Previous Contents Next
Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2014

What I've Been Reading

Creating Innovators: Can the Library Contribute?

Nastasha Johnson
Physical and Mathematical Sciences Information Specialist
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana

With the state of the economy, and the increasing competition for students, higher education is beginning to be faced with answering some tough questions. What are our students really learning? Are our students meeting the expectations of the industry? Are we even going about it right? There are no clear answers to any of those complex questions. At recent seminar event, I was introduced to the musings of author Tony Wagner, acclaimed author of the much-talked about book The Global Achievement Gap. Wagner, the keynote speaker, is Innovation Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard and thought leader about education reform. He was invited as a keynote speaker to challenge the boundaries of traditional undergraduate education at my current institution. He simply stated that: a) what we are currently teaching isn't working, b) our students aren't reaching their full potential, and c) industry isn't very happy with what we are producing. Furthermore, if we continue to go about our normal routines, we continue to get the same results. Only those results are not profiting anyone, including ourselves. Needless to say, the audience was captivated by the enormity of his statements while challenged to consider how we contribute to the success of our students.

After the address I bought his latest book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. In this book, he evaluates the upbringing and educational development of young social and scientific innovators, and what environments fostered their development. He interviewed young adults from all over the world, and of varying interests. He interviewed their parents, mentors, and teachers. The innovators created new knowledge spanning areas from new technologies to free swim lessons for inner city kids. He then looked for common themes in their experiences and what made them "different" and confident enough to innovate.

The three common themes he found were play, purpose, and passion. As children and teens, the innovators were allowed the ability to play and explore. Of course, this may have been playing with building blocks and science kits. But it also meant free time and down time to think and wonder. Most were raised in families where not every moment was filled and the life course planned from birth. How can libraries, academic libraries, be a part of the play factor?

By designing spaces within our libraries we can foster creativity. A study by McCoy and Evans (2002) suggests that a space with perceived creativity can foster creativity more than one that does not. That is, a space with a mix of complex visual details and natural colors and elements can foster more creativity than a space that does not have those elements. So perhaps libraries that have natural light, plants, and more natural materials would foster more creativity in our students, faculty, and perhaps even we would be more positively influences. I can speak from personal experience that having a tree outside my window does wonders for my mind compared to just a copy machine outside of my cubicle.

Play does not have to speak to our environment, but it also can speak to our approach with information literacy. Our approach has been reactive traditionally, but as we learn more about education, we learn that just-in-time learning has its place as well. Imagine the power of an instruction session after a student has been allowed the space to fail versus a librarian running in with all of the answers before questions have even been posed. So what if a student lingers around our databases for a while without any success? They won't break anything. They might even more learn more without us jumping in at the smallest of errors. As a point, one parent of an innovator had only two rules for her kids, safety and character. Maybe we should have the same rules in libraries.

The second theme common in creating innovators was purpose. This can be a tricky point for libraries to foster a sense of purpose in students. Librarians can come in as mentors and formal or informal advisors to students. We may not always be in as close proximity to students as their assigned advisors, though some librarians are academic advisors. But we can touch the minds of those with whom we have influence, whether it is student workers or through campus organizations. Take some time out to get to know our students, and ask them questions about their interests and goals, and then listen. It does not require a lot of work or planning, or even a formal program. But it can be done by simply making yourself available for questions and interactions, so if the opportunity arises for more direct impact, you are already there. I remember once calling a student an affectionate name when I was trying to get his attention. I lived in the southern U.S. at the time where everyone has been called "honey" or "sugar" more times that can be counted. So it was culturally appropriate. I went on to say to him "I called you that because I figured no one had called you that in a while," in jest. But he went on to respond by saying "I need you on my team!" That is, he needed some encouragement, and I provided that without even knowing it. Sometimes libraries are disconnected from our students' experiences because we haven't always made ourselves available. We have a lot of value, but we have to get from behind the desk and out of our libraries for it to be realized. As Wagner says, we need to "come down from [our] ivory tower" (Wagner 2012: 114).

The third theme in creating innovators was fostering passion. If someone has been given the space to play and to develop purpose within a particular interest, passion can be a natural progression. Passion is intrinsic motivation. Sure, we can pique students' interests by introducing ideas and resources, but only if the opportunity arises. However, what we can do without fail is not stand in the way of someone developing one's passion. (That is, unless their passion is to stop funding libraries.) We should be mindful not to set up so many rules and barriers to the information and knowledge that we have in our control, that we've completely stifled the development of a passion in our users. Insert open access, 24-hour services, and ease of use here. We do not want to be responsible for the underperformance of a world citizen because of an IP address issue or because of economic status. Sure, we can argue the protocol and procedures of why certain rules exist, rightfully so. But considering all of the social and technological innovations that are still needed, and gaps in services and cures, we cannot afford to be too rigid. To that point, one of the young innovators in the book had a provost as a mentor, who gave her the freedom to pursue her interests and take the classes that fit most with her passion. Can you imagine what type of pushback she may have gotten on a course- or departmental-level that required administrative level influence? She was attempting to take education courses! But, her barrier was she was going against the grain of what her curriculum had prescribed for her as a student, likely decades before her arrival. The rules were in her way. We should be careful to consider the student-centeredness of our rules and policies, to protect the development of the student and not our statistics.

One of the final chapters of the book is entitled innovative learning. Based on all of the talk about information literacy, active learning, collaborative learning, and every other type of learning technique, we have a sense of what innovative learning could be. The author defines innovative learning as more than simply students regurgitating what we've taught them, but what they can do with those things they've learned and how they can take it a step further and create new knowledge. So how can libraries help students create new knowledge? Perhaps libraries can contribute via project-based learning, maker spaces, and any other avenue for students to take their new knowledge a step further. It may be simply reinforcing web site evaluation or other resource identification skills. But we can also take it a step further and foster inquiry. Perhaps we can point out gaps in knowledge when looking for resources. Perhaps we can simply be a listening ear as they reason through problems that they have noticed. Innovative learning may require strong interdepartmental collaboration to understand what facts students have already learned and how we can support the development of new ideas. As an example, data management is a new arena for libraries that emerged from the needs of researchers. We had a sense of what researchers were looking for, and we knew that we could help provide it. But, at the time, it did not have a name. A new area of service about data information literacy and data curation was developed by this innovation and inquiry that led to one of the fastest growing services of the library world.

In conclusion, after reading this book, I have more questions than when I started. The most prevalent questions are how do we move forward knowing the world needs innovation and how does the library make our contributions and dedication clear to the overall productivity of the academic experience? The answers are complex, but I know that we have to begin somewhere. Our value as a library may depend on it, as it already does depend on student success. I see that we have another opportunity to define how we already contribute and how we will contribute long term. Our value is constantly challenged, so it increasingly important that we have a strong rebuttal. This book gave me a lot to think about with my own child and the children that I've been entrusted with academically. I do know that I want to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem for any innovation that may happen under my watch.

McCoy, J.M., & Evans, G.W. 2002. The potential role of the physical environment in fostering creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 14(3-4), 409-426.

Wagner, T. 2012. Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Previous Contents Next

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. W3C 4.0