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Executive Skills & Strategy Opinion

Doublethink: The Creativity-Testing Conflict

By Yong Zhao — July 17, 2012 6 min read
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Doublethink is “to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them,” according to George Orwell, who coined the phrase in his novel 1984.

American education policymakers have apparently entered the zone of doublethink.

They want future Americans to be globally competitive, to out-innovate others, and to become job-creating entrepreneurs. Last year, the Obama administration announced a $1 billion-plus public-private initiative to support entrepreneurial activities, which included support and rhetoric surrounding youth-entrepreneurship education. And the U.S. Department of Education says that “entrepreneurship education as a building block for a well-rounded education not only promises to make school rigorous, relevant, and engaging, but it creates the possibility for unleashing and cultivating creative energies and talents among students.”

State leaders have taken similar actions. California, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma have begun exploring the development of measures to gauge the extent to which schools foster creative and entrepreneurial qualities in their students, according to a Feb. 1, 2012, article in Education Week.

What brings great test scores may hamper entrepreneurial qualities."

In the meantime, the policymakers want students to be excellent test-takers. The federal government is racing to the top of standardization and standardized testing; states are working hard to make two subjects common and core for all students; an increasing number of teachers are being paid based on their students’ test scores; and students are fed with an increasingly narrow, standardized, uniform, and imagination-depleted education diet. All these measures are intended to improve students’ academic achievement, or, in plain English, test scores.

But test scores are not measures of entrepreneurship or creativity. Not even scores on the intensely watched and universally worshiped Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, are good indicators of a nation’s capacity for entrepreneurship and creativity.

In doing research for my book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, I found a significant negative relationship between PISA performance and indicators of entrepreneurship. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, or GEM, is an annual assessment of entrepreneurial activities, aspirations, and attitudes of individuals in more than 50 countries. Initiated in 1999, about the same time that PISA began, GEM has become the world’s largest entrepreneurship study. Thirty-nine countries that participated in the 2011 GEM also participated in the 2009 PISA, and 23 out of the 54 countries in GEM are considered “innovation-driven” economies, which means developed countries.

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Comparing the two sets of data shows clearly countries that score high on PISA do not have levels of entrepreneurship that match their stellar scores. More importantly, it seems that countries with higher PISA scores have fewer people confident in their entrepreneurial capabilities. Out of the innovation-driven economies, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan are among the best PISA performers, but their scores on the measure of perceived capabilities or confidence in one’s ability to start a new business are the lowest. The correlation coefficients between scores on the 2009 PISA in math, reading, and science and 2011 GEM in “perceived entrepreneurial capability” in the 23 developed countries are all statistically significant. (By the way, these countries have also traditionally dominated the top spots on the other influential international test, the Trends in International Math and Science Study, or TIMSS.)

China’s Shanghai took the No. 1 rank in all three areas of the 2009 PISA, but the scores do not have any bearing on China’s creativity capacity. In 2008, China had only 473 patent filings with or granted by leading patent offices outside China. The United States had 14,399 patent filings in the same year. Anil K. Gupta and Haiyan Wang put those figures in a broader context, writing in The Wall Street Journal last year: “Starkly put, in 2010 China accounted for 20 percent of the world’s population and 9 percent of the world’s GDP, 12 percent of the world’s [research and development] expenditure, but only 1 percent of the patent filings with or patents granted by any of the leading patent offices outside China.” And 50 percent of the China-origin patents, the writers added, were granted to subsidiaries of foreign multinationals.

Moreover, what brings great test scores may hamper entrepreneurial qualities. Standardized testing and a focus on rote memorization, for example, are perhaps the biggest enemies of entrepreneurial capability. A contrast between Finland and the East Asian countries illustrates this point. Although Finland’s entrepreneurship activities do not rank as high as its PISA performance, the Finns possess a much higher level of perceived entrepreneurial capabilities than the East Asian countries. In the 2011 GEM survey, 37 percent of Finns reported having the capability for entrepreneurship, more than 20 percentage points higher than the Japanese (14 percent), at least 10 percentage points higher than the South Koreans (27 percent) and Singaporeans (24 percent), and nearly 10 points higher than the Taiwanese (29 percent). This difference may come from the different style of education in Finland and the East Asian countries.

See Also

For more on Yong Zhao’s opinions about education, read Education Week blogger Catherine A. Cardno’s interview with the author, “Zhao on Entrepreneurship, the Common Core, and Bacon.”

Unlike their peers in high-performing East Asian nations with well-established reputations for authoritarian and standardized-testing-driven education that emphasizes rote memorization, Finnish students do not take standardized tests until the end of high school. In fact, Finnish schools are a standardized-testing-free zone, according to Pasi Sahlberg in his book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland? As a result, students in Finland are not pushed toward rote memorization. Finnish education is certainly not nearly as authoritarian as its Asian counterparts.

Most important, as the education historian Diane Ravitch observed in The New York Review of Books earlier this year: “The central aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, not the attainment of higher test scores, and the primary strategy of Finnish education is cooperation, not competition.”

The United States saw a decline of creativity over the past two decades, as a 2010 Newsweek article reported. Titled “The Creativity Crisis,” the article cites research by Kyung Hee Kim, an educational psychology professor at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Kim analyzed performance of adults and children on a commonly used creativity measure known as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. The results indicate a creativity decrease in the last 20 years in all categories. This decline coincided with the movement toward more curriculum standardization and standardized testing in American schools exemplified by the No Child Left Behind Act. “NCLB has stifled any interest in developing individual differences, creative and innovative thinking, or individual potential,” Kim said in an interview on the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog.

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Standardized testing rewards the ability to find the “correct answer” and thus discourages creativity, which is about asking questions and challenging the status quo. A narrow and uniform curriculum deprives children of opportunities to explore and experiment with their interest and passion, which is the foundation of entrepreneurship. Constantly testing children and telling them they are not good enough depletes their confidence, which is the fuel of innovation. So, by any account, what policymakers have put in place in American schools is precisely what is needed to cancel out their desire for creative and entrepreneurial talents.

I don’t know how policymakers can hold, simultaneously, these two ideas, creative entrepreneurship and test-driven curriculum standardization, that both research and common sense recognize as contradictory unless they change the slogans of 1984‘s Oceania, “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength” into “Standardization is Innovation, Uniformity is Creativity, and Testing is Enterprising” for education today.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Doublethink: Creativity, Entrepreneurship, and Standardized Tests

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