Ingenuity: A New Super Skill, a New Assessment Challenge, a New National Conversation

Editor's Notes

By Dorothy H. BrayAugust 18, 2013 | Print

Today’s core question asks: Are students acquiring the right knowledge and the essential skills to position themselves to enter and succeed in higher education and in jobs in the global economy? The question places value on the increasing pressures of new knowledge requiring new “on-demand” skills. In this economic climate, it’s not just about finding skilled workers; it’s about finding elite talent. At the center of today’s world is the need to be skilled, a term often used as a synonym for successful or elite. A convergence of national needs and educational responses lend plausibility to the rise of a new super-skill, such as ingenuity, now allied with success and national prosperity in the twenty-first century.

A powerful new voice, “A National Strategic Narrative,” sends us in search of the new twenty-first century skills that are key to developing the “intellectual capital” vital to maintaining our national prosperity and security ( Written for the Woodrow Wilson Center at Princeton by two prominent advisors to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Captain Wayne Porter of the U.S. Navy, and Marine Corps Colonel Mark Mykleby, the narrative is based on the authors’ assertion that “We must recognize that security means more than defense. The first priority should be intellectual capital …” (Mr. Y 2011, 7).

Another influential voice, author Thomas Homer-Dixon (2000), advances an innovative theory, The Ingenuity Gap, defined as “the chasm between problems that arise and our lagging ability to solve them” (2). Homer-Dixon posits that in a given economy the flow of ideas leading to useful technologies is a direct result of investment in human capital. The demands of “human/intellectual capital” require exceptional skills. Ingenuity, which will combat the gap between global problems and solutions, performs as a new basic skill elevated to a super-skill, taking its place in the skills ecosystem that will generate the dynamic chemistry to be demonstrated as intellectual capital.

The new super-skill of ingenuity requires the design and development of a skills formation system. The challenge is not just to know what ingenuity is, but how it works as a skill and what to do with it. The goals for the skills formation system for ingenuity require us to (1) create it, (2) describe it, and (3) show how it works.

Skills Formation Models: From Remedial Models to Upskilling

In the twentieth century the challenge was underdevelopment of basic skills. In the twenty-first century the challenge is developing super-skills. A 2013 skills assessment model shifts from yesterday’s dominant education skills deficiency model of students (remedial, underprepared, developmental) to a national emphasis on formation models of lifelong development of skills underlying key job and life performance qualifications. The British use the term upskilling for this emphasis. Here, skills formation is a live and dynamic process.

How Can Ingenuity Be Developed as a Skill?

Ingenuity is the skill of working out how to achieve things or invent new things or ideas. Guiding questions include:

  1. What are we trying to accomplish through ingenuity skilling?
  2. What are the key student behaviors and accomplishments leading to ingenuity skilling?
  3. What indicators and tools will be used to assess ingenuity skilling?

A Different Rhetoric Emerges from the Principles of Ingenuity Skilling

Ingenuity is unique as a pluralistic skill; it is not part of a skills sequence or hierarchy of skills as in taxonomies of skills. The rhetoric of super-skills development discards the historical identity of skills as developed in a linear hierarchical progression from basic to advanced. Instead, it utilizes the characteristics of today’s powerful nonlinear theoretical influences, reflected in the identity of ingenuity as a pluralistic, blended skill, built on a fusion of aptitudes, capabilities, proficiencies, and abilities.

Ingenuity skilling denotes “collective action problem solving.” As a super-skill, ingenuity is interdisciplinary, deriving its energy from shared communication, creativity, and cognitive behaviors of problem solving, acting as inventive skills or imaginative and clever design of new ideas. Synonyms for ingenuity include inventiveness, resourcefulness, and shrewdness—cooperative processes resulting in the production of new ideas.

Blended competences of creativity stress that innovation is problem solving. The behavior of “working creatively” blends with cognitive skills of developing, implementing, and communicating new ideas effectively to others, while demonstrating original and inventive problem solving.

Recent research suggests that creativity is not simply a product of personality or individual psychology, but rather is rooted in a set of teachable competences, which include idea generation, improvisation, metaphorical and analogical reasoning, divergent thinking that explores many possible solutions, counterfactual reasoning, and synthesis of competing solutions. (Lingo and Tepper 2010)

Cognitive development behaviors related to idea development are reflected in the abilities to use metaphors and analogies, which can take into account various points of view and blend with creativity to produce new ideas. Metaphors open windows to new ways of seeing ourselves and our situations. Homer-Dixon (2000) believes that we have an important capacity for metaphor: “to see patterns and similarities among vastly different things and to allow ideas to flow across the porous boundaries” (202).

Investing in a New Educational/Assessment Paradigm Featuring the New Super-Skill of Ingenuity

The following questions and responses help to describe essential links in student outcomes, reflecting how new ideas are generated and how the significance of an idea is determined in practice.

1. What is the ingenuity gap and how can education close it?

The gap is the chasm between problems that arise and our lagging ability to solve them.

2. How much and what kinds of ingenuity will be required?

“Social and technical ingenuity” (Homer-Dixon 2000, 4). Strategies and techniques for developing social and technical ingenuity include: group problem solving, cooperative student projects, simulated problem-solving exercises, case studies, problems, and solutions.

