Review: Creating innovators (by Tony Wagner)

Book: Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world
Author: Tony Wagner (with video content produced by Robert A. Compton)
Publisher: Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster (2012)

In Creating innovators, Harvard University’s Tony Wagner sets out to describe the crisis facing education in a society that requires innovative workers and thinkers. He presents a systems perspective, and explores what parents, teachers, and employers must do to develop the capacities of young people to become innovators. To make it happen, he argues we must invest more in enabling play, passion, and purpose in the lives of learners — and focus less on industrial modes of production (i.e., refocusing away from standardized tests).

Featuring interviews with innovators, thought leaders, and people working to make change happen in schools, the book does not serve to produce new knowledge. It instead serves as a primer to what innovation is, why it is important for nations, and some of the best practices we can engage in now.

As a nice addition, the book incorporates in-line video content that can be viewed through a mobile device. While the book claims they use QR codes, the scannable codes appear in a proprietary Microsoft format, and require readers to download an app from Microsoft. For users of non-Microsoft platforms (i.e., iOS or Android devices), this could present problems in the future. Thankfully, videos will be made available at the book’s website, creatinginnovators.com.

While the book provides a nice survey into some of the thinking of innovation in education, it revolves around legacy models of what schools are, and falls flat when it looks toward the future of innovation as it still relies on these old structures. Wagner would have done better to ponder what a continuously innovative society looks like — and might even question whether we need “schools” any more.

By keeping a sharp focus on the old conceptualizations of education, Wagner focuses the bulk of his discussions on what to learn (i.e., STEM), rather than how to learn. Perhaps by exploring the how issues, the book could have provided critical insight into which skills and competencies are critical for success in a society that is driven by continuous, disruptive innovation. Play, passion, and purpose are just fine (and alliterate well), but their usefulness could be constructed within a broader framework (i.e., together with soft skills development) that enables contextually beneficial expressions of personal knowledge.

The bottom line: Creating innovators is an enjoyable primer for those who are just catching on to the innovation bandwagon, but it is not a jumping point for developing new ideas and practices that will transform our education futures.

With the publisher’s permission, here is an excerpt:

How Do We Develop Young People to Become Innovators?

In the past, our country has produced innovators more by accident than by design. Rarely do entrepreneurs or innovators talk about how their schooling or their places of work — or even their parents — developed their talents or encouraged their aspirations. Three of the most innovative entrepreneurs of the last half century — Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid instant camera; Bill Gates; and Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook — had to drop out of Harvard to pursue their ideas. Apple’s Steve Jobs; Michael Dell of Dell Computer; Larry Ellison, founder of the software giant Oracle; and the inventor Dean Kamen are other famous high-tech college dropouts.

So what would it mean if we were to intentionally develop the entrepreneurial and innovative talents of all young people — to nurture their initiative, curiosity, imagination, creativity, and collaborative skills, as well as their analytical abilities — along with essential qualities of character such as persistence, empathy, and a strong moral foundation? What can parents do to nurture these qualities? What do the most effective teachers and college professors do, and what can they — and the young people themselves — tell us about how schools and colleges need to change to teach these qualities? Finally, what can we learn from those who successfully mentor aspiring entrepreneurial innovators? These are the driving questions in this book.

How Do We Develop Young People to Become Innovators?

If we agree on the need to develop the capabilities of many more youth to be innovators, and if we agree that many of the qualities of an innovator can be nurtured and learned, the question now becomes, what do we do? Where do we start as parents, teachers, mentors, and employers?

Encourage Play

Research shows that human beings are born with an innate desire to explore, experiment, and imagine new possibilities — to innovate.

How do children learn such skills? In a word — through play.

And it’s not just infants and children who learn through play. Joost Bonsen, who is an alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and currently serves as a lecturer in the world-famous MIT Media Lab, talked about the importance of the famous tradition of pranks at the university.

“Being innovative is central to being human.” Bonsen told me. “We’re curious and playful animals, until it’s pounded out of us. Look at the tradition of pranks here at MIT. What did it take to put a police car on a dome that was fifteen stories high (one of most famous MIT student pranks), with a locked trapdoor being the only access? It was an incredible engineering feat. To pull that off was a systems problem, and it took tremendous leadership and teamwork.

“Pranks reinforce the cultural ethos of creative joy.” Joost added. “Getting something done in a short period of time with no budget, and challenging circumstances. It’s glorious and epic. They didn’t ask for permission. Not even forgiveness.”

These students were playing — just doing something for the fun of it. Play, then, is part of our human nature and an intrinsic motivation.

Encourage Passion

Passion is familiar to all of us as an intrinsic motivation for doing things. The passion to explore, to learn something new, to understand something more deeply; to master something difficult. We see these passions all around us and have likely experienced them for ourselves.

In more than one hundred and fifty interviews for this book — lengthy conversations with innovators and their parents, teachers, and mentors — passionwas the most frequently recurring word.

Encourage Purpose

Pure passion, by itself, is not enough to sustain the motivation to do difficult things and to persevere — in love or in work! In my research, I observe that young innovators almost invariably develop a passion to learn or do something as adolescents, but their passions evolve through learning and exploration into something far deeper, more sustainable, and trustworthy — purpose.

The sense of purpose can take many forms. But the one that emerged most frequently in my interviews and in the interviews by the authors of “the Innovator’s DNA” is the desire to somehow “make a difference”

In the lives of young innovators whom I interviewed, I discovered a consistent link and developmental arc in their progression from play to passion to purpose. They played a great deal — but their play was frequently far less structured than most children’s, and they had opportunities to explore, experiment, and discover through trial and error — to take risks and to fall down. Through this kind of more creative play as children, these young innovators discovered a passion. As they pursued their passions, their interests changed and took surprising turns. They developed new passions, which, over time, evolved into a deeper and more mature sense of purpose — a kind of shared adult play.

These young innovators did not learn these things alone. They received help from parents, teachers, and mentors along the way. Their evolution as innovators was almost invariably facilitated by at least one adult — and often several. What these parents, teachers, and mentors did that was so helpful may surprise you. Each, in his or her own quiet way, is often following a different, less conventional path in his or her role as a parent, teacher, or mentor. They acted differently so that the young people with whom they interacted could think differently.


Note: The publisher provided a copy of the book for review. Please read our review policy for more details on how we review products and services.

The above excerpt is Copyright © 2012 Tony Wagner.