Tony Wagner, a Harvard education specialist and author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, will reveal some troubling dynamics. “The average child asks 100 questions a day,” he says. “But by the time a child is 10 or 12, he or she has figured out that it’s much more important to get right answers than to keep asking thoughtful questions.” He will tell us today’s most essential real-world skill and what young people need from parents, teachers, and employers to become the innovators of America’s future.
Full Interview Transcript
Kelly: Thank you so much for being here. I think all of your books and your work, it’s just so important for everyone to know about. I want to talk about this book here and the idea of innovation. Why is that so important?
Tony: Well, first of all, thanks for having me on your show, Kelly. I look forward to having a chat with you. You know, I became increasingly aware of in my research that we no longer really have what people have called a knowledge economy. Peter Drucker coined that term in 1959. Today what matters most is not what you know because Google knows everything after all, but what you can do with what you know. That’s a completely different and brand new problem.
What I’ve come to understand is that the corner around today, the skill that matters most, whether it’s profit, non-profit anywhere in the world, is the capacity to solve problems creatively. You know, creative problem solving is a kind of innovation. There’s two kinds. There’s innovation that brings new possibilities to life. Say your iPhone, but there’s also a creative problem solving which is a kind of incremental innovation. I’ve been trying to understand what must we do differently to develop the capabilities of virtually all of our young people to be creative problem solvers.
Kelly: What are those skills?
Tony: Well, first of all, the good news is we really can nurture these capabilities. We are born curious, creative and imaginative. That’s the human DNA. The average five year old asks 100 questions a day and most five-year-olds think of themselves as artists. But then something happens, Kelly. We call it school because you see the longer kids are in school, the less curious they become, the fewer questions they ask. Commodity they become absolutely preoccupied with getting the right answers and very, very few of them think of themselves as artistic in any way.
The first challenge is to continue to nurture that curiosity. That is innate in all of us and a good parenting really continues to ask kids what are their questions to take them seriously, to honor them, to find ways to help our kids kind of satisfy their curiosity by taking time to explore new things or to investigate topics that they’re interested.
Kelly: You talk a lot about the school. I mean, do you think that starts from even before school or preschool?
Tony: Well, it’s both. I mean, I deeply believe that there’s a lot we parents can do. I’m a parent and now a grandparent and I’m very aware of the ways in which you take a child’s questions and interests seriously. You’re strengthening the muscle of intrinsic motivation and now the capacity to focus and concentrate and develop self discipline. All of those things I think come with helping a young person to see the value of his or her questions, to have a voice, and to take their interests seriously.
Kelly: When you cultivate curiosity, is that the child?Are they naturally creative? Is it the parent that help them creative? Is that the environment or what is it that helps them be creative or innovative?
Tony: I think the capacity to innovate begins with curiosity, but then you look at school and there’s five fundamental contradictions between the traditional culture of schooling and the culture that develops the capacity to innovate. First and foremost, schooling is all about working individually, but as we know, innovation is a team sport. Second of all schools compartmentalize subjects in a system that’s over 100 years old. Whereas, in the world of innovation, you cannot understand or solve problems without an interdisciplinary approach.
Thirdly, the culture of classrooms are so often a culture of passivity. It’s a culture of consumption and compliance, but the world of innovation demands that you take initiative, demands that you acquire knowledge just in time to solve real problems.
I think the fourth and fifth contradictions are the most challenging of all. Contradiction for this I think a lot where parents come in. It is all about the F word in schools. All of the ways in which we penalize so called failure. You know, we grade kids according to how many mistakes they make. But when you ask adults as I have, have you learned more from your mistakes than your successes? We’ve all learned tremendously from our mistakes.
In fact, I think that trial and error is how we learn many of our most important lessons as developing adults, beginning with learning to talk, learning how to walk learning how to ride a bike. Trial and error is the way we learn, and it is also absolutely essential in the innovation era.
Companies talking about fail early, fail fast, fail cheap, fail smart, fail forward, that fail. Now, they don’t mean fail in an academic sense. They’re talking about iteration. They’re talking about a process of rapid prototyping and learning through trial and error and discourage kids from taking proper risks. We encourage them to kind of never make mistakes and that is completely antithetical to the world of innovation.
Then very briefly, the last contradiction is all about motivation. We rely, I think far too heavily, we being both parents and educators, we rely far too heavily on carrots and sticks to motivate learning, billboards and punishments. But what I’ve discovered is that the young people who are making the greatest difference in the world today are intrinsically motivated. They want to make a difference. They want work where they can make a contribution. I think all of these things are aspects of both parenting and teaching that we need to keep in mind if we’re going to develop the capacities of many more young people to be innovative.
Kelly: In particular the motivation, I think that’s a difficult one because for example, one of my children, he’s four now and he had begged me for a year to take violin. so I have taken him to the violin and now we’ve that been going, he’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to do anymore.” When do you move through it or did you move to something else or how do you get that motivation?
