August 2, 2018
One question we hear quite often is: why do you think it’s important to start invention education early rather than just wait until children are in high school?
This is, on its face, a reasonable question. There are plenty of things we wait until high school to teach children, like calculus or physics. And surely the inventions coming from children who are high school-aged will, on average, be objectively better developed and more sophisticated than those from younger kids.
But that mindset misses the entire point of invention education. Education isn’t just a transfer of information. A child can’t just read a textbook and immediately understand all the contents. Instead, it’s a slow (and sometimes laborious) process between teachers and students. It’s almost an unnatural process; learning to read and to write and do math aren’t necessarily innate skills. But the key thing to remember is that all of these skills are iterative and build upon previously learned elements – so a child may start with Dick and Jane books in Kindergarten but end up reading Tolstoy by the time he or she in 12thgrade. You can’t, however, start teaching a child to read when they get to high school and still expect to them end up reading War and Peace by graduation.
What invention education brings to children is a way to leverage the other skills they’re learning and to use them to learn to solve problems. And the skill of problem solving, like any other skill, is one that needs to be practiced and exercised and built upon itself to become a mature, life-long skill that can carry children into their future careers.
A few Olympics ago we saw an interview with a medal-winning ice skater that really puts this in perspective. When a reporter remarked “Oh, how I’d love to be in your shoes, holding up that gold medal”, the skater replied “To get here I’ve been getting up at 5 a.m. every day to practice for an hour and a half. Then I went to school and followed that with three hours of practice. After dinner I had another 2.5 hours of practice. Then, I could finally go home, do homework and go to bed at 11:30, just to repeat the process the next day. And I’ve been doing it since I was six years old.” Now we don’t expect that level of devotion from any kid learning about the invention process, but the Malcolm Gladwell “10,000 hours” maxim does apply. To get good at something – whether it be skating or inventing and problem solving, you’ve got to put in the time.
Beyond just sheer practice and the ability to build off previous skills, starting children earlier makes sense for other reasons.
- By the time children are promoted out of middle school and into high school, they’ve already somewhat chosen a path. If they’ve not been exposed to invention education prior to that point, they may not be choosing the courses in high school that might lead to a STEM career. In other words, the die is already cast, and it’s possible that children who might otherwise choose to focus on STEM won’t because of lack of exposure to the real world problem solving aspects of STEM that invention convention presents to them.
- Student self-select whether they are “good” at science or not, often by the 4thgrade (when they are formally exposed to the scientific method). We believe all students are empathetic to the problems around them and those facing others, and often it is this empathy, combined with their natural inquisitive nature, that makes them supreme problem solvers. We need to “strike” while the iron is hot and while children are still confident enough to give the invention process a try — before they have decided whether or not they are “good” at something that they will, in fact, be naturally good at.
- High schools already have abundant programs for STEM- and invention-oriented kids. Things like robotics, maker spaces, coding programs and the like are already in place, as well as entrepreneurship programs like Junior Achievement. Having been exposed to a robust invention program before high school lets kids take what they’ve learned about problem solving and apply it in these complementary programs when they reach high school.
None of the above is to say that we don’t support invention convention in high schools. We do – and have designed a complete K-12 curricula on that basis.
And if a school district does not, or can not, provide this education in K-8, high school is not too late. But, to an even greater degree, K-8 is not too early. Our experience with younger students has shown us that they are surprisingly good, and empathetic, inventors. More importantly, they’re learning a life skill, problem solving, that will benefit themselves and the economy, going forward.