By Elaine Griffin
Leaders in the field of education preach that in order for children to solve the world’s pressing problems—environmental disasters, systemic racism, recurring global pandemics—schools need to produce innovators. But what exactly is an innovator? And, how do you cultivate them in middle school?
When I’ve pressed, I’ve been given answers that are vague, circular, or both. “Innovators use creative thinking.” “Innovators think outside the box.” Words, words, meaningless words. As a middle school principal with a responsibility to actually prepare kids for the future rather than just talk a good game, I wasn’t satisfied with such easily downed bromides, of the sort that get used all too often by politicians and pundits.
I knew it was possible to do better, because author Michael Lewis—a genuine innovator—consistently has. He’s done it again in “The Premonition,” his outstanding new book on the global pandemic. Whether writing about Billy Beane’s use of statistics in predicting a ball player’s success in “Moneyball” or writing about investors who made fortunes by predicting the 2008 financial crisis in “The Big Short,” Lewis seeks out people who have a gift for thinking differently. That’s also true in “The Premonition,” which showcases a group of rogue scientists calling themselves the Wolverines who secretly exchanged information and insight on the pandemic. I read the book through the lens of a middle school educator, searching for strategies that would promote innovative thinking.
Patterns of innovative thinking among this eclectic group of pandemic researchers emerged right away. The good news is that anyone can practice the habits of mind they exhibit. The bad news is that thinking differently can come at a cost, in middle school and in life. It involves being a nonconformist and standing up for what’s right even when it’s unpopular. As Susan Sontag wrote long ago, “At the center of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great models
of resistance: the great stories of those who have said ‘No.’”
I’m going to share my personal top 10 innovative, iconoclastic habits of mind from among the many displayed by the scientists in Lewis’ book, which is not only instructive but also riveting. I hope you’ll encourage these traits in your middle schooler, focusing especially on the ethical component that is the bedrock of thinking differently (dangerously?) and that is the heart of what it means for an independent school like USM to offer a unique education.
1. Think and rethink
Those studying the pandemic repeatedly shifted their perspective as they learned more about the virus, proving anew that Emerson was right when claiming that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Carter Mecher, the central doctor in the book, reflected upon his ability to shape a pandemic response policy back in 2007: Diving into the work with “the eyes of a child and a sense of awe,” he had “no firmly held perspective to begin with” and therefore “never had anything to unlearn.” Instead, he “was forever looking at any problem or dispute from the other person’s point of view.” When we approach a problem without preconceptions, we see new things.
2. Be brave
Iconoclasts are brave. Charity Dean, a public health official from California, told Lewis why she believes courage is a skill. Dean keeps a list of things she’s had to overcome in life, and she’s grateful that those things made her stronger. When she joined the group of rogue patriots working on the pandemic, she finally felt affirmed and appreciated, after years during which her boss and other elites in California government had ignored her. Similarly, physician Richard Hattchet, who argued for social distancing as a planned pandemic response years before the CDC did, was nicknamed “the piñata” for the beating he’d taken in advancing unorthodox ideas. But events proved him right.
3. Take huge problems and shrink them
How do you fight a global pandemic without super powers? Its proportions can be overwhelming. Carter Mecher has no interest in magic bullets; instead, he believes one should fight a massive pandemic bit by bit. He uses the metaphor of piling up slices of Swiss Cheese to advocate for layered mitigation strategies. By piling one piece of Swiss Cheese atop another, you gradually cover up more holes—or, in a pandemic’s case, reduce the risk of spread. Social distancing was one strategy to cover up holes. Telecommuting was another. Caps on large gatherings was yet another. Long before a COVID vaccination became available, Mecher advocated fighting the pandemic one layer at a time. Events proved him right, too.
4. Ask questions and observe
To solve a problem, you need to be curious. Not long after becoming a supervisor at the VA, Mecher was asked to explore why patients in a VA hospital in South Carolina were dying in greater numbers than elsewhere from colon cancer. A believer in observing and asking questions rather than making on-high medical proclamations, he asked during a visit if he could see where veterans’ test kits with stool samples were arriving at the hospital. In the mailroom, he noticed returned kits in a pile with the notice, “Insufficient Postage: Return to Sender”; thankfully, some of these kits had been delivered despite having insufficient postage. No one had realized that for all of the samples to be returned, they’d each require two stamps, rather than one. Once the Charleston, S.C. VA began adding an additional stamp, it became a leader in colon cancer detection.
