I just finished reading Tony Wagner’s “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.” This book has many important lessons for those who work with both young people and talent acquisition. While the book is a few years old, it still contains very relevant information that is needed to help shape the way that we change and prepare our young people for living in the 21st century.
Before I extend on some of my key “take aways” though, I want to share some cynicism that I have had for several years regarding the American Dream. This may be due to having living some a challenging economic crisis where I saw many of my former students who went to college, earned their degree, and followed the steps that they were supposed to in order to realize the American Dream. I had become disillusioned with the idea of the American Dream after seeing so many of my former students unable to find employment in their chosen fields. We had always been taught that the American Dream is open to all who are willing to work hard. As someone who grew up in rural Appalachia, poverty was a way of life. There were times when our family struggled to pay bills and put food on the table. While we never went hungry, there were times when we had to make dollars stretch and eat the same meal several days since it was more economical. But I was told that if I worked hard, I could go to college and get a good job. I did just that. I earned a full scholarship to college, double majored in chemistry and education, and secured a great teaching position at a well respected high school. I taught extraordinary students and helped many of them follow their own “American Dream.” I was lucky. I realized the dream and benefitted from following the right steps. However, many of my students who were told the same thing, even my myself, have not been to realize that American Dream because the world and our economy has changed. Many of my previous students currently live at home and have high levels of student loans from college. Many of them have taken lower paying jobs, often outside of their areas of specialization. It does not seem quite right that these students did what they were supposed to and in the end, their dreams did not materialize like they had been told. It is for these reasons that I have become to doubt that the American Dream existed any more. It only seems to exist for a few select students who were either very lucky or have financially secure backgrounds.
In reading Wagner’s book though, I feel that like many things, the American Dream has changed. In what I am leaning toward calling the “American Dream 2.0,” students still have the opportunity to realize the dream provided that they are able to innovate. As our economy and world has changed, a new paradigm has emerged. Information is readily accessible to anyone with access to the internet and a device. Many argue that there is not a need to memorize as many facts since that knowledge can be retrieved by a device in a matter of seconds. While base knowledge is still important, there is some relevance to that. Also, innovation in the past often resulted in improving the efficiency of the manufacturing process or earning larger profits for a corporation. Wagner refers to this as “trying to squeeze more juice from the same orange.”
As globalization has created a world wide economy where labor is cheaper in developing countries, we must be mindful that innovation will no longer occur using our “old ways.” Instead, innovation will occur when individuals work collaboratively together to solve problems in creative ways that connect in ways that are disruptive to the status quo. Individuals who are adaptable and agile with higher levels of curiosity and imagination will lead the way in innovation. Individuals who are able to connect these points are those who will be able to realize the “American Dream 2.0.”
In our classrooms, I would dare say that too often we continue to prepare students for a differentiation work force with archaic management structures. Most students leave high school with the idea of the “top-down” structure of management where there are a few people at the top who make decisions to be carried out by those further down in the management chain. This model, muck like warm vanilla ice cream, is comforting to many but really fails to nurture and cultivate innovation with our students. Instead, disruption must occur if we truly want innovation to be something that our students do upon graduation from high school.
This year has been a year of change and evaluation for me. I have “unlearned” much of what I was taught and trained to do in the classroom. The practices and procedures that were drilled into me fail to create innovation in many cases. I am not saying that they are no longer relevant but rather, that they do not lead to creating innovators. Instead, we have worked to “refocus” our thoughts, actions, and behaviors to help our students see the importance of being innovators, creators, and entrepreneurs. Wagner mentioned in the book that many students who do school well often are not very innovative. Students who need to be more innovators often do not fit in our model very well. And that has definitely been true in my experience. During our first few weeks of class, several students asked if we could “just tell them what they needed to know” or “just read us the notes so we can copy them down and study them.” My co-teacher and I looked at each other and emphatically responded “that is not possible.” We explained to them that they would be responsible for generating their own knowledge with our support. Further they would be responsible for demonstrating their learning by creating something that is an improvement or solves a problem.
As I reflect on the six months, it has been a plethora of experiences and emotions mixed up. Our students have made so much progress in becoming more divergent thinkers, problem solvers, and creators. We still experience setbacks which is part of the innovation process. But our students seem to be more intrinsically motivated which is our goal. We want our students to be able to find solutions to problems, work with others, and create. At this point, it would be so challenging to return back to a regular classroom where “status quo” is the expectation. Much of this is based on knowing that what we are doing with our students at North Rowan High School really is the right thing that we should be doing with all students. I think that too often, we, in education, get stuck on the status quo because it is easy to measure how students are doing on a standard since many feel that we can test them. However, I would say that this minimizes any student and her/his potential since our students have many gifts and often know much more about a concept than a test can measure. It is my hope that many more schools will move toward adopting a school wide model where students are celebrated for being innovators, creators, and disruptors of the status quo. We must continue to stress the importance of these things in order for all students to be able to realize their potential, the new “American Dream 2.0.”
I encourage you to follow Tony Wagner on Twitter at @DrTonyWagner
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.