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The Creative State of the Union: 6 Bold, Wonder-Centered Ideas for Obama’s Education Initiative

What will President Obama say this week when he highlights education reform at the State of the Union Address?

If he wants to speak beyond platitudes and programs, then I have six big ideas. Call them the MAKE WONDER FIRST IN THE CLASSROOM PROJECT.

Business leaders and thought leaders in business are calling for creative innovation, empathy, integrity, and meaning. According to IBM’s Institute for Business Value survey of CEOs, CEOs said in 2010 that what they most want from new hires is, yes, creativity. These qualities are no longer viewed as “soft” compared to, say, scientific inquiry and technological advances. They’re integral parts of the sciences and technology.

But how do these qualities translate to the classroom? How do you educate a generation of people in a climate that fosters creative productivity?

“Schools” have become easy targets for the likes of creativity speakers such as Sir Ken Robinson and marketing gurus such as Seth Godin – both whose work I admire and respect. I presented talks on re-visioning the factory model of schools in the early ’90s during an earlier wave of education reform. But such scapegoating is too simplistic. (Both Robinson and Godin add value to the conversation, but of greater interest and value, in my view, is the journalistic work of Anya Kamenetz who makes a compelling case for American higher education’s failures.)

The following ideas are rough. They have to be simplified in this context, I admit. So help me out. Add your views and perspectives and critiques.

If the United States federal government truly aspires to develop a remarkable and exceptional educational system, then it needs to put funding and support behind schools that do the following:

Idea #1 Educate hybrid thinkers.
A high school English teacher pairs off with a physics teacher to create units on DNA, identity, causality, and Romeo and Juliet for their mutual freshmen students.

Another group of high school freshmen come into class, rearrange the furniture before the bell rings so they can meet in their “families,” and launch into their role-playing problem-solving tasks.

During the semester, these freshmen will have studied Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, The Declaration of Independence & the U.S. Constitution, the Iroquois Constitution, utopian thinking in 19th-century communes, the basic tenets of capitalism and communism, of democracy and socialism, of Skinner’s behaviorist psychology, of utopian architecture, and more.

They research ideas and information based on problems that arise, guided and provoked by their teacher. They ultimately will create virtual societies complete with declarations of their ideals, models for housing and education and recreation and government and more. They will have endured rigorous debates both among each other and with their teacher.

That scenario happened in the early ‘90s in a non-descript high school. I was that teacher promoting hybrid thinking.

Hybrid thinking is a more elegant way of saying “inter-disciplinary” or “cross-disciplinary” or “multi-disciplinary thinking.” Although I first heard this coinage in Dev Patnaik’s work, my graduate school experiences steeped me in it. A literature course on time, for instance, included studies of Virginia Woolf’s fiction, chaos theory and physics, Philip Glass’s music, and Walt Disney’s business model of magical time.

Is teaching hybrid thinking just fanciful humanities studies? Far from it. Some of the most innovative MBA programs are starting to feel more like MFA programs in their multi-disciplinary approaches centered around big ideas and complex problems. NYU now offers a dual MBA/MFA program for aspiring filmmakers as is the California College of the Arts for aspiring designers. And the biggest problems our world faces – whether it’s restoring civility and order to a city devastated by a hurricane, re-visioning an inverted economy, or planning neighborhoods that promote human connection – are not problems for any one discipline or experts within any one field.

I want someone on my team who can think flexibly across economics, the arts, and sociology. I want neighbors and leaders and business owners and artists who can do the same.

I appreciate Nicholas Kristof’s recent concern about international tests: “We came in 15th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math.” But these categories ultimately will become less meaningful.

An exceptional educational system will create new, even incomparable categories and cross-categories.

Educating hybrid thinkers, though, means we also need to…

Idea #2 Teach Youth to Master a Field and Make Content, not Just Learn Content.
Teach youth not only how to add and to grasp how to use algorithms. Stoke the imagination, conceptualizing, and number-love necessary to think like mathematicians. Don’t only teach youth how to conduct ready-made experiments. Encourage their wonder and curiosity about the physical world, and give them the support to conduct their own experiments.

