Sunday, April 8, 2012

Tony Wagner’s “Creating Innovators” doesn’t go far enough

In his recently released book, “Creating Innovators” Tony Wagner speaks about the five essential differences between schools that he calls innovative versus the culture of schooling in most classrooms. From my perspective as an innovative educator, I don’t feel his essential differences are all that innovative or go nearly far enough. When I speak to audiences and write about innovation, I enjoy pushing readers/listeners much further.

Here is my critique of one of these differences.

Collaboration Versus Individual Achievement
Wagner indicates that innovators collaborate yet school rewards individual achievement offering few meaningful opportunities for genuine collaboration. I’ll give him the fact that there’s not genuine collaboration in schools, but there’s not much of anything that is genuine in a school world that looks nothing like the real world in which young people live.

When it comes to collaboration however, I’m not sure if Tony has spent a significant amount of time in public schools lately. It’s all about...

  • Collaborative groups.
  • Work in teams.
  • Sit in 4-desk pods.
  • Never have a moment to be alone.
  • Never have time to think critically and deeply.
  • Groupthink, groupthink.
  • Get grouped with other people who happen to be share your birth year and geographic location, rather than group yourself, if you choose from others in the world, not just your classroom.

The collaboration aspect Wagner says is missing in schools is NOT what it missing. Collaboration is needlessly forced upon kids whether they want it or not and they are made to work with others whether they want to or not.  Wagner says that innovative school programs understand that collaboration is essential for innovation and every class requires teamwork and collaboration. Is forcing teamwork and collaboration innovative?


Here’s what’s innovative...
Respect the individual’s desired work style. An innovation leader knows that many successful innovators became this way because they had a chance to work alone, independently, without interruption, then...when they choose, they may decide to collaborate in their way with the people they feel will best help them achieve their goals. These often aren’t the kids that happen to be sitting in your classroom. What can innovative educators do? Empower young people to build their own personal learning network which they can call upon to learn, grow, and innovate as well as learning when it makes sense to do so.

The next example Wagner gives is that at High Tech High, students develop a new business concept and plan and present their plans to a panel of business leaders that assesses the students. Is that innovative?


Here’s what’s innovative:
Stop treating youth like people who are always in state of preparation for life rather than a state of living life. We need to stop wasting time "preparing" kids to do stuff and instead let them do stuff like they do with Big Picture or Nuestra Escuela schools. There, kids are supported in figuring out what is is they love and then supported in doing it.  

As Grant Wiggins explains in his recent piece, (Everything You Thought About Curriculum May be Wrong. Really), performance learning is where it’s at. To take that a step further we need to look at Kiran Bir Sethi and Angela Maiers who teach us that when it comes to learning, what is most powerful is that we tell young people that “You Matter” and are capable of doing work that is worthy of the world.  

I’m not the only one speaking and writing about this. If you want to read more about fostering innovation by getting away from collaboration and groupthink read:
The Rise of The New Group Think - New York Times
The Six Lesson School Teacher - John Taylor Gatto (Lesson 6)


  1. Being a teacher my self, i don't agree with you that loneliness promote innovation.

    Innovation comes when ideas strikes with each other and that happens only in collaboration

  2. Hi Lisa,
    Before you critique my book, you might want to take a look at it when it is released on April 17. Many people whom I interviewed for the book--including Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO--talked about how essential collaboration is for innovation. To answer your question, I am in public school classrooms all the time--most recently in New Albany, OH this week. in middle and high schools, genuine collaboration is still the exception, rather than the rule. (I do not consider so-called "group work"--where one kid is doing all the work--to be real collaboration.) To your other points, I agree completely about the importance of having some time for solitude and to reflect. Innovation requires both teamwork and reflection time; it is not "either-or" as Susan Cain makes out out to be. You might want to read Keith Sawyer's excellent critique of Cain's book here:
    Finally, I am a big fan of Big Picture Schools, in addition to High Tech High. I profile both in my last book, The Global Achievement Gap, which you might find interesting. I, too, believe students should produce real products for real audiences in every class, as well as have work internships.
    Tony Wagner

    1. I have been amazed by Pasi Sahlberg’s writing and have, at the same time, been left with dissatisfaction in his approach to make a specific distinction between the reform efforts of the United States (GERM) and other countries such as Finland. What if these educational policies and reform principals were in fact, paradoxical, and mutually beneficial? Can we not have standardization and personalization in schools? If we have standardization does that mean that an individual can’t personalize their experience (unit, lesson, project, assessment, culminating event, etc.)? Finland has a comparable within school variance to the United States. This tells me that, even in Finland, it matters who you get as a teacher. This leads one to believe that teaching to pre-determined results as opposed to encouraging risk-taking and creativity is ineffective and by the nature of the constructs, exclusive. I have to argue that for me to be employable I need to meet results and take risks—This may in fact be the true nature of creativity- the ability to create and have value.

      I also think we need to create pre-determined results for 21st Century skills as we have a workforce that has largely not been exposed to these skills. I find that the biggest challenge in innovative schools the inability of educators to create sustained and healthy conflict or, facilitate sustained group work. We need to practice these skills and explore theory using Senge's "practice fields" concept as well as adhere to pre-determined outcomes that align with successful group dynamics (i.e. advocacy and inquiry).

      Did you find in your exploration that many teachers were expecting 21st Century skills without actually teaching these skills? My experience has been teachers actually assessing students without direct teaching and support.

