Book Review: Creating Innovators (Wagner)

Revisiting Creating Innovators 4 years after it was published was both inspiring and reassuring. Indeed, this book continues to be a call to action for all involved in the education realm: parents, students, teachers and administration.  I highly recommend this book as a read (or reread if you haven’t read it in a while) because:

– of the stories about students who are innovators, and the teachers that inspired them through their own innovations in teaching
– the examples of schools and programming that foster innovation in students
– and because of the final chapter that outlines the challenges of bringing innovation to systems, schools and students
– finally, because of the hope that this book inspires to continue to work hard and work smart to bring the skills that are needed to life


The Stories:

Wagner shares stories about several young students who are growing into the space of innovation. These stories are full of accounts that any parent would love to tell about their own children that capture Wagner’s Skills  of an Innovator:

Putting the research together, some of the most essential qualities of a successful innovator appear to be the following:
curiosity, which is a habit of asking good questions and a desire to understand more deeply
collaboration, which begins with listening to and learning from others who have perspectives and expertise that are very different from your own
associative or integrative thinking
a bias towards action and experimentation 

These are stories about a generation that is different than those of the majority in the teaching professions – particularly in post-secondary institutions (which Wagner spends a lot of time on)

This book also does an excellent job of telling the story of the teachers and mentors that inspired and unlocked the innovation potential in these students. From these stories, the reader understands that to support the creation of innovators parents, teachers and mentors should, “…encourage their children’s intrinsic motivation – their curiosity, imagination, and concern for the world around them.” (Wagner, 100)

The Schools:

In this book, there are many different examples of successful programs that are cultivating the skills outlined above: The Media Lab at MIT, dSchool at Stanford, to name two. However, I was most engaged with the synergy between the system and structural approach of High Tech High and Olin College – how this high school and post-secondary institution approach learning in a completely different way than most other institutions.

These two schools are answering the call of 21st Century education. Their answers are  best captured in the tension and conflict when Wagner insightfully quotes Gates and Jobs at odds with each other:

Bill Gates advocates that students take many more courses in STEM-related fields…he seem(s) to strongly suggest that only those college departments that produce jobs should be subsidized. Just three days later, at the introduction of the iPad 2, Steve Jobs said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology along is not enough – it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hear sing…” (Wagner 177)

These schools are finding the magic between these two approaches through deliberate and thoughtful restructuring of education. Olin and HTC share the following characteristics:

  • Emphasis on interdisciplinary, or joint degree opportunities
  • A disposition to action and contribution to the world
  • A strong, meaningful role of the teacher as a co-learner
  • Rethinking and iterating on their approach constantly

“I think the larger sense of purpose that these young people feel
is partly because they have been exposed to so much information about the threats to our future…But information is one thing, and values are another.”

The Army:

One of the most compelling pieces of this book is hidden in the final pages. It is the army, and its approach to learning. It is truly inspirational. I’ve made some changes to General Dempsey’s opening paragraph of “The Army Learning Concept for 2015” to underscore how this approach is vital for our schools:

The [Independent Schools’] competitive advantage directly relates to its capacity to learn faster and adapt more quickly to [the needs of its students, parents and market]. The current pace of technological change increases [Independent Schools’] challenge to maintain the edge over [the tertiary curriculum]. In the highly competitive global learning environment where technology provides all players nearly ubiquitous access to information, [Independent Schools’] cannot risk failure through complacency, lack of imagination, or resistance to change. (Wagner 236)

In order to maintain the competitive advantage over ‘potential adversaries’, the Army has changed the way it trains. They use a wiki approach, allowing officers in the field to contribute immediately to theory and application, and share their insights. This alone is a huge disruption of hierarchy…and this is the army we are talking about!

General Dempsey goes on to share three key steps to improve learning in the army:

  1. Convert most classroom experiences into collaborative problem solving events led by facilitators (vs. instructors) who engage learners to think and understand the relevance and context of what they learn
  2. Tailor learning to the individual learner’s experience and competence level based on the results of a pre-test and/or assessment
  3. Dramatically reduce or eliminate instructor-led slide presentation lectures and begin using a blended learning approach that incorporates virtual and constructive simulations, gaming technology…

The Challenges:

General Dempsey

These three ideas listed above are nothing new to educators; however, implementation is very difficult and slow. As Grant Lichtman says, “Change isn’t hard, it’s uncomfortable. And if we don’t have to do something that is uncomfortable, we tend not to…” However, General Dempsey takes a proactive approach with his students. He sets them up for innovation, he primes them for perseverance. He makes three promises: “…one, we are not going to give you an organization that is perfectly fitted to your needs; two, we are not going to give you the equipment that is exactly what you’l like to have to accomplish your mission; three, the guidance you get is likely to be ate to your need…” Imagine if we set up our teachers with this as a mindset? Imagine we support their ability to thrive in these circumstances…because let’s face it, in many cases these are the circumstances.

General Dempsey continues to his students: “The answer is you – you the leader – have to figure this out. You have to find ways to be both adaptive and innovative to accomplish this mission.” (Wagner 235)

The Hope:

Imagine if we inspire and support our educators with this mindset. Imagine, as High Tech High and Olin do, that teachers must be developed NOT as tactical (planning and carrying out lesson plans against the students), but as strategic (adapting lessons and strategies based on feedback from students). I mentioned above the necessary disruption of the concept of “authority” implicit in General Dempsey’s education plan for the Army. The same holds true for our teachers and administrators.  Wagner writes:

Authority still matters…but it is not the authority that comes with position or title. It is the authority that come from having expertise, but is also comes from the ability to listen well and empathetically, to ask good questions, to model good values, to help an individual more fully realize his or her talents – and to create a shared vision and collective accountability for its realization. (Wagner 241)

The Call to Action:

Creating Innovators is an inspiration, a necessary reminder for all of us (parents, students, teachers and administration) of what is possible. The book is peppered with video links that are quick hits of inspiration. If you want a great resource for 1 to 3 mins of inspiration for yourself, your teaching partner, your head of department, your principal, HERE is the link.

Creating Innovators is a book for parents and educators that raises the reader’s curiosity about how they might change the way they raise their kids, about how they might change the way they teach their classes, train their teachers, structure their school, and the list goes on.

For me, it has provided a multitude of ideas and possibilities. Most significantly, it has reinforced the need and hope for change in education.

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