Then perhaps more twenty-somethings by 2022 will be prepared for a world that truly values and needs innovative problem-solving more than instruction-following.

Supposedly, we’re supposed to wait until graduate school before we start thinking like content-makers and idea-makers within our field. But I have two responses:
1. Why wait until people are 21 or 41 to encourage them to think within a field and contribute?
2. Several graduate schools are failing even this task – and graduate students are failing their respective programs by expecting to whip through a grad program simply to “learn the material,” make As, get a degree, and get a job.

A microbiologist I interviewed at a prestigious program complained in an article that PhD students are not being prepared to think like scientists. If not PhD students, then who?

Do we really believe in human beings’ capacity to think and imagine and create innovative, meaningful, and effective programs and projects? If so, then how can we create and support more schools that teach students not only the facts of a discipline, but also the key concepts and principles that guide that discipline as well as how to think and to research within that discipline?

In this respect, I applaud the Princeton Review and the Advanced Placement Programs for finally overhauling the history and biology exams to reflect these ideas.

Idea #3 Build Excellence. Self-Esteem Will Follow.
Some marketing gurus like to scoff at spending too much time on craft or trying to perfect their art. “Ship it out!” they sing. I appreciate the sentiment and often encourage clients to stop resisting shipping – and just get their writing or designs or ideas out there. But shipping out sh$t is not the best model to build our future on.

Craft matters. A handmade life matters. Occasionally obsessing on the details matters. Care matters. These things build relationships, households, organizations, and societies that endure and flourish – not simply profit. From living a life that moves toward excellence, self-esteem follows. How can we support campuses that put a humane aspiration toward excellence first?

Idea #4 Teach Autonomy.
The research is out, and it’s been out for a long time. Meaning more than money or grades motivates most of us. Autonomy not authority brings out the best in us. We need to support and fund teachers and campuses that give students choices either in what they study, how they research, or / and the content they contribute to their fields of study.

I knew this when in education full-time in 1988. Now Daniel Pink’s new book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us reprises the research to say that businesses haven’t caught up yet.

And neither have the schools that still operate by the efficiency, convenience, and order of an external reward system.

How can we create and support age-appropriate learning environments that trust youth to use their time well and to learn the consequences for themselves of not doing so?

Idea #5 Bring Physical Education into Every Classroom.
Forcing twenty ten-year-olds to sit still in their desks for forty minutes at a time is a great way to prepare them for stationary desk jobs that – frankly – are going by the way side of automation. It’s also a way of teaching that goes against increasing evidence that movement aids learning.

Consider the eleven-year-old (and older) neuroscience studies that show heart-pumping exercise to generate new brain cells.

Consider that movement, posture, our autonomic nervous system, and physiology shape everything from our capacity to reason, make decisions, perceive, and feel – all being studied in the increasing field of embodied cognition.

Consider that in the United Kingdom, there’s a call to bring the wisdom of vocational education into all education because working with your hands and making something aids learning. The initiative is called “Bodies of Knowledge.”

Our military leaders complain about twenty-somethings who cannot pass physical exams and who cannot move flexibly. Our business leaders complain about people who cannot think flexibly. There’s a connection.

How can we encourage schools and educators to develop more innovative programs that draw on this new science and on the ancient arts such as yoga and the martial arts?

Idea #6: Cultivate Contemplation.
Forget the word “meditation” if it raises parents’ hackles. But some of the smartest CEOs such as J Crew’s Mickey Drexler and creative innovators such as filmmaker David Lynch know meditation’s and contemplation’s benefits: better decision-making, increased self-awareness that translates to better relationships, increased flexible thinking and problem-solving, and overall general calmness and happiness (which means more efficient productivity).

