John Kao calls himself an innovation activist, a description that covers his work related to "large-scale innovation" with nations, governments, corporations — and education.
Large-scale innovation is a term he cooked up a decade ago to describe how innovation works at a societal level.
"Most of what we know or think we know about innovation is determined by looking at companies and entrepreneurs, but countries, cities, regions and states are not amenable to the same tools and analysis as enterprises," Kao notes.
And, often, neither are schools.
Kao says today’s education system is ripe for innovation on many levels. And just as with countries or companies, that innovation must start with a strategy. In the case of schools, that means supporting ways for young people to practice innovation.
"You have to help them learn how to do it," Kao says. That requires teaching students about creativity, change-making, storytelling and how ideas are amplified and developed. It also includes making room for them to put on an entrepreneurial hat and learn how to take their bright ideas to market.
Helping students learn how to innovate is the focus of Kao's 30 years of teaching experience and of his work as CEO of EdgeMakers, an interdisciplinary project-based and challenge-based learning regime for innovation.
Kao founded EdgeMakers in 2012 to empower young people who want to be innovators and make a difference in the world while still students. The model is currently in place in the United States, Brazil, Colombia and India, with access coming soon to China.
When it comes to bringing large-scale innovation to the U.S. educational system, Kao says the starting point should be implanting innovation and entrepreneurial experiences at the middle school, high school and college levels, "and making it mandatory if not unavoidable."
That requires giving students a voice as co-creators of their learning experience. "I would be thinking about ways of leveraging the technology landscape and making learning assets more widely available."
He also suggests reconsidering the purpose of education, acknowledging that it shouldn't be about perfect SAT scores or entry-level job skills, but rather "becoming a more fully realized person" and helping students understand what they can do to make a difference.
The core question behind an education system overhaul should be, "How can we give students the tools and the feeling of empowerment to step forward and know they can do something right now?"
Getting to large-scale innovation is no easy task in the current industrial model under which much of education operates. While young people are exposed to a range of digital experiences via the internet and social media and even create content themselves, Kao says there's a growing experiential divide between the technology students can access in their daily lives and the technology they can get in school.
"School feels like the place where you have to unplug. The learning materials still partake of the print economy and the industrial model. Sync the clock speed in the marketplace with the clock speed in education, and there's a significant gap."
To bridge the gap, we should be talking about collaboration, bottom-up approaches and shifting the power and authority balance in the classroom to empower young people in a way that's consistent with their experience in day-to-day life.
How will we know when we've succeeded in changing education? On a micro level, learning would be measured with competency-based assessments. At the macro or societal level, the metric of success would be an uptick in entrepreneurship, innovation and social activism behaviors that move the dial on things society is concerned about over the next 10 to 15 years.