Open Menu Close Menu

Teaching and Learning | Feature

Creating a Culture of Innovation

In a world where knowledge is available with a few clicks of the mouse, colleges and universities must find new ways to give students the skills to succeed.

Tony Wagner

Tony Wagner, innovation education fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University (MA), is a frequent speaker on transforming education for the 21st century and consults widely to schools, districts, and foundations internationally. His recent book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World (Scribner, 2012), explores what parents, teachers, and employers must do to help young people succeed in an innovation-driven economy. CT spoke with Wagner about the need for a fundamentally different approach to educating today's students.

Campus Technology: You talk a lot about reinventing the education system. But higher ed is known for being slow to change, so what's a good way for institutions to start moving in the right direction?

Tony Wagner: I think students are going to have to hack their own education going forward. There's no guarantee that college will provide them with the skills they need to succeed if they just go through the motions. Students are going to have to be very intentional about seeking out learning experiences--learning opportunities in and out of the classroom that really help them develop a portfolio of experiences, skills, and projects that show mastery.

This story appears in the July 2013 conference edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the digital magazine.

CT: Are MOOCs part of the solution?

Wagner: What we see with MOOCs is that knowledge is being commoditized. In fact, right now you can get certain degrees without ever leaving your computer screen. This forces colleges to think about what their "value added" is going to be. What's the value added of paying all that money in tuition, of attending school in person? Colleges are either going to figure this out or go bankrupt.

CT: So if students can get the knowledge they need from resources such as MOOCs, the classroom becomes a place to learn life skills?

Wagner: That's what colleges have to figure out. What's the role of a teacher in the 21st century? I think it's to be a performance coach, not merely to transmit content knowledge but to help students think about how to use that knowledge to answer new questions, solve new problems, and create new knowledge.

CT: What do you think about initiatives like SJSU Plus at San Jose State University [CA], where MOOCs are being incorporated into for-credit courses?

Wagner: It's the flipped classroom model that Salman Khan has pioneered by enabling high-quality content transmission via the internet. The competitive advantage today for an individual is not knowing more content than the person next to them--because that person will find the content they need in a "just in time" learning sequence in the process of answering a question. So a flipped classroom only has value to the extent that the teacher is really focused on helping young people think about how to use and apply that knowledge. The challenge is that many teachers don't know how to do that--they haven't been taught in those ways. They've sat in classrooms and listened to lectures, and they know how to give lectures. Do they know how to be a good coach?

CT: Will this change happen at the individual, grass-roots level with faculty? Or does it need to be a broader, strategic effort?

Wagner: I think it's both. Teachers are going to have to learn new skills. And universities and educational institutions are going to have to rethink their role in the 21st century: How do they restructure themselves for this new role? You can't teach kids to apply knowledge in the lecture format, in an auditorium of 200. And you can't confine learning to the classroom or the campus. There will have to be many more opportunities for kids to do work-based internships for academic credit, as well as service-learning and travel-learning kinds of experiences. Colleges that aren't able to take on those strategic sorts of questions are simply not going to survive.

CT: How can technology facilitate this new kind of learning?

Wagner: That's what we need to explore moving forward. Thus far, the main role of technology in the classroom has been to stream content and to reinforce the professor at the front of the room as a transmitter of content. From my point of view, the really interesting and important applications of technology are not to improve the consumption of content, but rather to enable and empower the creation of content--that is a fundamental crossroads for technology moving forward.

CT: Do you have some examples of schools that are doing it right?

Wagner: One of my favorites at the college level is the Olin College of Engineering [MA]. Almost all courses are interdisciplinary, focused on answering open-ended questions, solving a real problem. They're almost all entirely hands-on project-based, as well as team-based. You can't even get into Olin College unless you succeed in a weekend where you have to show that you can work in a team.

On the West Coast, the at the Institute of Design at Stanford University [CA] uses the same kind of approach: team-based, interdisciplinary, focus on answering tough questions, solving real problems. The MIT Media Lab is a third example, but at the graduate level. At the high school level, High Tech High in San Diego uses substantially the same approach.

