New Report Urges Creativity to be a Top Skill for Schools

The National Center on Education and the Economy issued a report this week entitled Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. It calls for the biggest changes in the American educational system in over a century. You can read in PDF form the Executive Summary of the Report.

One quote from the Executive Summary that underlies the reports philosophy is this: “The best employers the world over will be looking for the most competent, most creative and most innovative people on the face of the earth and will be willing to pay them top dollar for their services. This will be true not just for the top professionals and managers, but up and down the length and breadth of the workforce.”

As you are already thinking, the report points out that today’s schools are preparing students for “routine work,” not for creative and innovative work. The schools are failing to prepare students for the world they will enter. The curriculum and many of the methods we use in today’s schools were developed for another era—as I indicated in a previous post.

When you examine the Executive Summary, you’ll find ten recommendations proposed by the Commission to “change” our educational system. It is radical in its proposal, but practical, as well. One of the underlying ideas is that the Commission urges creating an educational system in which every student can go on to college. This notion reminds me of the Gates Foundation work going on with urban high schools in which the size of the school is reduced, and the personal attention to every student is enlarged, thus resulting in greater success for high schoolers.

The report has recommendations for teacher education, the use of resources, the creation of new standards that are based on tomorrow’s requirements for innovation and creativity in the workforce, the creation of high performance school districts everywhere, high quality universal early childhood education, educational experiences for the adult workforce to learn the “new skills,” personal financial accounts for every child enabling them to pursue a quality education.

Although the report does not recommend an end to testing, it does have a lot to say about the current state of national and state-wide testing. They recommend less testing, and a revamping of tests that measure the very core of their proposal, and that is creativity and innovation, facility with the use of ideas and abstractions, self-discipline and organization needed to manage one’s work, and the ability to function well as a member of a team, and many more. These are very different than discipline (science, reading) based knowledge that today’s tests measure.

Curriculum will have to more innovative in our schools. In science, inquiry-based learning needs to form the core of science teaching, K-12. We also need to cut back substantially on the breadth of content, and instead focus on fewer concepts and help students know these well, and be able to “do science.”

The Executive Summary is worth taking a look.

Paradigms Compared

Education in America has finally reached the 21st Century, chronologically at least, but not pedagogically. Education is still remarkably similar to what education was like in late 19th Century! We still put kids in classrooms of about 30, arrange then into rows and columns, and tell them to study for the test. The paradigm that is used in most schools today is the same paradigm that educators used in the 1890’s. We might call this the traditional paradigm of teaching and learning. Or perhaps, the permanent paradigm of learning.

Here are some details of this paradigm.

Traditional Paradigm

If you would go into a classroom you would find that students, in general, work individualistically—sometimes in groups, but individual learning is the goal. Most teaching is teacher-directed creating a dependent social system. Choices are made for the students. Rarely do students choose content or methodology for their investigations. The emphasis in the classroom is on literacy–that is knowing facts, skills and concepts. As far as content is concerned, it is the role of the teacher to impart the right body of knowledge, and for students to acquire it. When you spend time in these classrooms you will find that the learning methods used primarily encourage the recall of information. Some would add that learning is too analytical and linear. All of this should be very familiar to you. This is the classroom you know; it is the classroom that your students, and children know. But here is the kicker, it’s the classroom that your grandparents know.

This model is failing to meet the needs of most students, especially students in urban school districts.

As I have written in the previous two posts, education needs to focus on helping students become creative and innovative thinkers. The system of education in place today prepares learners to do routine work; in a global economy, workers need to be able to solve problems, and think-on-their-feet. Schools need to be organized using a paradigm that supports this goal. Enter the global thinking model.

This is not a new model. Teachers have been using elements of this model for more than a century. John Dewey proposed teaching along this line in the 1920’s. Educators throughout the 20th Century explored some of the elements here, but schools, as-a-whole, have not embraced it. Here is what it looks like. We’ll call it the global thinking paradigm.

Global Thinking Paradigm

If you were to visit a classroom based on this model, you would notice immediately that the teacher encourages innovative and flexible thinking. Students work collaboratively in small teams to solve problems, think together as a team, and take action together. This is a skill that nearly all work environments require today. Interdependence is the motto for learning in this classroom. You might say that a synergic system is established in groups within the classroom. You might also see evidence that the teacher of these students engages them in what we call a “global community of practice” by involving them with students from other schools in real problems solving using the Internet. Students are involved in choice-making including problem and topic selection, as well as solutions; reflects the action processes of grassroots organizations. The curriculum is driven by
a new literacy insofar as “knowledge” relates to human needs, the needs of the environment and the social needs of the earth’s population and other living species. The key for learning is on inquiry, learning how to learn, and how to ask questions. And you will conclude that classroom’s based on this paradigm encourages creative thinking, and is holistic and intuitive.

