Need to foster Innovating – Part II

(this essay previously posted June 27, 2007; on

Adding fuel to my previous posting on the need to foster innovation as an embedded aspect of a Canadian learning society – especially among children and youth – comes a blazing report from the Conference Board of Canada, assessing Canada a grade of ‘D’ in … wait for it … innovation.

‘How Canada Performs’, released earlier this month, assigns Canada this failing grade for lagging in investment in R&D, producing a lower share of graduates in science, engineering and the trades, and for falling behind in the creation and commercialization of knowledge.

“Innovation”, the report authors say, “is an essential component of a high-performing economy; it is also critical to environmental protection, to a high-performing education system, to a well-functioning system of health promotion, disease prevention and health care, and to an inclusive society.”

Yet, in comparison to 16 other industrialized countries, Canadian performance in innovation is “stunningly poor,” with the highest four rankings in innovation assigned to Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and the US (Canada is ranked 14th out of 17 countries, or fourth from the bottom-most ranking).

What’s behind the ranking and assignment?

According to the authors, our laggardly ways can be attributed to a shortage of skilled researchers essential for fueling innovation, we are miserly when it comes to investing in innovation, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Canadians are complacent and generally unwilling to take risks.

Our culture “is unwilling to accept the failures that are built into an environment that genuinely supports risk taking. Nor are we wholly comfortable with differentiation, success and excellence.”

This attitude, the report asserts, is holding Canada back in entrepreneurial and technological innovation, in developing new approaches and new technologies to protect the environment, in innovating in our health-care system, in experimenting in our educational system, and in social innovation. “

It is this culture that “must change and change quickly,” say the report authors, who conclude the chapter on innovation with an appeal “to develop a national strategy to focus on specific paths to Canadian innovation and excellence.”

Yes, yes and yes!

How to change this is, of course, the question on which to ruminate.

The Conference Board has created a Leaders’ Panel on Innovation-Based Commerce (LPIC) to propose national paths and priorities for the investments of businesses, governments and academic institutions in innovation.

Now Canada needs similar kinds of strategies to foster the disposition to innovate and support innovating throughout the education enterprise that (especially) awaits young children and teenage youth, the age groups that are most creative and innovative by nature.

Unfortunately, conventional schooling in Canada for this age group is being driven by an agenda emphasizing prescriptive curricula, rote learning, testing and grading. This formula, first devised in the Victorian age to train servile factory workers, does almost nothing to foment innovative thinking.

Ironically, in the chapter of its report focusing on education, the Conference Board assigns a grade of ‘A’ to Canada for producing large numbers of graduates. However, the report also says the Canadian education system does “not work well for the highly educated and innovative people”.

It appears the Conference Board is unwittingly validating a system that is responsible for the foremost problem it identifies in this report – namely our “stunningly poor” record on innovation. Yet we hope the Conference Board is ready to recognize what research has also made abundantly clear: that all humans – Canadians or otherwise – emerge into this world as creative, discovery-oriented and innovative learning organisms. To remain so, we need only nurture our natural disposition and discontinue the practice of forcing learning through a system that stifles our innate inclination to innovate.

Hold the donuts and beer, we’d like to help out.

– Michael Maser

(‘How Canada Performs’ is available from the Conference Board of Canada, and may be downloaded for free from the website:

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