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A Cheat Sheet to Help Schools Foster Creativity

Corporate execs say they're looking for independent thinkers, but many schools are stilled geared to assembly lines. Here are ideas to spur imaginative learning

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What can our schools do to better prepare students for the workplace? Image courtesy of Flickr user Old Shoe Woman

As campuses begin to fill, it seems fitting to ask: When so many corporate execs say they want employees who are creative, critical thinkers who know how to collaborate, why are the chief measures of future performance standardized tests for which there is only one right answer for every problem and working together is, to put it mildly, frowned upon?

Education has always been a laggard to innovation. That reality is made clear in a new book about attention and the brain, Now You See It, by Cathy Davidson. She estimates that as many as 65 percent of the kids now in grade school will likely end up in jobs that don’t yet exist. And yet most schools still follow a model not all that different from when Henry Ford was pumping out Model Ts and Pittsburgh actually had steel mills. Education then—and now—is geared to serve an industrial economy, one in which conformity and punctuality kept the engine running and creativity gunked it up.

To Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, this makes about as much sense as teaching kids how to make wooden barrels. There was a reason her students who turned in lame term papers could also churn out perfectly fine blogs. The latter was about writing for the world in which they lived, a highly social place where ideas bounce around like marbles in an empty bathtub, feedback is immediate and sharing trumps syntax.

Davidson is big on teaching digital literacy, not so much how to use the tools—the kids could teach that—but how to use them to develop ideas and express themselves responsibly. For instance, starting in grade school, students would be expected to collaborate on wikis and award points to classmates who move projects forward. The idea is to encourage students to take all this sharing and turn it into a productive way to solve problems and shape their world.

Creativity’s comeback

Not that Davidson is the only one thinking imaginatively about education. Plenty of people are, such as advocates for deep-sixing the standard lecture.

Ten years ago, the big thing was STEM, the initiative to keep the U.S. competitive, both by merging Science, Technology, Engineering and Math into one mega-discipline and shifting the focus from teacher talk to problem-solving and collaborative learning. Meanwhile, though, a lot of schools dealt with budget-slashing by eviscerating arts programs to the point where arts education became little more than reminding kids when “Glee” was on.

But now, with companies looking for creative thinkers and multimedia communicators, the arts—particularly media arts—are being worked back into the mix. Or, as they say in the land of acronyms, STEM is becoming STEAM. This has inspired no one less than Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart to quote Einstein.

As for phasing out the exercises in ennui more commonly known as lectures, that’s the mission of Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, who thinks the conventional arrangement should be flipped: students learn material on their own time, with classes saved for making sense of how it applies in the real world. Mazur has created his own interactive software, Learning Catalytics, to ease the transition for skittish professors.

Let’s go to the video

Allow me to recommend a few relevant videos, some of which are, admittedly, lectures.

  • Let’s start with Ken Robinson, one of the few people who can call himself a creativity expert without a whiff of arrogance. He’s been writing and speaking about creativity in education and business for more than 20 years now and nobody does it better. After a high-ranking British government official once told him that while creativity in education was important, the country’s schools needed to focus on literacy first, Robinson replied, “That’s like saying we’re going to bake a cake and if it works out, then we’ll put the eggs in.” His lectures are all over the web, but my favorite is this TED talk, made that much more entertaining by the work of RSA Animate.
  • The aforementioned Cathy Davidson weighs in on the need to “unlearn” much of what we know about education if we want it to be relevant in the 21st century.
  • Management guru Tom Peters—a bit over the top, as always—lays into the U.S. educational system in this 2008 talk, in which he implores  audience members never to hire someone with a 4.0 GPA.
  • It took place eons ago in Internet years, but this 2002 TED talk by Mae Jemison, a physician and the first African-American woman in space, is right on point. She warns against the consequences of keeping science and the arts separated.
  • And finally, here’s a TED lecture by Brian Crosby, a Nevada elementary school teacher, who shares how his classes of low-income kids, most of whom speak English as a second language, have flourished in the world of wikis and blogs.

Bonus: If you want to know why Finnish schools are often considered the best in the world, give this article in the latest Smithsonian a read.

All of us have at least one teacher who knew how to hook us in, even before there was an Internet. My favorite was my 7th grade teacher, Roberta Schmidt. I will never forget the day she explained how ancient Egyptians mummified a body, especially the part about removing the brain through the nostrils. For a 12-year-old boy, that’s gold.

What about you? What teacher do you wish you could have cloned? And why?

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