Educating the Innovation GenerationRCS-values-triangle
A Four Part Heart of the Matter Series
Copyright by Renee Owen and Rainbow Community School, fall 2013

PART I: Why create innovators?
The mission statement at Rainbow Community School ends saying we are developing students who will be “leaders in building a more compassionate and environmentally sustainable world.” Anyone enrolling their child at this unique school must resonate with the urgency of this goal. One would have to have blinders on to ignore the stream of evidence and quotes from leading scientists, sociologists and experts in almost every field who declare that sustainability is the most important vision for human survival. From Tony Wagner, “The solution to our economic and social challenges is the same: creating a viable and sustainable economy that creates good jobs without polluting the planet. And there is general agreement as to what that new economy must be based on. One word: innovation.”

This is a four-part Heart of the Matter on preparing children to be innovators in the new global economy. In the first part we will explore how rapidly our world is changing and try to adjust our own thinking to the new paradigm of innovation. In Part Two we will examine why innovation is important and how innovators are developed. In Part Three we will unveil the barriers to innovation in our current traditional school system and society. Finally, in Part Four we will understand the methods one unique school, Rainbow Community School, in Asheville North Carolina, uses to encourage innovation, and how parents can support that effort at home.

First, how do we define innovation?

The simple definition I propose is a blend of popular definitions: Innovation is creativity that results in new products or new processes that have value and the potential of improving life.  An even simpler definition from Ellen Bowman of Proctor and Gamble is “creative problem solving.”  A more complicated description of innovation from Rick Miller, president of Olin College of Engineering is: “The process of having original ideas and insights that have value, and then implementing them so that they are accepted and used by significant numbers of people.  By this definition, a major innovation is one that is so successful that soon after its introduction few people can even remember what life was like before the innovation was introduced.”

Other words that help define innovation:  systems-thinking, entrepreneurialism, design-thinking.  Good design and innovation are almost synonymous.  Tim Brown, from the award-winning IDEO design firm, in a Harvard Business Review article, lists: Empathy, Integrative Thinking, Optimism, Experimentalism, and Collaborators as the five characteristics of design thinkers. Gary Hamel, who is ranked the most influential business thinker by the Wall Street Journal, defines great design has meeting four qualifications:

Utterly unexpected (You look at it and go, “Jeez, how cool!”)

Amazingly competent (functional)

Aesthetically exquisite (attractive)

Conspicuously conscientious (socially responsible)


The Future of Innovation: The Future of Your Child

Note that the Rainbow’s mission considers preparing students to create a sustainable world as a loftier, more difficult goal than preparing them for prep school.  We can prepare them for high school all day long –that is the most basic job we do–but the bigger, more complex work is preparing them to be innovators.   Not only is this paramount to the survival of the planet, but by the time your child is in the marketplace he will need to be an innovator to be successful.


Over and over, top US employers now rate creativity and innovation among the most important qualities they seek, including the federal government.  From President Obama’s 2011 State of Union address: “In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives.  It’s how we make a living.  We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.”  Although America used to be considered the most innovative country in the world, Obama is aware that we have lost our hold, and as a result, our economic dominance will decline.  Economist Thomas Friedman (author of Freakonomics) along with Michael Mandelbaum in That Used to Be Us:  “Going forward, we are convinced, the world increasingly will be divided between high imagination-enabling countries…and low imagination-enabling countries.  America…needs to become a hyper-high-imagination-enabling society.  That is the only way we can hope to have companies that are increasingly productive and many workers with jobs that pay decent salaries.”


Daniel Pink, author of the hugely popular best sellers A Whole New Mind, and Drive and one of the most watched Ted speakers, boldly states, “Gone is the age of ‘left-brain’ dominance.  The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers—creative and empathic ‘right-brain’ thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.”


Some futurists even predict the fall of large corporations because the size of their bureaucracy keeps most of them behind the cutting edge of innovation.  Traditional corporations have a top-down hierarchy that prevents the creative problem-solving ideas at the grassroots level from ever reaching the top.  Except for the corporations who develop innovative, de-centralized management systems, like Apple and Google, many believe the future belongs to small entrepreneurs. Hamel, author of What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation lists Values, Innovation, Adaptability, Passion, and Ideology as the most important qualities for individuals and businesses  to possess if they are to thrive in the “new market.”  What are the features of this new market?  Kai-ming Cheng, in “The Postindustrial Workplace and Challenges to Education,” puts it in a bad news/good news format.  The bad news is that there will be fewer jobs.  The good news is that “…there will be almost limitless space for freelancing and entrepreneurship.”


What’s new about innovation? 

First, let’s recognize that innovation certainly isn’t a new concept.  We, as humans, wouldn’t even be alive without innovation; and we certainly wouldn’t be as comfortable or have the quality of life we have today without it.  Innovation has always been what advances the human race.  What’s new is how rapidly everything is changing, and how high the stakes are. The fast rate of change makes the demand for innovation a commodity like never before.  It used to be that innovation was a fluke – something that happened despite the odds; whereas now it is becoming expected. Stakes are higher than ever because innovation needs to outpace the rate of destruction.  As H.G. Wells put it, “Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe;” and Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking used when we created them.”


Unfortunately, our public school system is caught up in exactly the same paradigm of thinking that got us into this mess, and they keep increasing the testing, adding more school days to the calendar, and ratcheting up the requirements for achievement in the traditional system so that they are leaving less time and space open for the qualities that all our experts say are needed for innovation, such as creativity, exploration, and intuition.  (We will explore this more in Part III.)

rainbow community

Who are the new innovators?

Most of the world’s greatest innovators became such despite the system, rather than through it.  Einstein being the most famous, as he said, “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”  Although dropping out of high school, as Einstein did, is less common, today’s top CEO’s of innovative companies, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs quit college. Interview after interview with the hottest young innovators, such as creators of the IPhone, reveal that they had to quit school or somehow get around it to pursue their creative interests.  Today’s innovators are frustrated with the traditional educational model.  They want to actively make things rather than passively process information, and they aren’t motivated by extrinsic rewards.

