Calling All Innovators


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.

Trial and Error Versus Risk Avoidance

The most innovative companies celebrate failure. At IDEO, a design and consulting firm that is consistently recognized as one of the most innovative companies in the world, the motto is, “Fail early and often.” Most high school and college classes penalize failure and thus discourage students from taking intellectual risks. In contrast, schools with a culture of innovation teach students to view trial and error—and failure—as integral to the problem-solving process. One Olin college student told me, “We don’t talk about failure here. We talk about iteration.” Students at Olin often become interested in a particular problem and begin working on a possible solution in a class, and then complete some kind of prototype or version 1.0 as a project for the course. They then continue to study the problem and evolve the project in succeeding classes, with feedback from their peers and teachers.

Creating Versus Consuming

Students’ experience in most high school and college courses focuses on acquiring knowledge by passively listening to lectures. In contrast, in schools with a culture of innovation, the primary goal is to acquire knowledge and develop skills while solving a problem, creating a product, or generating a new understanding. Students are creators, not mere consumers. They acquire knowledge on an as-needed basis, as a means to an end. The range of projects I found in the schools mentioned above was stunning. For example, at High Tech High, I interviewed a young woman who had created an elementary curriculum for teaching about the ecology of the San Diego Bay. At Olin, I talked to a team of 10 students who had designed and built a remotely controlled model sailboat for an international competition, learning an enormous amount about mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, weather, and sailing strategy in the process. These students understand and retain far more of what they learn because they have studied and used the knowledge in an applied context.

Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation

Conventional academic classes rely on extrinsic incentives as motivators for learning. Although many teachers may espouse the value of learning for its own sake, they nevertheless rely heavily on traditional carrots and sticks to ensure that students come to class and learn the material. Perhaps the most important finding of my research is that young innovators are not primarily motivated by extrinsic incentives. Even those who come from families that have struggled economically are intrinsically motivated. As a consequence, the programs that do the best job of educating young innovators focus on intrinsic motivations for learning through a combination of play, passion, and purpose: playful, discovery-based learning leads young people to find and pursue a passion, which eventually evolves into a deeper sense of purpose.

Portrait of an Innovating Teacher

The Intel Science Talent Search, the oldest and most prestigious pre-collegiate science competition in the United States, annually awards more than $1.25 million in prizes and scholarships. Amanda Alonzo, a science teacher at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, California, has mentored two Intel Science Prize finalists and 10 semifinalists in the last two years—more than any other public school teacher in the United States. Her secret? Using the five essential practices described here to create a culture of innovation in her after-school, noncredit Intel Club.

Amanda requires students to work in pairs to develop and refine their research project concepts. The projects they pursue always demand a multidisciplinary approach and must result in the creation of something useful. For example, one of her students is working on a smartphone application that uses the phone’s camera to track the eye movements of someone who has been drinking alcohol to determine whether it would be safe for that person to drive. To develop this app, the student needed to know about the biology of sight, the physics of light, engineering, and computer programing. Presenting her project required speaking, writing, and graphic skills. Establishing the product’s social relevance required social science knowledge and logical thinking. Amanda also recognizes the importance of giving the students ownership of what they are learning and making the work fun so that they are motivated to persevere in spite of failures. “One of the most important things I have to teach them,” she commented, “is that when you fail, you are learning. I show them examples of where other scientists didn’t get results either.”

Amanda believes her Intel Club students are learning far more science than are students in her regular classes, where she has to cover the content required for state tests at a pace that allows less time for inquiry, exploration, or discovery. And she refuses to teach advanced placement courses because she believes they are far too content-driven. Amanda explained, “In my required classes, I have state standards that I have to teach, which are all about content knowledge. Students have to know that mitochondria make energy. Whereas in the noncredit seminars where I introduce students to the scientific method as a preparation for the Intel competition, I am teaching them how to figure out that mitochondria make energy, as well as how to ask good questions, problem solve, and come up with novel solutions.” After students in her regular biology class have taken the state test, she has each student develop a research proposal on a topic of interest to him or her and present it to the class. “Many go on to pursue their ideas for experiments on their own or join the Intel Club in the fall,” she added.

Creating Innovation-Driven Schools

To motivate today’s students and prepare them for a world that will require them to innovate, educators must be far more intentional in designing cultures of innovation that foster the skills that matter most. But we cannot mandate that teachers or school systems develop such cultures. The education environment must inspire and encourage educators to innovate. Policymakers need to promote the development of more authentic, performance-based forms of assessment, such as digital portfolios that follow students from 1st grade as a record of their progressive mastery of the skills and dispositions of innovators. Schools need to provide focused professional development that enables teachers to create hands-on, project-based, interdisciplinary courses. Larger school districts and states should establish laboratory schools that can pioneer these new approaches to teaching, curriculum, and assessment. As we create many more transparent models of success, the skeptics will better understand both what is possible and what is necessary for a better future, thus creating more demand for innovation in classrooms.

The education profession has traditionally been risk-averse, and current punitive accountability systems have greatly exacerbated this tendency. Do we have the courage and sense of urgency needed to make a radical break from the old ways and create schools with the cultures of innovation that our students want and our economy needs? Can many more educators become innovators? Can we work together to ensure that all students graduate from high school innovation-ready?


1 Friedman, T. L., & Mandelbaum, M. (2011). That used to be us: How America fell behind in the world it invented and how we can come back. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Originally published in Educational Leadership, April 2012 | Volume 69 | Number 7,  Pages 66-69

© Copyright Tony Wagner 2012

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