Education: Reward innovation, teamwork

Sholeh Patrick

Sholeh Patrick

Everyone’s heard of IQ — the intelligence quotient, a measure of the brain’s capabilities, in short: smarts. But there’s another and perhaps more important concept of intelligence, that of applied intelligence. How well can you use what you have? A high IQ isn’t much good if it just sits there dormant or is used poorly. Like other national experts in higher education and business, the heads of Idaho Business for Education — a statewide think tank of sorts which includes local business owner and college trustee Judy Meyer — have adopted a mantra: the U.S. needs to refocus education on skills and application, rather than the old pure knowledge model of memorize-and-regurgitate. According to an article entitled “Higher Education: Not What it Used to Be” in the Dec. 1, 2012 issue of The Economist, despite spending the most per GDP on education, the U.S. ranks only 15th in the proportion of university of graduates among its young adults. It doesn’t help U.S. global competitiveness that the average young graduate (or dropout, as defines an average 40 percent of those who start college) doesn’t have some of the most basic skills applicable to any job — critical thinking and effective communication on that list. Worse, things are getting worse. Rather than improving over time, a federal survey showed that literacy has declined since the 1990s; only a quarter of college-educated Americans surveyed were deemed “proficient” (that’s basic) in writing and speaking. At the same time, proportional spending on education has tripled since 1962 and the average student debt load is skyrocketing, along with default rates. It doesn’t help that kids and adults read far less than in 1962 and no, Facebook and Twitter don’t count. What’s weird is that we’re giving out higher grades. According to the Economist article, grade point averages rose from about 2.52 in the 1950s to 3.11 in 2006. Put simply, we are clearly getting less bang for more buck. That frustrates employers and graduates saddled with debt and low wages, not to mention hurting the economy. What to do? Shift traditional education to innovation — reinvent, not simply reform education, says Harvard Fellow Tony Wagner, speaking the same mantra as IBE. “American schools educate to fill children with knowledge — instead they should be focusing on developing students’ innovation skills and motivation to succeed…,” Wagner told Forbes in April 2012. “The world doesn’t care what you know. What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know.” To innovate means to make changes in something established by introducing new ideas or methods. It employs several IBE keys: critical thinking, gathering and analyzing information, and communicating ideas effectively. After two years of research and interviews of successful and innovative 20-somethings, Wagner found stark patterns of similarities in teaching styles (instructors and parents), goals, and later success. He outlined a set of core competencies every student should master for success and usefulness in the workplace. It sounds a lot like IBE’s: 1. Critical thinking and problem solving (ask the right questions) 2. Collaboration and leading by influence 3. Agility and adaptability 4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism 5. Accessing and analyzing information 6. Effective written and oral communication 7. Curiosity and imagination Wagner concluded that the culture of schooling is “radically at odds” with the culture of learning that produces innovators. How? Five mistakes we need to correct: 1. Stop focusing on individual achievement: Innovation and success is a team effort, so the hyperfocus on GPA and peer competition doesn’t prepare them for typical work environments. 2. Stop rewarding specialization: High school curricula are typically structured using the 125-year-old system of Carnegie units, but Wagner writes, “Learning to be an innovator is about learning to cross-disciplinary boundaries and exploring problems and their solutions from multiple perspectives.” 3. Embrace, stop penalizing, risk: “The whole challenge in schooling is to figure out what the teacher wants. And the teachers have to figure out what the superintendent wants or state wants. It’s a compliance-driven, risk-averse culture.” Innovation, on the other hand, is grounded in taking risks and learning via trial and error. Failing is OK if the point is try and try again. In that sense, failures breed innovation. 4. Learning is too passive: We need to stop being consumers of information (absorption, memorization, regurgitation) and do more learn-by-application, hands-on, or study examples of it. More creativity, more “how is this useful?” 5. Use intrinsic, not extrinsic, incentives: Young innovators are intrinsically motivated. Grade rewards create far less innovation and critical thinking than do rewards for curiosity and innovation. That breeds passion and passion breeds purpose. Parents/teachers of innovators encouraged children to play and learn in more exploratory ways, he says. “Fewer toys, more toys without batteries, more unstructured time in their day.” That passion combined with purpose has benefits far beyond individual and workplace. As Wagner said, “Every young person I interviewed wants to make a difference in the world, put a ding in the universe.” Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at

*These education categories reflect only the highest level of education attained. They do not take into account completion of training programs in the form of apprenticeships and other on-the-job training, which may also influence earnings and unemployment rates.

