Innovation START UPS

How great minds and innovations evolve: The questions are the answers!

On first meeting Eleanor Duckworth in 2009 at her office in the Longfellow building at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (Cambridge, Massachusetts) I asked her, “What do you do?” She responded: “You ask me what I do, well: My question that I’m interested in is: How do people learn things and what can anyone do to help? … So that leads to the question: If people construct their own knowledge what can a teacher do? So those are the kinds of questions I address.”


After our conversation, she gave me a gift – a copy of her book, The Having of Wonderful Ideas. In the introduction, she wrote, “we want schools in which students come to feel the power of their own minds and their creative capacities … Telling, explaining, play a very small part in helping people learn.” In her youth, Duckworth studied under the Swiss practitioner in educational psychology and pioneer in the study of children’s intelligence, Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980). Using his own children – for his research in the stages of cognitive development – Piaget authored The Child’s Conception of the World (1926); The Origin of Intelligence in Children (1936); and The Early Growth of Logic in the Child (1958).

The chat with Duckworth committed me to introduce “The Cognitive Ratio” concept into my own teacher training workshops. The idea is for teachers to manage their teaching roles so that students are consistently on task – doing as much of the cognitive work as possible: the thinking, the analyses, the talking, the writing, and so on. As Doug Lemov noted in his book, “Teach Like a Champion”, successful teaching “is rarely marked by a teacher’s getting a good intellectual workout at the front of the room. Push more and more of the cognitive work out to students as they are ready, with the understanding that the cognitive work must be on-task, focused, and productive.”


On a recent (June 2015) tour of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I chanced upon a science laboratory in a futuristic building designed by the iconic architect, Frank Gehry. I noticed a huge question mark (?) perched so boldly that it spoke volumes. The impression motivated me to pose the following questions – in a column titled, “Avoiding the miseducation of Ghana’s youth”: “Why have dreams if you can’t live them? Why have interests or curiosities if you can’t pursue them? Why have a hypothesis if you can’t test your finer instincts through them?”


Such questions engage one’s critical thinking abilities and help to develop the appropriate mindset: to originate, to adopt, to hypothesiee, to design, to produce, to create, to invent, and so on. People who create new knowledge, products, or services tend to have zero need for cheating in examinations or for rote learning: “the chew, pour, pass, forget, and be poor” mentality so prevalent in intellectually deprived places.

That question mark – as simple as it seems – says a lot about the quality of the MIT leadership. As it’s been said, The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people, but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already. The wealth of nations lies in the creative potential of all its people.


Similarly, Harvard University introduced the innovation lab (iLab) concept: In a nutshell, creativity (having great ideas), and innovation (developing new products or services successfully) merge through collaborative teams and innovative efforts. The reason why schools like Harvard and MIT consistently top the world’s best universities appear to be the imaginative mindset that motivates their student to ask the right questions, and act on them.


For Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), “The important thing is (to not stop) questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Meaningful curricular objectives, today, must be forward looking and inquisitive, to help the youth define and pursue their passions, curiosities or interests. By asking and acting on the appropriate questions, the youth may add value to their innate intelligence and leverage their energies for superior lives.


Today, questions that have never been asked before may guide the answers for innovation, productivity, prosperity, national progress, and self-fulfillment. Without probing how they could possibly advance, poor nations continue to be stuck in the passive mode. Ghana’s policy tigers and the academic type teachers – in our colleges and universities – must ask this essential question of themselves: Is it realistic to continue doing what they’ve been doing and expect different results? Equally important is the question:  What’s in the best interest of this country?

Destructive education

The idea that education can be deceptive or defeatist can be a very harrowing proposition because the common idea is that education helps you. But the wrong education can be destructive! And countries that persistently stay poor, ought to know this, and pursue a renaissance in education to resuscitate the youth.


The future is created by inventing it. No other future is hoisted on the horizon. In that vein, human capital is the most promising God given natural resource. The flamboyant theories without applications have become massive shackles. As Lee Kuan Yew put it, “My life is not guided by philosophy or theories. I get things done and leave others to extract the principles from my successful solutions. I do not work on a theory. Instead, I ask: “What will make this work?” That is the question!

Author : Annis Haffar


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