Issue: 2007: Vol. 6, No. 2, Articles

Teaching Innovation: Implications for India, China and America

Article Author(s)

Robert L DeHann

Avatar photo
Robert L. DeHaan is C.H. Candler Professor of Cell Biology and Senior Science Advisor, Division of Educational Studies, Emory University and Director of Education Research, India, China, America Institute. Dr. DeHaan can be reached at [email protected]

Mark Hutcheson

Avatar photo
Mark Hutcheson is Executive Director, India, China, America Institute. 
Newsletter Signup
Subscription Form

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Teaching Innovation: Implications for India, China and AmericaWith world leaders acknowledging that innovation will be the well-spring of economic development in the 21st Century, over one hundred participants from places as distant as New Delhi, Beijing, and Jerusalem gathered in Atlanta in early March, 2007 at a conference on Education for Innovation in India, China and America.

Sponsored by Emory University and the India, China and America Institute (ICAI), the conference brought together ten distinguished speakers (see box) and a participant audience of government officials, educators, policymakers, students, and representatives of the corporate community to discuss the following critical guiding questions:

  • Can inventiveness and ingenuity be taught and nurtured in schools and colleges?
  • What are the most effective educational strategies to promote these abilities?
  • How are vibrant economies driven by innovation? What is the relationship between education for innovation and economic development?
  • What measures can these three most populous countries in the world take to promote cooperation and sharing rather than hostile competition in their efforts to educate an innovative citizenry?

The idea for this conference arose out of the work of ICAI, a non-profit organization with the vision of providing a sustainable, non-governmental platform to identify and drive synergies among India, China, and America in the areas of emerging markets, commercial growth, and alignment of policies for the benefit of a vast number of people. The Institute was founded by Jagdish N. Sheth of Emory University as a way to help policy-makers, business leaders, and academics understand the growing importance of this tri-lateral relationship, and to encourage discussion and research into the profound implications it will have for the three countries and the rest of the world.

Providing impetus to the emergence of the trilateral relationship is a new world order where economics and the development of human capital have replaced political philosophy as the driving forces of national policy. Increasing innovative capacity is a crucial component of the “soft” infrastructure on which many nations are pinning their future prosperity. A developed country such as the U.S., with a long history of innovation, massive public and private investment in research institutions, and an ability to draw the brightest minds from around the world, must enhance its innovative capacity in order to maintain economic leadership.

In India and China, innovation and innovative thinking have become synonymous with future economic growth. As manufacturing and investment move more and more easily across borders in our ever “flattening” world, other developing countries are drawing attention as sources of inexpensive labor. It is important that both India and China “upscale” their economies so they are not just the world’s workshops; they must also be sources of product development, artistic creativity, and marketing. Only by moving their economies up the scale of technology and information content can they continue growing at the pace necessary to help the large portions of their populations that have yet to be touched by economic prosperity.

India, China and America each face significant challenges in its efforts to increase the innovative capacity of its citizens. For the U.S., obsolete teaching methods promote rote learning, and competition from other governments and multi-national corporations draws research talent and investment away. The challenge for China is more cultural. A historic reliance on rote learning and an educational system that encourages social hierarchy and uniformity are often cited as barriers to innovation. When even Chinese expert sources acknowledge such problems, it catches the attention of the world community. An April 1, 2007 article in The New York Times describes a small but growing effort among Chinese educators and students “to blend a Western emphasis on critical thinking, versatility and leadership into their own traditions.” And, although India has developed a more open attitude toward innovation and innovative thinking, the country is burdened with a severely limited educational infrastructure and a majority rural population that struggles with the basics of food and shelter.

Although much attention has been given to bilateral issues such as the rise of China and India as economic powers and the U.S.-China trade imbalance, analyses couched in terms of the tri-lateral relationship are rare, despite the mounting evidence that these three countries will increasingly come to dominate the world stage in terms of market power and political influence. Conversations among ICAI personnel about how innovative capacity might play a pivotal role in the unfolding India-China-U.S. relationship led to further discussions of how education promotes innovative solutions and economic growth, and eventually to the guiding questions that set the direction of the conference discussions.

