Harvard Educational Review
  1. Creating Innovators

    The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World

    Tony Wagner (supplementary video material produced by Robert A. Compton)

    New York: Scribner’s, 2012. 270 pp. $27.00.

    Throughout the educational, political, and corporate sectors, there has been growing emphasis on the need to cultivate innovation and creativity in young people. In order for today’s students to excel in college and be equipped to succeed in the contemporary workforce, many scholars, policy makers, and business leaders suggest that young people will need to emerge from secondary education as creative agents capable of thinking big and harnessing the power of their imaginations. In Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Tony Wagner argues that if the United States is to thrive in the decades to come, schools must make the development of creativity and innovation a primary objective. There are just a couple of things wrong with this vision, as Wagner is quick to point out:

    Most policy makers—and many school administrators—have absolutely no idea what kind of instruction is required to produce students who can think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, and collaborate versus merely score well on a test. They are also clueless about what kind of teaching best motivates this generation to learn. (p. xv)

    Hence, Wagner sees the current American educational miasma as a problem. A big problem. To address this, he offers Creating Innovators, the result of an extensive study based on his interviews with young innovators, parents, educators, school leaders, business leaders, and even high-ranking military generals. The goal of the book is simple: to understand what makes young innovators tick and to figure out how best to design educational and workplace environments that support innovation. Creating Innovators itself is innovative. Wagner not only explores his subject matter through the written word, but he also sprinkles throughout the text approximately sixty Microsoft Tags (variants of QR codes) linked to professionally produced videos that directly connect readers to the individuals interviewed in the text.

    Technical wizardry aside, Creating Innovators is organized neatly into six chapters. Wagner makes a case in the first chapter, “A Primer on Innovation,” for the importance of innovation in the twenty-first century. He reviews a variety of definitions of the word innovation and builds on Teresa Amabile’s work to put forth his own theory of innovation. Specifically, Wagner highlights Amabile’s research, which places creativity and innovation (used synonymously) at the intersection of expertise, motivation, and creative thinking skills. Wagner then posits that there is a “developmental arc in [the] progression from play to passion to purpose” (p. 30) that ultimately leads to innovation.

    Wagner brings his theory of innovation to life in chapters 2, 3, and 4 by showing play, passion, and purpose in action through his case studies of various young innovators. He begins in chapter 2 by introducing readers to Kirk Phelps, “a high school and a college dropout” (p. 31) who was instrumental in the development of the first Apple iPhone. Wagner then introduces readers to four young science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) innovators in chapter 3 and in chapter 4 three young social innovators. In each case, Wagner is careful to point out how his case study subjects each had the opportunity to play with ideas, develop passion for their interests, and ultimately become gripped by a sense of purpose that drove them forward.

    Following his case studies of young innovators, in chapter 5 Wagner discusses what works—and what does not work—for fostering innovation in schools by presenting five dualisms: (1) individual achievement versus collaboration; (2) specialization versus multidisciplinary learning; (3) risk avoidance versus trial and error; (4) consuming versus creating; and (5) extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. In each dichotomy, Wagner rails against the former and advocates for the latter. As exemplary learning environments that offer the best curricular structures for fostering innovation, Wagner gives a gold star to High Tech High in California, Olin College in Massachusetts, the MIT Media Lab, the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the “d. school”) and Bing Nursery School, both at Stanford University. According to Wagner, each of these institutions places an emphasis on collaborative, multidisciplinary, trial-and-error-oriented learning that focuses its pedagogy on creating over consuming stemming from intrinsic over extrinsic motivating factors.

    In his final chapter, “The Future of Innovation,” Wagner transitions from a discussion of educating for innovation in schools to a discussion of parenting for innovation at home and developing innovation-friendly workplaces. He then closes the book with an epilogue entitled “Letter to a Young Innovator,” in which he speaks directly to his innovative young readers, encouraging them to persevere in their work by engaging in meaningful play, pursuing their passions, and establishing a driving sense of purpose.

    There is much to like about Creating Innovators. For one, it is a pleasure to see an author so boldly stand up to the U.S. educational system, suggesting that test-focused education is deeply flawed and that federally generated educational initiatives such as Obama’s Race to the Top are actually “a race to mediocrity” (p. 151). Furthermore, innovators, outliers, positive deviants, and a host of other creative types will find kindred spirits in the individuals profiled in the book’s case studies—not to mention a genuine advocate in Wagner himself. And the use of Microsoft Tags to link to video content is not only novel but a great way to hear Wagner’s diverse interview subjects speak for themselves in a manner that deeply connects the reader to the source data.

    Given these powerful aspects of Creating Innovators, I was perplexed by the disconnect between the case studies of young innovators earlier in the book and the emphasis on collaboration over individual achievement in chapter 5. Though Wagner advocates for learning and work environments that allow groups of people to collaboratively develop innovative ideas, his case studies frame his young innovators as independent actors, not as members of greater collaborative efforts. He takes care to point out the mentors, educators, and other individuals who supported his focal young innovators throughout their lives, but the framing of these case studies is more along the lines of individual achievement or traditional “great man” interpretations of uniquely talented creative agents. Furthermore, though the six-page epilogue serves as a nice coda to the text; it also tends toward paternalism and at times reads like a high school commencement speech rather than a sincere letter to industrious Millennials trying to make their way in the world.

    Despite these shortcomings, Creating Innovators is a powerful text that not only articulates the need to foster innovation through education but embodies the spirit of innovation through a range of case studies and clarion calls for change. If only half of Wagner’s suggestions for the future of innovation in education materialize, American students will be far better off tomorrow than they are today.
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    Book Notes

    Education, Justice, & Democracy
    Edited by Danielle Allen & Rob Reich

    Creating Innovators
    Tony Wagner (supplementary video material produced by Robert A. Compton)

    Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice
    Larry Cuban

    Youth Held at the Border
    Lisa (Leigh) Patel