VPR Header
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Nadworny: Teaching Innovation


As an innovation specialist and parent, I was pleased to have the opportunity to attend a Legislative Summit on Education Policy last month. It was hosted by UVM and organized by Vermont Speaker of the House Shap Smith.

I went primarily to hear keynote speaker Dr. Tony Wagner who currently works as the Expert in Residence at Harvard’s new Innovation Lab. He’s just published his second book on the future of education called “Creating Innovators” and he presented some provocative ideas and challenges to the Vermont audience about the skills needed for kids to succeed in the 21st century workplace.

Some of our schools have incorporated many of these skills into their new Graduate Expectations. But Wagner has since come to believe that those skills, while necessary, aren’t sufficient. He says we must also teach kids how to use those skills in creative ways. We must teach them to innovate.

To do this, he suggests that we look to successful examples in schools throughout the U.S. According to Dr. Wagner, many of those schools teach through a design thinking process. Schools like the Stanford d.school, Olin College in Massachusetts and High Tech High in San Diego have set up their curricula to train young people to solve real world problems. They use empathy as well as creative and technical skills to both learn and to make a difference. My kids and I had a blast watching a PBS documentary online called “Extreme By Design” that shows what this looks like.

We’ve started introducing design thinking in small ways at Burlington and Winooski High Schools. But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we should already be doing to help our kids get to where they need to be. And Dr. Wagner predicts that transforming our Vermont schools into innovation academies will be challenging.

For one thing, Wagner identified standardized testing as a villain in this scenario. He and other experts are in agreement that standardized tests cost too much money, take away too much valuable teaching time, and most often lead to wholesale mediocrity. He challenged the lawmakers in the room at UVM to send our most powerful, influential delegation down to Washington D.C. and to keep them there until we have a waiver from the Department of Education to opt out of standardized testing.

Wagner insists that Vermont can develop its own proficiency standards to measure educational results, building from other states’ efforts, notably Minnesota. He also claims that Vermont will save a substantial amount of money by doing so.

I have to say that I was quite inspired by what he said and what he’s written. There are lots of adults who will find lots of reasons for disagreeing with him. But in years to come, I hope I don’t have to look my kids and their friends in the eye and not be able to say that we Vermonters did everything we could, and more, to prepare them for success in the 21st century.