Today’s innovators aren’t just in the field of technology, they are also social entrepreneurs.  They are creating new systems for helping people, such as the microloans that Gramien bank and Kiva created.  They are Laura White, the teenager who started Swim 4 Success, serving inner-city kids who would ordinarily never have the opportunity to take swim lessons.  Although these examples are super-stars, they represent the ilk of the new generation.  In general, young people today have a passion for meaning and purpose.  They want to make a difference in people’s lives.  Matthew T.A. Nash, professor at Duke’s School of Business and author of Social Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise, is in awe of the change in culture evident in the business school. Just since 2005 he has seen a tripling of the number of Duke MBA students who join the Net Impact Club –business students who care about sustainability and justice.  It has risen so much, that now the majority of Duke MBA students join the organization and are actively involved in compassionate service!

Economists say this generation will be the first in many predicted to be worse off than their parents.  Fortunately, that isn’t their primary interest!  After watching the older generations’ quest for power and money, their rebellion is in contrast to the values of greed. Their goal isn’t to consume, and thereby mine as much of the environment and exploit people for profit.  Of course they want to make a living and be comfortable and healthy, but in general, they are purpose-motivated and interested in contributing to making life sustainable.  That’s a good thing, because unless you believe the planet can sustain another generation of mega-consumers, a new paradigm will be necessary for this generation’s own survival.


This generation isn’t cut from the same cloth as the Wall Street three piece suit.  They are post-Watergate, post-Enron, and now post-Great Recession–they have seen the misdeeds of the powerful exposed on the internet, so they aren’t naive.  As a result, they aren’t loyal to the system since they don’t expect the people at the top to take care of them.  They are accustomed to a quickly changing world, where change is the only constant. All of the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not even exist in 2004. This is one of the reasons young people won’t stay in job long.  The US Labor Department estimates that today’s student will have 10 -14 jobs, on average, by the age of 38.  They are life-long learners, so when they stop learning in a position, they move on.  Plus, they don’t let fear keep them from abandoning a secure position to pursue something they are more passionate about or to start their own business or non-profit.


Remember that for children, the environment they grow up in is all they really know.  Sadly, a salient example is children who grow up in abusive homes – they don’t seek help or escape because they assume every household is the same.  Abuse is all they know. That is how powerful environment is to a child’s expectation.  Then, think about how different the world is now than a mere generation ago, and, therefore, how different their assumptions and expectations are.  This generation is growing up with information technology at their fingertips.  They don’t need a traditional education to have knowledge.   They are accustomed to the culture of the internet, where there is no hierarchy– with its open-sourcing, meritocratic architecture–where anyone can become famous or successful in an instant without moving up through the ranks of education or the corporate ladder.  On the internet collaboration and online communities launch spontaneously, so networking on a grand scale is easy and expected.  In terms of innovation: the proverbial genius “tinkerer” of the past who worked out of his basement and who may die a pauper without ever having his inventions known, is now able to post an innovation online with the potential of it going viral.  No wonder this is the most innovative generation thus far.


My hope with Part I of “Educating the Innovation Generation,” is that you find yourself seeing the world differently than before reading this issue of Heart of the Matter.    In Part II you will have the opportunity to explore which conditions in home, school, and work encourage innovation to flourish by creating an innovation-friendly environment.  In Part III we will examine the anti-thesis of an innovative environment – the traditional school system, and in Part IV we will contrast that with one school that exemplifies an educational model for creating innovators: Rainbow Community School in Asheville, North Carolina.




PART II: What encourages innovation?
Copyright by Renee Owen and Rainbow Community School, 2013

Most people assume that creativity and innovation are qualities that a person is born with – that there are an extremely small percentage of people, perhaps, 1 in 1,000,000 who are creative geniuses.  These creative individuals are the inventors and visionaries, but only if they are also given the proper circumstances and have the courage to buck a system that may do everything it can to squash creativity.  The rest of us move throughout our mediocre lives which are interrupted occasionally by an invention or new paradigm that radically changes the way we function or think.


Although this may seem true, futurists and experts in innovation say that is quickly changing.  Gary Hamel draws a metaphor between Earthquakes and change, “Like many sorts of change, major tectonic events happen very slowly and then all of a sudden…the forces of change finally break loose and the planet erupts.”  Malcolm Gladwell made the term “tipping point” common and explains that change doesn’t happen in a straight-line, but is an almost flat line for long periods of time and then suddenly soars.  Think of all the major revolutions in history, from the liberation of India, to the Civil Rights movement in America, and to South Africa– before the revolution it seemed like the injustice would continue forever, but then one day it all shifted.  Practically overnight, India became self-governed, segregation ended in the South, and Nelson Mandela was freed and became president of South Africa.


Experts claim we have already crossed the threshold into the Age of Innovation.  The tipping point is here.  So how do we modify our educational system and our lives to prepare our young people to be innovative?  We can no longer believe that only a radical few individuals are worthy.   In Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Tony Wagner assembled the biographies of young innovators, and developed a list of qualities that were commonly nurtured in their lives.


Using Wagner’s research, there are three vital ingredients to innovation: Play, Passion, and Purpose.  Whether in the home, at school, or at work, these three elements are essential ingredients to creating an environment where innovation thrives.  In this article, which is Part Two of a three part Heart of the Matter on Innovation, I will briefly describe aspects of creativity and innovation.  In Part Three we will narrow our lens on innovation to the context of education, and examine how traditional education has unfortunately been designed to squash innovation.  Finally, we will briefly analyze how one particular school, Rainbow Community School, nurtures innovation.



