Emotional Intelligence or Math and Science: Which Is Essential to Innovation?

Interpersonal skills are a prerequisite for harnessing outside-the-box thinking on behalf of others, and they’re just as important as math, science and technology training.

An exterior view of a modern building in Japan, circa 1965. (Photo by Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
An exterior view of a modern building in Japan, circa 1965. (Photo by Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

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.

COVID-19 amplified America’s devastating health gap. Can we bridge it?

The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.

Willie Mae Daniels makes melted cheese sandwiches with her granddaughter, Karyah Davis, 6, after being laid off from her job as a food service cashier at the University of Miami on March 17, 2020.

Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
  • Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
  • To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
Keep reading Show less

Decades of data suggest parenthood makes people unhappy

Decades of studies have shown parents to be less happy than their childless peers. But are the kids to blame?

(Photo by Alex Hockett / Unsplash)
Sex & Relationships
  • Folk knowledge assumes having children is the key to living a happy, meaningful life; however, empirical evidence suggests nonparents are the more cheery bunch.
  • The difference is most pronounced in countries like the United States. In countries that support pro-family policies, parents can be just as happy as their child-free peers.
  • These findings suggest that we can't rely on folk knowledge to make decisions about parenting, on either the individual or societal levels.
Keep reading Show less

Lonely? Hungry? The same part of the brain worries about both

MRI scans show that hunger and loneliness cause cravings in the same area, which suggests socialization is a need.

Credit: Dương Nhân from Pexels
Mind & Brain
  • A new study demonstrates that our brains crave social interaction with the same areas used to crave food.
  • Hungry test subjects also reported a lack of desire to socialize, proving the existence of "hanger."
  • Other studies have suggested that failure to socialize can lead to stress eating in rodents.
Keep reading Show less

A Chinese plant has evolved to hide from humans

Researchers document the first example of evolutionary changes in a plant in response to humans.

Credit: MEDIAIMAG/Adobe Stock
Surprising Science
  • A plant coveted in China for its medicinal properties has developed camouflage that makes it less likely to be spotted and pulled up from the ground.
  • In areas where the plant isn't often picked, it's bright green. In harvested areas, it's now a gray that blends into its rocky surroundings.
  • Herbalists in China have been picking the Fritillaria dealvayi plant for 2,000 years.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…