Innovation in Mathematics (It’s Not About the Lone Genius)

Dr. Jordan Ellenberg, a child prodigy and now a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, challenges “The cult of the child genius” in the Wall Street Journal:

There is a myth that progress in mathematics is driven by the cognitive one percent of one percenters, marked at birth, who blaze a path for the rest of humanity to trot along. But in the real world, math is a communal enterprise. Each advance is the product of a huge network of minds working toward a common purpose, even if we accord special honor to the person who sets the final stone in the arch. As Mark Twain said, “It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph…and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others.”

Dr. Ellenberg might have been reading my book Group Genius; in that book I show that Samuel Morse did not invent the telegraph in a brilliant burst of inspiration, but how instead it emerged from collaboration. The real stories of innovation are always collaborative and distributed. Ellenberg continues:

Terry Tao, a UCLA professor and a winner of the Fields Medal, the highest honor a young mathematician can achieve, once wrote: “I find the reality of mathematical research today–in which progress is obtained naturally and cumulatively as a consequence of hard work, directed by intuition, literature, and a bit of luck–to be far more satisfying that the romantic image that I had as a student of mathematics being advanced primarily by the mystic inspirations of some rare breed of ‘geniuses.'”

This is the reality of creativity and innovation in all of the arts and sciences, and that’s why we the real story is always one of group genius, not lone genius.


Lemelson Foundation Invention Education Workshop

I’ve just spent two days in Washington, DC, with a group of 50 thought leaders working on ways to help our students learn to be more creative, inventive, and innovative. The event is hosted by the Lemelson Foundation, and here’s their mission:

The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives, by inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention-based enterprises to promote economic growth in the US, and social and economic progress for the poor in developing countries.

The 50 people gathered here include:

  • nonprofit foundations who are funding creativity education (Paul Allen foundation, Henry Ford foundation, Lemelson Foundation)
  • Educators doing invention education, like the Lemelson-MIT “InvenTeams” high school program
  • Successful inventors
  • Scholars who study creativity and innovation (that’s me)

As I head off to the airport, here are my initial impressions.

  • Most of the participants want to do invention education through schools. But the most successful invention education programs are after school programs, summer enrichment programs, and science center programs. What makes it so difficult to implement invention education in a traditional school environment?
  • Most of the participants associate invention education with science and engineering. But we need creativity and invention in all disciplines, including policy, arts, social innovation, international affairs, economics, business processes…I wish there had been more discussion of this broader conception of invention.
  • I worry that “invention education” overly focuses on an outdated myth of the solitary lone genius. But research shows that creativity and innovation today always emerge from group dynamics, conversation, social networks, and collaboration. How can we re-envision invention education to avoid the traditional connotations of the solitary lone genius?

I’m really happy that the Lemelson Foundation has dedicated their substantial resources to this important national issue: enhancing the creative potential of everyone. I’ve been inspired by these two days, surrounded by smart people who care about creativity and education.

Lemelson Invention Education Workshop May 2014

Today I’m flying to Washington DC to participate in a fascinating two-day event, focused on helping our K-12 students learn how to be creative and innovative. This is a national priority in today’s global innovation economy. Here’s what my invitation letter, from the Lemelson Foundation, said:

Substantial challenges exist that, in part, can only be effectively addressed if creative minds invent the products that will meet those challenges….To create the inventions that will improve lives requires new generations who are inspired to be agents of change through invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Cultivating this ability is at the core of invention education.

The Lemelson Foundation’s approach to invention education is to support students to become inventors and to launch invention-based enterprises that create jobs and strengthen the economy.

I love it, and I said “yes” to this invitation right away.

The Lemelson Foundation is developing education programs that provide students with what they call an “invention toolkit” of the following skills:

  • The capacity to think critically, and identify real-world problems and possible solutions (I would call this “design thinking”)
  • Providing a strong base of skills in STEM disciplines (you can’t invent the new unless you know what already exists)
  • Nurturing the ability to turn ideas into solutions through creating designs, fabricating prototypes, and incorporating entrepreneurial thinking (this is very much aligned with maker culture and entrepreneurship education)

This workshop is positioned right at the center of several important movements: design education, entrepreneurship education, and creativity and learning. My own research is most closely associated with the last, educating for creativity, but in my new professorship at the University of North Carolina, I am also developing entrepreneurship education programs.

Stay posted for another post when the event ends Tuesday afternoon!