Some graduate programs in the United States and in the United Kingdom are experimenting with integrating contemplative studies in other disciplines. University of Michigan Program in Creativity and Consciousness Studies, the UM School of Music, and the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society held a forum on Creativity and Consciousness. Here is an excerpt from the forum statement:

[To keep up with changing nature of knowledge] [s]tudents and faculty need to assimilate and synthesize important principles from diverse fields, they need to be able to adapt to change, and they need to be aware of the social and environmental ramifications of their work. In the arts, an increasingly multi-ethnic and stylistically-eclectic creative landscape requires conceptions which cut across previously sharp boundaries between processes and genres. In the sciences, the capacity to probe and manipulate the basic building blocks of life forms not only yields intriguing prospects for enhancing the quality of life, but also raises fundamental environmental and philosophical questions whose resolution may be essential to the future of society.

Contemplative practices – with an emphasis on investigating the nature of mind – are central to cultivating innovative thinkers and conscientious actors.

Several graduate programs in the United States and the United Kingdom require its students in the social sciences to develop a contemplative practice such as meditation to help them become aware of how their subjective minds influence their academic observations and conclusions.

The era of reactive drones being shaped into instruction-following managers has passed.

How can we learn from the best that contemplative practices have to offer students? And how can we support this efforts?

We don’t need OMMMMs to replace the Pledge of Allegiance, but we do need to reward these schools and fund more programs to follow suit.

Make Wonder First
In a dialogue on the nature of true knowledge, Socrates told a young mathematician that wonder is the beginning of all wisdom.

In the 1640s, Rene Descartes wrote that wonder is the first of all passions, all emotions, because it precedes all others, puts us in the most receptive state of all emotions, and has no opposite.

And one poet, novelist, and artist after another tells me that creativity begins in wonder. Wisdom, emotional intelligence (and emotional labor, to use Seth’s term), and flexible thinking – aren’t these noble qualities to cultivate and model in our youth? Yes?

Let’s put wonder first in the classroom.

Drop in the Hut
I’ve laid some bald, bold plans. What do you think? Am I idealistic? Do you know of examples to add to the conversation? What other efforts in education do we need to support that will prepare youth to be conscientious creative innovators? Do you think I have it all wrong by even thinking the federal government should support any educational efforts?

See you in the woods,

Jeffrey is founder of Tracking Wonder Consulting & Programs and Center To Page, LLC and is and author of The Journey from the Center to the Page. He also teaches graduate-level courses creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetics in Western Connecticut State University’s low-residency MFA in Creative and Professional Writing Program.
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  1. An interesting and bold plan. There is quite a bit written there and a lot of questions that one could spend weeks and months pondering over.

    Regarding your final questions, are you idealistic? Yes, but great ideas and innovations, and the changing of the highly inertial status quo, requires that someone start from that point. There has to be the vision to proceed from. The harder phase is the realistic part, putting the big ideas into action.

    Now in my 23rd year in the trenches here in Texas, it seems that every year we move further and further away from what you have described above. First and foremost, the concept of one size fits all education must be abandoned if you are to see an type of reformation and realization of any of the goals you have set. TAKS here is being replaced with end of course exams in the high schools, and having worked on the EOC for Physics I can state that our schools and students are in for a bit of a shock. The test for Physics (and from my colleagues, all the sciences) are very difficult. Does this mean that if a student gets a failing grade on the EOC, then they are a failure? I would submit that its far from that: it is the testing mentality that is a failure. A student, a teacher, a classroom, a department, a school, and a district as a whole should never ever be judged on one score, yet this is what we often do. We try to reduce education to a mere number, and by doing so simplify the situation and take out any deep thoughts into the process, and the educational whole of the child.

