Does Education “Kill” Creativity?

Why We Must Be More Creative about the Education of the Future


“Creative Thinking” class in Japan

Reforming education — putting in place an education appropriate for a digital age — is a challenge.

I always knew that.

But, the important lesson that I have learnt over the last week is that I might have been a little naïve as to the scale of this challenge.

The experience of preparing for an “accreditation event” forced me to confront some of the hard realities about the current state of education.

Put bluntly, I thought reform would be easier and that creativity and innovation would be welcomed.

After all, most of the people that I talk to in my working life — both inside and outside the university — are convinced that education must change. Everyone agrees it is necessary to include “creativity”, “teamwork”, innovation” and “storytelling” in all levels of education.

This is particularly true in the context of a digital age.

Constant technological change will have an unpredictable and uncertain effect on the way we live and work.

Giving young people the skill-set to deal with this uncertainty is the only option.

But, even if we leave the on-going “technological revolution” out of the discussion, there is lots of evidence that our education system is failing.

Talk to people who have experience in practice and most will agree that the educational system should stimulate, instead of squander, the creative potential of young people.

It is acknowledged that this is a vital element in preparing them for the world of work.

But, everyone I talk to seems to agree that the “gap” between the worlds of “education” and “industry” is growing.

Young people arrive at the workplace ill-prepared for its realities.

This is true for legal practice, but also in the other fields that I am familiar with, such as health-care or the restaurant business. And I am convinced every industry is facing similar difficulties.

So, what is the problem and, more importantly, how do we solve it?

“Creativity is Futile”?

Everybody agrees that education is important.

Also, education will not disappear in our automated future. It will always be necessary to prepare the next generation for the unpredictable and fast-changing things to come.

Yet, this is much easier said than done.

Here are four “problems” with our education system that make it difficult to reform the learning process and tools that we offer young people. What is interesting is that each of these problems apply to any type of reform and innovation.

In this respect, I should have known better.

#1 — Outdated “models” stifle innovation

Courses and educational programs are generally designed in such a way, that students:

  1. are expected to study and “cram” the materials;
  2. take an examination to prove that they have retained the necessary information, and;
  3. then “forget” most of it shortly thereafter.

This process is then repeated. The focus is on measuring a short-term capacity for retaining factual information.

The “best” students are the ones that can demonstrate this capacity. And it doesn’t matter whether that information is useful or relevant to life beyond the classroom.

In itself, this doesn’t have to be an issue. Yet, the real problem is that the content and process of educational programs are codified into rules and policies in order to judge and maintain the “quality” of all programs.

What is ironic is that these “quality assurance” rules and regulations have a counterproductive effect.

They act as a barrier for innovation (and the necessary reform). In fact, they act as a barrier to any kind of creativity.

Anything “different” from the rulebook is judged inferior and out-of-the-box thinking or experimentation is not rewarded, but often condemned.

#2 — Entrenched interests protect the “status quo”

What ensures that the traditional models are preserved are various entrenched interests that are resistant to any kind of challenge, competition or change.

At the peak of this hierarchy of entrenched interests is government.

Established procedures are periodically checked and verified by government ministries. But senior and mid-level “managers” within educational institutions are also obliged to buy into these evaluation systems giving them a force that is difficult to resist.

Of course, these “accreditation procedures” are intended to ensure a uniform quality of education programs.

Yet, the current box-ticking and formalistic approach results in educational institutions that cling on to old systems and inefficient procedures. Until the entrenched interests recognize this problem, widespread reform seems unlikely.

#3 — Zero incentive for “educators” to be genuinely creative

The inevitable effect of this combination of fixed, outdated models and entrenched interests is that the educators are not incentivized to innovate and change the content of their courses, their style of teaching or their mode of evaluation.

Again, most of my colleagues agree that it is important to discuss and adapt to the opportunities and challenges of the digital age.

However, the reward systems in education refuses to take creativity and innovation into account.

What seems even worse is that “educational innovators” are often criticized.

From the perspective of traditional models of “quality”, such criticism is inevitable.

#4 — There is a disconnect between “external image” and the “internal culture”

What I find particularly frustrating about the current situation is that most educational institutions are very keen to project an image of creativity and innovation.

At least, this is what is stated on their websites and other public statements.

In an innovation-driven economy, everyone recognizes the need to “package” what they are doing in such terms.

And yet, the internal culture is both different and much more resistant to change and innovation.

It is clear that public statements alone are not enough and reforming organizational culture will not happen overnight.

So, What’s Next?

If the above sounds a little discouraging, I don’t mean it to be.

OK, so maybe I was a little naïve about reforming things, but that does not mean I am pessimistic about the future or that I will change my approach.

Let me be clear.

I am more and more convinced that we must integrate “creativity”, “teamwork”, “innovation” and “storytelling” into the “education of the future”.

I will not be deterred by the traditional models and the entrenched interests that protect them.

I realize more than ever that genuine change always takes time.

So, I will continue to “do it my way” and learn from the many other “innovators” and “influencers”.

Change may take time, but it is surely coming.

About the Author 

Erik P.M. Vermeulen is a Professor of Business and Financial Law at Tilburg University and Tilburg Law and Economics Center in the Netherlands. He is also Head of Governance/Vice-President at Philips Lighting. Erik is best-described as a “global futurist” and “cross-cultural strategic consultant”. He is constantly fascinated by technological revolutions and how the on-going digital revolution is changing the way we live, work and learn. He has a particular interest in how new technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and robotics are affecting business, government, and education. This article originally appeared in Hacker Noon. We appreciate the opportunity to republish it here.

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