If we want to innovate, we need to foster innovating

this essay originally posted in www.selfdesign.org in May 2007)

“What kind of trouble is our civilization likely to encounter ahead? How can we cope, and how might we take advantage of opportunities that arise for civilization’s renewal?” – ‘The Upside of Down’, Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon (2006)

“It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover”. – Henri Poincaré, award-winning mathematician and mentor to Albert Einstein

Worldwide media recently announced a most unusual challenge from British billionaire Richard Branson: A US$25-million prize for the first person to come up with a way of scrubbing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere in the battle to beat global warming. The stated goal of the competition is “to spur innovative and creative thought to save mankind from self-destruction.”

While we might be tempted to leave this competition solely to the inventors, technologists and tinkerers among us, that would miss a larger, equally vital opportunity. The higher ground to aim for is to embrace and integrate innovating itself as a valued, common practice across our society. To bring the habit of innovating and fostering creativity into our lives and especially the learning lives of children.

The practice of tinkering and innovating is as old as human culture itself, dating back to when somebody first learned how to willfully generate fire and bring light and heat into our cold, dark existence. We can assume our predecessors valued this discovery, and we’ve had good reason to value innovating since then. More recently, creative tinkering ushered in the industrial, electrical and digital ages.

What are the characteristics that set apart inventors from the rest of the herd? According to Dr. Robert Root-Bernstein, a Michigan biochemist and author of several books and papers on scientific discovery, inventors among us consistently favour strategies like abstract thinking, intuition, play and fantasy.

This has been borne out by scientists such as Alexander Graham Bell, who traced his invention of the telephone to a childhood fascination of studying nature, and especially bone structure, with daydreaming. Likewise, Albert Einstein credited some of his most productive early thinking to a back seat in his high school math class where he ignored his lessons but fantasized about riding on a light beam.

Root-Bernstein says the historical record is clear that logic and rational reasoning is insufficient to spur innovation and discovery. Rather, the praxis of discovery reflects and is motivated by “the subjective, emotional, intuitive, synthetic, sensual aspects that make up the private human face of all creative inquiry.”

This line of inquiry leads us to reflect on the K – University educational system, presently and generally swept up in wave of standardization emphasizing testing, rote memorization, grading, prescribed curricula and specialization from one lobe of the continent to another. Is this a helpful or appropriate way of nurturing innovation and creative thinking among children and young people? Not according to Root-Bernstein.

“Our education system generally ignores the emotional and subjective aspects of creativity,” he wrote in a recent paper on the art of innovation.

“Only when mind and body, synthesis and analysis, personal thought and public communication skills are all part and parcel of cognitive studies and educational practice will an enhanced capacity for innovation become available to everyone.”

Root-Bernstein’s assertion is corroborated by researchers from Israel where nurturing creative thinking has been adopted as a national policy to aid in the country’s survival and resiliency. There, while it is recognized that some people naturally have higher creative abilities than others, activities that stimulate curiosity, fantasy, imagery and problem solving, are encouraged in school and out to contribute to an Israeli creativity quotient.

Two important findings of Israeli researchers are noteworthy. The first, the result of an 18-year study first published in 1997, was that the best single predictor of success in any field was neither high IQ, standardized test scores, nor high school grades but, rather, the participation of children in self-chosen activities such as music, painting, chess, electronic and computer tinkering and creative writing.

The second finding, mirroring the first and published in 2005 by Dr. Roberta Milgram, a Tel Aviv University professor who has staked most of her 40-year career studying creativity, is that the individualization of learning at home and at school would greatly increase the likelihood of creative thinking in children and adolescents.

Authors like Homer-Dixon have made very compelling cases for societal ‘renewal’, for the need to innovate and improve our capacity for resilience in the face of a growing number of challenges. And entrepreneur Richard Branson has done his part.

Now we need politicians and educational leaders to step up and help improve our capacity to become an ‘innovating society’. Part of this capacity-building involves moving beyond the over-prescribed, test-driven treadmill approach that continues to define most conventional schooling.


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