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Why Schools Don't Teach Innovation

The call for schools to turn out students who can succeed in the 21st-century economy is so familiar by now that it hardly seems worthwhile revisiting the issue. But reading an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by a former high school teacher changed my mind ("Educating the Next Steve Jobs," Apr. 14). Tony Wagner argues that young people in this country become innovators in spite of their schools - not because of them.

Although he cites a few notable exceptions, the message is quite clear: most schools are designed and operated to penalize failure. Yet unless students are allowed to fail, they can't learn. Wagner has a point. Some of the most important lessons come from failure. At the time, the lessons were painful, but they were indispensable for personal growth. The self-esteem movement is a formidable obstacle. It persists in the belief that terrible harm is done to young people if they don't always make the mark. I understand the intent of this practice, but I don't think the long-term effects are thoroughly thought through.

Wagner also claims that young innovators are intrinsically motivated. Although grades are important, they pale beside "play, passion and purpose." Rupert Murdoch echoed this view when he wrote that "if we can engage a child's imagination, there's no limit to what he or she can learn" ("The Steve Jobs Model for Education Reform," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 15, 2011). If they're correct, then the entire reform movement has to be viewed as the enemy.

Consider the widespread use of standardized tests to determine the education quality of schools. They are the wrong instrument to determine if the curriculum and instruction are developing innovative thinkers. Instead of identifying innovators, they suppress them. In The Rare Find (Portfolio, 2011), George Anders wrote about what he calls "silent talent," meaning ability that is easily overlooked. Companies, like schools, seek to identify (and overvalue) hard skills, such as competencies with spreadsheets, rather than soft skills, such as persistence.

Reformers can't have it both ways. If they want schools to develop the next Steve Jobs or J.J. Rowling, they have to let go of their obsession with test scores as indispensable evidence of quality education. Many of what Anders calls "game-changers" and "impact players" exist under our very noses. But we're too eager for quantitative data to nurture them. That's a loss for students and for the nation.

Correction: The author is J.K. Rowling.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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