Educating for Genius

May 21, 2012

There have been a handful of thought leaders that have written important books and articles sounding the alarm that the current U.S. education system is killing creativity in our children and not adequately preparing students to compete in the 21st century workforce and global economy. Daniel Pink examines this situation in A Whole New Mind and Sir Ken Robinson raises the red flag in several publications and in a popular TED Talk and RSC Animate video. With increased focus on assessment for students, teachers and principals at both federal and state levels, all signs forewarn of increased reliance on standardized testing. One of New Jersey’s own thought leaders Ross Danis, President and CEO of the Newark Trust for Education (and former Dodge Education Program Director) has a unique take on this trend:

Our children are growing up in a complicated, rapidly changing, and dangerous world. While we discuss whether not there is a difference between being “college” or “career” ready, and what knowledge and skills they will need to be considered prepared for either or both, the problems of the world wait. Our children will need to have a level of creativity that was not required to be successful working on a farm or in a factory. They will need a level of critical thinking that was not necessary before the manipulation of ideas became a fully funded science. Our children will need a level of analytical reasoning that was not necessary to survive when there were clear answers to clear problems, or when the “good guys” were relatively easy to distinguish from the “bad guys.” If we are mindful of the skills and dispositions our children will really need to thrive in the world in which they will live, successfully transforming low performing urban schools will propel the students they graduate far beyond the preparation level of the self satisfied, high performing suburban schools that continue to measure success against narrow mid 20th century standards. What a surprising and righteous turn of events that would be.

UNESCO published a study several years ago stating that over 60% of all jobs in the world will rank “creativity” as the number one requirement. We should be frightened by anyone who is thinking that the job of school is to spit out carbon copy graduates who have just passed a proficiency test of basic skills. Given the demands of the world we are living into, all schools everywhere- not just the low performing schools- should be turning themselves upside down and inside out.

My wife Chris and I recently attended the Liberty Science Center gala as guests of Liberty Science Center counsel Warren Casey and his wife, Andra. The Center’s new president and CEO Paul Hoffman and his team framed the gala as a celebration of genius. Erno Rubik was there. Dr. Rubik invented (you guessed it) the Rubik’s Cube. Temple Grandin was there- an author, professor, and member of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, who used her own experience with autism to design humane livestock facilities. The neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose success in using L-dopa to treat patients in a frozen state inspired the movie “Awakenings,” attended the event. We all watched in awe as David Blaine, Liberty Science Center’s genius magician in residence, behaving like every middle school teacher’s worst nightmare, performed magic underwater. In between presentations, students as young as 12 “solved” Rubik’s Cubes in under a minute.

Beyond being wildly entertaining, the Liberty Science Center gala reminded me that we live in a world full of genius. It is not as rare a thing as we make it out to be. Achievement gaps are partly a result of how we define, teach for, and measure achievement. If you eliminate the accident of history called a “bell curve,” and you recreate schools that don’t sort and categorize children based on such a flawed, narrow, dated, and limiting interpretation of intelligence, you would be able to rebuild a system where “gaps” would melt away. Our schools would be overflowing with genius.

I encounter genius all the time, mostly in kindergarten and first grade classrooms. However, longitudinal studies clearly illustrate that the longer students are in school, the lower they score on tests of divergent (creative) thinking. I can only conclude that the problem is not too few geniuses, the problem is too few schools that foster, nurture, and celebrate genius. What if what young people really crave is meaningful, complicated, and interesting learning environments, and not self-guided computerized math programs that teach and measure computation skills that are not contextualized or applied? What if all along we have confused “rigor” with just making the stuff kids do in school “hard?”

That would be a real shame—and a colossal failure of education reform efforts. On the other hand, if we really succeed in preparing the children currently enrolled in underperforming schools for a good life, and not simply a good job, then we may see the most extraordinary of all transformations. Those who have been undereducated and underprepared for the world in which they will live, will propel past those who graduate from schools that have historically scored high on tests of achievement as measured by standardized tests. Think of it as a 21st century creativity gap that favors the children in urban areas.

I hate to say it but maybe just the thought of such an outcome will motivate those whose power and influence shapes how and why our educational systems evolve and resources are allocated, to stop obsessing over test scores and start looking at data that illustrates how well we prepare all children for their future and not our past.

Ross Danis is the president and CEO of the Newark Trust for Education and former education program director for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Images: New Leaders for New Schools