It requires a big shift in the American way of thinking to consider play as a method of learning or producing value.  To most Americans, it sounds anti-intuitive – How can play lead to productivity?

Most of us think of play as something a child does.  Brain science shows that children will learn more in the first seven years of life than the whole rest of their life combined.  How are they learning so much?  With Play.  In a child’s world, play is work.  With the importance of play in mind, one would reason that play is also a key ingredient for older children and adults to learn and create.  Unfortunately, play has come to be synonymous with “goofing off” – or spending time in a way that has no value other than frivolous entertainment or sloth.  This couldn’t be further from reality.


I am going to break play down into the following components: Experimentation, Imagination, Collaboration, and Enjoyment to help us better understand what play really is and why it is so vital.



What is learning?  It is the most natural thing in the world.  We realize when our babies first begin talking that they have been listening and learning from the instant they were born.  When they are learning to walk they wobble a bit, fall over, and think to themselves, “That didn’t work, I’ll try something different.”  In the spirit of play, they will try again and again, without fear of being “wrong” or making mistakes. Experimenting and testing hypothesis is one of the primary ways we construct learning.


Interestingly, making mistakes is the cornerstone of innovation.  In fact, the mantra of modern day entrepreneurialism is “FAIL FAST,” meaning make lots of low stakes, small mistakes early on until you find the formula that will work.


The early progressive educators and child development pioneers, such as Maria Montessori, Lev Vygotsky, and Jean Piaget understood play to be the most important aspect of learning.  John Dewey, the “Father of Progressive Education” coined the term “constructivism,” meaning children learn best when they construct their learning – when they learn by doing things, by trying and experimenting – rather than by merely listening and summarizing.  As soon as children become fearful of making mistakes, their ability to learn is severely dampened – one of the reasons high stakes testing, where mistakes are “wrong” – has rewired children’s brains to seek right answers rather than explore creative solutions.


Imagine 2014

1. Imagination

Research shows a direct link between people who were imaginative as youngsters and who became highly creative, intelligent people as adults.  From Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at Berkeley and leader in the study of children’s learning and development, “Exactly the same abilities that let children learn so much about the world also allow them to change the world—to bring new worlds into existence – and to imagine alternative worlds that may never exist at all.” Imagination is at the root of envisioning new ideas, new products, and new ways of solving problems; it also an important avenue for learning. Children need vast opportunities to explore boundless imagination – listening to stories and making up and acting out stories are just a few methods.


2. Collaboration

Children can learn independently, but to collaborate is a natural human drive. When people collaborate the ability to construct learning increases dramatically.  For the most part, whether it is our family or our work partners, we toss ideas around with other people.  This increases the number of ideas and helps us ferret out what will work and what won’t.  Also, there is a severe limit to what one person can accomplish alone.  Add colleagues, with various expertise and interests, and the possibilities are endless.  In A New Culture of Learning, Thomas and Brown explain why online peer-to-peer groups and interactive group video games with role playing feel more important to many children than school.  One of those reasons is the collaboration they offer.  Learning and creating expand exponentially when collaboration is in force.


3. Enjoyment

I don’t think enough attention has been given to the mere importance of having fun.  In MRI scans, when people are having a pleasant experience and enjoying themselves their brain lights up – they are more capable of learning and producing.  Children who are deeply in play are almost in a trance.  This is similar to “the zone” that professional athletes, musicians, and mathematicians are in when they are performing at their best, meaning they are totally focused and in the present: no distraction, no thinking about external pressures– just pure enjoyment. Being in “the zone” helps children learn how to focus.  Also, a spirit of playfulness while at work or while learning, creates an environment where people can get a natural injection of endorphins to keep them learning and creating at their optimal levels.  We hear about Google and all the frivolous-sounding amenities available to their employees at any time, such as massage therapists, a volleyball court and gym, and free cafeterias. One thinks, “How does any work get done?” yet this is one of the most productive and innovative companies to ever exist, pulling in $900,000 in profit per employee.


Wagner’s research and the countless interviews he conducted with young innovators showed a common history of children who were allowed to play when they were young.  Their parents understood the importance of play and didn’t want them to be pressured by scholastic work too young.


Play isn’t just important before the age of seven.  Businesses and organizations who have a culture of play – who joke around at work or who institutionalize play by allowing employees flexible schedules so they have ample free time, and days to explore new ideas – are the leaders in the new innovation economy.  Other top innovating companies offer similar amenities to Google, plus employees can dress how they want and bring their pets to work.   Innovative organizations structure employee time at work so that there is opportunity for spontaneous conversations that spur collaboration and great new ideas.


Adults who are going to thrive in a world with fast-paced change, need to be unafraid of making mistakes and willing to explore with an attitude of playfulness in order to adapt. Thomas and Brown: “Children and adults alike must continue to deal with an ever-changing, expanding world.  A child playing with a new toy and an adult logging onto the Internet, for example, both wonder, “What do I do now?  How do I handle this new situation, process this new information, and make sense of this new world?  This alters the formula:  In a world of near-constant flux, play becomes a strategy for embracing change…”



Passion is the fuel that gives humans the superhuman ability to transcend barriers.  When we are passionate about something, we are highly engaged.  The more engaged we are, the better we learn and the more we produce.  If you want employees to work hard or students to learn a lot, they need to be fueled by passion.  Unfortunately, most work places haven’t caught on to this.  One study revealed that a mere 21% of employees are truly engaged in their work.  Gary Hamel thinks that managers have yet to understand the connection between engagement and financial success.  Why should we expect children to be different?


