Learn to Innovate

Boston-area college students increasingly see their classes as a minor nuisance and rarely the place where their most important learning happens. As David Sengeh, (Harvard, class of 2010) recently told me, “I don’t remember a thing from my undergraduate classes — except for Spanish. Everything I learned that I value came from my experiences and mentors out of class.”

All students must learn to become innovators in order to find interesting, well-paying work. Education for innovation is also critical to the economic future of our country. Students who lack the capacity to bring innovation to their work will see the jobs they have rapidly being off-shored or automated. At the same time, more and more of this millennial generation want to make a difference in the world, a major reason why many of today’s students see their classes as irrelevant. Students today want to learn things that will enable them to make a difference in the world

In my recent research, I have found some college and graduate schools that are educating young people to be innovators — places like Olin College, the Media Lab at MIT, and the Institute of Design at Stanford. The culture of learning in these highly successful and very popular programs is consistent. No matter which one you visit, you see very similar practices in teaching and learning, but these practices are radically at odds with the culture of learning in most of academia:

Individual Achievement versus Collaboration: Schooling in America ranks and sorts students according to their levels of achievement, as measured by tests and grades. Serious, sustained collaboration is not an expectation, for students or faculty. Not so the aforementioned schools, where there is an understanding that collaboration is essential for innovation. Every class requires forms of teamwork and collaboration, and learning how to collaborate is one of the most-valued educational outcomes.

Specialization versus Multidisciplinary Learning: To be clear: there is and will always be an important role for specialists and specialization. But learning to innovate requires crossing disciplinary boundaries in order to solve a problem or create something new. Most of the courses in the three programs I highlight are interdisciplinary; at Olin, nearly half of the students create their own interdisciplinary majors.

Risk Avoidance versus Trial and Error: The most innovative companies embrace failure as part of the process. But it is the rare college class that genuinely encourages students to take intellectual risks, and which encourages learning from — rather than penalizing — failure. Olin and MIT’s Media Lab students, on the other hand, have been taught to view trial and error — and failure — as an integral part of the process of problem solving.

Consuming versus Creating: Learning in most conventional education settings is overwhelmingly passive. The college experience for students in most courses consists of listening to lectures. In classes at Olin, the primary goal is not the acquisition of knowledge but to develop a set of skills in the process of solving a problem, creating a product, or generating a new understanding. Students retain more of what they learn because they have studied and used the knowledge in an applied context.

Extrinsic versus Intrinsic Motivation: Conventional academic classes rely on extrinsic incentives as motivators for learning; students learn in order to get good grades or high GPAs. But Olin’s founders and teachers understand that the desire to innovate is not primarily driven by extrinsic incentives – and courses at Olin provide numerous and varied intrinsic incentives for learning.

The question for higher education is whether they can embrace these innovations in learning in order to help their students learn to be the innovators they want to be — and that our future needs them to be.

Tony Wagner is the first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard. He founded and previously served as co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for more than a decade. His fifth book, Creating Innovators, The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World will be published next year by Simon & Schuster.