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Calling All Innovators

The five essential practices schools must adopt to build the innovators our future demands.

Photo Credit: almagami |


In their recent book That Used to Be Us, Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum argue that to succeed in the new global knowledge economy, all young people must learn to be innovators. U.S. workers who cannot bring innovation to their work will see their jobs increasingly off-shored or automated. Policymakers, economists, and business people may fiercely debate which specific approaches will solve the current worldwide economic crisis, but most of them agree on one thing: A nation’s long-term economic health depends on innovation.

In the last few years, I have explored the question of how U.S. schools can educate young people to become innovators. I’ve interviewed scores of highly innovative 20-somethings— budding engineers and scientists, artists and musicians, entrepreneurs seeking better ways to solve societal problems, and others—and then studied the parental, educational, and mentoring influences that they told me were most important in their development. I found that many young Americans in this millennial generation have a strong desire to do meaningful work and make a difference in the world. But I also discovered that even those who have attended the most prestigious high schools and colleges have most often become innovators in spite of their schooling, not because of it. Having all students graduate from high school “college-ready” is the new mantra of policymakers and educators alike, but the reality is that the overwhelming majority of U.S. high schools and colleges are not preparing students to become innovators.

Education for Innovation: Five Essentials

Despite this generally bleak picture, some extraordinary high schools, colleges, and graduate schools are doing an outstanding job of educating young people to be innovators—places like High Tech High in San Diego, California; the more than 80 New Tech high schools in 16 states; Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts; the Institute of Design at Stanford University; and the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The culture of learning in these highly successful and popular programs is radically at odds with the culture of schooling in most classrooms. Here are five essential differences.

Collaboration Versus Individual Achievement

Conventional schooling in the United States celebrates and rewards individual achievement while offering few meaningful opportunities for genuine collaboration. Students are ranked and sorted according to their levels of achievement as measured by tests and grades. Serious and sustained collaboration is not a real expectation, either for students or for faculty. Not so at the programs mentioned above, which understand that collaboration is essential for innovation. Every class requires teamwork and collaboration, and learning to collaborate is one of the most highly valued outcomes. For example, at High Tech High, a 9th grade requirement is for teams of students to develop a new business concept—imagining a new product or service, writing a business and marketing plan, and developing a budget. The teams must then present their plans to a panel of business leaders whom the school invites to assess students’ projects. All seniors must also complete a service learning project in teams as a condition of graduation.

Multidisciplinary Learning Versus Specialization

Expertise and specialization will always have an important role, and learning for its own sake has enormous value. However, innovation requires knowing how to apply an interdisciplinary approach to solve a problem or create something new. Judy Gilbert, the director of talent at Google, told me that learning to solve problems across disciplinary boundaries is one of the most important things that schools can teach students to prepare them to work at companies like Google. High schools and colleges that create a culture of innovation know this, so most of their courses focus on answering a question or solving a problem using multiple academic disciplines. At Olin College, one-half of the students create their own interdisciplinary majors. One Olin senior whom I interviewed had a deep interest in the history of cities and the challenge of environmental sustainability. She developed an interdisciplinary major, with a combined humanities, engineering, and ecological focus, around the problem of how to create sustainable cities.

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