    There are glimers of hope. Down in the town of Maypearl, a program is being run on aerospace engineering. In the first year of the course, the students must design and build a rocket that will carry a one pound payload to exactly a one mile height. In the second year of the program, the design is for the rocket to reach supersonic speeds, and these are tested at White Sands Missle Range in New Mexico. This program requires the students to research, build, test, evaluate, present findings, and learn from their successes and mistakes and take things to the next level. It is R&D at its finest, and is being performed by 16 to 18 years olds.

    Sadly programs like this are few and far between, for the main reason of cost and time. While I would have to say yes, the federal government should support such innovative initiatives, it comes back to the stubborn inflexible inertia that is so much a part of our educational system here. What can a teacher do when our state government refuses to take millions of dollars in aid offered by the federal government with the reason being given that “there are too many strings attached, and our educational system is better than what they government offers”. I’ve taught here as I said for 23 years, and I can say that is just a bold faced lie. Our system is NOT better, but it is hard to argue with talking heads who lie to the public touting what a great passing rate we have, when the standard for passing was only getting a little over half correct on a simple multiple choice test. The public, sadly, is incapable of seeing the bigger picture, and not intelligent enough to look beneath the surface. They are often too busy with their own lives to make this the priority it needs to be.

  2. James:
    Thanks for this thoughtful reply. You’ve raised some excellent points. 1. The testing mentality is the failure. I agree. We live in a culture that values measurement, and when you measure something you’re usually comparing it to something else. Extrinsic motivation is NOT what drives most human beings to lead a happy, fulfilled life – OR to become thoughtful, productive citizens. Even with the Princeton Review’s changes in the AP exams, the emphasis remains on testing. What are the alternatives? Does portfolio assessment really work? Is it manageable? 2. Maypearl: Wow. These types of initiatives are exactly what’s GOOD about our education. Youth are given a project with a clear – and enjoyable – outcome. HOW they get there is up to them. They have to research, and they have to learn innumerable skills and knowledge and emotional management and teamwork along the way. Thanks for that example. 3. Inertia of the locals. Hmm. Yes, one argument is to make educational decisions more locally based, but what if the local leaders are power-hungry and ill-informed? I didn’t know that the TX governor refused federal funding for education.

    Thanks again for your responses.

  3. When I get back to school tomorrow, I’ll email the physics instructor and find you the link to her video from last year. It was a very impressive class/project.

    1. Dear Jeff,

      Splendid article. May I had a few thoughts.

      1. Autonomy brings out the best in SOME of us. I went through a rather experimental program at Rutgers University during my senior year (’73-’74). As students we had lots of autonomy. It worked very well for those of us who were disciplined, goal-oriented students to begin with. The rest cut class and failed to return their library books. Autonomy is personal responsibility spelled another way, and we should teach it from kindergarten.

      2. You say, “Consider that movement, posture, our autonomic nervous system … shape … our capacity to reason, etc.” I say BRAVO. There’s a reason that we talk about grasping concepts. Little people learn with their bodies, especially their hands. Making something DOES aid learning.

      3. Federal Funding. Hmmm!! I don’t think it’s necessary and near as I can tell, it probably wouldn’t work if available. Whatever gets tax funded takes on, shall I say, a “unique shape.” Things get awkward, rule bound. We’re into creativity here. Do the Physics teacher and the English teacher need additional funding to change their methods? I doubt it.

      I want to thank you for bringing these great ideas into a forum for discussion.

  4. Claudia: Thanks for your comments. 1. Great point about autonomy. I teach in a master’s in fine arts program, and I ‘wrestle’ with several adults who have not trained themselves to be autonomous. You write, “[w]e should teach autonomy from kindergarten.” I disagree. 😉 We should teach it even earlier. I worked and wrote at my desk this morning for over 2 hrs while my 18-mo-old toddler entertained herself quietly with books and blocks and blankets. 🙂 2. “Grasping concepts” – love that connection. Thanks! 3. Federal funding: I’m not sure about this, either. I really don’t know what the solution is in this regard. Do teachers need extra funding to change their methods? No. Do campuses need extra funding to attract exceptional teachers? Yes. Do campuses need extra funding to support highly effective project-learning such as the rocket-building projects described above? Yes. Do we tax-payers need to invest in our nation’s education? You betcha. But I absolutely agree with the caveats you raise.

