Teaching innovation

Interesting article in Sunday’s NYT by Michael Ellsberg, arguing that what the economy needs most is entrepreneurs, and that schools are really bad at producing them. Money quote:

If start-up activity is the true engine of job creation in America, one thing is clear: our current educational system is acting as the brakes. Simply put, from kindergarten through undergraduate and grad school, you learn very few skills or attitudes that would ever help you start a business. Skills like sales, networking, creativity and comfort with failure.

There are a couple of things wrong with his argument. First off, the idea of teaching sales, especially in K-12 education, makes me queasy, even if I see Ellsberg’s point as a practical matter. (I haven’t run into a whole lot of “vocational” programs focused on the retail sector, even though it’s huge and creates a lot of entry level jobs.) Further, Ellsberg uses examples like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to argue that more people should skip college and start businesses. It’s always dangerous to make an argument about what’s best for everyone based on a few people at the extremes. These guys were successful because they were 1) brilliant and 2) lucky. My guess is that college, or lack thereof, had almost nothing to do with it.

But flaws aside, I very much agree with where Ellsberg ends up. School is mostly (though not exclusively) an extended exercise of trying to locate the correct answer from a highly structured and constrained set of choices. There is little opportunity to deal with real complexity, and few chances to wrestle with problems that don’t have a right answer. We need to take off the training wheels. Why give students pretend or symbolic problems when they could be working on real ones?

Perhaps more importantly, most schooling overlooks entirely the human dimensions of problem solving. It’s not enough to be able to solve a problem on paper. Communicating, persuading, organizing, adapting, evaluating – all of the things that make work messy – are every bit as important to actually solving the problem as the technical solutions are.

At the Workshop, our students spend a ton of time working in groups. Sometimes we let them choose the groups and sometimes we form them. Sometimes the groups work beautifully and sometimes they blow up. We are already hearing grumbling about some people not pulling their weight, and some of our students can get overbearing, not allowing enough room for others to contribute.

Well and good. In the long run, what they learn about how to make groups work (and how to work within them) may end up being more important than the academics.