Innovation Ready – an open letter to parents

Dear Fellow Parent

Do you want your child to get a good job when they leave school? Do you want your child to be attractive to prospective employers? Do you want your child to succeed and be off your hands by the time they’re 25 years old? – of course you do.

Let’s be honest, after we’ve accepted that we want our children to be happy and healthy, the over-riding concern that most of us parents have – especially as they move towards the end of their schooling – is that our children are on ‘track’ towards a ‘good job’.

So how do most of us respond to this desire? Simple – we take what worked for us – or what seemed to work for most other people – and encourage them to succeed at school. And what does that success look like? Again a simple answer – it’s about the accumulation of qualifications at as high a level as possible in order to gain entry to university and get on ‘track’ towards that dream job – and associated financial security (for them and us!).

Well I hesitate to tell you this but you’d better think again. As the father of two sons – who both succeeded in terms of academic attainment at school – who then both dropped out of their respective university courses – I have some real life experience.

I’m pleased to report that both of them have now made their way in the world and I’d like to think that their success is down to their intrinsic drive, resilience and innovative ability over any academic success that they had at school.

I am not for one minute suggesting that academic success at school should be downplayed – quite the reverse in fact. But what I am saying is that the manner in which we engage young people in learning needs to prepare them much better for the world which they will inhabit over their working lives of fifty or sixty years.

Tony Wagner, Co- Director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, argues that schools are not “adding the value and teaching the skills that matter most in the marketplace.”

In a recent interview Wagner quoted an executive who complained: “We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.”

Wagner argues that the key quality that employers are looking for in employees is the capacity to innovate. This is backed up by even the most cursory examination of some of the qualities global companies are looking for in new starts. For example, Rolls Royce looks for people who can succeed in “complex, innovative and highly challenging environments”; Deutsche Bank is seeking interns who can “provide fresh, innovative thinking”’ and Shell wants people with “intellectual, analytical and creative ability…”. As one might expect Google seeks people who can, through innovation, take things that work well and improve upon them in unexpected ways.” And IBM want “people who have skills, creativity and passion..”.

And the common factor in all of these cases is clearly a requirement that prospective employees have a capacity to operate effectively in an innovative environment.

Such firms take academic success for granted – this is not a matter of knowledge taking a backseat to the skills agenda – but what is clear is that the goal of education should not be to make every child “university ready” but – as Wagner calls it “innovation ready” i.e. ready to add value to whatever they do.

The word innovation derives from the Latin word innovates, which is the noun form of innovare “to renew or change”.

The capacity to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are at the heart of innovation. Yet consider how often these qualities are utilised or developed in schools especially as the high stakes examinations come into view.

This is why what’s happening in English education and Scottish education makes for such a fascinating comparison.  Without wishing to enter into any political territory it seems clear to anyone looking in at the English curriculum – via the encouragement and direction of Mr. Michael Gove (one of Scotland’s exiles) – is modeling itself upon an episode of the ‘Good Old Days’. Where the conviction, certainty and ideological faith regarding the place of knowledge overrides any reference to the modern skillsets that are essential in the modern workplace.

That’s why Scotland, in common with countries such as Finland, Australia, India and Singapore (the latter one of the highest performing education systems in the world in terms of academic attainment) is on the right lines with Curriculum for Excellence – with its wider focus on developing personal capacities in addition to the acquisition of knowledge, especially the capacity to think independently, creatively and collaboratively.

Yet this is still an enormous jump for so many of us who have lived in a more secure and certain environment where one’s eventual place in the job market was directly related to how many Highers we achieved and the quality of the degree we were awarded.

I’ll know we have changed when headteachers start to receive complaints from parents that their child is not being encouraged to think creatively or to develop the innovative skills they will require in the future – as opposed to the amount of homework being issued to an eight year old child.

4 thoughts on “Innovation Ready – an open letter to parents

  1. Completely agree, Don.

    I assume the homework quip at the end regards the complaint that parents want more homework? I have dealt with homework concerns (as parent council rep, not as teacher) where too much was the concern. I think parents really are seeing, at the younger stages of primary, that education is wider than a book of “Sums” which makes for positive thought.

    My 7 year old wants me to start an after school club at his gaf to play with Rasberry Pi devices. Imagine that 10 years ago!

  2. Don
    Am not sure , until recently anyway, that Singapore would have been held up as a model for the teaching of creative and independent thinking?

    Agreed innovation as well as communication skills and team work very important, but values viz determination and loyalty also equally sought after.

    I wonder if we are not entering an era where very few of us will work for large companies who will increasingly outsource their innovation viz pharma and fod companies are already doing to smaller and more nimble units. This does not mean an end to the need for skills viz chemists, accountancy etc but will allow more scope for the less well qualified but more entrepreneurial minded to flourish. Can entrepreneurialism be taught in schools?

  3. Thanks Don – Another great article – I do enjoy reading your words.

    Yes Yes Yes , for a number of years education in Scotland has been encouraging the entrepreneurial outlook and we have in conjuction with CfE made great progress ( though lots still to be done)

    I remember years ago in East Lothian at an event for parents someone asking if we were trying to create a nation of money grabbing, entrepreneurs, bmw driving, capitalists, you know the type, they do exist, the me me me mentality -only in it for self etc

    Of course this is miles away from encouraging enterprising young people wth ideas, creativity and can I say Ambition ( still more to be done) resilience,positive attitude and the ability to “communicate”

    I do think we are doing the above and need to keep doing it – of course this is not just a job for schools – parents (first) employers and even government have vital roles to play.

    Thanks Angus for our reply and the answer is yes we can

  4. Angus – thanks – as ever your comments are very welcome. We are in agreement about the importance of values – I’ll use the old excuse of trying to capture an idea within a set word limit.

    As regards Singaporean education, it’s interesting to reflect that they understand the need for change – even for such a high performing system in terms of academic attainment – see

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