Tony Wagner: The Innovation Interview

Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard shares his thoughts and insights on innovation, technology and education.

Tony Wagner is the first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard. Prior to this, he was the founder and co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for more than a decade. Tony consults widely to schools, districts, and foundations around the country and internationally. His previous work experience includes twelve years as a high school teacher, K-8 principal, university professor in teacher education, and founding executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility. Tony is also a frequent speaker at national and international conferences and a widely published author.

His work includes numerous articles and five books. Tony’s latest, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World, was recently published by Simon & Schuster to rave reviews and has been translated into six languages. His 2008 book, The Global Achievement Gap has been an international best seller and has also been translated into several languages. Tony has also recently collaborated with noted filmmaker Robert Compton to create a 60 minute documentary, “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside The World’s Most Surprising School System.” Tony earned an M.A.T. and an Ed.D. at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

The simplest definition of innovation is that it is “creative problem-solving.” Some innovators go beyond mere creative problem-solving and “bring new possibilities to life.” Both kinds of innovation are essential.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

I cannot think of a single industry or human enterprise that does not need to embrace innovation. But that does not mean that everyone should take risks. Innovation involves more often taking initiative in trying to look at things differently. It is not always about risk-taking.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

Paraphrasing Mark Twain I believe, I have tried not to let my studies interfere with my education and have said the same to my students and children.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

I am proud of the books I’ve written – especially the last two – The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators. They were extremely challenging books to research and to write and required me to learn a great deal about business and innovation – things about which I knew very little.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

Both, but mostly digital these days.

In your book “Creating Innovators: The Making Of Young People Who Will Change the World” there was a clear trend expressed supporting that parents who allow their children to play and develop a passion became successful innovators. As the generation profiled in your book grows up and has families of their own, how will they foster a creative environment for their children to become innovators?

Too soon to say, but my bet would be yes. Once you have experienced the power of play, passion, and purpose, you are not likely to turn back to dutiful obedience or compliance.

LEGO’s, Lincoln Logs and building blocks all have allowed children for generations to play and build things only limited by their imagination. Today as video games continue to become more popular, what impact will they have on a child’s development as an innovator?

I think the access that the Internet gives for learning is hugely important for innovation. I am far less certain about the value of games as contributors to innovation. It is interesting to me that the parents whom I interviewed for the book who had jobs in technology limited their children’s use of the computer and TV.

As the cost of tuition rises every year and as interest rates rise, do you think that we will see a new generation of Innovators? A generation that is non-college educated, but one that is self-taught from doing and being driven by a desire to make a difference?

Absolutely! Kids today are learning to hack their own education – finding different, cheaper ways to learn what they need.

What are the greatest lessons that the MIT Media Lab and Stanford can teach us about developing and implementing innovation?

What fascinates me is that both schools are “startups.” They had to make a clean break from the conventions of academia in order to create more opportunities for multidisciplinary and hands-on learning. I think we need more colleges to start brand-new programs from scratch – in effect charter school colleges.

What is the future of education in the United States and do you think that we will ever see K- 12 schools move away from standardized testing and towards a system that is designed to engage, inspire and motivate students to find their passion?

If we do not see these changes, then I think our children’s future, the future of the American economy, and even our democracy, will be in grave jeopardy. The problem is that far too often teachers teach in the ways they have been taught, and parents want their children’s schools to look like the ones they attended. What we need are leaders who understand the need for fundamentally different approaches to education who can help parents and teachers see what’s at stake and what’s needed.