Education Opinion

How Education Can Unleash Genius

By Gary Marx — May 14, 2015 4 min read
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What is one of the greatest sources of energy on the planet? Easy. It’s human ingenuity.

With that settled, maybe we can just get back to what we were doing in the first place. Besides, creative ideas can be disruptive, and our day is already planned.

Not so fast. Releasing ingenuity and stimulating creativity are becoming bedrock responsibilities for education and society. We wake up each day to a stark reality: The challenges we face are not yielding to business as usual.

Granted, having knowledge and experience coupled with a reasonable plan is essential. However, it isn’t a substitute for creativity, imagination, inventiveness, mindfulness, and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Read more in Chapter 13 of Twenty-One Trends

What do we mean by ingenuity? It’s an aptitude for discovering, a tendency for originality, a skill in combining ideas to create something new. Creativity, on the other hand, helps us transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, and relationships to create new ideas, forms, methods, or interpretations. Imagination is often described as our ability to form a mental image of something that isn’t present or hasn’t ever been seen in reality. Innovation takes it a next step, actually introducing a new idea, method, or device, possibly something novel. Our thanks to Webster’s Dictionary.

It’s no secret. We’re drawn to movies, books, and social media that pique our imaginations. We are transfixed by stories about people who have broken new ground. Deep inside each of us is a pioneering spirit, just waiting to see the light of day.

It’s up to everyone, certainly every educator, to spot, encourage, and help develop the ingenuity that is all around us.

Where do we go from here?

Cultivate curiosity. Show me a person who is curious and persistent and I’ll show you a person who will be pretty well educated for the rest of her or his life.

Declare thinking, reasoning, and problem solving basic skills. Make them a part of everything we teach. The demand for those skills is growing exponentially among employers and across civil society. Amazing how much we can learn and the creativity we can generate by simply asking who, what, where, when, how, and especially why.

Make discovery an essential part of learning. Active learning, learning through inquiry, and learning across disciplines can encourage us to seek and find.

Connect the need for creative solutions to real-life issues. For example, imagine how some communities can survive as the climate changes and water supplies run low.

“Create an environment where imagination can flourish.” That’s a suggestion from John Seely Brown, a former chief scientist for Xerox and longtime director of its PARC research center, which turned out inventions such as laser printing, computer generated graphics, pull down menus, and the mouse.

Pay attention to Howard Gardner’s advice in his classic book, Five Minds for the Future. Cultivate the creative mind, the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the respectful mind, and the ethical mind.

Stand firm in supporting the arts and arts education. Accept the fact that music, dance, musical theater, the visual arts, design, creative writing, and many other art forms can stimulate our thinking and ignite our imaginations. The arts help us see and think in new ways, across all boundaries and disciplines.

Clear roadblocks, uncircle the wagons, and stop digging trenches. As we’ve suggested in our book, Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century, let’s not get entrenched in a fast-changing world. Avoid the temptation to stomp on ideas. Instead of the raised eyebrow or cold shoulder, consider a response such as, “Interesting idea! What would you see as next steps? Let’s get that idea on our list. Keep thinking. That’s what’s going to keep us on the leading edge.”

Encourage reasonable risk. Ellen Winner of the Arts and Minds Lab at Boston University observes that taking reasonable risks can be “endorphin-loading and high-energy, so it is part of what keeps kids engaged in creativity.” Oklahoma State University’s Robert Sternberg, notes that schools and colleges too often discourage the very risk that it takes to be creative. “Genius,” he says, “is talent set on fire by courage.” Sir Kenneth Robinson, a spirited authority on creativity, warns that we may even be “educating people out of their creativity.”

If we hope to unleash genius, then let’s try to encourage people to become intellectual entrepreneurs, always seeking and always considering new ideas. Noted social analyst Richard Florida challenges us to put the pieces together to create new knowledge, sometimes called breakthrough thinking. To make that possible, we’ll need to not only tolerate but embrace paradox, controversy, and complexity as part of a new normal.

It’s up to everyone, certainly every educator, to be a talent scout, and to spot, encourage, and help develop the ingenuity that is in each of us and all around us.

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