As someone with a true commitment to education in this country, I often ask myself if innovation can be nurtured or taught. It’s a question that’s not easily answered; but it’s well worth asking, because we have legions of bright, curious and creative children who, with the right guidance, could contribute ideas and inventions that would enrich the quality of life in our nation for generations to come.
Before I get to the ways that innovation can be nurtured or taught, it’s important to step back and look at whether our children, the innovators of the future, are gaining social and emotional skills — like sensitivity, empathy, social mindfulness, teamwork and an ability to imagine very different life experiences — in elementary and middle school. These are the interpersonal essentials for innovation, the precursors and prerequisites for harnessing outside-the-box thinking on behalf of others, and they’re just as important as math, science and technology training.
Think about some of the specific non-cognitive skills and attributes that lead to successful innovations — an insightful understanding of the end-user; collaborative connections with colleagues on an integrated design; and a true openness to the surrounding world. In the end, as I’ve learned through the Committee for Children, which is helping youngsters develop vital social and emotional skills, awareness counts as much as algorithms.
If I had to pick one skill that’s fundamental for innovators, however, it would be empathy, because of the way it allows us to see things from another person’s perspective. In other words, “How can I, as an innovator, help fill gaps and needs in people’s lives?”
As Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, points out, empathy is a challenging personal choice that requires us to become vulnerable in an effort to connect with others. And, for her part, Barbara Byrd Bennett, the Chief Executive Officer of Chicago’s public schools, believes that learning is a social process that helps children feel greater emotional connection and empathy.
There are other school-based skills that contribute to innovation. Thom Markham, a psychologist and school redesign consultant, feels that concepts need to be taught versus facts; creative and thinking tools ought to be employed; discovery must be rewarded; reflection should be encouraged; and teachers, themselves, have to establish and model an innovation ethos in the classroom.
Some of the best academic research makes it clear that once students graduate to careers, their creative output can be increased if organizations engage them and foster conditions that expand the breadth and depth of their thinking.
One school of thought, for instance, says that to innovate effectively and generate a dynamic flow of valuable ideas, people need structure and methodologies, rather than conventional brainstorming sessions.
Another expert — Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a co-author of “The Innovator’s DNA” — has stated that creativity is close to 80 percent learned and acquired and that, given the right teaching or instruction, almost anyone can learn to be an innovator (although perhaps not on the Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos level).
Even if they don’t run Apple or Amazon, disruptive innovators generally possess five key skills, according to Gregersen and his colleagues, Jeff Dyer and Clayton Christensen:
Questioning — which allows innovators to challenge the status quo and consider new possibilities
Observing — which helps innovators detect small details that suggest new ways of doing things
Networking — which permits innovators to gain radically different perspectives from individuals with diverse backgrounds
Experimenting — which prompts innovators to relentlessly try out new experiences, take things apart and test new ideas
Associational Thinking — which draws connections from questions, problems or ideas from unrelated fields
Innovation is a difficult skill, and subject, to teach and learn. And, when all is said and done, it’s probably more like cultural anthropology than anything else. This means that aspiring young innovators need educational tools that can help them understand people and society if they want to create cutting-edge and life-altering breakthroughs.
Unfortunately, though, anxiety often gets in the way of up-and-coming innovators, no matter how well they’ve been taught, or how well they’ve learned. Innovators constantly look down into the abyss of the unknown, and it’s usually pretty dark and scary. This inhibiting discomfort is only natural, and emerging innovators may simply have to live with it, because the fear of failure that lines the path to the future is lodged within. Indeed, even the best teachers can’t stamp out steady streams of intrepid innovators.
This article is one in a series written for CoMotion, the UW’s innovation hub. To learn more from UW innovators, visit uw.edu/innovation. Dan Kranzler is Founder of the Kirlin Charitable Foundation.