Friday, April 08, 2011

Preserving the Innovator's DNA

An article in the Wall Street Journal by Peter Sims, titled "The Montessori Mafia," provides further evidence of the benefits of early childhood education that focuses on freedom by giving more names of creatively successful Montessori-educated people (See also my earlier post "How to Make it Big"):
...the Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite, which are so overrepresented by the school’s alumni that one might suspect a Montessori Mafia: Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, videogame pioneer Will Wright, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, not to mention Julia Child and rapper Sean “P.Diddy” Combs.
Sims points to a study which suggests that these are not isolated examples:
The Montessori Mafia showed up in an extensive, six-year study about the way creative business executives think. Professors Jeffrey Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of globe-spanning business school INSEAD surveyed over 3,000 executives and interviewed 500 people who had either started innovative companies or invented new products. 
“A number of the innovative entrepreneurs also went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity,” Mr. Gregersen said. “To paraphrase the famous Apple ad campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think different, they act different (and even talk different).” 
I dug around for more information on this study. It was in fact conducted by three researchers, Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen from Harvard, and published under the title "The Innovator's DNA" in Harvard Business Review, December 2009. Their study concludes that there are five key "discovery skills" characteristic of creative executives:
  • Associating: Making connections between different concepts
  • Observing: Paying attention to learn what works, and how
  • Experimenting: Trying out new things, dealing with failure
  • Questioning: Expressing curiosity
  • Networking: Seeking out interesting people to learn from
These are very the much the traits I seek in my graduate students, and I have learned from experience that they are extremely rare! This is surprising because these are things, in fact, that all small children do naturally (until they are "schooled" out of these behaviors by a lifetime of highly structured education). Gregersen says exactly this in an article about their study posted online at INSEAD Knowledge
Gregersen says the five discovery skills may seem ‘intuitive’ but when it comes to the actual practice, “doing them is counterintuitive.” That’s because the adult world in which we live “does not value these actions.”
Gregersen’s advice? Start acting like a child again: “Not 100 per cent of the time, that would be absurd. We’re adults and we have to run businesses. But 20 per cent, 25 per cent of our time, act like a four-year-old again,” Gregersen told INSEAD Knowledge. “Because all these skills are what four-year-olds do. They ask thousands of questions: ‘Why?’ ‘Why not?’ This and that. They’re always asking those questions … They observe intensely and they’ll talk to just about anybody.” 
“These are the things that we all did as four-year-olds. We all did this stuff. And if we happened to attend a Montessori-type school like many innovative entrepreneurs did, then we still might be doing this stuff. But most school and corporate systems consistently say: ‘Don’t do it, stop doing it’ … and we lose our innate creative capacity.”
The connection is really quite simple. If we expect our workforce to be creative and innovative, their education has to allow them a lot of opportunities and freedom to exercise these skills.

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