In fact, while writing my book Creating Innovators, I discovered the schools that are most successful at developing the capacities of young people to be creative problem solvers are remarkably similar in their focus on an interdisciplinary project-based, team-based, problem-solving approach to learning. The primary focus in the classroom is not acquiring content knowledge. The focus in the classroom is answering a question or solving a problem for which content is needed and learned. Content is acquired on the way as opposed to being the ultimate aim of the class. This pattern of learning and teaching is fundamentally and radically different from what we see in 98 percent of all classrooms in America and around the world.

CT: Does this kind of learning work for all students, or is there only a certain kind of personality suited to it?

Wagner: This comes back to the role of the teacher as a coach. My view is that all students can learn this way, but some students will need more time or more support depending on their background, their context, and their personality type. That's what a good coach knows how to do. He knows how to read his or her players, and think about what each individual needs in order to be successful. One player may need more drills in x, whatever x happens to be. Another player may need longer to come up to a higher performance standard.

CT: You're affiliated with the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard. What kind of work does the organization do?

Wagner: The Technology and Entrepreneurship Center is a really interesting endeavor to empower undergraduates of Harvard to come together and think about startups and try to solve new problems. It runs a contest where teams of undergraduates apply for a grant to do a real startup, and then the startups are incubated and supported in a specific space. All of that's run by Paul Bottino, who is the cofounder and the current director. He does an amazing job of trying to create a sense of entrepreneurship in an otherwise very staid and established university.

Unfortunately, students don't get credit for it. If they win the contest, they get financial support, coaching, and mentoring, but not course credit.

CT: Is it working with badges at all?

Wagner: No, not at all. Harvard will be the last institution to innovate at the core, because it has no incentive to. This gets back to our central question of the future of higher ed. Harvard doesn't have to innovate to succeed, to thrive. With an 8 percent acceptance rate, it has its pick of the most talented--not necessarily the most talented, I would say--rather, the most academically accomplished students in the world. None of the name-brand colleges will innovate at the core. They have innovations at the margins, but not at the core, whereas many, many colleges will absolutely have to transform their core to stay in business.

CT: You hear a lot of talk about preparing students for job skills these days, but aren't those job skills being reinvented as well?

Wagner: Fundamentally, the skill that matters most today is the capacity to be innovative, to be a creative problem solver. There's a whole subset of skills underneath that: the ability to think critically, the ability to take initiative, the ability to persist and persevere, the ability to work in a team, the ability to communicate effectively. All of these are critical elements of being a successful innovator in the 21st century. The capacity to innovate as an individual is the job skill that's not going to go away. The specialized skills you need in certain areas, whether it's engineering or whatever, may change and evolve, but that core set of competencies is the only thing that's going to ensure employment for our kids moving forward.

CT: A lot of this reminds me of the traditional liberal arts approach to education.

Wagner: I think that's the really interesting rub. The numbers of liberal arts majors are going down radically everywhere, in part because kids think that they've got to have more specialized skills. But when liberal arts are well taught--and I don't know that they are often well taught--they are the place to learn to think critically, to learn to question, to develop your own analysis, and to learn how to reason and create an evidence-based approach to defending a thesis or an analysis or an interpretation. But too often, many of the liberal arts don't do any of those things. They simply transmit content, in a sense dead knowledge because it doesn't empower students to develop their own interpretations, their own reflections, their own analyses.

The real challenge for the liberal arts is to reinvent themselves so that they teach students the skills that are needed in the 21st century for both work and citizenship--not just by transmitting knowledge, but by challenging students to come up with their own interpretations of history, their own interpretations of literature, their own social science questions and sociology.

Meet Tony Wagner

Tony Wagner is the first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center (TECH) at Harvard University (MA), an organization that aims to advance the understanding and practice of innovation and entrepreneurship through experiential education. TECH helps faculty create and deliver innovation and entrepreneurship project courses, provides students with project support and sponsors, and advises student groups working to build the Harvard innovation community. Prior to his position at TECH, Wagner was the founder and codirector of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for more than a decade. His previous work experience includes 12 years as a high school teacher, K-8 principal, university professor in teacher education, and founding executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility.

comments powered by Disqus