In The Future of Management Hamel laid out a Hierarchy of Human Capabilities at Work that is similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy:


Level 6: Passion

Level 5: Creativity

Level 4: Initiative


Level 3: Expertise

Level 2: Diligence

Level 1: Obedience


Obedience is the most basic need for a worker to show up to work on time, follow the rules, and do the basic requirements of the job.  Diligence is one rung higher, requiring employees to work hard and care about delivering great results.  Add to that expertise, and you also have a highly trained work force.  Hamel places a line here, because he says that in today’s market, a person with the bottom three qualities will not greatly succeed.  Their job probably can be outsourced overseas to another obedient, diligent, and expert worker for a lot cheaper.  However, once someone has initiative, they don’t have to be told what to do.  They act instinctively and beyond their job description.  If they are creative, they are highly valuable problem solvers, inventors and game-changers.  Finally, he places passion at the top.  Add passion to all the qualities below it, and you have people who see their work as a calling, who pour everything into their work as an extension of their life.


Wagner found that young innovators, without fail, were passionate about what they do.  They pursued what they loved, and that led to success. When people told them, “Pursue what you love and the money will follow,” they didn’t regard that as quaint, impractical advice.  They went for it! Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, introduced us to the concept of 10,000 hours, demonstrating that people who accomplished something truly extraordinary with their lives first had to spend at least 10,000 hours at it.  That kind of perseverance requires passion.  We have all heard the phrase, “If your work is something you love, you will never work another day in your life.”


Putting 10,000 hours into something you love also requires time to focus without too many distractions.  When people get caught up in the system of jumping through the hoops of life’s bureaucracies, they lose time and passion to pursue what they really love.  The biographies of accomplished innovators in Wagner’s book had parents who supported them when they took risks in order to pursue their passions.   Laura White was a champion swimmer – she was likely to earn a swimming scholarship to college.  Yet when Laura became passionate about the injustices of society–specifically, how most childhood drownings were poor children who didn’t know how to swim and she wanted to offer such children free swimming lessons–her parents supported her by allowing her to drop out of competitive swimming in order to found her non-profit organization, Swim 4 Life.  Risk-taking, often synonymous with entrepreneurialism, requires passion.



Play and passion by themselves are not enough to spark innovation.  In Part I of this series, we looked at the Millennial Generation and the generation following it, and noted that they are far more intrinsically motivated (as opposed to extrinsically motivated) than previous generations.  Through Wagner’s research it becomes obvious that it’s people with a purpose, people who pursue meaning in their lives, who are most likely to be innovative.  In his interviews with young innovators, they kept referring to a desire to make a difference in other people’s lives and toward the sustainability of the planet. Laura White didn’t just want to teach swimming lessons, she wanted to save people’s lives.   Jamien Sills, the inventor of a totally green tennis shoe, didn’t just want to make shoes, he made the world’s most environmentally friendly athletic shoe on the planet.


Why is Purpose such an essential ingredient to innovation?  Daniel’s Pink’s theory is that embracing a mission for change creates people who are willing to take personal risks and to make mistakes in order to further the cause. In one of the most watched Ted Talks on Youtube, an illustrator lays out Pink’s formula for motivation:


     Mastery + Autonomy + Purpose = MOTIVATION


Whether we are talking about students or employees, people need all three ingredients in Pink’s formula to be motivated, productive, happy people.  Mastery goes hand in hand with challenge: People need to be given a challenge in order to be engaged, and then given the time and tools to master that challenge.  Autonomy has to do with choice.  Maria Montessori was a master at creating choice in an educational setting.  She understood that children, even at a young age, need to be able to exercise a certain level of free will in order to be engaged.  This is even truer in the work place.  Mastery and Autonomy are not enough, however.  The final element in the motivation equation is purpose.  When people experience real meaning in their activities, they remain inspired.


If personal gain is all your life is about, no matter how passionate and intelligent you are, a lack of values and purpose will impede your ability to be superlative.  Personally, I would also add an esoteric element to the reason why purpose is necessary in people’s lives.  I believe that when one works for good, a higher power adds energy, insight and good fortune to the effort.  May the force be with you!



As we wrap up the formula of Play, Passion, and Purpose as the essential ingredients in creating innovation, I need to point out the obvious:  There is a lot more to it than that!  And there are many other formulas laid forth by multiple experts and futurists.  In particular, we don’t want to leave this discussion without adding a final element: expertise.  Teresa Amabile, director of research at the Harvard Business School, includes expertise (defined as knowledge – technical, procedural, and intellectual) as a key element in developing creativity.  You can’t create something out of nothing, so there has to be enough expertise to create innovation.  This is a good segue into Part III of our series on the Innovation Generation, where we will explore education’s role in developing innovators.  The traditional role of education is to impart knowledge, or expertise, to the masses.  We will explore how the conventional educational system has unfortunately become a barrier to innovation, but how schools, and how one school in particular, Rainbow Community School, in Asheville North Carolina, can equip students with expertise while also laying fertile ground for the future of innovation.



PART III Why Does Our Current Public School System Discourage Innovation?
Copyright by Renee Owen and Rainbow Community School, 2013

In the first of this three part series, we defined innovation as creative problem solving that is useful.  We gained perspective on the new generation of students, and learned that innovation will be required of 21st Century students entering the work force.  In fact, some posit that innovation will be required to save the human race, given the grave circumstances we find ourselves in, with issues such as global warming, diminishing natural resources, and the growing divide between the rich and poor.


In Part II we explored Tony Wagner’s concepts in his book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, in which he defines Play, Passion, and Purpose as the three qualities people, schools, and work place environments need to have in order to encourage innovation.  In this third part, we will discuss barriers to innovation, and then in Part IV we will look at one particular school, Rainbow Community School, which has designed an educational program that encourages innovation.

What impedes innovation?

Unfortunately, the test-driven curriculum of public and prep schools does the exact opposite of encouraging innovation– one of the reasons the United States’ educational rankings, internationally, continue to sink in relation to other countries that embrace innovation.  We are so stuck in a culture of conventional achievement that the educational system lags decades behind culture.  As a society, we are quickly moving through the Information Age into the Age of Innovation, yet the educational system is still in the dark ages of the Industrial Revolution, the age during which the “factory model” of public education was created, which is the format schools are still structured around over 100 years later.  Innovation happens in the US despite the educational system, certainly not because of it.


