In 1924, esteemed cultural observer and journalist H. L. Mencken offered this critique: “The aim of public education is not to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence... Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim... is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States... and that is its aim everywhere else.”
Ninety years later, with an ever-increasing emphasis on state-mandated curricula and high-stakes testing, little has changed. Outlier schools exist, but in my assessment, not nearly enough to shift how we educate most of our nation’s youth. It boggles the mind that as the world continues to change at a furious pace—in too many ways to count—the way we educate has evolved at a snail’s pace . . . and that’s probably being kind.
In a flattened world economy that craves creativity and risk-taking, our education system continues to embrace standardization and playing it safe. I’m not blind to the pitfalls of big business, and I’m sickened by the greed and graft on Wall Street. All the same, I’m awed by the creativity and boldness of companies like Google, Apple, Uber, Facebook, and Amazon. For all of their missteps and misdeeds (and there are many), I know I can safely bet that successes didn’t come from conducting business as it was done in 1924.
To gain insight into how our school systems could learn from and, dare I even say, mimic the creativity and risk taking displayed by cooperate America, I recently read The Myths of Creativity: How Innovative People and Companies Generate Great Ideas by David Burkus, a professor of management at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I couldn’t stop making connections to why, by and large, our school systems fall short. “Creativity will be strongest when an intrinsically motivated person with significant creative thinking skills and a given level of expertise operates in an environment that supports creativity,” Burkus writes.
That got me thinking. With their obsession on high-stakes testing, most schools inhibit intrinsic motivation—and, by extension, also creativity. Take it from Nikhil Goyal, the teenage author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School. “The only skill I have learned from taking AP courses is the knack of memorizing efficiently,” he told me last year. “It seems that the only exercise most high school kids get is iron-pumping: drilling and killing facts and figures. No sleep? You can sleep when you’re dead! My peers’ goal is to rack up as many AP classes and beat out the competition.” I cringe when thinking how the Common Core squashes creativity.
I recently spoke with Burkus, curious to hear his thoughts on grades and testing, and how both can potentially hamper creativity: “If you’re a student trying to get a grade, that’s not OK. What is OK is to know exactly what you were told and be able to regurgitate it well for a grade. That makes for a very efficient system, but again it’s for a very efficient system that does the useful, not necessarily the novel part. We need to create environments that have a little bit more—the technical term is—’psychological safety,’ that allow people to take risks, to play around with ideas, to be wrong in the service of being right one day.”
Worse still, the ways American schools operate teach students that it’s better to play it safe and earn top scores, than it is to try something new and maybe fail. This isn’t how the most successful companies operate—and it isn’t how we should continue to teach. Burkus says, “I think we tend to think in learning objectives and accreditation standards and here’s the content that we need to share with these people and then test them on retention of. That doesn’t create a lot of space for what we really need. At a young level, that’s things like recess to incubate ideas.”
Burkus proposes that schools try out a “Hack Week,” where teachers teach what they are most passionate about, and students decide what to learn—and from whom. “You do that two or three times and you’ll begin to see who’s gravitating towards what rooms,” he says. “Whatever you’re interested in, demonstrate to us that you understand this subject by writing a paper or doing a presentation on how this subject relates to your own interest. That leverages intrinsic interest by saying we trust you enough to do it.” I love the idea of giving students choice over what and how they learn, following companies like Google, which allows employees to spend 20% of their time on individual projects.
Burkus also reinforces my conviction that we must rethink what he calls the “one-size-fits-all, sit down, we’ll put 30 people in a room and you’ll listen for eight hours,” model of education. This includes differentiating between what people are good at, and what they are intrinsically motivated to do. “Some people are very good at doing things that they loathe doing,” Burkus says. “I don’t think it’s right to say ‘Well, you’re great at that, so you should go on doing that.’”
I also ask Burkus if extrinsic motivators, including grades, academic awards and other accolades, are effective ways to nurture creative growth. The research is a bit fuzzy, he admits, but he believes that “extrinsic motivators only work for creativity and creative thinking when they come in line with things that people are already intrinsically motivated to do.”
On a more positive note, Burkus’s research supports a liberal arts education. In fact, he suggests that people who are knowledgable only in a given subject, and who lackexposure to other fields or ways of thinking, aren’t likely to cozy-up to creative approaches. He says, “Unfortunately, when it comes to creativity and innovation, the things we need to push a society, a community, a business, anybody forward, are people who are willing to take those risks or people whose expertise won’t convince them it’ll never work, so that they take those risks. They’ll waste some amount of time, a decent amount of time, but every once in a while, they’ll be right.”
We’ve shifted from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy, and it’s time to be creative and daring with education. It’s impossible to generate knowledge without encouraging risk and stimulating creativity. That enterprise should involve looking at how successful companies operate and then emulating them in our educational pursuits.