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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
*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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