3. How is the pluralistic skill ingenuity linked to problem solving?

The number and variety of skills categories contributing to the development of Ingenuity, a super-skill, create a context of aptitudes, proficiencies, and subskills, which drive the skills-formation process and idea-generation outcomes. The function of ingenuity is to solve problems. Critical thinking and problem solving, along with imagination and creativity, coexist at each level of development to produce problem-solving and idea-development behaviors of producing, solving, understanding, defining, and viewing the new from the old.

4. What actions/abilities influence achievement as ingenuity?

Generating, delivering, and implementing useful ideas, and initiating a flow of the right kinds of ideas are essential. Also important are using cognitive tools of analogy and metaphor and the essential tools of creativity: abilities to see similarities among diverse things, combine ideas from different domains, and take on new perspectives. Integrating knowledge is emphasized: concepts are related to other concepts.

Other core requisite abilities include essential fluency responses: ideational fluency—calling up as many ideas as possible about a given topic or theme; word fluency—the ability to think of words with certain characteristics; fluency of expression—the facility for formulating ideas. Expressive language, the language of exploration and discovery of new ideas, is another requisite, along with unique responses: producing different combinations of ideas.

5. What incentives will produce new idea generation as the core objective of the skill of ingenuity?

Self-initiated learning, active approaches to learning, group interaction in classrooms where human relationships are stressed, and building a capacity for self-exploration of ideas provide examples of such incentives.

6. How can we measure ingenuity?

We need assessment instruments that can document actual practice in idea generation. The amount and processes of information in this communication age can be measured in the following ways: energy reflected in problem solving, intensity and pace of interactive speed of decision making, and amount of information communicated in a message. We can also use rudimentary measures of complexity such as information content, length of its grammar, and mathematical tractability (Homer-Dixon 2000, 118–119).

7. What assessment principles will guide skills measurement?

Homer-Dixon (2000) emphasizes the collective action of problem solving. We must move beyond testing toward effective assessment practices in measuring student outcomes as student accomplishments. Key principles include:

  • Involve the student in her/his own assessment process. In a student-focused assessment model, the emphasis is on the student as a co-partner in assessment.
  • Résumés will provide a record of what one can do, rather than what one has done.
  • Documentation of learning tasks guides assessment. Portfolios, which can record substantive content of what is learned, rather than relative levels of accomplishment, become the tool of documentation, which replaces test scores.
  • Outcomes will vary. Look separately at individual students.
  • Adaptive, emergent behaviors are valued.

8. What assessment tools are needed?

Activity-based assessment tools should simulate the types of situations students actually will face on the job, such as coaching others and handling conflict. Examples include writing or drawing a chart to predict relationships. Tools available to build an action-based assessment program include cooperative student projects, team member (coaching) interaction, internal partner (managing conflict) interaction, planning, and simulations.

9. How can we institutionalize the development of ingenuity as a super-skill? We can’t use the older models of teaching and learning to develop the newer skills.

Increase the focus on the blending of skills that, working together, enable the super-skill of ingenuity. These skills, comprehensively articulated by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (n.d., 1–2), include:

  • Thinking critically and making judgments.
  • Creativity—a skill highly associated with job success—the ability to think unconventionally, question the herd, imagine new scenarios, and produce relevant work.
  • Entrepreneurial thinking—the ability to recognize and act on opportunities and the willingness to embrace risk and responsibility.
  • Collaboration—involves groups of people with different knowledge and skills who, collectively, add value to their organizations.
  • Communicating and collaborating with teams of people across cultural, geographic, and language boundaries—a necessity in diverse and multinational workplaces and communities.
  • Innovation—capable of creating new services, processes, and products.

Topics for continuing this conversation include:

  • New knowledge expectations, which have overrun current realities in education delivery, will require new educational practices and models.
  • Systematic documentation is an important guiding concept that is preferred to testing.
  • Benchmarking is essential since assessment criteria devoid of a norm are not useful.
  • Milestone points as new indicators of student progress will replace hierarchies of skills.
  • We must assess larger groups of skills as opposed to single abilities.
  • Incentives and assessment measures

Conclusion: If Skills Could Talk

This essay, describing the impact of new, emerging influences in transforming the national skills dialogue, introduces “ingenuity” performing as a new super-skill category. The transformation is not being planned; it simply is happening. The premise, that our economic processes ultimately are entangled with the production and use of ingenuity, prompts this key question: How can education meet the challenges of developing and assessing the super-skill of ingenuity? The national conversation, still at the formative stage as a new vision of skills and assessment evolves, invites further dialogue and definition by practitioners on this critical twenty-first-century national and global topic.


Homer-Dixon, T. 2000. The Ingenuity Gap. New York, NY/Toronto, Ontario: Alfred A. Knopf.

Lingo, E. L., and Tepper, S. J. “The Creative Campus: Time for a ‘C’ Change.” Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved October 10, 2010, from

Mr. Y (with preface by Anne-Marie Slaughter). 2011. “A National Strategic Narrative.” Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Princeton University.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. n.d. “Framework for 21st Century Learning.” Retrieved March 2011 from

Dorothy H. Bray is owner of Bray Consulting in San Clemente, California.

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