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  1. Shawn says:

    First of all, thanks for this article. We need to take a good look at education in the US and how we can improve lives and the lives of those around us.

    I doubt many teachers would disagree with the education design ideas expressed here. They are very good and have been implemented in some public school classrooms, charter schools, summer camps as well as some private schools for years. The challenge for public education, which I see no answer to in this article, is holistic and systemic execution of these ideas. The high level design suggestions are fine – nice themes. How do you execute this on a national or global level?

    In the US, currently teachers and schools are bound by federal, state and local (e.g. school board) requirements to teach the 3 Rs in more traditional ways. Instead of investing time and energy (not dollars) in innovation, the broad focus is on passing the standardized test. We treat that test as if a student’s ability to take and pass the test successfully is the outcome we were hoping to achieve. Clearly it is not. So we all agree right? How might we go about change?

    There is a deeper issue that needs changing and it is left unaddressed in this article. It is as clear as the nose on our faces and it is often avoided as a topic of conversation. The issue of pre-requisite knowledge and school readiness. In order to be ready for school, children need mom or dad to read to them, be with them, spend countless hours modeling and exposing them to diverse experiences in the early years. That assumes that either mom or dad can stay home with the kids. Today, in most households mom and dad have to work to make a living. This ability to make a decent income impacts our collective and public education. This leaves some fortunate parents, who have enough money, looking for day care and countless others with less optimal solutions. Instead of the one to one attention that a parent can provide, the child, if they are lucky, gets the attention of one to many. If they are unlucky they may get no attention at all. Kids get lost, thousands of them.

    This inability to spread the wealth hurts our literacy rates. If mom or dad are paid more, maybe mom can stop working and turn her attention to the kids. That helps children develop. Regardless of how we do it, I think income equality in the US is part of the systemic answer to education. It becomes an issue of the hierarchy of the need. It is hard to learn or support education when you are going hungry or you are struggling to afford or find reasonable shelter. America needs to invest in developing a collective social consciousness – more so than we have today. That starts with the top – our politicians who have been granted the influence and the top 10% who are citizens of our republic and who are fortunate enough to truly want for nothing. How can we all be less selfish and instead invest in making a life better for ALL our citizens. That is very hard and desperately needed.

    Finally, I want to address the remark about “bang for the buck” and your concern about Facebook and Twitter.

    When we discuss bang for the buck … there are lots of reasons proportional spending has tripled. That said, the spending needs to go to the right place and where it is NOT going is toward teacher salaries. That is an issue – I am speaking from personal experience here. My earning potential as a teacher was so small coming out of school in 1997 ($27,000 – B.S. required + continuing education) that I never made it to the classroom – my collage loans were $200 a month. Instead I sold cars for a while ($40,000 – no degree required) and then got a Master’s degree and went into higher education – all so I could keep my promise to the banks. I eventually found my way to the private sector.

    While I agree there is probably some waste in dollars – make no mistake, the ideas and the systemic change being proposed in this article is very hard stuff. It will take additional resources on many, many fronts and I would start by investing in the human resources – the teachers.

    Why don’t Facebook and Twitter count? Twitter constrains you to 140 characters or less. If you embrace that constraint you learn to be innovative and be creative in your writing. You might also find that brevity is the soul of wit. Facebook can be a great place to engage in thoughtful, reflective debate as it happens on your own time and you can respond to ideas and positions on countless subjects. I think the method is much more important than the media – your point is probably less about Twitter and Facebook and more about how those mediums are being engaged.

    Sincere thanks for the article!! Your concern is shared and you are coming from a good place. Cheers!!

  2. [...] for the North Idaho Business Journal, Sholeh Patrick reported that Idaho Business for Education “has adopted a mantra: the U.S. needs to refocus education on skills and application, rather than [...]

  3. [...] for the North Idaho Business Journal, Sholeh Patrick reported that Idaho Business for Education “has adopted a mantra: the U.S. needs to refocus education on skills and application, rather than [...]

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