A curriculum should be as messy as the real world

Daniel Pink believes we need to rethink the way we educate

Not everything I do is creative, says Daniel Pink. He’s illustrating the point that even a supposedly inventive profession such as writing involves some unglamorous toil now and then. But he is also, perhaps, being a little disingenuous. The journalist and author’s creative interpretations of global trends have illuminated previously oblique topics, while his visceral online TEDTalks have become an internet hit.

Washington-based Pink, previously chief speechwriter for US Vice President Al Gore, is the author of four best-selling books which look at the effects of psychology on our changing societies. They include Drive, which tackles motivation and explains how businesses could better empower and reward their employees, and A Whole New Mind, where Pink makes the case for right-brain creative abilities and their growing importance in a globalized world.

His themes particularly the way emotional intelligence and softer skills have been marginalized by society echo the work of educational thinkers such as Professor Howard Gardner. They have also been highly influential for teachers in IB World Schools, as two educators from Canada explain on page 12. And with three children studying IB programmes, Pink understands the impact of its programmes. Who better, then, to explain why creativity is suddenly so high on the educational agenda a question IB World put to him.

IB World Is it possible to define creativity and if so, how?

Daniel Pink I’m not sure it is. Creativity is vast and multi-dimensional. A student can be creative in an art class which would be a typical interpretation of creativity but they could also be creative in physics, or on the basketball court, by throwing a pass nobody thought was possible. It’s less important to define creativity than to ask: How do we create contexts that allow creativity to flourish?

Why should we care about how creative people are?

It matters on many levels. On a mundane level, succeeding at work today means using skills and abilities that aren’t routine or algorithmic, but are heuristic and difficult to outsource or automate. Creativity is also what we need to solve the difficult problems of our time climate change, asymmetric warfare, terrorism and poverty. And creativity is also part of what it means to be human. It’s a major misunderstanding to believe some individuals are somehow blessed with creativity and some aren’t, as though creativity is something like height. That belief short-changes a lot of our kids.

How well do educational systems do at recognizing and nurturing creativity?

Some do a pretty good job, some are woefully poor. A lot of the time, policy-makers only pay lip service to creativity. In the US at the moment, we have a move towards routines, right answers and standardization which is inconsistent with fostering creativity and inconsistent with an economy that is moving towards novelty, nuance and customization. There are happy exceptions. There are plenty of classrooms where teachers fight the system they’re working in and smuggle in ways to foster creativity. There are also certain approaches to education including Montessori, Reggio Emilia and the IB that do a good job.

Despite the general trends, aren’t most people going to end up in jobs that aren’t that creative?

I don’t think so. It’s interesting for any individual to meticulously chronicle what they do during a working day. Some of the abilities they use can be thought of as routine essentially following a recipe, script or algorithm. It could be adding up figures or processing papers. Some are non-routine. All jobs mix those abilities, but the balance has shifted towards non-routine and it’s these functions that are the more creative ones. Take manufacturing. In the West, especially in the US, the number of manufacturing jobs has declined dramatically. But nobody ever tells you that the US still has the world’s largest manufacturing economy. How did that happen? We got really good at it. We’ve increased output with fewer people doing more sophisticated things. When you go on to a factory floor in the US today, you won’t find a burly 58-year-old man with grease on his trousers turning the same screw over and over. You’ll find a 33-year-old woman with a two-year college degree programming robots, making judgements about processes and trying to understand what the customer wants. It’s much more sophisticated and the same is happening with white-collar work.

Do traditionally creative subjects, such as the visual arts, end up marginalized in education?

When I was at school, they were like a side dish. They wouldn’t hurt you, but if you were a serious student you didn’t spend time on them. Back then, the arts were ornamental. Today, they’re fundamental. It goes back to the nature of creativity, which in one sense is about giving people something they didn’t know they were missing. That’s the most important cognitive skill in business today, which is why millions of iPads have been sold. A year ago, all those people didn’t know they were missing an iPad. That’s what painters, sculptors and dancers do. They give the world something it didn’t know it was missing. We’ve always needed that at a human level. But now we need it at an economic level, so it alarms me that the arts are always the first thing on the chopping block. I fear that, in many cases, policy-makers are looking backwards, preparing young people for the past rather than the future.

Could it be said that traditional curriculum structures and subjects work against creativity?

Perhaps. Think about the problems we give our kids in the classroom. They’re often clearly defined, are in a single discipline, and have one right answer. When was the last time you had a problem like that in real life, as a worker, citizen or parent? Our challenges don’t announce themselves as an English problem or a mathematics problem. They are just big problems often poorly defined, spanning disciplines, and with multiple answers, none of which are perfect. In some senses, the curriculum should be messier just like the real world.

How would you introduce more creativity in schools?

For starters, I’d like to see more autonomy for teachers. In parts of the world there’s a move to make teaching routine, which is dangerous. When people think about the best teacher they had, they often remember someone who was a little subversive, who did things differently. Students also deserve autonomy. It’s possible to pair rigour and accountability with a degree of autonomy, and the IB is a good example of that. You see it at work in the PYP Exhibition or the MYP Personal Project.

Does the way we test students hinder creativity?

I’m not against testing, but one of the reasons it has grown in prominence is because it’s convenient for adults. Standardized testing is inexpensive and easy to scale. And it measures what we know how to measure. But when it becomes an end in itself, that is dangerous. If you want to find out whether students are creative, that requires far more complicated forms of measurement that aren’t particularly convenient.

In A Whole New Mind, you talk about what we can learn from computer games. Yet, for many teachers, games are competing for students attention...

First, we need to separate the content of games from their grammar: some of the content is lowbrow and inane, and there are games I would never let my kids play.

But teachers need to understand why games are appealing in a way that some classroom experiences aren’t. Game players are fairly autonomous if I want to play, I can do it at any time, not just 9 to 9.20am. In many games, challenges are matched to ability I begin at one level and, if I’m adept, I can move through the game quickly, without wasting my time. The challenge is often a little outside my capacity, which stretches me. And the feedback loop is extraordinarily rapid: you find out how you’re doing almost instantly.

That combination of autonomy, challenges matched to abilities and rapid feedback is the reason games are so absorbing to kids. But it’s the opposite of the traditional classroom experience, which is directed by a teacher, mass-produced and gives slow, limited feedback. 

Are you optimistic that education will embrace creativity in the future?

Yes I am. It’s an exciting time to be a teacher, if we can liberate them to do what they do best customizing learning, giving feedback and helping students understand context. But if we keep them trapped in a system that was built for the 1870s, we’re going to have problems. When I was a kid, we used to think of teachers as the repository of all knowledge. But today, if my kids want to know the capital of Ecuador they don’t need to ask a teacher. They can go on Google and find the answer in 12 seconds. What the teacher can do is help put that kind of knowledge into practice. Why does it matter what the capital of Ecuador is? What is Ecuador’s role in the Western hemisphere? In that way, teachers become coaches, guides and mentors. That represents a great opportunity.