5. Be humble
Lewis speaks of Mecher as a man of “real humility.” Lewis continually points out that his unlikely heroes weren’t Washington insiders; they were regular people willing to ask questions rather than presuming they knew the answers. When Charity Dean began getting emails from the Wolverines, she saw that the smartest observations came from Carter Mecher. In his emails, “It was never ‘look at me!’ but always ‘look at this!’”
6. Seek out people who are different from you
Given their different specialties and diverse perspectives, Lewis’ cast of characters resembles a scientist’s version of the Justice League. Bob Glass helped his daughter with her middle school science project on data-modeling a pandemic’s transmission and then scaled up the project. Charity Dean worked in the California public health system. Lisa Koonin was a nurse at the CDC. Carter Mecher investigated medical errors for VA hospitals. Richard Hatchett was an emergency room physician. Willing to share and learn from one another, Lewis’ motley crew succeeded because they weren’t ensconced in what Lewis calls “little boxes,” silos where like-minded academics and politicians, bureaucrats and corporate leaders talk to like-minded versions of themselves rather than breaking out of their shells to talk to others who see the world differently than they do. Group think, in other words, inhibits good thinking and innovation. Spend fifteen minutes around the buzzing “hive mind” afflicting any social media platform and you’ll get the idea. There’s a reason all middle schoolers must lock their phones away throughout the school day.
7. Be a story teller
Mecher realized that appeals to logic weren’t going to convey the dangers of a pandemic, so he decided to appeal to hearts instead. When working on a pandemic plan in the early 2000s, he’d asked people to imagine the next pandemic as an emotional event. He used pictures from the 1918 flu pandemic to build empathy. He told stories about the families who had lost loved ones. “The only way I make sense of things,” he told Lewis, “is through stories that I tell myself.” Stories and metaphors are a short-cut we can take when we want to convey a complex event more simply or convey emotional events more persuasively. Which, incidentally, is why it’s so important that you and your children put down the phone and read books. A lot of them.
8. Avoid perfectionism like the plague
“You didn’t worry about finding the perfect answer,” Lewis writes. “There might never be a perfect answer.” For doctors, this means that at some point you need to stop studying the disease and take action to save the patient’s life. Being a little bit wrong is fine as long as you are progressing and doing your best. This is how you get in front of problems instead of simply reacting to them. When pitching his idea for tracking outbreaks of COVID-19, Mecher finished with the caveat that “this conclusion is correct until it is wrong.” Our kids need the courage to fail. That’s how we learn and get better. That’s how we grow (all apparent analogies to the Packers’ dismal performance last Sunday are purely coincidental).
9. Don’t be intimidated by the experts
Lewis notes that the CDC’s unwillingness to take risks and stick its neck out during 2020 forced decision-making onto state and local health officials. They could have modeled the CDC’s risk-averse approach, hiding behind its authority to justify their failure to make tough decisions. But they didn’t. State and local health officials stepped up and saved lives because they made big decisions that the top brass didn’t have the courage to make. We tend to think that our experts are the leaders, and that our leaders are the experts. All too often, neither of these assumptions is correct.
10. Seek out your passions
The VA asked Mecher to write a report for its “Lessons Learned” website, which was a place for staff within the VA to share ideas and suggestions. Instead of promoting the website, he wrote about how the website was “dumb,” observing “that people don’t learn what is imposed upon them but rather what they freely seek, out of desire or need.” Those in Mecher’s Justice League took such a strong interest in pandemics that they sometimes paid for their own materials, worked long into the night, and volunteered their time (I could be describing USM’s dedicated faculty, but I digress). They were driven by their desire to know more and help others. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Charity Dean’s purpose became clear to her: “She was put on earth to fight battles, and wars, against disease. To save lives and perhaps even an entire country.” She and people like her are among the heroes of the past 18 months who’ve helped do both.
I have a premonition that if you read Lewis’ terrific book, you’ll be inspired to apply its lessons to ensure that our kids are ready and able to be tomorrow’s heroes, solving increasingly complex problems that our generation has frequently ignored. Applying Lewis’ precepts at home will encourage our kids to think for themselves, while being unafraid to have their assumptions challenged.
Saving lives was the “why” behind this team’s work, which fueled their energy and commitment. When we encourage middle schoolers to find their “why” and to choose their own adventure, we are launching them on a journey toward inquiry and innovation. Applying Lewis’ precepts to our own lives, we might even be equipped to walk the walk with them, into a better tomorrow.
About Elaine Griffin:
Elaine Griffin has worked at University School of Milwaukee since 1998, serving as the head of Middle School since 2019. Previously, she served as USM's assistant head of Upper School and taught Upper School English. She has both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in English, and served as the president of the Whitefish Bay Library.