In my first month as superintendent, Tacoma superintendent Rudy Crew told me to send my leadership team to Harvard to visit Tony Wagner. They came back and said, “there’s this guy who sounds like you, but we understand him.” For 15 years Tony has been a mentor and friend. His recent book, The Global Achievement Gap, is an education best seller.
Last night over dinner (which included the world’s best grilled cedar plank salmon and some good wine), we talked about innovation. I told Tony that I was investing in and advocating for education innovators. He asked me what I thought schools would look like that fostered innovation. I told him I’d blog the response.
Five innovator skills come to mind:
· Skilled: innovators almost universally have strong analytical reasoning and communication skills. They can dissect a problem and help others see it more clearly. They understand the value of quality work products—that means a number of people have told them, “No, that’s not good enough.”
· Curious: more difficult to capture is the sense of curiosity–the kind that causes a deep dive on a subject that others might consider obscure. There’s a forward leaning aspect to this attribute; a wondering about what’s around the corner. There’s joy derived from what Expeditionary Learning would call “the having of wonderful ideas.”
· Self directed: innovators have learned to take responsibility for their own learning. Intrinsic rewards are more important than extrinsic (or at least short term extrinsic rewards).
· Persistent: related to the last three, innovators simply work harder than other people. They learn from failure. When bounded by limited time or resources, they find a way to achieve a goal.
I’ve probably missed a few (what would you add?), but you get the gist. It’s easy to build this list than figure out what set of experiences would foster these attributes. Schools like High Tech High are the best current answer to the question. Students work on real world projects, get told, “No, it’s not good enough,” and go on to produce high quality work product. Art and calculus are smashed together (e.g., Calculious), science emerges through applied Humanities, robotics competitions focus team energy, and internships introduce adult world constraints and resources.
Perhaps we could add Outward Bound, business plan competitions, international travel, and online learning games. But it still sounds like a good school with some add ons.
What if students innovate themselves out of school, would we count that as success? The opportunities for independent study are growing exponentially—two million students will be learning online this fall. Even bound by the old credit accumulation system, it’s now possible to construct a very different learning experience. Now that we’re all locking in on ‘all kids college ready,’ will we allow flexible (and innovative) ways for young people to demonstrate that?
I don’t think I’ve fully answered Tony’s question, but this will be a fun question to work on.