In his opening remarks, conference co-organizer Robert DeHaan described some of this history and introduced the guiding questions. He saw his role as encouraging and facilitating penetrating discussions among participants representing diverse fields and interest groups. He reminded the speakers and the audience that the main theme of the conference was not innovative education, but “education for innovation”. The questions to be explored, he noted, were whether we can educate students in schools and colleges, or as adults in the work force, in ways that maximize their ingenuity and inventiveness? And how does such education effect national economic growth or competitiveness?

To frame the overall implications of the tri-national relationship, Jagdish Sheth asked his listeners “Why India, China and America? He framed his comments by offering evidence of the explosive, almost simultaneous growth of China and India, referring to “Chindia”, the term introduced by Jairam Ramesh to highlight the combined impact of these two nations on the economies of the world. Responses of the U.S. and other developed nations to the Chindia challenge must be to increase R&D spending, improve the search for global talent, encourage public/private partnerships, and actively recruit students at all levels to come to the U.S. to study. These can be the means whereby healthy competition can remain cooperative and collaborative rather than hostile.

Whether and how innovation can be taught in classrooms across the world were issues captured in the first two guiding questions (above). These were addressed primarily by four speakers: Kaufman, Perkins, Daniel and Baraniuk.

James Kaufman explored the origins of innovation in terms of ingenuity and inventiveness, or at an even more fundamental level, in measures of creativity. He defined two levels of creativity: Big-C and little-c. Big-C creativity is that attributed to those acknowledged geniuses who have changed paradigms of their fields or their cultures. Einstein, Mozart and Picasso are often-cited examples. The concept of little-c creativity stems from research showing that creative potential is widely distributed, and emphasizes such characteristics as unconventionality, inquisitiveness, imagination, and freedom. Kaufman also proposed a third category, called mini-c, which encompasses the creativity inherent in the learning process, based on the contention that the development of new understanding and personal knowledge construction are creative processes. Mini-c creativity, Kaufman argued, highlights the creative process inherent in learning, i.e., the way in which students interpret and make sense of new information.

In her presentation, Perkins explored two questions: (1) What educational goals and practices foster the development of students who are both capable of innovation and motivated to innovate? and (2) What educational technologies serve as tools for achieving those goals? She began by examining recent results from educational research showing that people learn by actively constructing their own understanding, and by building on their own prior knowledge. Developing expert competence requires both acquisition of factual knowledge and development of an organizational structure that allows for efficient retrieval and application of ideas. Perkins introduced two novel technologies which, she noted, can serve as tools for achieving the goals of moving students toward expert competence and innovative ways of thinking: classroom response systems, or “clickers”, and interactive, computer-based simulations. The major focus of her talk was computer-based interactive simulations (sims), which provide a novel way to convey scientific ideas and engage students in educational activities. Accessing the Physics Education Technology (PhET) project ( online, Perkins showed that sims can be powerful educational tools that facilitate the educational aspects identified above as important for understanding and for innovation. She and her colleague, Carl Wieman, Nobelist in physics at the University of Colorado, have developed over 60 sims for teaching and learning high school and college physics, chemistry and mathematics.

The question of how to disseminate educational materials that promote innovative thinking to vast and often impoverished populations, was taken up in the presentations of Sir John Daniel and Richard Baraniuk. Daniel reported that China now has the largest postsecondary education system in the world with 21 million students and an Age Participation Rate (APR) of 19%. India lags behind with an APR of 10% and some 10 million students. Developed countries have APRs of 40% or more; America’s APR is just under 60%. China and India must continue to develop their postsecondary systems. India’s combination of demography (60% under age 25) and democracy will propel its postsecondary enrolments past those of both the U.S. and China. According to Daniel, in the coming decades, teaching that promotes innovation in higher educational institutions will expand greatly in the countries of the global South where the large majority of people under 25 live. To compete, the higher education industry must achieve economies of scale by targeting the massive numbers of people at the bottom of the pyramid, not just the elites. This will mean more distance learning and more cross-border provision. The Commonwealth of Learning ( and Whitney International University Systems ( were examples he cited of organizations that have made good progress in this endeavor.