      Finally, how are you able to assess the quality of teaching in these schools? How are you able to identify those teachers that say the right things, have students in groups doing stuff, and making pretty powerpoints from those who are having rich, meaningful dialogue, with teachers that balance direct teaching with facilitative support? I find many schools are "blinded by relevance"-- the rigor is lost but the project is really, really cool. I'm concerned with the "judging a book by its cover" school? The 1:1 computer to student ratio, the "project", the facilities..the school has the "wow" factor, etc. Are you truly finding the rich conversations? Are you finding students using extensive prior knowledge to new problems, applying that knowledge to tasks that require multiple perspectives, defending solutions against challenging questions...etc., etc. Do you find this type of deliverable and way of thinking systemic in these schools?

  3. P.S. I forgot to mention that my most important finding about educating an innovator is the importance of intrinsic motivation, which teachers and parents nurture by attending to play, passion, and purpose. Lisa, this is completely consistent with your belief in "passion-driven" education.

  4. Tony,

    Thank you for taking the time to weigh in.

    You are right. It's a critique of an idea. Not a critique of your book. I appreciate your feedback and insights behind your thinking.

    I suppose the bigger point here is genuine work, whether collaboration or independent, is often the exception in schools. The whole set up of a classroom, periods, and subjects provides a setting that is artificial.

    I agree that innovation can require solitude and collaboration, but young people must be empowered to choose either rather than have it imposed or dictated by teachers and/or bells. They must have access to those not just in the classroom, but also in the world.

    Let's face it. School is not a place that fosters real innovation. It is a designed as a system of compliance and conformity.

    I look forward to reading your book when it is released (along w/the other suggested titles) and hope that in it there might be examples of real-world innovation that happens because of, rather than despite, schools.

  5. Speaking in generalities is always dangerous. People are diverse and so are schools. To suggest that no schools are fostering any individuals that innovate is inaccurate. Instead let's find situations where innovation is being fostered and apply those lessons where possible. Schools will exist for the foreseeable future and I'd like them to be as good as possible.

  6. ==To suggest that no schools are fostering any individuals that innovate is inaccurate.==

    Where was this suggested?

    ==Let's find situations where innovation is being fostered and apply those lessons where possible.==
    This blog identifies plenty of situations where innovation is fostered. Fostering innovation is not a mystery however, it rarely happens when we group youth by date of manufacture, restrict their access to real-world tools, and reward drill, kill, and bubble fill above all else as is the growing trend in schools today.

    =Schools will exist for the foreseeable future and I'd like them to be as good as possible.==
    Of course. There is nothing in this post that contradicts that desire.

  7. I think the real point is that the culture of schooling, as practiced in most schools, is radically at odds with a culture that fosters real innovation. It rewards compliance, risk aversion, individual competition, and makes students into passive consumers, rather than creators. And our current accountability system--with its focus on high stakes, multiple choice, factual recall tests make all of these tendencies worse. If we want students to be innovative, then we must encourage their teachers to innovate. Fortunately, there are schools and colleges where innovation is happening, and I profile a number in both The Global Achievement Gap and in Creating Innovators, but they are they rare exception, rather than the rule.

    1. Yes. Exactly.

      So how do we change this accountability system?

      My hope / belief is that perhaps it is the parents who can unite, stand up, and demand what is right for their children. To this end, I have created Opt Out of Testing groups in every state which you can find on Facebook in two ways:
      1) Type in the search: Opt out of State Standardized Tests - Your State i.e. Opt Out of State Standardized Tests - Ohio
      2) Go to the page url: i.e.

      Looking forward to reading GAG & CI to learn more about the schools you highlight there. I know many of them already and wonder how we enable all children to have access to these types of schools and also inform parents that such options even exist.

  8. I have found that most people who talk about collaboration in schools say how necessary it is to learn how to "do it", but very few educators that I have seen know how to really foster it in the classroom. As a result, you see "group work" and other pseudo-collaboration. I think perhaps a better definition of it is needed.

    Then again, perhaps we don't see it because classrooms are not organized to foster innovation, either individual or in groups. So paying lip-service to the idea makes people think their schools are on the cutting edge, while still delivering a top-down education model.

  9. As I read this article and the comments I thought about how the status quo will prevail if those trying to break the status quo cannot unify. It is nice to provide constructive criticism and feedback, but it is also helpful to recognize steps in the right direction.

    1. ==the status quo will prevail if those trying to break the status quo cannot unify.==

      When we're talking about innovation I think it is important for those trying to break the status quo to amplify the "conversation." Challenging ideas and pushing thinking will help move the conversation front and center so more and more people think twice about doing things the way they've always been done...especially in these times when the dire consequences of doing so are so apparent.

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  11. Lisa,

    To quote from your comment to Tony "School is not a place that fosters real innovation". That's the general statement I was responding to.

    There are an incredibly diverse range of places that call themselves schools and they serve an incredibly diverse range of students. There are schools which are fostering innovation both in students and teaching practices.

    When Tony says "Fortunately, there are schools and colleges where innovation is happening..." that's what I'm referring to (and you agreed with that). We need to look at those successful situations, where innovation is being fostered, and expand the use of those practices. Suggesting that schools are only designed as systems of "...compliance and conformity..." doesn't help to make that happen.

  12. As a parent that advocated for the adoption of the 4Cs / 21 Century Model described in Tony Wagner's book, "The Global Achievement Gap", I can say after the 2nd year of implementation, that our 8th graders have already outgrown the local high school, so we the parents are on a mission to adopt STEM and bypass the both high schools, because they refuse to acknowledge that the world is changing. We are in transition, moving from the 'Industrial Age' business model to the 'Aggregation Age' business model (Google it)and if our students don't prepare, they will not be competitive as adults. This conversation is needed and I will buy your book Tony.