Last week I read ‘iWoz’ by Steve Wozniak. The subtitle summarises the book nicely 'How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It’. For anyone with an interest in the birth of the personal computer this is a must read that also offers numerous gems for those interested in teaching and learning and makes great reading alongside Tony Wagner’s ‘Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World’.
Undoubtedly Steve’s achievements with Apple are extraordinary and his ability to see the potential of the personal computer early on ensured it would evolve into so much more than a tool for engineering geeks. Throughout the book you will find gems of how he overcame problems with early processors, strove to improve the efficiency of his designs and solved problems in completely new ways. Reading ‘iWoz’ also reveals a great deal about the processes a remarkable learner will bring to any learning challenge and so many of the qualities Steve describes in himself are those identified in ‘Creating Innovators’.
The most obvious connection is Steve’s passion for learning and his application of this to investigating digital technology and electronics. From a young age Steve was driven to learn more, to understand deeply and to explore what is possible. This passion for learning within a chosen field is what allowed him to continue seeking solutions even when he encountered obstacles and it this that ensured he had developed the skills and knowledge he would need to build the first PC. In Sir Ken Robinson’s terms, Steve found his element.
In ‘Creating Innovators’ Tony Wagner presents a series of interviews with young innovators. A common link is that they each found a passion and doggedly pursued this even in the face of detractors who tried to divert their efforts towards more mainstream pursuits. Steve discusses this need for innovators to overcome the limitations of others vision; ‘Believe in yourself, don’t listen to the people who are blinded by their limited understanding of what is possible. The only way to come up with something new- something world-changing - is to think outside of the constraints everyone else has.’
Throughout Steve’s life he showed a willingness to learn through experimentation. He actively sought out problems to solve and experimented with options to find the best solution. At every step he added to his knowledge and refined his process of experimentation. A perfect example of this can be seen in the description of the problem solving he engaged with while drawing circuits for early computer designs. Unable to afford the processors he instead drew numerous iterations with the goal of minimising the number of chips required. It was this experience that would later allow Steve to maximise the power of the first Apple computers. Driven by an innate curiosity the innovator will seek ways of solving the problems others are yet to identify, they will ask new questions that reveal problems and solutions others are unaware of and this is where the potential impact of innovation is greatest.
This process of experimentation in the case of Steve was also linked to a desire to produce something useful, a device that would make a difference. This desire to have an impact is another theme identified in ‘Creating Innovators’ where many of those interviewed demonstrate a desire to do good for society, to blend engineering with social purpose.
Increasingly we speak about a mind set for learning, a mindset that says I can continue to improve my thinking and my capacity to learn. This mindset cuts through artificial limitations on an individual’s potential and it is this mindset that Steve exhibits. When confronted by a new problem, such as how to get an early disk drive to function, he was forced to bring his existing knowledge to bear on a new problem. At first he had no idea how this problem would be solved and the deadline set was astoundingly short but while others may have quit, Steve knew to trust in his ability to find not only the right solution but the best solution. With due pride he describes how his implementation of a disk drive for Apple was a leap beyond what others were doing.
Lastly and possibly most importantly Steve had fun while doing it all. His learning incorporated elements of play and his love of pranks provided opportunities to experiment with an alternate set of problems. His descriptions of how he used a small transmitter to fool with peoples television viewing and the antics he causes as people tried to adjust their antennas, even standing on one leg to make it works is enjoyable reading. Play is described as one of the critical attributes of schools wishing to create innovators identified by Tony. Play is what encourages learners to experiment beyond the conventional.
For schools the two books also describe the sad reality that for innovators the learning that takes place outside of the classroom matters most to their future innovation. Steve describes his classes at school and college positively but it is the learning that he engaged with personally outside of the classroom that led to his innovative work in designing the PC. The same story is told by most of the young innovators interviewed for ‘Creating Innovators where the impact of teachers at school is minimal and even those who describe tertiary experiences positively are describing educators who operate outside of the mainstream systems and environments, what Tony refers to as ‘outliers’.
If it is to be our goal to create innovators and to shift the product of schools away from young people prepared for an industrial age or a knowledge worker role there is much to learn in these two books.
Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner
by Nigel Coutts