Agreeing that distance learning is fostered by broad access to learning materials, Baraniuk introduced the Connexions website as an example of open educational resources. Connexions is a unique web-based teaching and learning environment that combines free authoring, course building, and publishing tools with an open-access content repository (see For students and instructors alike, it provides modular, interactive courses and learning objects that are freely accessible. In January 2006, the Connexions servers handled over 16 million hits representing over 500,000 unique visitors from 157 countries. Some of the most active content development areas at present include music, engineering, physics, chemistry, bioinformatics, nanotechnology, and history. Volunteers are translating modules and courses into a range of different languages, including Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi and Thai.

In a presentation entitled “Designing Education for Innovation”, William Massy contended that education for innovation should include creativity, problem-solving, communication, character-building, and learning to live in a diverse and global society. Universities that do a good job in these areas will have laid the necessary groundwork for innovation. Traditional higher education systems in many parts of the developing world rely mainly on rote learning, and often fail to achieve these basic objectives. Surprisingly, so do many institutions in more advanced nations, as Derek Bok points out in his 2006 report America’s Underachieving Colleges. Such arguments support the need for active learning and they essentially define the major differences between high quality and lower quality education.

Maintenance of educational quality is dependent on having appropriate assessment measures. Barry McGaw noted the marked differences among countries in the quality of education, as indicated by international assessments such as PISA, which measures performances of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, science and problem solving in some 42 nations. Beyond differences in measured learning, PISA results also reveal marked differences in the equity of education systems. McGaw showed that some countries manage to achieve high quality and high equity at the same time.

The relationship between education for innovation and economic development was the main thrust of the remaining four speakers: Feldman, Mashelkar, Simon and Zhou. Maryann Feldman noted that modern economic growth is a complex phenomenon that is increasingly dependent on innovation — the ability to create economic value, termed human capital, through the creative application of knowledge. Knowledge is the most important commodity of any modern economy, she argued. The higher education system is the primary creator of human capital, defined as individuals who are able to appreciate, integrate, augment knowledge and innovate. The main question she considered was how the role of institutions of higher education is changing in China, India and the United States and what these changes portend for competitiveness and economic growth. But the unit of analysis, she noted, must be smaller than whole countries. Innovation is not spread evenly across the citizenry; it tends to be concentrated in local regions, exemplified by Silicon Valley in the U.S., China’s Pudong district, and Bangalore in India. Academic institutions provide the basis for the range of skills required for advanced economies and form the fabric of such competitive regions. As the economies of India and China develop, increasing both their ability to educate students at home and gainfully employ them after graduation, the competitiveness landscape is changing.

Using a statistical model that captures both the supply and demand sides of the talent issues, Denis Fred Simon laid out a forecast for the availability and utilization of talent in China. The supply side reflected university enrollment data by field of study. The demand side included key factors such as the increased technological sophistication of the society. He noted that there have been conflicting stories about the prevailing talent situation in China. On the one hand, spending on technology, R&D, and education has been accelerating over the last several years. The overall number of scientists and engineers and other trained professionals has been steadily increasing, and the education pipeline at the tertiary level is filled with millions of students entering colleges and universities. On the other hand, complaints are common that qualified talent is difficult to find and retain. According to a recent Kinsey Report, only 10% of Chinese graduates with at least seven-years of professional experience are qualified to work for multinational corporations. There is a growing recognition that China faces a serious talent challenge as it seeks to sustain its economic growth over the next decade or more.

Mansheng Zhou, in his talk entitled “Higher Education for Innovation in China,” agreed with Simon’s analysis. Citing the 2006 World Competitive Yearbook, Zhou noted that China ranked 19th in innovative capacity among 61 nations (though up from 31 in 2005). The main barriers to a higher ranking were a low degree of self-sufficiency in key technologies; low rate of patent production; poor quality of scientific research; lack of trained talented manpower; and inadequate investment in science, technology and education. Training a large number of talented people, he said, is the key to building an innovative nation. In comparing U.S. and Chinese educational systems, Zhou focused on the “huge differences” arising from their dissimilar histories, culture and politics. He described Chinese education, which for thousands of years has emphasized respect for the teacher and for learning, as highlighting the systematic accumulation and imparting of knowledge while “cultivating a spirit of rigidity and precision”. In contrast, “in the eyes of the Chinese, American education stresses cultivation of independent thinking, creativity and imagination, praxis, and individuality of students”. Education in China, he said, has a sound basis but lacks creativity.