An obsolete educational system

Our educational system is called the “factory model” for two reasons.  One, it operates much like a factory – a top-down, hierarchical system designed for efficiency and mass production rather than for human quality of life or innovation.  Second, within the factory model, people are educated in such a way to prepare them for “factory life” – either as a line worker or a manager.


As we saw in Part I, large bureaucracies are extremely slow to change, and there is perhaps no bureaucracy larger than the US school system.  A factory-model system is not highly adaptable because it is complicated, rather than complex.  To understand the difference, think of a watch.  A watch is a complicated piece of machinery with many moving parts.  However, when one piece breaks, the whole thing is broken until it is fixed.  An organization is complex if it is more akin to a living organism rather than a machine.  It is adaptable. When one piece breaks, the rest of the system self-organizes to adapt and keep functioning, or, in a truly innovative system, it re-organizes itself to function even better after adapting.  Some say our educational system is broken.  Sagutra Mitra, winner of the TED Award of 2013 for his talk on Self Organized Learning Environments, says it isn’t at all broken because it actually functions well; he says our educational system is simply obsolete.


Consider this: Half of all that is learned in the first year of a tech degree is obsolete by the third year.  We have to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist and to solve problems we don’t yet have.  Clearly, we need an educational system that is highly adaptable.


The factory model is also incredibly wasteful, partly in terms of unsustainability, but especially when one considers the massive amount of wasted human potential.  There are thousands of talented, caring teachers and administrators who have to temper their greatness in order to fit into the system.  There are millions of children who are in the prime of their learning life – ready to be invigorated and imaginative, who sit bored and distracted in class.  Many of these children are considered a “broken” piece in the machine and therefore have to be “fixed.”  Most of the world’s greatest innovators throughout history did not fit into the system, yet today’s highly creative or highly kinesthetic individuals are, sometimes at high cost, “re-programmed” to fit, rather than to flourish.  We will never know how many great ideas, great learning moments, or great lives were wasted at the cost of the system.

The entire premise of management in a factory-based educational system is around behaviorism. The principle of behaviorism was a break-through in early psychology, a field that was born around the same time as the industrial era when the public school system was becoming established.  It is a rewards and punishment philosophy, which was highly effective many decades ago.  The promise of extrinsic rewards would encourage students to complete an assignment on time, for example, and the fear of punishment would keep them behaving.  The long term strategy was that continually holding out a carrot would encourage students to strive to become “managers,” with the promise of power and wealth; and the fear was that if you weren’t smart enough or behaved well enough you would be stuck on the factory line, or worse yet, a criminal or a pauper.


Today’s students aren’t buying it!  This is completely mystifying politicians, educators, and parents.  The system of behaviorism is so engrained in the psyche of almost anyone over the age of 35 that it is hard to relate to this very different generation.  As we learned in Part I and II, Millennials and younger generations of students are more intrinsically motivated than previous generations.  As one dad put it, “Both of my children had good grades, but the learning was much more important to them.  They didn’t see the value in doing something just to get a better grade.  Five points extra credit – why bother?” There is no meaning in five extra credit points: this generation inherently strives to have purpose in their lives, and they want to study things they are personally passionate about.  These kids just want to experience learning.  Ironically, it’s baffling!

Almost everything about the underlying structure of the conventional educational system is the opposite of play, passion, and purpose.  (Again, this is not meant to criticize individual schools or educators, many of who try to include play, passion, and purpose in their programs, despite the format of the system.)  Behaviorism is a fear-based approach.  Fear is the worst emotion to have in a learning situation because it lights up the lower fight/flight/freeze parts of the brain and shuts down the cerebral cortex.

Enter the importance of play, which lights up all areas of the brain.  Unfortunately, play has been removed from the conventional educational system – both play as open-ended imaginative play time and recess; and play as a dynamic way of allowing children to construct meaning.  The industrial model is based on work.  Somehow, a logic arose that learning is work, therefore, it shouldn’t be fun.

Rainbow Kindergarten

The Millennials’ demand to have play, passion, and purpose in their lives, often strikes people of older generations as selfish.  But Wagner’s research puts the millennial innovators he studied in a very different light: “They are ambitious—sometimes even appearing obsessed.  But unlike some well-known older entrepreneurial innovators, they seem less ego-driven. I was struck by the lack of arrogance or pretense…though all are quite self-aware and self-confident, which are vital qualities for innovators, none struck me as narcissistic.”


The longer the US persists in maintaining and ramping up the industrial era model of education, the more it slips behind.  Newsweek’s cover article on “The Creativity Crisis” and John Kao’s book, Innovation Nation; How America Is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back,” both highlight the crisis our lagging educational system is creating for our economy compared to more successful countries, such as Finland.  Finland continues to outrank and outscore every country in every subject.  It is widely agreed that it is the most successful educational system in the world.  Finland is also ranked is one of the most innovative countries.


What are kids in Finland doing before the age of 7 while their US counterparts are trying to learn how to read and write?  The answer to this is one reason behind Finland’s phenomenally successful educational system:  They play.  They attend preschools (meaning pre-first grade) that provide opportunities for them to play and experiment with different materials, social situations, imaginative scenarios, and so on.  Finnish children have two more years of playing than US children – giving them countless more hours at practicing creativity and innovation.