Tony: You know, I think it’s hard to make those judgments. I have a whole chapter about parenting and parents talk about these difficult tradeoffs. When do you say to a child, “Okay, you can try this sport or this new instrument, but you have to try it for X amount of time to give it a fair chance.” Now you didn’t know that going in, but maybe next time, that’s what you’d say, “Well, you have to give it a fair try to give it a chance.”
But I think on balance it’s really important to listen to what a child says when they said, “I want to try this, I want to learn that,” and then to try to structure the opportunity in such a way that it becomes enjoyable. I mean, very often, I studied classical guitar starting at the age of 30. Most ways of teaching music, are drudgery. The contrast between what you think it’s going to be and what it ends up being is very different. I think one of the challenges, and I’ve heard this from many parents, is to find teachers who make learning an instrument or any other new activity, something that’s fun from the start and there ways of doing that.
I came to understand that when we talk about intrinsic motivation is that parents and teachers who are most concerned with strengthening intrinsic motivation specifically encouraged play, passion, and purpose. Our parents encouraged kids to get outside, fewer toys, toys without batteries, more imaginative play. They restricted screen time. These kids got older. They encourage them to pursue, to stay curious, to pursue their interests, interests which in time could morph into passions. But you know, as kids grow older, even in their late adolescence, their passions morph, they change, they evolve. But in any case, the parents helped young people to understand something about a deeper sense of purpose because both parents and teachers had instilled the idea that we are not here on this Earth just to serve ourselves. We have so many responsibilities to give back and to make a difference.
Those three things: play, passion, and purpose, they’re kind of developmental and sequential because when you ultimately get to purpose as an adult, it’s a form of discipline play. When you talk about being a scientist or being an artist, those are forms of discipline play which in many ways are the highest expression of really what it means to be as human.
Kelly: When you talk about play, play is such a vague word. what does that mean?
Tony: It can be play, it can be dressed up play with clothes. It can be playing with sticks. I know parents are afraid, “Oh my gosh, we can’t let them climb the tree because it’s going to fall.” Probably, she’ll probably fall. But you know, parents have to progressively let go and they also have to understand that kids are different. Some kids will take stupid risks and will be more likely than other kids to break an arm because they’re not cautious. You have to make these judgements as a parent as to when and how much to be able to let go and give your child an opportunity to try new things.
I mean, what if we said to kids, “I’m sorry you’re never going to learn to ride a bike because I know you’re going to fall and splint your knee,” and almost certainly they will. But what kind of world it would we be where kids couldn’t try things and couldn’t take responsible risks? I think that’s the art of parenting, when to figure out when to let go and when to kind of hold a little closer.
Kelly: You talk about how a lot of schools are set up to squelch out that wanting to learn and sort of that how they sort of dropped particularly around like fourth and fifth grade and their interests in schooling.You talk about the Montessori schools and how they create the biggest bunch of creative innovators that we know today? But what if someone can’t afford to go to a Montessori school or they’re going to public school, how can you help create that thought innovation without getting washed out?
Tony: Well, first of all there are public Montessori schools. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts and one of the most popular schools in Cambridge, a public school, is a Montessori school, so it’s not hopeless. But having said that, I think there’s a great deal parents can do in encouraging a variety of extracurricular activities.
Scouting can often be very productive and exciting for kids, both boys and girls; maker fairs and maker spaces and other kinds of after school activities. The one thing I’ve encouraged parents and teachers to consider is inviting children to keep a question journal where they simply write down questions that are interesting to them or questions or topics or issues and then periodically sit down with a child and have him or her circle the question that’s of most interest. I mean, try to help that person find the time and the space, create the space to explore that question, to pursue that interest.
Kelly: A lot of the examples in your book are people who I would consider gifted. Do you think that he creative innovation is someone– doyou need a high IQ? How does that play into it how are the two interrelated?
Tony: I think that we really don’t understand different kinds of intelligence. My colleague at Harvard, Howard Gardner, has written a great deal about multiple intelligence. We know that “so called” IQ test has the very limited range of skills. In fact some of the innovators whom I profiled in my book, young innovators were ADHD. We’re terrible at school. They probably would not have scored well on a conventional IQ test because IQ tests don’t usually measure creative problem solving skills or imagination or curiosity, certainly not that. Yet those are the qualities that ended up marking up the most in my experience.
Kelly: How can you measure it?
Tony: I don’t think you measure it. I think you assess it. Google’s a very interesting example in your neighborhood. Google used to only hire kids from Ivy League schools and would only interview those kids who had the highest test scores and GPAs because they assumed that doing well in school and doing well on tests was a good measure of the kind of creative intelligence they need in their work. Along comes Laszlo Bock, Senior VP of People Operations at Google analyzes the data and discovers all of the indices they’ve been using for hiring and promotion, were worthless. His words not mine.
