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