The Indian perspective on the idea that expanding human capital drives national economic growth was offered by R.A. Mashelkar. He began by comparing the percentage of world scientific and engineering intellectual output produced by Asia-Pacific nations with that of Europe and the U.S. He noted that in the short period between 1990 and 2004, the U.S. fraction fell, the European Union portion rose just slightly, while the Asia-Pacific nations rose dramatically. In India, since independence in 1947, the government has invested heavily in creating science-rich institutes and universities. One result is that it is reliably predicted that software professionals, representing 0.06% of the Indian population, will generate 35% of Indian exports by 2008. Some of this scientific development has focused on benefiting the economically disadvantaged, as for example, with the development of the GIST technology for multi-lingual computing and the Amida Simputer, a low-cost alternative to the PC which can be widely distributed to even the poorest rural villagers. India and China can gain innovative dominance, he concluded, only by lifting large fractions of their vast populations up the socio-economic ladder through education.

In a “summing up” by a Reprise Panel headed by Mary Bullock, former president of Agnes Scott College, the following conclusions pertinent to the guiding questions were drawn:

  • Inventiveness and ingenuity can be fostered by educational strategies that assist learners in constructing their own understanding and developing an organizational structure of knowledge that allows for retrieval and application of ideas.
  • Education based on such strategies can be disseminated equitably and at low cost to most sectors of society by the use of open education resources and distance learning methods
  • Economic development is promoted by the production of human capital through education, but quality issues are paramount
  • At present growth rates, the economies of India and China will overtake that of the U.S. in coming decades, if those nations can overcome intrinsic educational and cultural barriers

Conference Speakers

  • Richard G. Baraniuk, Victor E. Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Founder of Connexions, Rice University, Houston, TX, USA
  • Sir John Daniel, President and CEO, The Commonwealth of Learning, Vancouver, Canada
  • MaryAnn Feldman, Miller Distinguished Professor, Institute of Higher Education, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA
  • James C. Kaufman, Director, Learning Research Institute, California State University, San Bernardino, CA, USA
  • R. A. Mashelkar, Director General, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), New Delhi, India
  • William F. Massy, Professor Emeritus and former VP for Business and Finance, Stanford University; President, The Jackson Hole Higher Education Group, Inc., Jackson Hole, WY, USA
  • Barry McGaw, Director, Melbourne Education Research Institute, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
  • Katherine K. Perkins, Associate Director, Physics Education Technology Project, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA
  • Denis Fred Simon, Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs, Levin Graduate Institute, State University of New York, New York City, NY, USA
  • Zhou Mansheng, Deputy Director -General, National Centre for Education Development Research, Ministry of Education, Beijing, PRC

Conference Organizing Committee

  • Robert L. DeHaan, Emeritus Professor of Cell Biology, Senior Science Advisor, Division of Science Education, Emory University and Education Research Director, ICA Institute
  • Mark Hutcheson, Executive Director, ICA Institute
  • K. M. V. Narayan, Hubert Professor of Global Health, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University and Health Research Director, ICA Institute
  • Jagdish Sheth, Kellstadt Professor of Marketing, Goizeta Business School, Emory University and Founder, ICA Institute

Reprise Panel

  • Mary Bullock (Chair), President Emerita, Agnes Scott College, and Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
  • Eleanor Main, Director, Division of Educational Studies, Emory University
  • Penny Prime, Director, China Research Center and Professor of Economics, Mercer University
  • Nancy Roth Remington, Exec. Director, International Programs, Goizueta Business School, Emory University
  • Yali Zhao, Asst Prof, Multicultural Education, College of Education, Georgia State University