Finland doesn’t teach reading until the age of seven when children are developmentally ready.  Most kids by the age of seven can learn reading quickly and easily with little stress.  In the US, by the age of seven, kids have struggled to learn how to read and associate reading with “work,” diminishing their motivation to read for the joy of learning.  Once learning is associated with stress and self-consciousness, the ability to learn is squashed. As a result, by the age of 15, Finnish readers are far, far ahead of their US counterparts in reading, even though they began reading later.  Also, in Finland, there are no required standardized tests until high school. In contrast, by the age of eight, US students are well-conditioned to prepare for the test, which will essentially punish them for wrong answers.  From that point on, making mistakes is associated with failure.  The moment a child becomes afraid to fail, deep, authentic learning ends. As author and international advisor on education, Ken Robinson, says, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with something original.”


The Demands of Globalization

Another area in which Finland has become a world leader, in addition to education and innovation, is in globalizing its culture.  It has, with open arms, accepted a vast influx of immigrants — one of the reasons its school system has adapted to a structure that allows for multi-cultural acceptance and prepares students for the global economy, where they will be working with people from all over the world.  It is purposefully preparing Finnish students for the “new market,” where, according to economist Frank Levy of MIT and Richard Murnane of Harvard, “certain jobs – so-called rules-based jobs, governed by deductive rules and easily recognizable patterns—are easily taken over by computers, or outsourced to workers in another country, or both.”  Levy and Murnane point out that the jobs that will not be taken over by computers are jobs that require “uniquely human skills, intellectual and emotional capabilities that include the ability to perform ‘expert thinking’ and to manage ‘complex communication’ tasks.” For this reason, Levy and Murnane denounce standardized testing or other educational techniques that do not help students develop “expert thinking” or “complex communication” skills.  They predict that societies such as the United States, whose educational system now revolves around standardized testing, will decline in their ability to compete in the global economy.  Finland’s lack of emphasis on testing opens up time and resources for teachers and learners to focus on preparation for the new millennium, rather than preparation for the test.


Race to Nowhere and Doing School

The film “Race to Nowhere” documents the lives of several students, teachers, and families who have suffered from the achievement culture of our educational system.  In the film, Denise Clark Pope, the author of “Doing School” explains that early on, children learn how to get by in school, so that even high achieving students aren’t deeply learning the material or learning how to think, but merely going through the motions for the single goal of achieving high grades.


Parents and students can get so caught up in this race that they are petrified of making any mistakes, leading to cheating and pathological behavior.  In the film, a high achieving middle school student named Devon committed suicide after receiving an F on a Math Test.  I myself recall a very promising classmate from high school killing himself after receiving his first C in college.  These are horrific and dramatic examples, but we need to talk about them because the deaths of these children demonstrate the death of learning in our educational culture.


I have seen parents terrified that if their 3rd grader isn’t exactly at a 3rd grade level in Math, for example, they are going to suffer later in life.  It isn’t uncommon for parents who are in this type of panic to request additional standardized testing measures to know precisely where their nine year old ranks nationally.  We have been so conditioned to our educational culture, that even though a teacher is highly trained and clearly capable of knowing what a child needs, many parents can’t help but feel they need a standardized test to make sure the school and teacher is accountable.  “Standardized” is a key term.  Once again, harkening back to the Industrial Revolution which is so ingrained in our culture, people fall back on this notion that each child should be “standardized” along the conveyor belt of education, so that all the parts fit together to make a final, standardized product by the end of 12th grade. Do we really want 3.4 million US children graduating each year to be the exact same, standardized products? Does this really sound like a formula for developing a sustainable, satisfying culture? What happens when a real-life problem arises that isn’t the same as what was on the test?   It certainly isn’t a formula for innovation.


Looking again at Finland, as a nation they have a very different educational goal than America.  Where the US’ goal is “The Race to the Top,” Finland’s goal is about each child receiving a satisfying education. They actually want each child and each school to be different. In America, children with learning differences have diagnoses.  While this is helpful in many regards, it seems to be the only way that children’s differences are recognized and accepted.  This approach overlooks the more nuanced observation that children who have a weakness in one area, have brilliance in others – often directly proportionate to their challenges.  For example, a dyslexic child may be a genius scientist or an autistic child may be able to conceptualize three-dimensional drawings from any angle.  If the educational system over-emphasizes “fixing” weaknesses, it can diminish the brilliance – watering down the potential for innovation.  One of the gifts of systems-thinking and innovation, is “both/and” thinking.  It is possible to help children improve on their weaknesses without diminishing their strengths, and the key is passion, allowing children to focus on learning things that they are passionate about.  The most difficult part is assuring parents that it will be okay.  I empathize with parents who are so scared by the system they grew up in, that they unwittingly pass this stress on to their children, further inhibiting their struggling child from being successful.


There are many talented, caring people in education who work to improve the curriculum and methods within the system, but they don’t have the power to completely redesign it – that is in the hands of politicians.  Unfortunately, politicians are notoriously the farthest behind; they represent one of the least innovative sectors of society.  Therefore, it is small, grassroots, entrepreneurial schools able to work outside the system who are creating innovative models of education that harness the powers of play, passion, and purpose to encourage innovative students.  In Part IV, let’s take a look at one of these schools, Rainbow Community School, in Asheville North Carolina.



PART IV: How can school create an innovative culture?

Copyright by Renee Owen and Rainbow Community School, 2014

As I enter the “Omega” (7th and 8th grade) classroom at Rainbow Community School, a huge Buckminster Fuller-designed dymaxion world map is on the floor, the basis for a game where students are moving around chips that represent various world resources. Two students with laptops are meeting with Jason Cannoncro, one of the lead teachers, about a grant proposal they are writing to create a local non-profit organization that will give homeless people work on the many organic farms in Asheville. Several students are puzzling over models they are creating of sustainable energy systems. One girl is playing a radio powered by a tiny solar panel system she designed herself.


The curriculum at Rainbow Community School has been carefully designed and refined to prepare students for the culminating middle school unit described above. The essential problem that students ask and begin to solve in that unit is, “How can we design our systems and our culture to ensure that all humans on Earth have their needs met, without depleting planetary resources?” The Native Americans thought of sustainability in terms of seven generations. They might have asked the essential question for the unit in this format: “How can we provide dignity for each human and all living beings for the next seven generations?”


