How—and why—to teach innovation in our schools


Inventive behavior is more common among people who, as adults, exhibit high agency (sometimes called self-efficacy), which means they feel in control of things and able to make a difference. Agency is both a personality variable and a context-driven attitude. People have maximum agency when they grow up doing difficult things, sometimes successfully but always with support and encouragement from those who believe they can succeed.

How many inventors do we need?

When President Obama calls for us to be a nation of innovators, does he literally mean we all should rush to our drawing boards and start inventing things? Probably not. Inventiveness is a treasured national trait, and at a basic level, everyone ought to be able to solve problems and try new things without excessive fear of failure or change. However, the reality remains that economically important innovations (as well as socially and artistically important innovations) arise from a small minority of the population. We don’t all need to be Edisons. We do need to produce more Edisons. So, does it make sense to rethink our educational approach just to increase the quality and quantity of future innovators, even if they make up, say, no more than 5 percent of the average classroom today?

There is linkage between society and its innovators. An open-minded, inquiring society encourages and supports its leading innovators, while a closed-minded society shuts them down. There are many elements to this society-innovator linkage, not all of them fully understood, but here are a few that everyone probably can agree on:

  • Somebody’s got to consume the results those brilliant innovators produce. It takes open-minded customers to purchase early-stage innovations, and open-minded investors to fund them. All of society participates in the nurturing and implementation of good ideas. Put another way, no inventor is an island
  • The collective consciousness may be important to the quantity and quality of innovations. Historians often remark on the oddity of breakthroughs coming in clusters. If one person publishes a breakthrough book on evolution, for example, you can be sure that it appears in the letters of some of his contemporaries. Similarly, a perusal of the patent records shows that Edison was not the only person working on electric light bulbs. In fact, another inventor’s patent turns out to be the one most closely related to the form of incandescent light bulb generally in use today. It may be quite important to have many people thinking about a challenge at the same time. In fact, it may be essential.
  • For every inventor who comes up with a great new idea or design, there needs to be a large team of people working to develop and implement it. Whether in economic or other arenas, no idea is implemented without a lot of help. In a truly innovative society, I believe that almost everyone who isn’t a brilliant inventor is helping to refine and implement some good idea. Imagine our society as a baseball team. We need the home-run sluggers, to be sure, but we don’t need or expect them to make up the entire team. The rest of us play our roles in the innovation process, too, and we all need to be good at the game.

For these reasons, I believe it does make sense to raise a nation of innovators. Then there is the added problem of not knowing who will turn out to be our heavy-hitters of the future. So far, nobody has come up with a good way to identify the next Bill Gates from a cohort of third graders. However, we do know some general things about the personalities of innovators. Primarily, we know they rate higher than average on openness to experience, which is a broad personality trait that is made up of a varied mix of inquisitiveness, creativity, adventurousness, and intelligence. It can be measured in children, and remains fairly stable through life.

However, of the, say, 15 percent of elementary school students who measure high on this openness scale, only a handful will contribute major innovations to society in future years (although most will do something innovative, creative, intellectual, adventurous, or artistic). We are playing the numbers when we invest in innovators, rather as venture capital firms do when they invest in business plans, and we cannot expect more than a few percent of creative or innovative people to produce anything that is game-changing for our society. That’s okay; we need small innovations too, but the point is that it’s impractical to single out and educate future innovation leaders separately from everyone else.

We need classrooms that encourage and enable innovation in all students, and then we need the patience to help them mature. They will sort out who will do what in the future, and some of them will rise to the top of the innovation charts, while others will play more quiet, but equally important, roles.

Alexander Hiam designs curricula for workplace leadership training and has provided creative consultation and training to hundreds of workplaces. As a parent and citizen, he is interested in shifting the focus of innovation training to younger learners, instead of only doing remedial work with adults. Hiam has authored more than a dozen books, including Innovation For Dummies (Wiley, 2010) and earlier books such as The Manager’s Pocket Guide to Creativity and Closing the Quality Gap. He currently teaches in the Independent Concentration program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and has taught for many years at the Isenberg School of Business there.

Laura Ascione

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