Understanding Education in the Age of Innovation

John Kao

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series from renowned innovation expert John Kao

Sometime around 1830, the great Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai created his most memorable artwork, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In the woodblock print’s stark asymmetry, it offers a timeless portrait of a world out of joint. Mount Fuji, the cultural heart of Japan, is shown displaced to one side — overpowered by a wall of water. Meanwhile, we barely notice the tiny figures of people riding fragile boats who seem powerless to influence the course of events.

Hokusai’s image resonates today. We live in a time of VUCA — an increasingly popular acronym for volatilityuncertaintycomplexity, and ambiguity. Times of stability require only incremental adjustment and fine-tuning. Times of VUCA require bold innovation. Steve Jobs once famously observed in a time of crisis that “[t]he cure for Apple is to innovate its way out of its current predicament.”

The same challenge might well be on the minds of many organizational leaders today as they face an uncertain, disrupted, turbulent future. Welcome to the Age of Innovation.

Of course, this raises the question of what we mean by innovation, which is one of the most overused and poorly understood words in the lexicon.

Here is a brief semantic interlude: At its most basic, innovation is the process by which ideas are generated through human ingenuity, developed, and lead to the realization of value, whether seen in financial or social terms. My own definition of innovation takes things a step further: Innovation is a set of capabilities that enables the continuous realization of a desired future. Capabilities are abilities that are acquired through practice to achieve effects. Playing jazz piano, for example, is a capability; it doesn’t come about simply by wishing or reading books. Innovation also needs to be about something. It needs to serve a purpose, hence the notion of what is desired. It is a process that is never completed, hence the term “continuous.” It is also worth noting that innovation capabilities can be developed on multiple levels and result from the behavior of individuals, teams, organizations, and societies.

The Age of Innovation

Why is this the Age of Innovation?

  • Because a new generation of cultural visionaries has demonstrably coupled its ability to generate and develop new ideas to realize disproportionate value. The list of visionaries includes Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page, among many others.
  • Because a tidal wave of digital capability is disrupting existing business models and patterns of behavior. Remember Blockbuster, Tower Records, and Borders? All fell victim to disintermediation, the ability of end users to connect to the products and services they wanted in new ways.
  • Because worldwide there are at least 50 countries with national innovation agendas, chief innovation officers, and budgets to support this work. The field of large-scale innovation is back in vogue as political leaders increasingly look to innovation as the key to economic and social development. Countries worldwide are investing heavily in innovation capability; China’s innovation agenda alone is said to be budgeted at $500 billion1, while countries as diverse as Rwanda, Ireland, and Brazil have national chief innovation officers and strategies. In the United States, innovation as a ­federal agenda embraces everything from brain science to the human genome.2
  • Because competition demands it. Developing innovation capability routinely shows up as one of the top priorities identified by CEOs. In a time of turmoil, the only capacity worth having is the ability to innovate faster than the competition.
  • Because the global challenges we face as civil society today far outstrip our current capacities to deal with them. To address climate change, human health, habitability, etc., we will have to innovate our way forward.
  • Because traditional jobs are giving way to an unknowable future landscape of employment. This is an era in which to be employable means to have the ability to quickly learn new skills — or, better yet, have the skills to create your own job. It is an era that favors the innovator and the entrepreneur. Individuals are empowered as never before with new technology-based capabilities to learn, collaborate, publish, and influence.

The Need to Innovate Education

I have identified four key drivers of the coming disruption that require an inevitable transformation of education.

Upside Down

Much has been made of the ability of new digital technologies to invert traditional authority and status hierarchies. In the digital domain, knowledge and skill are often inversely proportional to age. The phenomena of crowdsourcing and crowd-funding liberate the power of the many to influence the behavior of the whole.

Education is not immune to this dynamic. Traditional educational practice clearly expresses a vertical structure. It is built around an implied hierarchy of learnedness in which teachers, given their age and background, are presumed to have the knowledge worth sharing. The “sage on the stage” is authoritative, while students are compliant learners who ingest knowledge and demonstrate its acquisition through performance on standardized tests and assessments.

This hierarchy is intimately related to an industrial approach to learning that is increasingly out of step with the needs of a networked, digital age. The industrial model implies standardized curriculum, quality control metrics, efficiency, and batch processing. However, we are moving into a world of personalization, playlists, themes (not subjects), and demonstration of competencies in a portfolio (not check-off-the-box exams). This shift implies an expanded role for teachers as coaches, enablers, and facilitators.

Inside Out

Inside out involves a shift in the where and when of learning. In the old days, we had a homeroom and walked from classroom to classroom like ambulatory widgets in an assembly line synchronized to a common clock. The locus of learning today is shifting from the classroom, a fixed container with firm boundaries, to a 24/7, always-on platform — a blended learning environment that lives outside the boundaries of the classroom.

