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We Need an Education System that Promotes Creativity, Innovation, and Critical Thinking

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This is the second in a three-part series on the need for education reform in the United States. The first installment, "Doubling-Down on Dumb: The GOP War on Being Smart," explored the emerging political discourse criticizing public education and being well-educated, and how the toxic environment it creates makes real reform even more problematic. This installment argues in favor of a paradigm shift in primary and secondary education.

In early October 2011, I wrote "Three Innovative Ideas, Which Could Help the Economy,... but No One's Talking About Them," In that blog entry I argued that comprehensive education reform was one "innovative idea" that could help transform the domestic economy. Specifically, I suggested that:

Reforming the U.S. public education system to make it less like a factory processing future workers, and focusing instead on creating a nation of thinkers, might seem counterintuitive to matching up high school and college grads with scarcely available jobs. And, indeed, this kind of "trade school approach" to recasting secondary and post-secondary education is something recently suggested by The Economist's Matthew Bishop, author of "The great mismatch," Sept. 10, 2011.

However counter-intuitive this notion may appear, fostering a nation of creative thinkers will serve the U.S. well in an increasingly global and technological economy. After all, one of the most successful and profitable companies in the world (high-tech or otherwise) is Apple. Until August 25, 2011, Apple was led by CEO Steve Jobs, who stepped down (for the second time) for health reasons. Jobs was one of the most creative thinkers of the past 50 years and was not trained by the American university system for such greatness. He was a creative thinker, not the toiler of a particular trade conferred upon him by some professional degree.

One of our greatest problems as a nation is the continued demise of long-term thinking. As the struggle to escape from the country's economic doldrums has slogged on, the focus on short-term fixes has, regrettably, become increasingly acute. I used to do a lot of work for colleges and universities (in addition and unrelated to teaching at the graduate level), which offered a very different perspective on long-term thinking. The average person tends to focus on the near-term: a 24-hour period; the time leading up to a holiday or event; an entire month, perhaps; maybe even a 365-day increment.

Academic institutions, on the other hand, tend to look at twenty-five, 50, and 100-year increments. The things they create are intended to have real permanence. Even when they build new buildings, the tendency is to have them designed and constructed as if to appear like they've always been there. We need to have this kind of long-term approach to reforming America's primary and secondary education systems.

Unfortunately, "new ideas" about fixing our public education system have a decidedly short-term nature. They are often focused on addressing a particular problem, making these proposed solutions more reactionary and less intentional; less well-focused. Much in the way of education reform these days is predicated on the need for cost-cutting and/or cost controls, with little to no regard for the potential negative consequences of such resource reductions. Additionally, some "reforms" are intended to allow (or force) school districts to purge the faculty, by creating metrics for success focused not on whether, what, and how students are learning but, instead, on evaluating teachers, school administrators, and school districts.

I have no problem with the concept of ongoing teacher evaluations. In fact, it's a pretty good practice. However, it seems to be putting the cart before the horse to do teacher evaluations in an environment where we may not be expecting the right kind of teaching out of them; defining and measuring "student achievement" in ways that say nothing about whether actual learning is taking place.

So then, what's the right approach to education reform? The right approach is not to assume that we already have the answer; that the current system is fine but just needs to be tweaked. The right approach is to start over, with two questions:

What capabilities, capacities, and knowledge do we want all children to have by the time they graduate from high school; and

what is the best way for students to acquire those things (as opposed to what's the best or, as is most-often the case, the easiest way for the school system to teach and measure them)?

In other words, the focus needs to be changed dramatically--a true paradigm shift--from how the system teaches to what and how students learn.

Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognized expert in human creativity. He has also become highly regarded for his views on education systems and educational reform. Robinson believes--and I wholeheartedly concur--that the public education system in the United States needs to be fundamentally reformed. Specifically, the American public education system has gotten off track, with an increasing emphasis on rote learning, and standardized testing as the metric by which we judge how good a job the system is doing in educating its students. The No Child Left Behind Act may mark the pinnacle of this kind of myopic thinking about education.

