Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Fostering an Innovator's Mindset in Children

Over the last couple of weeks I have been reading Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World by:Tony Wagner.  The books discusses what parents and teachers need to do to develop an innovator's mindset in children.  Through the presentation of various case studies, it boils down to the 3Ps: letting kids PLAY, allowing them to find and experiment in their PASSION, and to ensure they feel they have a PURPOSE.
My sketchnote on the first few chapters of the book.
The book made me really think about the way I parent and teach.  It reinforced many things I do, and made me relinquish some controls in other areas.  It questioned schooling in general and talked about how school is a place to get "credentialed", not a place of inspirations for many creative, innovative kids.

"Creativity is treated as a bad habit...The system doesn't encourage risk and penalizes failure."

My favourite part of the book began on Page 222 wherein Wagner shares Jeff Hunter's 2007 blog post (which I can't find online!) that outllines Hunter's frustration with what students must do for success in school vs. what skills they need as future innovators.  I have shared it below.  I hope it speaks to your heart as much as it did mine.

~My Son Won't Do His Homework, by Jeff Hunter~
"I am going through hell with my son. He is twelve, and no matter what I do, no matter what my wife or my oldest daughter do, he won’t do his homework. We ground him, we take away all his gadgets, we prevent him from going to birthday parties and other social events that he loves. Other than corporal punishment (which is a place I won’t go), we have tried everything. It doesn’t matter… he doesn’t care. We can't force him to do something he thinks is wrong. And my personal hell is... he is right.
My son can listen to the radio and pick up his saxophone and play whatever he is hearing. Or, if his sax isn’t handy, he picks up whatever other musical instrument is around and plays that.
But he doesn’t do his homework.
I bought him a book about drawing and he gets up at night and reads it and sneaks around the house sketching things. The portraits he does are incredible. The comics he produces are funny, insightful and engaging. Everyone asks him to draw for them.
But he doesn’t do his homework.
My son is rarely if ever unhappy, and people are naturally drawn to him. He has a great delivery on jokes and has a photographic memory for any piece of pop culture he has seen. We riff on Simpson’s lines all the time, cracking each other up in the process. Then he’ll tell me movies he saw three years ago, shot by shot, line by line.
But he doesn’t do his homework.
My son is intellectually curious. He loves to learn new things and is always asking me “Why does something work this way?” or “What about that?”
But he doesn’t do his homework.
My son loves video games. I work at a video game company so I know how long it is supposed to take to finish all the missions in your average next gen video game. My son takes half that time. He holds competitions with his friends where, after he beats them, he shows them all the tricks that he has figured out about how to beat the game.
But dammit, he doesn’t do his homework.
The other day I insisted that my son finish a piece of homework. I sat down next to him and taught myself math that I never learned in all my years of high school and college (remember, he is twelve). I stayed up until midnight with him, browbeating him the entire time, my anger unchecked. Finally, we completed the problem, which had to do with plotting the parabola of a quadratic equation and reducing the result set to a graph of the system of inequalities. The project was about finding the cross section of a river based on a given quadratic equation.
The next morning my son woke early and went down and made his project interesting to him. He put in cartoon characters exploring the depth of the river, and drew a shark (which he labeled with his teacher’s name) about to eat a happy little duck (which he labeled “My Grades”). He drew a fisherman packing gear and assorted other fish and life. These were not just doodles – he actually helped clarify some of the information that he had been struggling with. By drawing the characters he was helping himself understand what the lesson was trying to teach.
My entire family was completely enthralled by what he had done. It was not only artistically creative and engaging, it actually helped clear up the very nature of the project. Justly proud, we anxiously looked forward to hearing how his teacher responded.
My son returned home from school downcast, shuffling his feet. I asked him what was wrong. “My teacher didn’t like the project, because I put it on the wrong size paper.”
I don't have much hair, but I am ready to tear what little I have out at the roots. My son doesn’t do his homework because his homework is stupid. I have spoken to educators and principles and academicians and grandparents and probably a hundred other people , and nobody has given me a decent answer to this question: "Why are you so convinced that my son is going to be an academic or an investment banker?" Because as far as I can tell, those are the only two things that schools prepare kids to be.
I have been sitting by my son's side for 7 years, doing his lessons. I believe I can state with the unequivocal clarity of someone that his given valuable time to a task that is largely worthless but required... the homework is just plain dumb. It is boring and condescending and even my son, at the age of twelve, can figure out that the rules are arbitrary, that they are enforced in a haphazard fashion, and that the stuff that he loves (art and music and video games) will be a great future for him and the stuff he hates (math and science) is something he will never compete in, never have a chance at.
But school doesn’t care, because school does not have the objective of helping my son produce the maximum amount of value in the future that he will probably encounter. School cares about ensuring that he knows how to take tests, follow directions and can do math that he will never have to care about for the rest of his life. School cares that he can either prove that he is worthy of being in the top 5% that will go on to be homogenized and brainwashed in a top-notch school so that they are almost completely without originality of thought or perspective or that he gets the hell out of the way for those kids that meet that description. School cares that he can be measured and managed, so that he will be a good little cog in a habitual big wheel.
As a parent I am caught between two worlds. I am 100% certain that school is doing great damage to his future prospects, but I also know that the game is rigged to be in favo[u]r of kids who get the right grades. Because recruiters can’t seem to get off the “experience and education” kick that does so much damage to our society and our children, I know that my children’s future job prospects are being controlled by people who have never once taken a critical look at what really goes into producing value for a business or market. They just know that their client (the hiring manager) told them they wanted somebody from Stanford with a certain GPA. And if they can get that butt in that seat they can then go deal with the next client.
I want to focus on what will make my kids successful, on what will allow them to provide the most possible value to their clients, their society and themselves. But I have to focus on what will get them work, even if that will hurt them, society, the companies that hire them and everyone around them. This is the very definition of broken system, the very epitome of how we are driving ourselves off a cliff all in the name of safe driving."


  1. Oh, Jen. Thanks for posting this. It hit close to home. Two nights ago, my spouse and son (Mr 14) wrestled companionably with a science problem about displacement. Their mistake was trying to make it make sense in a real-world context (which it didn't). The critical thinking answer they generate was, of course, not the "right" answer. They knew, going in, that it wouldn't be, but needed to "push back" against stupid homework in the only way they could. Sigh.

    1. I hear you. We really need to think about why we are making students (or our own children) do the work. Will they learn the concept or how to have the institution.