Wanted!: A Paradigm Shift

In the last post, I wrote that education in American schools needs to change to reflect the new ways of thinking that students will need in a global society. This call for change is not new. Futurists, and other thinkers have been describing the kinds of skills people would need in a “knowledge society.” I recall reading Daniel Bell’s 1973 book, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society in which Bell argued that society would be information led and service-oriented. In 1973, personal computers had not been invented, the Internet did not exist, and surely, people were not using cell phones.

The world has changed by quantum leaps since Bell’s book. His prediction of an information led society certainly is evident today, but the world is also more complex and dangerous place. The very technologies that have accelerated the information age have also been used by terrorists to carry out evil deeds. Yet, even within the context of events since 9/11, there is a greater need for new thinking, and reformulation of classroom learning. Indeed we need a new paradigm.

After the atomic bombs were dropped in on Japan in 1945, Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe…a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” Although Einstein didn’t say it directly, perhaps he meant systemic or holistic thinking was required if we were to survive. Perhaps the mode Einstein envisioned was a form of global thinking. We face the same situation today, more than sixty years after Einstein spoke. We live in a world that is not only small, but flat. Technologies allow people to cross borders without passports, to work and collaborate on problems, or in the case of terrorists to plan atrocities.

Schools need to embrace a new form of thinking if it is to help students survive in a global economy, in a world that has strunk in size, yet expanded the need for creative thinkers and problem solvers.

The paradigm that I am advocating here is a paradigm of global thinking. Learners and teachers need to anticipate and particpate in local and global events. In this view students not only become knowledgeable about the world, but aware of the world’s problems, how to solve them, and motivated to work toward their solution. The design of learning experiences includes an action-taking component that is fundamental to the idea of participation. Anticipation in learning is the capacity to face new situations. It is the ability to deal with the future, to predict coming events, and understand the consequences of current and future actions. Anticipation also implies “inventing” future scenarios, and developing the philosophy that humankind can influence future events.

Participation, on the other hand, is the complimentary side of anticipation. Students must participate directly in learning. The learning model that underlies global thinking is based on the following constructivist ideas:

1. knowledge is not passively received but actively constructed by the student.

2. the function of cognition is adaptive and it organizes the experiential world.

The other component of participation is global. The use of the Internet enables students to extend participation beyond their own communities. The Internet sets up cross-cultural partnerships, global communities, and global summits for studying common global concerns. I’ll talk more about global thinking in the days ahead.

Education for Global Thinking

The way we teach kids has not changed very much over the years. Yet all around our schools, society has changed in astounding ways. We are able to put humans into space, and yet, students in America’s urban schools couldn’t explain how a vehicle put into space is able to orbit the earth. The curriculum of our schools is designed to keep kids thinking inside the box, and discourage innovative thinking. Yet, there are currently calls for finding ways to bring our schools out of the 20th century. Time Magazine’s lead article this week addressed this issue.

In today’s schools, the major concern is preparing students for the annual barrage of testing to make sure “no kid is left behind.” Unfortunately, many kids are being left behind, and will be in the future if our schools do not change. As long as we continue along the path determined by the endless lists of standards (objectives, major concepts, call them what you wish), thinking will be discouraged in favor of time on task in preparation for the “test.”

Skills required by students in a global society will be very different than what was required in the past. Global thinking will require abilities to solve problems, to think out-of-the box, to be innovative, to work in teams, to possess powerful communication skills, and have the confidence to work with people from various cultures. The way we have organized schools and curriculum tends to mitigate against these goals, and instead fosters passive learners who are not very good at problem solving.

Recently I wrote about the lack of scientific literacy of students in the Atlanta school district, even though is resides within one of the richest science communities in the Southeast. Here are nested several major universities, science centers, museums and other science related institutions. Yet, science plays second fiddle in the school district’s curriculum, and the superintendent really doesn’t care since there is little accountability required in science, but instead in reading and math. There is no way to encourage thinking out-of-the-box when the superintendent is stuck in the box.

In spite of this, there are vistas of possibility on the horizon. A new report is due to be released which will call upon the schools to think differently about the kinds of thinking skills that ought to be fundamental to school. To be issued as the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, it will chart a very different course for education in the U.S. The report will issued very soon, and you will be able to find it on the previous link.

Thomas Freidman, in his most recent New York Times article made reference to the report cited above, and indicated that education in our country (or any for that matter) ought to be focused on “producing” workers who can think creatively. They also ought to be able to work in teams, and solve problems using out-of-the-box abilities.

40th Anniversary of Soyuz

“40 years ago, on November 28, 1966, Soviet Union launched the first unmanned prototype of the Soyuz spacecraft, inaugurating the longest serving family of vehicles to carry humans into space,” writes Anatoly Zak, Publisher of the RussianSpaceWeb.com. You can go to his website to explore an interactive guide to Soyuz.

When America’s fleet of space shuttles was gounded, Soyuz was the vehicle used to service the International Space Station.

Note: I was out of the country over the past two weeks, and was unable to make posts. Look for more. Thank you.