    We need hybrid thinkers and actors for this matter, don’t we?

  5. Hi Jeff,
    Great post! I like all six of your ideas and am doing my best to implement them in my classroom. It’s much more feasible here in my somewhat lawless Guatemalan private school than it was in the Texas public education system.

    Today, I am writing (er, at the moment, procrastinating…) a paper on mindfulness and multiculturalism in the learner-centered classroom for my Master’s program. In my research and experience as a practitioner and teacher of mindfulness, it is clear: the simple yet oft-forgotten ability to focus, notice details and pay close attention to external and internal happenings is the most essential, foundational skill for students of any age. Mindfulness sets the stage for wonder, healthy relationships, clear communication, interdisciplinary studies, critical thinking and all the other things we teachers aim to instill in the youth.

    All the best,

  6. Michelle:
    Thanks for your comments. Your paper topic sounds right in line with #6: Cultivate Contemplation. I’m increasingly privy to so much research – and smart creative action – regarding how colleges & universities and some high schools are integrating contemplative studies into their core programs.

    This is a potentially exciting time for an era of mindful educational reform and reform with mindfulness at its core.

    Best of luck to you on your paper. Keep us posted on the research and your studies.

  7. UPDATE: Here’s a new op-ed called “Keep All the Top Teachers” from the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/23/opinion/23rhee.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha212. The gist: “In his State of the Union address, President Obama should call for a federal law that would require states to help parents ascertain whether their children are getting the high-quality instruction they need to prepare for college and the work force. Parents who find that their children are not being taught by an effective teacher in a successful school should have the right to vote with their feet by choosing a different school.”

    What do you think? Would this help retain the most innovative, far-sighted teachers?

    1. Of course there are plenty of bad, irredeemably bad, teachers. And administrators and pundits. But sometimes the teacher who is bad for one student is a perfect match for another. Identifying effective teachers cannot be one of those standardized, measured processes. I have recently retired from a school district that was seeking to develop a curriculum in which students would be guaranteed a good teacher by having each teacher in a particular course teaching the same material and using the same techniques and tests in each class each day. And, thus, we’re all effective!
      How will parents ascertain the existence of high-quality instruction? Who can identify the effective teacher or the successful school? Measuring teacher effectiveness by standardizing teaching methods, measuring student success on standardized tests are no answer. And choosing a different school only serves to change student populations. Standardization guarantees bad education. I don’t think hybrid thinkers learn to answer multiple choice questions more successfully, but there is no question about their being better educated. But how do you tell?
      I read somewhere that we teach what we test. That is standardized, multiple choice disaster enough, but still worse is this other stolen maxim: if we do not model what we are teaching, we are teaching something else. The best teachers model the value and joy of learning as a way of being in the world. And the schools and teachers we are seeking and calling effective and successful these days are modeling and teaching something else entirely.

  8. Jim: Thanks for your thoughtful insights. “The best teachers model the value and joy of learning as a way of being in the world. And the schools and teachers we are seeking and calling effective and successful these days are modeling and teaching something else entirely.” I appreciate this sentiment. My gut says, “Yes! This is right. These schools are only modeling test-taking and compliance.” Part of me knows that that is partially true. Another part of me suspects that’s not the whole story. I and my small team are researching these and other remarkable schools – some public, some charter – and college campuses that are effective and successful in part because the whole campus models the “value and joy of learning as a way of being in the world.”

    You are spot on about hybrid thinkers and multiple-choice questions.

    The Princeton Review’s revisions of AP exams and suggested curricula is a step in the right direction. But it’s miniscule. It’s part of educational touch-ups and tweaks. Not true reform.

    Thanks again for dropping in the hut.