Could We Create Another Einstein?
A review of Tony Wagner's book Creating Innovators.
Posted April 30, 2012
Wagner’s interest in what constitutes a meaningful science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is something I share as well because a great deal of my research has been precisely on this topic. In a way, I would have liked to have written a book similar to Creating Innovators. However, although I think Wagner and I agree on many points, I would have told the story a little bit differently. What follows is a discussion of alternatives to Wagner’s perspective, followed by a discussion of what I think Creating Innovators gets right.
STEM = Entrepreneurs?
Wagner notes that “I make no claims to a ‘scientific’ sampling. However, based on all that I have learned in the last three years, I have a high degree of confidence that the innovators whom I profile in depth are a representative sample.” In the book he profiles five STEM innovators and three social innovators. These stories are worth learning from and developing hypotheses from, but it is important to remember that the plural of anecdote is not data. In addition, the STEM innovators he profiles are very much entrepreneurs. Therefore they are certainly not representative of the STEM professions because many scientists, mathematicians, and engineers do not have the desire to start a business but rather want to contribute to fundamental scientific knowledge and understanding.
Who creates the innovator?
I also noticed that what is absent in the pages of the book is a thorough discussion of individual differences in intelligence or ability. Wagner does mention that “Of course, the five young adults in these chapters, and the three in the next chapter, are all gifted.” He also asks Judy Gilbert—director of talent at Google—to describe the most important skills Google looks for in an employee. She said, “Of course we look for smarts, but intellectual curiosity is more important.” So if you want to work for Google you have to have high intelligence and even higher intellectual curiosity. Both of these examples demonstrate that individual ability still likely plays quite an important role in the creating of an innovator, not just parenting, mentors, or other external forces, such as culture.
Case in point: Wagner cites Thomas Friedman’s New York Times article “America’s Real Dream Team,” and mentions the teacher Amanda Alonzo, who had taught two Intel Science Talent Search finalists in 2010 who came from Lynbrook High School in San Jose, California. He goes on to interview Alonzo in depth to learn from her because she had taught these students who had become so successful. I want to emphasize here that I don’t doubt that Alonzo is an outstanding teacher; however, what is ignored in this entire discussion is the role of the developed intelligence, ability, or talent of the students themselves. I looked up Lynbrook High School and found out that it is one of the very top high schools in the Bay Area. For the class of 2011, the mean SAT verbal score was 624/800, the mean writing score was 647/800 and the mean mathematics score was 693/800. The mean composite score was 1964/2400. According to this College Board table, a composite score of 1960 puts the average student at Lynbrook in the top 9 percent of all SAT test takers, which is already a select sample because not all high school students take a college entrance examination. It is reasonable to think that the two finalists that Alonzo taught were among the very top students at Lynbrook and likely had stratospheric SAT scores. How much of the credit goes to the student and how much goes to the teacher, parent, or mentor? I don’t know, but I don’t think we can ignore the fact that when a teacher is lucky enough to have outstanding students to work with, then the outcomes are likely to be simply that much better.
Did we create Einstein? Or did Einstein create himself?
Wagner mentions an article by Teresa Amabile titled “How to Kill Creativity” and utilizes her framework to propose a way to understand how to develop the capacities of young innovators. The three components that go into this framework are motivation, expertise, and creative thinking skills. He also mentions a Newsweek article by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman titled “The Creativity Crisis” which discusses how creative capacities have been declining in children since 1990.
As I have discussed in my article If You Are Creative, Are You Also Intelligent?, what is missing here is a discussion of how intelligence and creativity likely have more overlap than we realize. In Amabile’s framework what is missing is recognizing that intelligence is important to many different domains of creativity and innovation. And the creativity scores that are discussed in the Newsweek article are based on only one test—the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. Although we know how to measure intelligence quite well based on over a century of research and there is much agreement on how to define and measure intelligence, creativity researchers have not yet agreed on how to define or measure creativity.
Can passion pay the bills?
Robert Compton has an insightful afterword that provides a key perspective. He notes that “I think this will be the biggest hurdle for this generation of innovators—making passion pay the bills.”
This is probably best illustrated by what Thomas Friedman told Wagner:
“Whatever my kids come up with, I’m for it. One of my daughters has an idea for a fashion website, and I’m going to help her fund it.”
“What if the chances of success are only two percent?” Wagner asked.
“I don’t care, because I know that she will learn from the experience. I also know about the serendipity of life.”
I think it is wonderful that Friedman supports his daughter to pursue whatever she chooses. However, she is lucky because she has a father who has enough money to fund whatever dream she wishes to pursue. But would a parent who has worked two jobs just to make ends meet also tell their gifted child to pursue a business that has a two percent probability of success? I think that sometimes it would be understandable if a parent advised their child to pursue their passions as long as there was a healthy dose of pragmatism that came along with it.
The truth is that passion does not always pay the bills. If you are lucky enough to have a wealthy parent that pays your bills then of course you can pursue your passion—even if you don’t have much talent for it. The majority of us are not that lucky.
What Creating Innovators gets right
Wagner rightly points out that “In reality, only a small portion of our population has been truly innovative—and up until now, that was all we needed to maintain our economic advantage. But our lead in innovation—and thus our economic vitality—is rapidly eroding…So if we are to remain globally competitive in today’s world, we need to produce more than just a few entrepreneurs and innovators. We need to develop the creative and enterprising capacities of all our students.” I could not agree more.
In the same section where Wagner notes that the subjects he profiles are all gifted, he points out that we need “many more teachers and mentors whom you’ve met so far—and different kinds of courses.” So essentially we need more programs and investment in gifted students. However, as I pointed out in my article Is America “on the Wrong Side of History”? there is very little funding for the gifted and plenty of funding for everyone else.
Wagner also emphasizes how critical it is for future innovators to experience failure. In my article Sorry, Talented: Striving Matters I talked about the importance of experiencing failure in particular for the most gifted and talented students who often do not meet academic situations that provide sufficient challenge and opportunities to experience genuine humility. And I share Wagner’s emphasis on play, passion, and purpose and the value of culture.
Overall, Creating Innovators is an important book because it emphasizes developing the talent of students who are essential to the future of America and profiles some extremely bright minds and their parents, teachers, and mentors to provide some insights into ways to develop intellectual and creative talent.
In the words of Wagner: “Parents, teachers, mentors, and employers—we all have urgent work to do.”
© 2012 by Jonathan Wai