In his book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Tony Wagner sets out to tackle the question so many are now asking, “How do we raise and educate the children who will take the United States forward as a viable contender in innovation?” In an age of high stakes testing based primarily on rote memorization, and very little creativity in classroom teaching due to the preparation for such tests, there is good reason to be concerned. Wagner seeks answers through a series of interviews with a variety of sources: established innovator Kirk Phelps, young STEM innovators, social innovators, parents, mentors and teachers of these innovators, and schools that are conscientiously trying to address the factors missing in most curriculums and classrooms. Through these interviews, themes begin to emerge; themes that certainly suggest what is working with the innovators featured and could work in creating new ones. Wagner concludes his findings in his final chapter, The Future of Innovation, followed by a call to action in his Epilogue: Letter to a Young Innovator. Wagner furthers the innovative theme by including video web links with each story. Readers get a deeper connection with the subjects of the book through short clips that help complete the picture through visual and audio technology.
Wagner begins his book by establishing the need for creating innovators in the United States. He cites examples of the decline in producing creative and innovative thinkers and discusses whether innovation can be taught and what elements are believed to strengthen innovative and creative thinking skills. He refers specifically to the work of Teresa Amabile of Harvard University, who lists three crucial elements in expanding the capacity for creativity or innovation: Expertise or knowledge, creative thinking skills and problem solving, and motivation. Wagner breaks motivation down into three parts: play, passion, and purpose, and proposes that it is how parents, teachers, mentors and employers encourage these three factors that make a difference in the lives of young innovators.
The bulk of Creating Innovators is spent on systematically interviewing young innovators, their parents, and their mentors or teachers, whom they named as making a difference. Wagner acknowledges that while most of these young innovators are what one would consider to be “gifted,” there is still much to be learned from their upbringings and experiences. First and foremost, the parents of those highlighted played a key role in their success, but not in the ways that one might expect. These parents did not overschedule their children and did not map out a perfect plan. Instead they acknowledged their children as individuals who have their own ideas and intrinsic interests. They encouraged and helped them to pursue these interests by providing learning opportunities outside of school when the school did not offer it and they were not hung up on grades or end results. They allowed their children to explore, play, and fail. Apple innovator, Kirk Phelps dropped out of school twice, once in high school and once in graduate school, both times with the support of his parents. They found that the schools were getting in the way of his learning: an unfortunate phenomenon that is also common amongst our featured innovators, except when a certain teacher or mentor made a difference.
Many of the featured innovators, in addition to having supportive parents, had a teacher or mentor who made a difference in their education and ultimate success. These teachers are outliers in their own right, both on the secondary high school level and in college, making choices that go against the prescribed way of teaching and focus, sometimes at a cost to the teacher. Like the parents, they understand the importance of allowing students to pursue their passions, to problem solve, to take risks, to experiment, to play, to fail and try again. They allow for students to make choices in their pursuits and to include a multitude of disciplines, making connections across curriculums. On the college level, these teachers acknowledge that because of their choices of student focus over research, they will never receive tenure. The educational systems whose primary purpose should be to produce the problem solvers of tomorrow are failing not only at this task, but also in seeing how some are actually succeeding. The teachers featured here get it: they know that their success and satisfaction is acknowledged through the students whose lives they inspire and change.
Wagner goes onto to discuss schools that are starting to implement change on a bigger level with a specific focus on Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts. Olin College is a small undergraduate engineering school that was created specifically to explore a different style of teaching and learning with a “more hands-on, multi-disciplinary approach that better supports the actual engineering practice.” The school places strong emphasis on collaboration, multi-disciplinary learning, creating things, intellectual risk taking, trial and error and student empowerment through intrinsic motivation and pursuit of passion. Olin College and the other schools mentioned serve as inspiring examples of the kind of teaching and learning we can aspire to.
Wagner ends essentially with a call to action, one that I as a parent and an educator, hear loud and clear. His book and research highlight and validate many of the same elements that I as a graduate student in the Creative Studies program at Buffalo State College have come to see as important in teaching for creativity and innovation. Although the book features essentially the lives and successes of “gifted” individuals, the information translates to teaching students of all abilities with specific attention to the motivation of these students by encouraging the pursuit of play, passion and purpose. The acknowledgement of the teachers, who made a difference in the lives of the featured innovators, as outliers, inspires for me a revolutionary approach; as if I am a member of a secret society of knowledge. And in fact, I am. Until the people who make the decisions see the value in this kind of teaching and learning, we are the revolutionaries and outliers. We must take the risks or we will continue to do things as they have always been done and nothing will, in fact, change.
About Beverly Zapatka Weihz:
Beverly Zapatka Weihz is currently a student in Buffalo State College’s distance learning program, seeking her graduate degree in Creative Studies and Change Leadership. She lives on a small farm in northwestern New Jersey with her husband and children. She teaches art and media communications at Phillipsburg High School.