American Innovation: In Decline?

If you’ve been in a newstand this month, you’ve probably seen the cover of Newsweek magazine shouting out its cover theme: “The Decline of American Innovation.” It turns out that the article is actually about how Americans are worried about potential decline, not about any actual documented decline. And Americans are worried, according to the polls cited in this article: 61% of Americans think the recession has lowered the country’s ability to innovate. Only 41% think that American is staying ahead of China when it comes to innovation. Only 55% of Americans think America is staying ahead of India, only 32% think we’re staying ahead of Japan.

But what’s fascinating about the survey is that Newsweek also interviewed people in China about our two country’s relative innovation potential. And the Americans were consistently more negative about American innovation than the Chinese were. Take a look at these differences:

Is the U.S. staying ahead of China on innovation?

U.S. percentage yes: 41%
Chinese percentage yes: 81%

Is the U.S. staying ahead of India?

U.S. percentage yes: 55%
Chinese percentage yes: 87%

This Fall, I’m a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge. From Europe, the U.S. looks like an innovation powerhouse and it seems to be unstoppable. I just read a magazine here where designers and thought leaders were asked “What should we nickname the decade of the ’00s?” and over half of them referred to the iPhone or to Apple. Perhaps there’s something about the American mindset that leads us to think we’re less successful than we seem to others?

I’m spending my time at Cambridge in the Faculty of Education, studying creative teaching and learning, so I was also interested to see that the questionnaire asked why Americans are falling behind in innovation. 42% said the main reason was “Our schools are lagging in math and science education.” So how do the interview respondents think schools should change to give students creative skills?

Again, the Americans and Chinese gave radically different answers:

Increase math and computer science skills :

U.S. respondents: 52%
Chinese respondents: 9%

Teach students creative approaches to problem solving :

U.S. respondents: 18%
Chinese respondents: 45%

These last two are the most intriguing findings of the entire survey. Do Americans really think that knowing more math will make children more creative? I think the Chinese are ahead of us on this one.

Finland’s Innovation Economy

This is my first posting from Europe, during my two-month stay as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge. I have about twelve guest lectures scheduled and I’ll be posting about my travels.

This week I’ve been in Finland, giving a series of four invited lectures at four different universities.* If you have ever looked at those national rankings that come out every year, comparing how students in different countries score on math and science and other subjects, you may remember that Finland is usually number one. What are they doing that makes them so successful?

Finland has made an impressive investment in education, both directly in their schools and in university-based education research. My colleagues in the schools of education here tell me that many of their best students want to become teachers; for every opening in a teacher preparation program, they receive ten applications. And all teachers must complete a five-year program that leads to a Master’s degree; to receive the degree, they have to write a research paper, and these are often of a quality that would warrant publication in a scholarly journal.

The Finnish language is only spoken by the 5 million people in Finland, so everyone has to learn other languages. First of all, Finland is officially bilingual in Finnish and Swedish, as a result of Finland being part of the Swedish empire for centuries, so every student has to learn both Finnish and Swedish. And then after that, they all learn English. I didn’t meet anyone here who didn’t speak good English. So if you’re spending so much time learning three languages, who has time left over to get so good at math and science? Somehow Finland does it.

Of course it’s complex but I think the short answer is a strong national commitment and a willingness to invest resources in education. Finland’s leaders know that the days of manufacturing paper and paper mill equipment are mostly gone. They realize that high tech companies like Nokia are the future for Finland’s economy. And they know their human resources are their most valuable resources.

They are also committed to equity; they have substantial investment in special education, they have no significant variations in learning outcomes across regions, and in school districts where students seem to be struggling, they invest more money than the national average to try to bring them up. Finland demonstrates that a commitment to equity is not incompatible with excellence.

*University of Helsinki, University of Jyvaskyla, University of Tampere, Tampere Technical University