American Creativity in the Crossroads

What will our children need to succeed in this new millennium? A 2010 study of 1,500 chief executives conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value identified creativity as the number one leadership competency of the future.

American creativity, imagination and good-old- fashioned grit that built skyscrapers and space shuttles is alive and well, but no longer a monopoly. The U.S. can no longer claim innovation steadfastly as ours. But more importantly, has the American education system kept up? As our expectations of today’s labor force expand dramatically, how do we reinvent a 100-year-old system?

In the 1800s, educators like Horace Mann helped shape what became the most learned work force in the world, which then spurred massive industrialization. This same education system has not changed much since then. For example, it is still largely based on an agrarian calendar though we no longer need the harvest months of June, July and August for farm work.

A friend recently relayed, with a parent’s prideful glow, that his child has been promoted to director of social media for a large corporation. After a short pause he added, “… and I am not really sure what that is.” The concept of this high-tech and high-touch job was not in existence ten years ago, let alone available as a college major. What are schools to do to prepare students for jobs that are yet to be created? “Student testing from the past two decades suggests that creativity is on the wane among American schoolchildren—the same kind of creativity that gives rise to new industries and new ways of doing business. If the U.S. is to recover from its doldrums, it seems, innovation will need to take center stage once again,” explains Alyson Shontell of Business Insider.

There is an unenviable list of reasons as to how our education and cultural systems have led us to this moment. Instead of finger-wagging at education financed by real estate taxes, Common Core bashing or the chest pounding of teacher unions, we can look to our academic history of 100 years ago. John Dewey authored Schools of Tomorrow, a revolutionary book of his time beating the drum for innovation. Darrell West of the Brookings Institution explains, “In criticizing the academies of his day, Dewey made the case that education needed to adopt new instructional approaches based on future societal needs. He claimed that 20th-century schools should reorganize their curricula, emphasize freedom and individuality, and respond to changing employment requirements.  Failure to do so would be detrimental to young people.” Schools must answer this question: Why are we teaching rote content memorization to a generation of learners who intimately know Siri and hold all facts in the palm of their hand?

As educators, we believe in change, growth and the potential of a new day. There are significant movements, both research and practical application, happening across the country in education today that address the need for more creativity in schools. Non-cognitive skills such as creativity, resilience, grit and others are emerging as a driving force in American pedagogical approaches. Horatio Alger’s bootstraps would find great commonality with Angela Duckworth’s “grit”– a combination of passion and perseverance for a single important goal.

Not a single helicopter parent could argue that these traits are not critical to a successful and happy life. We must continue to emphasize educating the whole child.

Fortunately, there are significant methods being employed by schools to explicitly teach these priceless non-cognitive life skills. A consortium of ninety schools representing 17,000 students has begun a joint effort with testing powerhouse ETS to scientifically measure the “mission skills” of teamwork, creativity, ethics, resilience, curiosity and time management.

We must also continue to offer our students experiential learning opportunities. We will continue to design curricula that underscore problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration and compromise. We will build the skills that are applicable in the real world. Education will become increasingly personalized.

There are 430 schools, both domestic and international, that have developed and implemented design thinking as an instructional method; this approach utilizes teamwork, brainstorming and prototyping. The Stanford Graduate School of Business has dedicated a laboratory to support this methodology. Maker Spaces and Tinker Labs are appearing throughout the traditional educational landscape. Suzie Boss has rewritten and reinvented project-based learning by considering the idea of innovation as practical creativity.

In order to build a next chapter in the American Millennium, we must train the next generation of teachers and stay flexible to adapt to a new horizon line. Our classrooms must look different than those of our own childhoods. We must heed John Dewey’s warning: “If we teach today as we were taught yesterday, then we will rob our children of tomorrow.”

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