Quote of the Week
“Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then perhaps we shall learn the truth . . . but let us beware of publishing our dreams before they have been put to the proof by the waking understanding” -Kekule, Scientist who proposed the ring structure of benzene
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Educators- beware of nurturing ‘innovators’
Educators- beware of nurturing ‘innovators’
In this post, GenWise co-founder, Vishnu Agnihotri shares his thoughts about what innovation is and what this means for school leaders and teachers who want to nurture a mindset of innovation.
I like being invited to give talks and be a part of panel discussions because it gives me an opportunity to crystallise my thoughts on the topic and learn from the questions and comments of others. So when I was invited to speak on ‘nurturing a generation of innovators’, I was excited that I had an opportunity to share my thoughts on this topic which is close to my heart. I have mixed feelings on the subject of nurturing innovators though. On one hand, I believe that innovation is not sufficiently encouraged in our system and creativity, risk taking and innovation need to be nurtured. On the other hand, I am wary that the pursuit of ‘innovation’ may lead to superficial efforts and learning. Let me elaborate on this.
The mainstream narrative of innovation
As a child and a young adult, I had looked up to figures like Thomas Edison and ‘Watson and Crick’. I was fed on a diet of ‘Edison invented the light bulb’ and ‘Watson and Crick’ discovered the double helical structure of the DNA. Being a good student at school, I dreamed of doing such great things someday. This was good to some extent as inspiration, but there were at least 2 problems with these kind of narratives-
Breakthroughs are seen as a single isolated moment of inspiration. This is very wrong- years of hard work and failed attempts are behind every breakthrough, including the 2 examples here. Edison himself said that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The perspiration is doing a lot of repetitive boring work over years- whether one is trying different kinds of filaments for electric bulbs to check which will glow better and not burn out, or take painstaking X-ray images of molecules.
Breakthroughs are attributed to single individuals or heroes. Again, nothing could be farther than the truth. In the discovery of the DNA double helix structure, for example, 4 people were responsible for the final discovery- including Rosalind Franklin who took the painstaking images mentioned above. Yet she is an obscure figure today compared to Watson and Crick (that this also has to do with the gender divide is not a topic for this post). And if we dig deeper, we will find that the work of these 4 people depended on the work of so many other people over a few decades or even centuries.
To sum up, innovation, while it appears to be a single disruptive breakthrough attributable to a lone genius, is actually one moment in a slow painstaking, iterative process and is ultimately a collective endeavour. This is not to say that there are no lone imaginative geniuses- there are several. And imaginative thinking and coming up with new ideas that others may laugh at, is crucial for progress.
The problem is that when the narrative in society focuses excessively on the individual and the breakthrough imaginative idea, it de-glamorises the painstaking ‘perspiration’ work. And such painstaking work is always needed, both before and after the breakthrough moment. Not recognising this fact, leads to people in the workplace and students at school trying to take shortcuts to glory and success.
Implications for Educators
One of my old friends, a scientist on a NASA project, shared an anecdote with me 15 years ago, about two 14 year old students interning at his lab. One was a white American and the other was a student of Indian origin whose parents had moved to the US to work. My scientist friend shared that though both students were very bright, there was one big difference- the American student was not afraid to share his ideas, while the Indian student was wary about saying something wrong in the company of these distinguished scientists. 3 out of 5 of the American student’s ideas were ‘stupid’ but 2 of his ideas would make the scientists think- ‘Oh, why didn’t we think about that?!’ The traditional Indian culture of respect for authority and cautiousness was clearly coming in the way of the Indian student’s capability to think imaginatively and learn.
I believe that things have started to change in India and more and more schools are encouraging students to have a voice and take the risk of articulating and implementing their ideas. Young students truly surprise us with what they are capable of at a young age when given the exposure and the opportunity. This is a HUGE POSITIVE and more needs to be done to encourage students to speak up and act freely and imaginatively without fear of being wrong or failing.
Countries which have encouraged such attitudes and mindsets have spawned innovative individuals and organisations that have done much good for the world at large through their innovations. At the same time, I see a downside to this narrative of innovation. When there is a lot of talk about quick success (25-30 year old millionaires) and imaginative ideas and getting VC funding, people can start developing short-term thinking and get focused on ‘cracking the system’ instead of building fundamental value. They may not spend enough time on foundational learning and get impatient about success; they may shift attention from one project to another, ‘not digging deeply enough at one place to strike water’. And as schools tend to mirror the values of society, parents, educators and students also fall into this trap. I have seen many students and parents distracted by the lure of ‘glory’ and ‘shortcuts’, losing thereby the opportunity to build strong foundations. Developing an app may seem more exciting than doing 100 math problems, but sometimes the latter is what is needed, especially if you are just scratching the surface of building apps.
To conclude, my view is that one needs to balance imaginative thinking and creativity with a focus on foundational learning and disciplined work habits. For this to happen, we must put more of the spotlight on the ‘perspiration’ work, so it gets as much due as the ‘inspiration’.
I think Kekule’s quote (at the start of this newsletter) puts it very well. We must dream freely to get the most creative and innovative ideas. But having got these ideas, they must be approved of by the ‘waking mind’ (a careful, critical and rigorous examination).
Nurturing a Generation of Innovators– Malshree Kalla of Ignited Mindz will be moderating a panel discussion on this topic on Jul 30, 2022 at 05:30 PM IST. The panel is composed of principals of leading schools and GenWise co-founder, Vishnu Agnihotri.
Join the zoom Meeting through this link. Alternatively, you can use the following details-
Meeting ID: 896 1900 6693
If you have difficulty in joining the zoom meeting, join on FB live on this page.
Novel Phases of Matter Near Absolute Zero Temperature is part of the Kaapi with Kuriosity series and is scheduled on Sun, Jul 31, from 4 to 530 PM IST, at Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium at Bengaluru. The event will also be streamed live on YouTube.
Dr. Sanjukta Roy, scientist at the Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru says about her session- In this talk, I will describe how atoms are cooled down to temperatures near absolute zero to realise a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC), the coldest matter in the universe, also known as the ‘fifth state of matter’. At such low temperatures, a billion times colder than the interstellar space, atoms behave like waves and their intriguing quantum nature is manifested giving access to novel and exotic phases of matter such as supersolids which can simultaneously exist in crystalline form like solids and flow without friction like superfluids. Ultra-cold atoms in optical traps are highly controllable systems which offer a versatile platform for Quantum Technology applications such as quantum computation and quantum sensing. Cold atoms can be used to realise the most precise gravimeters in space as well as accurate atomic clocks for Satellite Navigation and Global Positioning Systems (GPS).
You can register for the session here.