HOW DO WE EDUCATE STUDENTS TO BE INNOVATORS? by Tony Wagner*
Knowledge today is a free commodity and growing exponentially. Because it is accessible on every internet-connected device, students who merely know more than others no longer have a competitive advantage. Students now compete for jobs with talented students around the world who will work for far less.
a result, the high school and college graduates who will get and keep good jobs in the new global economy and who will contribute solutions to the world’s most pressing problems are those who can bring what journalist Thomas Friedman calls “a spark of imagination” to whatever they do. They will be problem-solvers who create new ideas for improving products, processes, or services. What does it take to “create an innovator?” My recent research has turned up some surprising answers to this question. The assumption of many business leaders is that we need more STEM (science, technology, engineer-
ing, and math) education in order to graduate students who can innovate. But the scores of young STEM innovators and social entrepreneurs whom I interviewed learned to innovate most often in spite of their “good” schooling-not because of it. David Sengeh and Laura White are two examples. While an engineering undergraduate at Harvard College, David co-founded the organisation Lebone Solutions, which uses microbial dirt to generate electricity and won a $200,000 prize in the 2008 World Bank Lighting Africa competition. When I first interviewed him a few days before his commencement in 2010, David said, “I don’t
remember anything from any of my classes at Harvard-except for Spanish. Everything I’ve learned that I value happened outside of the classroom.” Laura is a social entrepreneur who created a swimming program for disadvantaged youth when she was fifteen and has since helped start several social ventures. She recently told me that her best courses at Tulane, where she is now a senior, were her two independent studies. Most of her other academic requirements simply got in the way of doing what she called her “real” work. Some argue that innovators like Steve Jobs are ‘born” and not “made,” and so the schooling they