Honestly, the skills you need to succeed in a competitive academic environment bear absolutely no relationship to the scales you need to succeed in the innovation here. Right now today, Google doesn’t ask for a college transcript. The word college does not even appear on their job’s website. They don’t ask you for your GPA or your test scores. In fact, 15% of Google’s recent hires don’t have a BA degree at all. What are they using instead? They’re using collective human judgment informed by interviews, informed by evidence to make their assessments for hiring and promotion.
What do you mean by collective human judgement? Five, six, seven people interviewing the person, asking for evidence instead of saying, you know, what grade did you get or what classes did you take? Tell me about a complex problem that you had solved recently. Tell me about a time you failed and what did you do about it? We have to make the distinction between measurement, numbers, and assessment which relies on human judgment. How do you know whether somebody has a good character? You know it when you see it and feel it, but you don’t know it from a number, do you?
Kelly: My kids, I spend a lot of, I guess effort, on their kind of education now with the Montessori,I’d be okay if they didn’t go to college and they want to start a business or something. I think like you said, a lot of people are so focused on going to Harvardor getting the education.I feel like you have to start at the youngest age to prepare them for later.
Tony: Absolutely. You know, my colleague Ted Dintersmith and I wrote a book called Most Likely to Succeed and he produced a brilliant documentary by the same title Most Likely to Succeed.
What we learned in that work was that the kids who are most successful at school, were not in most cases going to be the ones most likely to succeed in life. Just as Laszlo Bock said, you know, what you learn in school is how to jump through hoops, how to please teachers, howto pass tests that largely do not really accurately assess the kinds of skills we’ve been talking about. Especially these state tests, I mean, what our educators have to do to meet ridiculous accountability standards is setting back the whole field of education is doubling down teaching and learning in our classes.
To me the challenge is to really understand that we need to bring education into alignment with what kids are going to be expected to do in the adult world. They don’t take tests, they don’t move every 45 minutes from one class to the next, they don’t memorize a bunch of stuff. They are not told to put away their phones and take out their number two pencils. It’s exactly the opposite. We could go on and on about that.
Kelly: When you’re looking at schools, what are the most important things to be looking at?
Tony: Go visit classes and look at what’s being taught. Look at how it’s being taught and if you’re bored in that class, almost for certain your child’s going to be bored.
There are schools that they downplay testing. They deemphasized competition and instead try to give kids more time for projects and for their own kind of independent inquiries and research. Those are the things I would look for those are the things I did look for when I was searching for schools for my own children.
I think to me that’s the most important, really listening to the child as someone who can be very thoughtful and reflective at a very young age.
Kelly: What kind of teaching is the best motivator for kids? I mean, we’ve kind of touched on this a little bit, I guess it could give a little more detailed about what’s the best way to teach kids to keep them motivated.
Tony: I think there’s a number of good innovative strategies to develop intrinsic motivation for kids. A lot of people today talk about project based learning, the idea that kids work individually and in small groups on projects around an interesting question or a particular problem. I think that is great value, but it’s not the only way to do it.
I’ve seen also something called an inquiry approach where you start with an essential question and you organize an entire course around an essential question. For example, I was teaching American History or Literature today, I wouldn’t teach it as a separate subject.
Kelly: I appreciate you sharing all of your research and knowledge and it’s so important, their education and just supplementing what we can do to help create our kids to create their own job.
Tony: That’s been a pleasure talking with you, Kelly. I sympathize with parents and now being a grandparent, I’m kind of reliving it all. It’s not easy especially in a rapidly changing world. There’s no set formula, there’s no Dr. Benjamin Spock telling you exactly how to do it. A lot of them I’m afraid is iteration. It’s trial and error. That’s the nature of parenting and good teaching these days as well.
About Tony Wagner
A globally recognized voice in education, TONY WAGNER is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, founded by Linda Darling-Hammond in 2015. Prior to this appointment, Tony held a variety of positions at Harvard University for more than twenty years, including four years as an Expert in Residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab and the founder and co-director, for more than a decade, of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His previous work experience includes twelve years as a high school teacher, K-8 principal, university professor in teacher education, and founding executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility.
Tony is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences and a widely published author. His work includes numerous articles and six books. Tony’s latest, Most Likely To Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for The Innovation Era, co-authored by Ted Dintersmith, was published by Scribner in 2015. Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World, was published in 2012 to rave reviews and has been translated into 17 languages. His 2008 book, The Global Achievement Gap continues to be an international best seller, with more than 140,000 copies in print.
Tony served as the Strategic Education Advisor for a major new education documentary, “Most Likely to Succeed,” which had its world premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. He also collaborated with noted filmmaker Robert Compton to create a 60 minute documentary, “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside The World’s Most Surprising School System” in 2010.
Tony earned an M.A.T. and an Ed.D. at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.