Innovation and Entrepreneurship: A 21st Century Skill Set for Success

By Jennifer Janviere

With the recent academic year now behind us, the focus for new graduates shifts towards the future. For many young people with newly minted degrees, this will be the time to go out into the world equipped with ambition and enthusiasm as they search for that first full time job and begin climbing the career ladder.

With recent discussions in the media centering around the challenge faced by many young people to find meaningful employment, the topic of building an arsenal of versatile life and career skills is an especially relevant one. How can the educational system best equip young people to meet these challenges?

Recently, I ran across an interesting article in Forbes online written by contributor Erica Swallow that explored the shift from the skills traditionally taught by America’s educational system towards a focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. The title of the article, “Why America’s Educational System is Obsolete” is clearly meant to be provocative, but the article raises some interesting points.

Swallow references author Tony Wagner, who has written several books on the subject of new learning models, including “The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need—and What We Can Do About It” and recently “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World.” Wagner was founder and co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and recently became the first Innovation Education Fellow at the university’s Technology & Entrepreneurship Center.

Tony Wagner’s work explores the new realities of workforce competition in an increasingly global marketplace. He states that it’s not enough for schools to produce students who simply read and write, but to develop minds that care about what they’re reading and writing. Wagner advocates for skills that teach young people to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and civically engaged citizens. His ideas have received accolades from both academics and legislators.

The Forbes article compared these ideas to the qualities typically promoted throughout the K-12 (and often post-secondary) educational experience. Students are often taught to compete with one another for grades rather than work in teams; to memorize information for standardized tests rather than develop and test hypotheses or analyze problems. Additionally, the classroom is often set up as a hierarchy, with the teacher as the gatekeeper of knowledge. In this environment, learning is often a passive experience rather than an engaging one.

The article’s author suggests that students instead be encouraged to become involved in hands-on learning—taking things apart, solving problems, asking questions, examining problems from new angles and working together—to become truly engaged in, and challenged by, the learning experience. Reasoning, analysis and problem solving, he argues, comprise the foundation for critical thinking.

This idea is not a new one, and has slowly been gaining traction over the last few years. The importance of critical thinking skills is discussed by numerous entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and progressive educators across the country (and the world, for that matter).

Facts and figures will always have a place inside the classroom, but a shift is taking place that requires educators to transition to a role of facilitator and guide for students as they travel along the educational path. This sets students up for success, not just for twelve plus years of K-12 and post-secondary education, but for an entire lifetime. Learning must also be an ongoing process in which people continuously seek new ideas and adapt to evolving technology. The economic prosperity of our future generations of graduates depends on it.

Jennifer Janviere is an instructor and multimedia specialist for the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.

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