Review: Creative Innovators – The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World

5 Star, Education (General), Intelligence (Government/Secret), Intelligence (Public), True Cost & Toxicity, Values, Ethics, Sustainable Evolution, Voices Lost (Indigenous, Gender, Poor, Marginalized)
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Tom Wagner

5.0 out of 5 stars Creating Innovators is NOT What Most US Schools Do…., February 27, 2013

I had a chance to go through this book today while visiting a school in Fairfax Virginia and I liked it. I have gone with 5 stars because it is a message that needs repeating as the educational “establishment” is still not listening, but those that rated it at only four stars have good reason to do so. I browsed the many interviews, and focused on the synthesis bits.

I completely agree with the criticism of the Quick Response codes, in this instance they are largely useless and a waste of time — the concept is however sound, and a great deal more needs to be done to better integrate books to video and also video to books.

The author's earlier book, (The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need–and What We Can Do About It) listed seven survival skills that I repeat below, and the author tells us that this book is intended to move beyond those seven skills.

01 Critical thinking & problem solving
02 Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
03 Agility and adaptability
04 Initiative & entrepreneurship
05 Accessing and analyzing information (this is HUGE and where I have spent 30 years and will spend 30 more)
06 Effective oral & written communications (to which I would add graphic visualization)
07 Curiosity and imagination

I have reviewed here at Amazon 150 books tagged Education (General) and 60 books tagged Education (Universities) with about 20 of them being core [all my reveiews sorted by 98 categories are at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog, this is not something one can do via Amazon now, but they all lead back to their respective Amazon page). One of them I want to link here early on because it is the first book that made me realize that teaching to the test is beating the creativity out of our kids and also NOT teaching them to think conceptually or innovatively, was Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace.

This book was for me absorbing, capturing my attention early on with this quote on page xv:

“….most policymakers — and many school administrators — have absolutely no idea what kind of instruction is required to produce student who can think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, and collaboration versus merely score well on a test. They are also clueless about what kind of teaching best motivates this generation of thinkers.”

For those who have not already read these two books, I would recommend:

Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling
Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning

Based on my following three sons through the US educational system, and more recently, interacting with young people across all grade levels, my impression that radical change is needed has been confirmed BUT I would be the first to say that memorization and foundational knowledge is ESSENTIAL, and cannot be sacrificed to a “new wave” of “free play.” I am reminded of the damage we did during the “self-esteem” and social promotion years. Kids need to learn to read and write and do sums, and they should NOT be promoted to the next grade until they have mastered that level of skills. HOWEVER, kids today are even more diverse in their biological and environmental skill levels than ever before, and the current answer of regid universal standards is in my view doing much more damage than good at a strategic level. As we now know, lawyers are graduating from law schools without knowing how to be a lawyer, only take a law test, and business schools are graduating people steeped in what worked in the past, not in adapting to or inventing new solutions needed for today and tomorrow.

There are at least two bright spots in the system, but they are a dying slice that needs to be protected, expanded, and I would suggest, made MANDATORY for all students. I refer to the dramatic arts and the creative arts as well as music. In my experience, these are the last places where micro-management is not the order of the day, and what I have seen in the way of inventiveness, creativity, mutual respect among very diverse individuals, literally brings tears to my eyes when contrasted with the rows of silent children fearful of their teacher and afraid to make a single wrong move–to the point they will not ask a question about something they do not understand.

The author cites Tim Brown's Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation and I especially like a graphic on page 24 with three intersecting circles: Expertise, Creative Thinking Skills, and Motivation. I would give our present school system at solid C, a D on critical thinking skills, and a C or a D on motivation depending on the neighborhoo. Innovation occurs, according to Tim Brown, only when all three of these fundamentals come together and a “spark” lights the fire.

I particularly like the section on how learning should be and end in itself, not a path to a job — and as 45% of all recent college graduates in the USA now know, college is NOT a ticket to an assured middle class job.

The author considers traditional education to be rigid, boring, and lacking conceptual or contextual merit. Generally speaking, I agree. The author suggests that high schools cannot be fixed until we first fix universities, I am not so sure about that but am charmed by a discussion of one university that focused on seven pillars:

01 Public education top to bottom
02 Community engagement across all problem areas
03 Public service as a calling and university product
04 Disaster response & longer-term resilience
05 Physical revitalization & cultural arts development
06 Engaged teaching
07 Social innovation (engineering innovation is at 02, 04, and 05 above)

Two quotations that provide a strategic message from this book:

QUOTE (154): “So if we are to transform high schools in Americato better engage young people for an innovation driven economy, we will need to start by rethinking college — the curriculum, the teachng methods, and the admission requirements.

I do not agree with this. I would rather start with a county school system, make education year-round, and have each student do one quarter semester in each of the trades, with an additional program to give any student that wishes an opportunity to earn every merit badge in the Boy Scout inventory, without the Boy Scouts (or Girl Scouts).

QUOTE (156): Citing Paul Buttino, who says “The value of explicit information is rapidly dropping to zero. Today the real added value is what you can do with what you know. and it is — in the doing — in the probing of the universe, the pursuit of a query — that the real learning takes place.”

Although I am not particularly engaged with most of the young innovator interviews, the author's coverage of Olin College, a new college started in the 1990's to offer an INTEGRATED education that could be described as applied engineering in the rich context of the applied humanities, is alone worth the read. I had no idea Olin was this coherent and focused.

The author cites Rick Miller of Olin talking about the three stages of learning, setting the stage with the observation that it is not what you know, it's the ability to ask the right questions “in situ.”

STAGE ONE: Memorization-based learning tested by multople-choice questions.