An RSAnimate video "Changing Education Paradigms," graphically presents some of Robinson's thinking on the subject. I strongly recommend anyone interested in education reform take the eleven minutes and 41 seconds it takes to watch this video. However, at the risk of preempting anyone keen on watching "Changing Education Paradigms" or the entirety of Robinson's speech to the Royal Society of Arts on which that video is based (or, for that matter, Robinson's 2006 TED Talk) from doing so, I will endeavor to summarize Robinson's proposition for changing our education paradigm.

The public education system in the United States, like all education systems throughout the world, is career-oriented, modeled on the expectations of post-secondary institutions or employers seeking employees with particular skill-sets. K-12 programs have become a process through which those who can afford it get to access colleges and universities; the end goal of matriculation at a college or university is the conferral of a diploma, which presumably gives the recipient entree into a particular job or career field (more on this in the third part of this series). Robinson states "The whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance." This system of education has changed little since public education systems were first created in the 19th Century, in response to the emerging needs of Industrialism in developing nations.

What, one might ask, is the problem with an educational system predicated on the belief that its graduates should be fit for future employment? There are at least two problems with this narrow basis for an entire educational framework. First, a child entering Kindergarten in the fall of 2012, assuming they will be career-ready with a four-year bachelor's degree, will enter the workforce in 2029. Is there anyone who presumes to know what the global economy will require of its workforce just five years from now (in 2017), much less what will be needed in 2029? Viewed in this context, this predicate for our entire primary and secondary public education system seems not only antiquated but wholly absurd.

The second problem with this system is that the path to getting to this end goal works great for some students; only marginally well for others; and yet not at all for those with less academic-oriented interests and capabilities. The subject areas in which some students have tremendous talent, remarkable aptitude, and keen interest--the fine arts, for example--become increasingly marginalized in secondary schools in favor of those subjects that are viewed as more pragmatic; more "job worthy."

Ironically, studies have shown that students engaged in a well-rounded K-12 educational system, one that includes consistent exposure to the arts (music, fine art, drama, and dance) and some level of daily physical activity throughout the process, end up being more creative and innovative; they perform better in school; and they are more adept at problem-solving and critical thinking. Yet these are the areas in which most school districts trim their budgets the earliest and the deepest, making for a long, uninspiring school day in which teachers and parents lament that students seem to be tuning out in record numbers. Is it any wonder why?

In a longitudinal study on divergent thinking (which Robinson sees as an "essential capacity" for creativity) 98% of Kindergarten children tested at the "genius" level, suggesting that every child has the capacity for divergent thinking. However, when divergent thinking tests were repeated with the same children five years later, and five years after that, the percentage of students performing at the "genius" level dropped precipitously each time, to the point where very few still had the capacity to think divergently ten years after the initial testing. Land, George and Beth Jarman, Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future--Today (Leadership 2000, Inc. 1998).

Robinson has suggested that the reason why the students' capacity for divergent thinking diminishes as they get older is not a function of their age but the fact that "it's been pretty much taught out of them. They've spent ten years at school, being taught there's only one answer." There's little if any reward for divergent thinking in such a narrowly focused educational environment.

Microsoft; Apple; Amazon; Google; Facebook; Twitter; Research in Motion; E Ink Corporation; and Etak: You're likely very familiar with the first seven of these companies. E Ink Corporation, a spin-off from MIT's Media Lab, developed the technology that makes the Kindle, and competing Sony Reader, work. Etak developed the first operational GPS system adapted for automotive use; a market segment now dominated by the likes of Garmin and Tom-Tom.

What each of these companies has in common with each other, as well as with thousands of others, is that they all started out small, based on an idea generated by one or a few people with the talent, inclination, and motivation to innovate. Just imagine what 2012 would be like now if 50 years ago, someone decided to completely remake the primary and secondary public education system in America, shifting its focus away from merely producing "college-ready high school graduates," and toward fostering young adults with the abilities to create, innovate, and think critically. Rather than enjoying the episodic fruits of one-in-a-million creators and entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos, the U.S. would be the undisputed technological leader in the world economy. Imagine the technological innovations we'd be enjoying today, and that the rest of the world would be buying from the U.S.

Let's not wait another 50 years to reform the primary and secondary education systems in this country, because we can't afford not to. Let's start now.