Disruption of education is being fueled by massive waves of change caused by digital technology. In his recent book, The Inevitable,3Kevin Kelly observes that there are currently 60 trillion webpages, or 10,000 for every person on the planet, all created in approximately the last 8,000 days. And this is a participatory, not top-down, phenomenon. Some 65,000 videos are said to be posted to YouTube every day. This equates to 300 every minute.

And since YouTube is becoming the new self-directed classroom for Generation Z, these statistics hold special significance for educators. We live in a world increasingly fueled by the availability of powerful technologies for learning opportunities that exist outside the classroom and are in fact increasingly uncoupled from education. Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), YouTube, Xbox, smartphones, and PlayStation are becoming the new classroom. For many students these days, learning is about what happens outside of school in the rich media soup of smartphones and gaming devices.

Events to Flows

The third major change is the transition from events to flows, which in turn transforms the how, or process, of learning. The industrial model requires discrete, measurable events that can be efficiently scheduled. The school year stops and starts on a fixed timetable, which refers back to the archaic reality of agricultural cycles that required students to be free to participate in farming. Students take a standard set of courses with a fixed sequence of exams. Standardized tests demonstrate college readiness, and graduation and prom are the icing on the cake.

Today, the potential exists for educational institutions to enable continuous evaluation and learning. The notion of a playlist as a list of tasks that students address on their own time to personalize their experiences changes the when and what of learning. And this has implications for higher education and beyond — as skills must be constantly developed through life to cope with new occupational and community challenges and opportunities.

In flow education, digital portfolios become increasingly important, as does the future of credentialing, which will evolve from scores on standardized tests to increasingly effective media for demonstrating competence. This also shifts the role of the teacher from inspector to enabler of holistic and practice-based learning. And in the so-called gig economy — with its requirement for just-in-time skills— badging, certification stacks, and micro-master’s programs will increasingly supplement or even replace traditional degrees. New just-in-time certification models will enable the demonstration of work-related competencies to serve specific objective needs.

From Symbols to Experiences

The fourth and final dimension of the great wave that will transform education is the transition from symbols to experiences. This is a shift in the how of learning by the use of new, powerful media.

Most of us in senior positions grew up in an era of analog media and verbal literacy in which writing essays, penmanship, and manipulating words were considered to be core skills. These days, many students have a new concept of literacy. Some even actively avoid the effort of learning to write in cursive, preferring instead to work on keyboards. This is an era in which new artificial intelligence capabilities can enable a student to write a perfectly composed 10-page paper instantaneously when a topic is typed into a search bar. Perhaps it is search and curation, rather than composition, that should be seen as the new literacy.

The unit of learning is also changing. It is well known that young people prefer shorter experiences that involve motion media. YouTube has become a major repository and vehicle for learning among young people. Video games have profited in large measure because of their mastery of experience design and learning theory. The arrival of VR and AR as immersive technologies with the potential to create engagement is another dimension of the transition from symbols to experiences, as many initiatives — often backed by venture capital — strive to gamify the learning experience to make it even more relevant and engaging for learners.

Now that we’ve laid out the drivers that necessitate a transformation in education, part two of this series will explain how education can thrive in the age of innovation, including a description of the seven key ingredients that must be identified in a robust innovation agenda.


1. John Kao, China: The Next Innovation Nation, Amazon Kindle Store, 2016.

2. John Kao, Innovation Nation, Free Press, 2008.

3. Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable, Viking, 2016.

About John Kao

Dr. John Kao, founder of EdgeMakers, has spent the better part of 30 years creating compelling learning experiences for emerging innovators and entrepreneurs. His eclectic career mirrors the complexity of innovation and entrepreneurship. He was a professor at Harvard Business School, and he taught at the MIT Media Lab and Stanford’s Bowman House. He was an advisor to countries on innovation policy and is a serial entrepreneur. He also is the best-selling author of books about innovation, a Tony award-winning producer of stage and screen, Yamaha Music’s first “artist in innovation” and a Yale Medical School trained psychiatrist. Each experience has enriched his pedagogical approach. Dubbed “Mr. Creativity” and a “serial innovator” by The Economist, John Kao is a renaissance man and self-styled “innovation activist” whose creativity forms the DNA for our company.

EdgeMakers recently merged with STEM Learning Lab to focus on empowering both teachers and learners to become changemakers through STEM 2.0―the combination of high-quality STEM programs with a groundbreaking innovative thinking curriculum. The merger paves the way to provide the curriculum and professional development that empower K-12 educators to deliver the authoritative, integrated approach to teaching the disciplines of the 21st century. Learn more here.


Content in this article originally appeared in “Education in the Age of Innovation” in the Spring 2017 issue of Independent School magazine at nais.org.


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