How Parents and Schools Create Innovators

I hear two competing thoughts about what America needs going into the future and how education should contribute.

One focuses on the need for an educated labor force and for all graduates to master the basic skills.  This is the one we have turned to over the past 20 years.  The way we measure student achievement and school success is not by determining how much students know and are able to do.  Rather it's by determining how many students know the basics.  If 90% of your students can read and calculate, you have a good school.

The other vision though focuses on the need for American innovation to restart, ensuring an America that is at the cutting edge of new technologies and other developments.  We need our next generation of Americans to kick start our manufacturing base as well as pushing IT to new levels.  Nothing in our current system of attending to school outputs addresses this vision.

Which vision would you promote?  A nation of laborers or a nation of innovators?  Put another way, should we promote one over the other, knowing and allowing that some will drift in the opposite direction?  For me, innovation seems the higher value.  If so, how do parents and schools make a difference?

Let's start with parents.  It's the holiday shopping season when 70%-80% of all toys are bought.  A good time to think about whether your purchases will bring out your child's creative juices or enhance his basic skills -- or neither.  I wrote a piece last year that gave advice for shopping for kids.  See Educational Toys for a more thorough discussion.

Here's a little quiz.  Each pair of toys below is similar in some way.  One is more likely to elicit problem-solving, creativity and exploration.  The other is also a good toy but more focused on skills like reading, calculating or following directions.  You may need to follow the links to Amazon to see some of the toys.  Which encourages innovation?

Scribblenauts Video Game for DS

Coloring Book
Paint Set

To learn to read and follow directions, the LEGO Space Port is tremendous.  To create and innovate, choose the loose bricks.  For a knowledge bowl format that teaches interesting facts about nature and geography, choose the DS game from National Geographic.  For a game that requires spelling, but makes the player decide what tools she needs to meet a challenge, Scribblenauts is a winner.  For fine motor control or learning to hold and control a crayon, coloring books are a standard.  For creativity, blank paper and paints (or crayons, markers, pencils, modeling clay) are the better choice. 

The LEGO Space Port, the National Geographic game and the Coloring Book all lead the child to the correct answer.  But innovators aren't just looking for right answers.  They need open-ended challenges and the chance to fail, assess and start again.  Today on Fareed Zakaria GPS, James Dyson commented that he built 5127 prototypes for an improved vacuum cleaner.  That means 5126 were failures.

In schools, we have become so focused on right answers that we've crippled our future artists, writers, engineers and innovators.  Taking a test is a good demonstration of knowledge perhaps but it doesn't teach anything.   Twenty years ago, the state of Oregon developed standards for what all Oregon school children should know and be able to do.  They included the following:

Solve problems          Think analytically           Appreciate differences

They also included the basics:  reading, writing and arithmetic.  But the focus was on process, not content.  Those standards were quickly replaced by content standards.  Reduce the emphasis on what kids should be able to do and get back to what they should know.  The latter is far more testable and frankly easier for many to understand and appreciate.   Sadly though, we've pushed those critical processes aside.  Good teachers still squeeze them in, but they happen on the margins while basic skills, testing and test preparation take center stage.  The exceptions are schools in affluent neighborhoods.  Those schools need not worry about their students' testing performance and can give more attention to these valuable educational challenges.

If America needs innovators and if the next generation is our big hope, what are we doing to encourage children to solve problems, think analytically or create?  Where are the Science Fairs in our schools?  How are we applying skills in Social Studies classes?  How are our Art and Music programs faring?

See also:  Educational Toys