In this unit students are asked to think about human equity and fulfillment, and how to get there. They are required to develop designs and prototypes for inventions that help sustain the natural world, while providing for a high quality of living. Students who are successful within this multi-faceted, complex unit are the next generation of innovators. How does Rainbow Community School prepare its students for this culminating unit?


Rainbow Community School’s Unique Philosophy
Rainbow Community School’s educational model was founded according to principles that are very different from conventional education. Its three founders, led by Aostre Johnson of Harvard Graduate School of Education, created Rainbow from a holistic model. Although Rainbow’s founding in 1977 pre-dates the publication of Howard Gardner’s “Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” the school was created around the same basic philosophy. Today, Rainbow emphasizes what it calls Seven Domains: Spiritual, Mental, Creative, Emotional, Social, Natural, and Physical. Thus, the name “Rainbow” – each of the seven domains represents a different color of the spectrum.

The Structure of Rainbow’s Operational and Governance Model Creates a Culture of Community
Rainbow’s educational model is clearly unique, but the organization takes innovation one important step further: its governance and management structure are configured according to principles that allow it to constantly evolve and adapt. Rainbow uses an innovative systems-based organizational structure called Dynamic Governance that utilizes both hierarchy and decision-making by consent.


To explain: A hierarchy is very efficient – for example, during a crisis, a leader can issue life-saving orders – but it comes with inherent problems. In addition to the equitability issues involved with a hierarchical structure, innovative ideas from the bottom of the hierarchy usually don’t make their way to the top, creating stagnation. On the other hand, a grassroots idyllic approach, where all individuals have equal voice and power, creates a lot of great ideas, but typically lacks the efficiency to be highly productive. The latter scenario is particularly troubling in a school setting, where teachers can end up with overwhelming administrative responsibilities and “political” concerns in addition to their classroom duties. Dynamic Governance is a sophisticated “both/and” approach to structuring an organization. It makes appropriate use of the efficiency of a hierarchy, yet at specific times the hierarchy dissolves and everyone has an equal voice for making decisions by consent.* Dynamic Governance, if instituted adeptly, melts toxicity and gives everyone the motivation, power, and tools to be highly innovative and productive. It’s truly the best of both worlds.


Unfortunately, many alternative school models fall short of lasting change because they are trying to put “new wine into old wine skins,” and their governance/organizational structure can’t hold the integrity of their unique educational model. To create a school that truly is different, the governance structure has to evolve as well as the educational approach – otherwise, innovation is occurring despite the system, rather than because of it.


The Seven Domains

By structuring Rainbow Community School around the principles of Dynamic Governance, teachers, students, and parents are in a system that is fluid and adaptable enough to try iterations of new ideas and institute innovation, while maintaining a core structure that is grounded, secure, and just.

When adults feel safe and secure enough to take risks, the children do too. The faculty spends an immense amount of time, effort, and intent around creating a classroom community where each child feels accepted, and therefore willing to risk failure. (Remember one of the core axioms of innovation is FAIL FAST, which inherently involves taking risks.) As one eighth grader commented, “At Rainbow, I’m not just at school, I am at home.” While the brevity of this essay doesn’t allow the space to fully disclose the range of techniques employed to cultivate such a loving, risk-taking environment, there are a few major points in each Domain:

Physical Domain

The physical space is seen as an opportunity to create an environment that is aesthetically beautiful, comfortable, and functional. Each classroom, both in terms of physical layout and the structure and management of each day is highly ordered, but without rigidity. Just as the classroom is a “container” where everything happens, the physical body is honored as a temple where health, happiness, and harmony are inextricably linked.

Natural Domain

The natural world is our world. It is brought into the classroom and the class is brought into it. Innovation occurs with the purpose of stewarding the natural world, rather than exploiting it.

Creative Domain

Creativity is the source of ingenuity and a way to share great ideas. Children master the arts through play and through practice. Most performances have a strong student-led aspect and/or involve collaboration with an artist in residence so that a “cauldron effect” of multiple shared ideas leads to a synergistic experience that transcends anything an individual could have conceived of alone. The annual spring Imagine program is so unique it is impossible to describe, but it combines all of the above into a program that inspires humans to higher levels of character and it is truly entertaining for all ages – successfully expressing ideas that couldn’t be conveyed as powerfully without the elixir of the arts.

Of course, creativity is about much more than the arts. Children and faculty are encouraged to be creative in thought and deed. A typical question is, “How can we look at this from a different perspective?”

Social and Emotional Domains
These two domains are inextricably mixed. The challenges of these domains are often viewed from the perspective of the hero’s journey, so that when a student rubs up against an uncomfortable social or emotional situation, they can view it as part of the journey they are on. Social and emotional training are explicit and truly as important as academics. Students at Rainbow Community School become very skilled at, and comfortable with, conflict resolution through Compassionate Communication techniques they begin learning in preschool. Instead of being swept under the rug, social and emotional issues are addressed in weekly class meetings where students can practice techniques and discuss issues openly, with the loving assistance of an adult. This clears emotional interferences out of their way, opening clear pathways to deep learning.

Mental Domain

Teachers at Rainbow have to be rocket scientists, so to speak, in terms of their pedagogy. We virtually never hire first year teachers because the level of sophistication required, to layer every lesson with all the domains and to advance rigorous academics demands a highly professional and practiced skill level. Most pedagogical techniques are not unique to Rainbow; they are developed by the best in the field, and adopted by Rainbow as best practices. Learning rather than school is clearly the main event, therefore, students are naturally motivated to excel. Expectations are extremely high and the cognitive abilities of every student are stretched, but within a context of caring and an appreciation for learning differences. In order to become future innovators, students need to be sharp thinkers, competent communicators, and knowledgeable in various areas of content within the mental domain.

