Word has it that innovation is crucial to improving a country’s economy, presently and in the future. This is true for big economies like the US (if you watched the American Presidential debates you might have noticed all the talk on developing small businesses) as it is true for Rwanda.


Entrepreneurship Centre, in his new book, Creating Innovators:
The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World seeks to answer this question. He profiles several young innovators, drawing on interviews with them and their parents, educators and mentors to discover the forces that have driven them to succeed in thinking outside the box.

Wagner begins by pointing out that the skills that we give our young people in school are not enough. Further, our economies tend to be consumer-driven economy and in turn driven by debt (deficit financing). Under these circumstances we must do things differently as parents, teachers, mentors and employers. After speaking to a very wide range of young innovators and to all of their parents, he then asked each of them to name a teacher or a mentor who had made the greatest difference in their lives in their development of their capacities to innovate. About a third of them could not name any teachers.

Then he asked if they all could name at least some adult in their lives — two-thirds could name a teacher, the other third named mentors. He interviewed each one of those teachers and mentors, trying to find the patterns of parenting and teaching that contribute the most to the development of a young innovator.

He discovered that in every single case, the teachers who had the most critical difference in the lives of these young innovators was an non-conformist in his or her education setting. They had been so from nursery through university; every single one of them was an outlier. What made them so were the ways in which they taught, and the ways in which they taught, which were very consistent with the practices in the leading educational institutions that produce innovators.

The schooling culture in most countries (including ours) is radically at odds with a learning culture that produces young innovators in five essential respects.

First: Our schooling is all about individual achievement, ranking kids, whereas, the culture of innovation demands collaboration.  We should build teamwork into assignments.

Second: Specialization certainly has a role in innovation, but the world of innovation is a problem-based, multidisciplinary approach to learning.

Three: School culture is risk averse and penalizes failure yet the culture of innovation is all about taking risks and learning from mistakes, trial and error.

Four: As it is schooling is a rather passive experience. People essentially sit all day consuming information and then regurgitating it. Learning for young innovators is about creating — not consuming — real products for real audiences.

Five: Schooling relies on extrinsic incentives to motivate learning. As and Fs. Wagner discovered that young innovators were far more intrinsically motivated, and the pattern of what parents and teachers had both done to encourage intrinsic motivation, had remarkable emphasis in the classrooms and among the parents of play, passion and purpose. Innovators, according to Wagner, want to make a difference more than they want to make money.

Networks are important. They are crucial to support innovators and entrepreneurs and make a critical difference. Young innovators should seek out these opportunities to find support for what they need.

Parents and mentors and indeed our education system can help young people to develop creativity and the skills of innovation by encouraging more exploratory play instead of programming their kids’ days and weeks. Passion derives from more exploratory play. For example the Montessori system which is a more of a play-based form of learning encourages innovation.

We also need to allow kids to experiment and to make mistakes because that is how they are going to gain self-confidence. They don’t gain real self-confidence from having been protected and living in a cocoon all their childhood.

Wagner finally advises young people, first and foremost, must follow their dreams in order to hone their skills. It is good that we have introduced entrepreneurship education in our institutions of learning. The job we have now is to tweak this system to accommodate the ‘non-conformist’ spirit of entrepreneurship. It should be more exploratory and performance- oriented. For example the current secondary school entrepreneurship syllabus despite being very well thought out, lacks the key practical aspect of business planning. It, like other syllabi, is too geared towards exams.

We also need to remember the old African thinking about a child’s upbringing (read education) being everyone’s business. Business sector particularly needs to be involved through mentorship programs.

In order to produce innovators, our system itself has to be innovative.

The author is a Director at Serian Ltd; a Kigali based Management Consultancy. He also lectures and writes a weekly column on entrepreneurship. [email protected]

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