STAGE TWO: Project-based learning with pre-determined problem (and generally a “school solution”)

STAGE THREE: Design-based learning where you have to define the problem (this is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about, and would observe that at this level you not only need to be someone who had read broadly, but you also need to be able to see, hear, feel, and intuit all the weak signals, understand true cost implications, and generally think at mulitple levels (strategic, operational, tactical, and technical) simultaneously.

This is the whole point of the book: we need to prepare our young adults to do THREE THINGS: have a foundation in expertise and be able to find and integrate expertise; think critically in the face of completely new conditions not encountered previously; and the motivation to persist against all odds, embrace failure, and keep on trucking.

The author says that innovation thrives in a culture that welcomes experimentation. Looking around at the Industrial Era school systems we have — many very well funded with all possible teaching aids — one can readily agree with Dr. Russell Ackoff, one of the pioneers in system design, who lamented the fact that most of what we do in the way of governance and education is wrong to begin with, and therefore, doing the wrong thing righter is still the wrong thing.

In the author's view, the time has come to redefine authority, moving away from testing and credentialing based on dubious premises, while embracing “disruptive” innovation in the classroom and in the halls of government and industry. Of course this is virtually mission impossible with all of the leadership positions now occupied by people who came up the old way, understand the old way, and are totally invested in the old way.

I put the book down pensive about how to address the terrible short-falls in the USA with respect to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, and also the terrible short-falls in both social innovation and sustainability design, production, and services. For me it boils down to corruption. Bill Gates lied to Congress — and these lies continue today — about the lack of available US high-skilled labor. What he really meant was that he preferred to import high-skilled labor at half price instead of paying the going scale.

At the same time less so in some areas, but across the USA, school boards are being starved by corrupt local leaders that make deals in the public's name waiving taxes, waiving pollution regulations, and generally short-changing the traditional sources of funding for education — this is a case presented in Deer Hunting With Jesus. The schools have been starved and marginalized by the information technology industry, our one book industry, because its leaders have been corrupt and sought to import cheap labor instead of properly supporting the redesign and reinvestment in our own school system. This has gotten so bad that a recent Pew poll found that one third of US citizens across all ages (mostly older) could be legitimately qualified as “idiots.” These are the same people that vote for political leaders who buy their votes with borrowed money–a trillion a year borrowed in our name, at the same that 50% of every federal dollar is documented as waste.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE? I see multiple possibilities.

Within the existing school systems, drama and art and music should be mandatory. These are little notes of liberty in an otherwise onorous system, and can be used to both keep the flame of creativity alive within all of our students, and also to identify especially gifted innovators who might otherwise be pressured to drop out.

Within the existing school system, substitute teachers offer an extraordinary untapped opportunity. I know one substitute teacher who ran for President in 2012 and was invited to teach an honors civics class. After completing the assigned work — and ensuring that every student completed the work — he hosted an innovative half hour of give and take in which the students learned, among other things, that there are eight accredited parties in the USA, not two; that much of what the government reports (e.g. unemployment numbers) is not the truth; and that there are forms of legalized crime including pharmaceutical crime that rival illegal crime in the damage it does to the Republic. This individual was chewed out by the assistant principal after a teacher in an adjoining classroom reported that he had had the temerity to put the desks in a circle (the traditional indigenous form for democratic dialog) and suggested that the two party system and some of its candidates might be criminals — a point made most ably in books such as Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency and Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It. The bottom line: they system does not just beat the creativity out of kids, it puts the teachers and administrative leaders into such strait jackets that the lose their common sense. Although most school handbooks encourage the discussion of controversial issues in a respectful manner, the reality is that assistant principals and most teachers are TERRIFIED of anything controversial — they would rather graduate sheep than critical thinkers.

Selected substitute teachers, in my view, should be recruited, trained (there are many words they are accustomed to using with adults that are inappropriate with young people), and overseen as a means of injecting innovation into the existing course structure. Instead of glorified baby-sitters working to rule, they should be encouraged to both complete the principal assigned tasks AND give of themselves to the students in a constructive manner.

More can be done with once a week “break-out” sessions for all students, sessions that could begin with a speaker who presents a context and a challenge, and then be followed by mixed grade teams accepting the challenge and doing research — mixing grades — toward a school-wide contest in which the students, not the teachers, establish whose solutions are most meritorious.

Finally, mindful of all I have learned from Harrison Owen and Tom Atlee, two of whose books I list below, I would train all Drama and Physical Education teachers in the art and science of Open Space Technology, and have at least one monthly Open Space session in which the students decide what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and are then given the rest of the day to do so.

Wave Rider: Leadership for High Performance in a Self-Organizing World
Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politics (Manifesto Series)

For me this was a very provocative book, and while it has short-falls other reviewers have pointed out, the fifth star is easily earned by the fact that it provoked this review. With my last link I will mention the single most important book I believe that no educator can ignore, the 1916 doctoral thesis of Will Durant, now available at Philosophy and the Social Problem: The Annotated Edition. That was the book that persuaded me as an intelligence professional that we must integrate education, intelligence, and research in one Secretary-General (with two others managing the Commonwealth and Global Engagement), and that we must sharply reduce spending on secret intelligence while sharply increasing spending on whole person life-long education, and on multi-disciplinary research focused on real problem such as the need for free energy, clean water, and the eradication of agricultural and industrial production practices that sicken society instead of enhancing society.

One could certainly conclude that education today is producing consumers of education, not creators of innovation. Above I have tried to summarize the key points from the book, and also provide some thoughts on what schools could do now, within their existing parameters, to leverage drama and physical education and substitute teachers. Beyond that, I have no influence at all.

With best wishes to all,
Robert Steele

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