Creating innovators

Does education prepare students for success in work and business?

by Edel Cassidy
Words Edel Cassidy

It is now widely accepted that creativity is the most important core competency for success in business, outweighing even strategic thinking and integrity. Having the ability to come up with novel solutions to tough challenges, to create new products, systems or services, or to develop innovative marketing concepts is what gives a company its competitive edge. Despite this, it is rare for businesses to encourage new ideas or risk-taking, or to allocate resources to new initiatives. Instead, the emphasis is usually on achieving goals and measuring performance, and on trying to improve by doing more of the same, leaving little time to step outside comfort zones and experiment with new ideas.

It is generally thought that creativity is something mysterious and elusive, something that can’t be taught. However, some would argue that creative thinking is a universal ability, within reach of us all, not a special gift endowed upon a lucky few. Everyone is born with natural curiosity and imagination. Young children tend not to allow their ideas to be suppressed; everything is possible to them. But as we mature we allow negative thinking or our fears of being different to get in the way; we think too much and learn to be uncreative. We may still have creative ideas rolling around in our heads, but we self-censor in anticipation of criticism. Another reason many experts believe our natural creativity wanes is because education and social pressures force us to turn our attention to logic, reason and facts – we spend more of our time dealing with reality and less time playing in our imaginations.

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenged the way we educate our children. It was his belief that we need to radically rethink our school systems in order to cultivate creativity. His theory was that we have been educated to become good workers rather than creative thinkers. The upshot of this is that students with restless minds and bodies, far from being rewarded for their energy and curiosity, are ignored or even stigmatised, with terrible consequences. ‘We are educating people out of their creativity,’ Robinson said. He believed that by the time children grow to be adults they have become frightened of being wrong because they have come from education systems where making mistakes has been discouraged. They then go on to work in organisations with the same ethos.

Albert Einstein, who famously said ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’, had great disdain for the strict protocols followed by teachers. He believed that the will to learn and the ability to think creatively was lost through the practice of rote learning that is often demanded of students.

Research conducted in the US by scientist and author George Land seems to support this. In 1968 he tested 1,600 children ranging from three to five years old using the same creativity test he devised for NASA to help select innovative engineers and scientists. He re-tested the same children at the age of ten, and again at fifteen, with some shocking findings. At age three to five, the children scored ninety-eight per cent. When they reached ten, they managed thirty per cent, and by the time they were fifteen they scored just twelve per cent. The same test was given to 280,000 adults who achieved a dismal two per cent.

However, creative as they may be, five-year-olds are not equipped with the other skills necessary to run an organisation. They have not yet developed the executive functions and self-regulation skills that enable them to plan ahead, to focus their attention, to remember instructions and to juggle multiple tasks successfully. Such is the emphasis on developing these kind of skills – ‘executive functions’ – that children who struggle with them or who develop these skills later than their peers, are often labelled as having a ‘performance disability’. So even though they may be highly intelligent, artistic, athletic or musically talented, they may struggle to carry out a seemingly simple task such as remembering to do their homework. While it is important that they develop practical skills, equal weight should be given to the arts, humanities and physical education.

Some creativity experts also believe that business schools are on the wrong track. For many years, MBA programmes enjoyed climbing the rankings in academic league tables and growing in prestige. Today, however, these programmes face intense criticism because they teach management principles that were developed during the industrial revolution. While these practices may work well for relatively obvious everyday problems, such as optimising resources and employees, they are not so effective in managing the comparative uncertainty that comes with bringing new ideas to market. This is why business schools are increasingly offering programmes that teach innovation and creative thinking.

Consumers now have higher expectations, and demand continual upgrades and fresh ideas in everything from technology to how services are delivered. Modern consumers have set the bar high, putting businesses under constant pressure to come up with novel ways to do things at every level. As a result innovation is a skill that is truly in demand.

There is, of course, a strong argument for striking a balance. Companies that concentrate solely on innovation are inclined to be inefficient, while those that focus solely on output tend to have a high turnover of staff and workers suffering from low morale. Companies that tend to excel encourage innovation and couple it with productivity.

So what can be done to counteract reduced creativity? Should we throw out the school books and rote-learning methods typically used to prepare students for exams? Should students or employees be encouraged to let their minds wander rather than stay grounded in the classroom or in the workplace? Research on creativity suggests that children should not be encouraged to give free rein to their imaginations at the cost of learning and understanding a subject. After all, it’s not possible to think outside the box until you fully understand what’s inside it. But it is imperative that teachers are encouraged to value creative thinking and allow students time to explore new ideas.

Creativity is a skill that can be cultivated by applying creative thinking processes such as questioning, exploring, imagining and experimenting. We all have the ability to develop our creative potential, but it takes hard work. Just like learning a sport, for example, it requires practice to develop the right muscles and a supportive environment in which to flourish.

Finally, we should never allow the fear of making a mistake or of getting something ‘wrong’ to limit our possibilities. By playing it safe or by conforming, we may miss out on surprising and magical discoveries. Of course, encouraging creativity is not going to turn the average kid into a young Beethoven or Picasso, or the average business student into a Steve Jobs. It may be possible to teach and learn creativity, but you can’t teach genius. It’s more about encouraging the day- to-day creative thinking that can make students or a workforce more productive and, ultimately, more fulfilled.

  • ‘Creating innovators’ is published in Anthology Volume 04. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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