Tony Wagner on “Creating Innovators”

The other day, I attended a talk at my school by Mr. Tony Wagner, most commonly known for his books the Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators. I found that his thoughts echoed the ideas of others whom I have read about concerning motivation, education and changes for the 21st century.

Wagner says that there are 3 challenges that come to mind when he thinks about young people and their current education. Nowadays, knowledge has become unlimited and commoditized — in a few years, Wagner believes we should be able to get high quality education without even leaving our beloved computer screens. Additionally, jobs that required basic, routine work have “disappeared” and lots of careers are being reimagined. Students need a different set of skills than ever before to simply get a job. This world is changing and is doing so quite rapidly.

Wagner’s essential question is, how do we prepare our young people for this changing world? Absorbing content should no longer be the focus for our schools, since what really counts now is not what students know but what they can do with what they know. To succeed, students must have the will and skill to transform their pre-existing knowledge.

Wagner has compiled, through his research, a set of essential skills for this modern world. He describes them as “core things every young person must be well on the way to mastering by end of high school so that they have skills of work and active citizenship.” Here are his 7 “survival skills”:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving: Beyond just a buzzword, Wagner identifies critical thinking as the ability to ask the right questions, ask “good” questions, and to identify problems. This reminded me of Grant Lichtman‘s “The Falconer” and his philosophy called the Art of Questioning.
  2. Collaboration across networks: Appreciate the differences between yourself and others. Be able to lead through influence (sustained teamwork).
  3. Agility and adaptability: The ability to keep up with the constantly changing world and adjust to the curveballs life throws your way.
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism: Entrepreneurialism and the initiative to innovate form the subject of Wagner’s second book. I am a strong believer in FedEx days (as mentioned by Daniel Pink in his book Drive) and the Google rule as motivators for starting new ideas within a team (at school or in other organizations).
  5. Effective written and oral communication: Wagner said that students have not truly been asked to think enough. The influx of rote assignments, the benefits of writing what others want instead of what they think is most likely why Wagner says students also don’t know how to write with voice.
  6. Accessing and analyzing information: Nowadays, the consensus is why memorize when you have Google? However, it’s important to know what is worth memorizing and how to effectively conduct a Google search.
  7. Curiosity and imagination: Wagner cited Daniel Pink’s first book, “A Whole New Mind” as evidence for the importance of utilizing both halves of the brain often.

According to Wagner, these skills are far more important than content knowledge. Especially because content is constantly changing and updating so we end up having to relearn it anyways. Nowadays, tests (especially Advanced Placements and SATs) rely too much on multiple choice and factual recall, which in fact tell us very little about intelligence, aptitude and college readiness. As a result, colleges (notably Dartmouth) are beginning to drop APs, another sign of the lesser importance of solely content knowledge. Recent research suggests college grads leave no wiser in terms of survival skills and are no better equipped for the real world. Additionally, students graduating now are for the first time in what seems like forever, coming home from college without any job opportunities, which has served as a huge awakening.

People are realizing that we need not only these 7 skills, but something more. We need people who can innovate, think on their feet and make something from nothing. But the million-dollar question is how can we help people to become more innovative??

We were all born curious, creative and imaginative. We have the innate capabilities to innovate until those capabilities are “schooled out of us.” School gets us too worried about getting the right answer and we often lose the desire to ask questions for fear of being wrong or ridiculed for not knowing. That’s sad… In order to have a generation full of young people who can achieve success, we need to revert back to our childish inquisitiveness and abandon. The ability to let go and experiment is key to the modern world. And it’s not like growing a third arm or something — we have these abilities still. We must simply enable them to resurface and grow stronger.

In order to see what we can do to be more innovative, Wagner interviewed leading innovators of all ages and tried to find what influences enabled them. The majority of the people interviewed cited teachers, at least one per person, who had made the greatest impact on their lives. In every single case, these teachers were outliers in their respective institutions in terms of their philosophies and teaching methods. This made me think about how in my life, my teachers Mr. A and Mr. B, have similarly influenced and motivated me to strive for greater excellence and to think outside the box.

When Wagner researched schools that were deliberately teaching innovation, he found that they were all startups whose methods were totally different from normal schools, but consistent with those of the outlier teachers.

The culture of school as we currently follow it is radically at odds with the culture to innovate. School nowadays contradicts with the very criteria required for innovation in 5 main ways.

  • The current model of school values the individual and winning as one but innovation demands collaboration and teamwork.
  • The current model of school compartmentalizes and favors specialization. Innovation demands interdisciplinariness. (Yes that’s a word now :P).
  • The current model of school is passive — sit and get. Innovation demands creation not consumption. Real production and answering open-ended questions is critical.
  • The current model of school penalizes failure. Innovation demands making mistakes and learning from them. A good motto to live by is fail early and fail often -- trial and error is key to innovation. Iteration. Learning from one process (what worked and what didn’t) then applying what worked, to the next course or project.
  • The current model of schooling relies on extrinsic incentives but innovation requires self-motivation. Once again, Daniel Pink’s “Drive” contains examples and proof of the power and greater effectiveness of intrinsic motivation.  Pursuing what you’re good at and what you enjoy as opposed to blind compliance and simply going with the pre-existing flow, leads to lasting motivation. Students nowadays connect and communicate and are empowered everywhere but in their classrooms. To do change this, Wagner says we need play, passion, and purpose; have exploratory learning, limit screen time, make it hands on, and involve play (like the long-standing MIT pranks) as an element of learning.

Wagner has a few ideas for making this playful, innovation-inducing learning happen. A good way to see what skills students are learning in each class and a nice form of assessing these skills is having a system like the Scouts Merit Badges. Then, graduation would serve “not as a degree for seat time served but as a reflection of mastery.” Additionally, instituting a DISCIPLINE OF REFLECTION AND SELF-ASSESSMENT would help create a more productive environment. Other such ideas that have proven to lead to more innovation include having an R&D budget in schools for something like a “maker-space” and implementing the Google rule of a day of play (where students could have some uninterrupted time for more focused learning). Students would also acquire valuable skills from this day of play by having to set goals, research questions, think, explore, and learn while documenting work in digital portfolios so as to be held accountable.

Wagner’s talk reaffirmed some ideas I’d previously heard of and appreciated, as well as solidified some concepts that had yet to be nailed down. I think Wagner shows mainly that the necessity for a mindset shift in the way we view schools is great and that people everywhere are realizing it.

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2 thoughts on “Tony Wagner on “Creating Innovators”

  1. Pingback: The Results of PISA | Life's about the Journey

  2. Pingback: PISA Results continue to lean | Cooperative Catalyst

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