Who Will Be The Innovators?


Recently President Obama spoke of a new era of innovation, of finding ways that will allow this country to go green and develop alternative sources of energy. Now, I am all for this idea. But then again, who wouldn’t be?

First, it follows a topic that has dominated our political and cultural conversation for at least three decades. Resolving the issue of our reliance on foreign energy resources has been a key point of both our foreign and domestic policies for just as long.

It is the same old discussion – we use too much oil; that oil is overseas; and we need to develop alternative sources of energy. Many people ignore the third point and say that all we have to do is to expand and exploit the resources that we have in this country (both oil and coal). This argument does little to resolve the first point and ignores the balance between the environment and where these energy resources may be located.

Whether we want to admit it or not, there has to be a consideration for the environment in the discussion of energy. Those same people who will drill for oil anywhere and anytime also seem to echo the same mantra that our consumption of fossil fuels has nothing to do with climate change (not global warning, but climate change!). The sad fact is that there is a correlation but because of what so many people have done to cloud the issue, it is hard for many people to realize that.

From a political standpoint, it is so easy to simplify an issue when, in fact, it can be very complicated. The problem is that many people do not have the capability or desire to wade through the issues. It is so much easier to chant a mantra than seek alternative solutions. But alternative solutions would allow us to reduce our present consumption, stretch our resources, and resolve environmental issues. There is a need for innovators who can see this picture and create solutions. But I ask the question again, “where will the innovators come from?”

They will, of course, come from our schools. Didn’t President Obama, in his State of the Union speech, call for 100,000 science and mathematics teachers in the next ten years? With that many science and mathematics teachers, we clearly will be able to produce individuals who can come up with innovative and creative solutions, can’t we?

But how is that going to work? First, if there are high school seniors graduating this year who are thinking about become science or mathematics teachers, it will be six years at least before they can begin the job. Even without a consideration for the current legislation, it takes at least two years past the baccalaureate degree to become a certified teacher. And that is not a guarantee that one will be hired. Most schools today seem to want generalists, individuals who can teach a variety of subjects rather than a single one. Within the framework of this six-year time frame, one can get an understanding of the basics of the subject matter and the mechanics of teaching the subject matter, but not the nuances of each subject that will allow one to be creative. And if the teachers are not creative, then how can they teach their students to be creative? (More on this later in the piece)

Now, if an individual desires to focus on a single subject and delve into it so that they can are able to understand the nuances of the subject, the chances are that they will find better paying positions outside the classroom. It is a fact that has been demonstrated time and time again that individuals with a talent and understanding of the subject area (such as chemistry or physics) often find better paying positions in the private sector. It is sad but our schools lose too many qualified and talented individuals because the pay they receive for work in the classroom is often below what they can receive for using the same knowledge and skills in the private sector.

And even if such individuals can find a way to stay in the classroom and utilize their capabilities to foster creativity and independent thought, they often find that the classroom is not the incubator of creativity but a killer of creativity.

I tell my students something that one of my advisors once told me many, many years ago; the most curious creature on this planet is a two-year old. To the dismay of their parents and later, their teachers, they are into everything and they have questions about everything. Yet, when these same children graduate fro high school, they are no longer curious and have no desire to seek what is beyond the horizon or even cross to the other side of the road.

These are not anecdotal statements! A recent report stated many of our college students are incapable of thinking creatively and independently (http://www.sacbee.com/2011/01/17/3330387/study-many-college-students-not.html); they are unable to see the solution to a problem that is presented to them. And if they cannot solve the problems before them, how shall they solve problems that haven’t even developed yet?

And there is additional evidence to suggest that our present system of teaching (created by the “No Child Left Behind” law and reinforced by its successor, “The Race For The Top”) is behind this lack of creativity – see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/26/education/26test.html and http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2011/01/is-no-child-left-behind-to-blame.html

When you focus on testing as a measure of success and your tests focus on nothing more than memorization and recall, the lowest part of the thinking hierarchy, you will do little to foster any sort of analytical or creative thinking.

I am not saying that there are those who come out of our present schools incapable of such thought. But they find themselves in a system that reinforces the present system instead of developing a new system.

And there are teachers out “there” who do foster creativity and independent thought. And contrary to what I heard Bill Gates tell Charlie Rose last night on PBS (2/8/2011), we do not need to determine what it is that makes a good teacher just that. We have done it – go back thirty years when we had this discussion of creativity and innovation before and see what the NSTA saw (see my notes for “The Crisis in Science and Mathematics (1990)”) I am not saying that innovation is not possible but if we are to foster innovation and develop innovators, the present system must change.

During the 1980s, when creativity and innovation were the buzz words of industry, it was discovered that innovation comes, not from the top down but from the bottom up. As I noted in my 1990 piece, the NSTA showed that it was the classroom teacher, supported by their school administrators, who fostered the same creativity and innovation. Under the present system, supported and driven from the top down, this cannot happen.

The present system, which focuses on testing, only requires a textbook. This, in part, explains the rise in the development of on-line courses. Read the textbook and answer some questions and you will have an understanding of the subject matter. There is also an attitude among administrators and many policy makers that all that is needed to teach is a textbook and an annotated key.

But teaching science requires laboratory work. And laboratory work requires equipment and supplies. The opposition to laboratory work is related to these costs. There is talk that we need a “Sputnik moment”, an event that will galvanize the public into action. We really don’t need such an event for the event is staring us in the face.

What we have to realize is that our answer to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 was a support for laboratory-oriented science programs. Monies were provided for new labs, new lab equipment, and new lab supplies. Teachers were taught how to use these new materials and given ways of teaching that foster not only knowledge but thinking skills. But over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, as the demands of the Viet Nam war sapped our resources this support disappeared and ultimately ran out.

We already know what works; we do not need to reinvent the wheel. The projects developed in the 1960s fostered creativity and independent thought; let’s bring them back and support them.

The solution lies in several areas. First, Congress must realize that education spending is part of the key and spending on education cannot be cut but must actually increase. There is this call, a mantra if you will, for the creation of jobs in this country but jobs require training and training requires funding. If you cut such funding, you cannot in any way create jobs. Of course, if Congress were to first cut funding for the military-industrial complex that so dominates our government spending and thought today, they could easily find the funds to support education. There was a bumper sticker several years ago that spoke of the day when teachers had the funds for the classroom and the Air Force would have to hold a bake sale to buy a new bomber.

Second, revise the salary structures of the local schools. Reduce the salary of administrators so that they are more in-line with their jobs and the time it takes to do their jobs. Pay the classroom teachers equitable and fair salaries, representative of what was required to become a teacher. Put money into the classrooms, not the offices.

Since this is all about jobs, maybe the CEOs of America’s companies should be contributing as well. The differential and disparity between the salaries of the top 10% of America’s companies is so far out-of-line with what the workers of those same companies are making, it surely wouldn’t hurt them to contribute some of their salaries and bonuses for the betterment of this country.

It will require major and bold decisions, now and not later. It isn’t just that we need innovators and creative thinkers, we are looking at the future and security of this country.

Our forefathers understood the role of education. They knew that an educated populace was a necessary component for fighting tyranny and injustice. And in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, they created public support for education. Dictators and tyrants fear an educated public, for such a people can see what is happening.

Freedom comes from an educated mind. A person with an educated mind seeks what is on the other side of the road and what is beyond the horizon. Innovation comes when one is challenged to do that; it is time we meet the challenge.

1 thought on “Who Will Be The Innovators?

  1. Pingback: “Will Someone Please Explain This To Me?” « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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