Spiritual Domain

“What are you called to do?” This question, asked of students and adults alike at our school, is a continuous thread running through all our work. Passion, one of the most essential ingredients to innovation, is honored as a calling– something that a greater force is trying to bring into being. Therefore, by all means, teachers nurture students’ recognition of passion and they allow space, time and resources for the pursuit of great ideas and individual interests.

Mindfulness techniques that Rainbow has been honing since 1977 create a community where each human is respected on the deepest of levels because their inner life is considered real and dynamic. Dynamic in this context means ever-evolving. During daily centering (the first 30 minutes of the day), meditation techniques not only help hone focusing abilities, but cultivate powerful introspection and self-reflection which form the foundation for true empathy. Group activities and discussions in this domain become shared moments of profound experience that are often metaphysical in nature. When humans share these types of experiences with one another as a daily practice, the deepest form of respect, what Hindus call “Namaste,” is a cornerstone to the culture. Without the spiritual domain, holistic is not holistic. It is the catalyst to making everything real and vibrant. Thus, learning in every domain soars.

Nurturing Agency

Throughout all the grades, but especially 3rd – 8th, the faculty works to nurture agency within students – agency here meaning “the power to make a difference.” Agency is similar to “grit,” but perhaps ratcheted up one extra notch to where students aren’t only resilient and able to have power over their own potential, but also feel empowered to make a difference in the lives of others.

One of the ways agency is nurtured is through multiple service learning and philanthropic opportunities. Our goal is for students, by the time they leave 8th grade, to consider helping others as a natural part of life. Children are active in taking care of their classroom and campus, and different classes take on different chores. Fifth grade, for instance, is in charge of the worm composting and collects the compost from the whole school every day.

Another important way to teach agency is through teaching systems thinking and giving students the ability to tinker, design, and build things. Rainbow is implementing methods developed from the Maker Movement to help students realize that if something is broken, they can fix it, and if something isn’t yet invented, they can create it!

Rainbow strives to provide as many authentic, or real life, learning opportunities as possible. All grades now participate in at least one citizen science project each year, where they track data for real scientific projects being utilized by scientists all around the world, mostly tracking climate change. Students get to share their data with other students from around the globe.

Sixth grade students are required to start a socially responsible business for their entrepreneurial unit. Either as individuals or in teams, they develop their business concept, marketing plan, P and L statements, and write a proposal for a loan, which they have the opportunity to receive from a team of community business leaders. Sixth grade is the perfect age for the entrepreneurial unit. By this age, children have learned how to “do school” and they need as many real life opportunities as possible.

Twelve year olds have little trepidation about starting a business. They naturally go at it with a can-do attitude, and the ideas they have are often unique and different from what an adult could have imagined.

One student, who is an avid Minecraft player, created custom Minecraft character posters. He marketed them through Google and now, long after the unit is over, has a profitable business with people from around the world ordering their individualized poster of their Minecraft character! Imagine if all of us had started businesses when we were twelve – the courageous and innovative entrepreneurial spirit would be a staple quality in our culture.


A Thematic Curriculum that Builds

Of course all the theory and practice occur within the structure of a curriculum that builds with careful intention from preschool through 8th grade. Rainbow’s content curriculum and learning objectives are ever-evolving and revisited by the faculty each year in a two-day curriculum meeting. Units are integrated thematically. (Math is the only subject that, while also being integrated into thematic units, is taught daily as a completely independent subject.) Content is quite sophisticated within these themes.

The curriculum is structured to be developmentally appropriate, so that up to and including the third grade, the benchmarks are highly flexible and individualized and the content is largely around community, global awareness, and understanding and appreciating nature. In the early grades, structured play within units is employed as a technique for developing skills and exploring ideas. By the end of third grade, students have studied every major biome and every animal phylum. They use the scientific method with ease and apply it to more than science. The idea is to develop children who have respect for all Life in all its diversity, and understand the science behind it, without yet exposing them to the terrifying ills of society. As they grow up, they will work to save what they love.

From third grade through eighth grade the thematic units are structured around the humanities, with a heavy emphasis on the development of scientific discoveries throughout history. Students travel through the history of humanity, so that by the time they arrive at the culminating 8th grade unit, they understand how we, as humans, arrived at the situation we are in, and what the challenges and possibilities for the future are.


Education that Goes Beyond Achievement

In Parts 1 through 3 of this Heart of the Matter series on the Innovation Generation, we have gone from defining innovation and why it matters, to looking at what cultivates innovation and what hinders it, specifically the obsolete, industrial era, achievement-based school model.

In this final part, we have examined the context, structure, curriculum, and some of the teaching/learning techniques at Rainbow Community School, as an example of educational methods that cultivate innovation. However, it is important to remember that creating a school community that cultivates innovation requires much more synergy than implementing a menu of techniques. All pedagogy aside, developing a school culture of innovation requires a shift in attitude from an achievement-driven philosophy to a focus on human development.

The founders of Rainbow Community School were ahead of their time when they created an innovative model of education based on human development, sometimes broadly referred to as holistic learning.

When human development is the primary goal in education and implemented with intention and skill, students are naturally driven to achieve. Furthermore, when success is viewed through the lens of human development (rather than merely the narrow lens of conventional achievement) students and humans of all ages are encouraged and have the courage to be innovative.

We defined innovation in Part I as: “creativity that results in new products or new processes that have value and the potential of improving life.” At its best, innovation is creative problem solving that has the potential not just to improve lives, but to save Life. It takes into consideration human fulfillment, justice, and sustainability. Education that views innovation as a core part of its mission is education with a vision for the future.

My contact info is:

Renee Owen
E.D. Rainbow Community School
574 Haywood Road, Asheville, NC 28806
828-775-6202 cell
828-258-9264 office


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