08/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Schools That Foster Innovation

Last night over dinner, a friend asked me what I thought schools would look like that do a good job fostering innovation.

Five innovator attributes come to mind:

Skilled: Innovators almost universally have strong analytical reasoning and communication skills. They can dissect a problem and help others see it more clearly. They understand the value of quality work products--that means a number of people have told them, "No, that's not good enough.

Curious: more difficult to capture is the sense of curiosity--the kind that causes a deep dive on a subject that others might consider obscure. There's a forward leaning aspect to this attribute; a wondering about what's around the corner. There's joy derived from what Expeditionary Learning would call "the having of wonderful ideas."

Self directed: innovators have learned to take responsibility for their own learning. Intrinsic rewards are more important than extrinsic (or at least short-term extrinsic rewards).

Persistent: related to the last three, innovators simply work harder than other people. They learn from failure. When bounded by limited time or resources, they find a way to achieve a goal.

I've probably missed a few. What would you add? It's easier to build a list than figure out what set of experiences would foster these attributes. Schools like are the best current answer to the question. Students work on real world projects, get told, "No, it's not good enough," and go on to produce high quality work product. Art and calculus are smashed together (e.g., Calculious), science emerges through applied Humanities, robotics competitions focus team energy, and internships introduce adult world constraints and resources.

Perhaps we could add Outward Bound, business plan competitions, international travel, and online learning games. But it still sounds like a good school with some add-ons.

What if students innovate themselves out of school, would we count that as success? The opportunities for independent study are growing exponentially -- two million students will be learning online this fall. Even bound by the old credit accumulation system, it's now possible to construct a very different learning experience. Now that we're all locking in on 'all kids college ready,' will we allow flexible (and innovative) ways for young people to demonstrate that? This is just one of the questions policy makers will be answering as they're asked to reauthorize No Child Left Behind and update state accountability systems.