony Wagner, Harvard University's first innovation education fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center, set out to explore in his new book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. To discover the secret recipe for creating innovative, entrepreneurial young people, Wagner interviewed a handful of exceptional young strivers as well as their parents, educators and mentors.
Knowledge@Wharton recently interviewed him about what he found--and the verdict is less than flattering for the usual order of business at many of America's schools. Wagner explains that schooling is often actually hostile to innovation:
I came to see that the culture of schooling in America is radically at odds with a learning culture that produces young innovators in five essential respects. Number one: The culture of schooling is all about individual achievement, ranking kids, whereas, the culture of innovation demands collaboration. Every one of these teachers and classes I observed really build teamwork into all of their assignments. Number two: A culture of schooling is all about specialization. While that certainly has a role in innovation, what's very clear in the world of innovation is a problem-based, multidisciplinary approach to learning. Number three: The culture of schooling is risk averse and penalizes failure. The culture of innovation is all about taking risks and learning from mistakes, trial and error. Number four: The culture of schooling is a very passive experience, where people essentially sit all day consuming information and then regurgitating it. The culture of learning for young innovators is all about creating--not consuming--real products for real audiences. And lastly, number five: The culture of schooling really relies on extrinsic incentives to motivate learning--carrots and sticks, As and Fs. But I discovered that these young innovators were far more intrinsically motivated, and when I looked at the pattern of what parents and teachers had both done to encourage intrinsic motivation, I found a kind of remarkable emphasis in the classrooms and among the parents of play, passion and purpose.
Wagner offers no broad policy prescriptions in the interview to fix these problems in America's schools, but if you're an individual parent or teacher interested in encouraging an innovative outlook in your kids, he has lots of ideas (less scheduled time, more unstructured play or self-driven exploration, for instance). Plus, Wagner has advice for young people looking to build the innovation skills necessary to have a career less ordinary. Also of interest may be complaints from Stanford professor Bob Sutton that MBAs, in an analogous process to the one Wagner details occurring in schools, extinguish the spark of creativity in students.
Does Wagner's indictment of American schools ring true for you?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.