Creating Young Innovators through Play, Passion, and Purpose

51JureSNOkL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In 2012, Tony Wagner wrote a book called Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. After interviewing over 150 innovative changemakers, Wagner seeks to find the shared experiences that result in innovative mindsets. Sadly, but not shocking, it typically was not school that provided that spark. It was parents, or an adult figure who believed in the child’s ability and provided the nudge to venture outside the box. Wagner also calls out the educational system, both K-12 and higher ed, for not providing the meaningful learning experiences that nurture innovation, entrepreneurship, and social change.

Statements that stood out to me:

“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.”

This doesn’t surprise me. Policy makers and educators have something in common: a lack of experience working in industry. Most educators have never left the academic environment, having entered it at age four or five, and choosing to make a career of it. Policy makers, or people who make plans, don’t carry those plans out. Like educators, they seem to be absent of the experiences happening in corporate America.

“In this journey from play to passion to purpose they learned … ‘creative thinking skills’ and gained real ‘expertise,’ but most often in ways that encouraged intrinsic motivation.    They also learned the importance of taking certain risks and persevering – and why IDEO’s motto of ‘fail early and fail often’ is so important.”

Wagner mentions Montessori schools as being a common denominator in many of the young innovators interviewed. The Montessori classroom encourages independence, freedom within limits, and a sense of order. When public schools provide classroom opportunities such as those of the Montessori, they are considered an outlier. Schools like High Tech High are singled out often as outliers bucking the traditional education system. Why, though, if we know play leads to passion which leads to purpose, do we insist on kindergarten looking more and more like an high school AP course and less like sandboxes and imaginative play?

In our district, we are using Design Thinking methodology to provide risk taking opportunities that (re)kindle the passion and purpose in our students. We are focused on creating a place for students to learn that the only failure is not learning from the mistake and trying again. As one engineering student explained to Wagner when asked about the role of failure in his learning, ” I don’t think about failure – I think about iterating.”

Our education system does not encourage risk-taking and penalizes failure, and too many parents and teachers believe that a “safe” and lucrative career in business or law or medicine is what young people should strive for—rather than something to do with “changing the world.”

After all, the parents and teachers who believe in the “safe” careers are victims of the same institutionalized system. For years my daughter wanted to be a marine biologist and save the sea turtles. And all it took was one person, one educator, to crush her dream by saying, “You’ll have to marry rich if you want to be a marine biologist. They don’t make any money.” This mentality needs to go away. Like George Couros says in his presentations, we need to stop scoffing at the student that wants to be a YouTube star.

Wagner quotes one executive who states, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.’
Increasingly in the twenty-first century, what you know is far less important than what you can do with what you know. The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve new problems is the single most important skill that all students must master today. All successful innovators have mastered the ability to learn on their own “in the moment” and then apply that knowledge in new ways.

Providing students an opportunity to create new knowledge to solve new problems. This should be the mission of every school, of every teacher. Whether it’s through a Design Thinking challenge, or contributing to a Wikipedia page, or staging a march against social injustice, students need to see connections between what they learn and what problems need solving.

Albert Einstein said it best, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” Has school changed much since Einstein’s days? Are we still insistent on mastery of knowledge, of data points, of bubbling in the right answer on the test? Do we continue to teach to the middle, to the distribution curve, and not to the unique individuals in front of us?

In a commentary about his book, Wagner sums it up best:

Our students want to become innovators. Our economy needs them to become innovators. The question is: As educators, do we have the courage to disrupt conventional wisdom and pursue the innovations that matter most?

I truly hope so!

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