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What to Do About a Generation of ‘Lost Einsteins’

By Anthony Brandt & David Eagleman — April 05, 2018 4 min read
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When a team of leading economists led by Stanford’s Raj Chetty recently linked the patent records of more than a million inventors with their tax records, they made a startling discovery: The best predictor of whether you’re going to become an inventor is your tax bracket. If your parents were in the top 1 percent of income in the United States, you’re 10 times more likely to file a patent than someone who comes from an economically disadvantaged background. In a recent paper explaining these findings, the Equality of Opportunity Project described generations of “lost Einsteins.” As the gap widens between the haves and have-nots, the ranks of inventors are tapering to an ever more elite minority.

The study also confirmed what teachers have often reported: The remedies most often used to address these inequities—regimented curricula and standardized testing—may actually be making them worse. The more that “teaching to the test” dominates the school day, the more creative learning gets sidelined. Instead, the key element that makes a difference is exposure to innovation. We need to invest in children’s imaginations.

But how? Classrooms are often overcrowded, teachers are overextended, and underserved schools are starved for resources. Fortunately, there are remedies that don’t necessarily involve more money, just re-allocating time.

The change relies on understanding the nature of creativity. Our inventiveness grows from our ability to absorb the outside world and generate “what if” scenarios, extrapolating the known into the new. Everything that separates our world from that of 10,000 years ago comes from the human brain’s everyday, lifelong neural manipulations: We take in the world and energetically refashion it.

Schools offer young minds a wider storehouse of knowledge than they would discover on their own. However, when we only train students to get to the right answer as reliably and efficiently as possible, we’re missing a crucial step. Knowledge shouldn’t just be a landing point—it should be a springboard. More class time needs to be devoted not just to mastering the material, but launching from it.

Every child carries on his or her shoulders the most inventive piece of machinery nature has ever produced."

In history class, students can show their mastery of facts by constructing alternative histories. In science courses, students can explore science fiction prototyping, in which they imagine a future invention and extrapolate its effects on society. Art and music classes shouldn’t stop with imitation of the masters; students need the chance to remodel their inspirations.

Experiential learning isn’t enough if it’s only about duplicating established results. The telltale sign of a creative classroom is one in which students all start from the source, and yet all arrive at different solutions.

Further, students need to learn how to manage risk and rebound from mistakes. That’s where teaching to the test is particularly lacking. In multiple-choice questions, there’s no value in a wrong answer. Inventiveness, on the other hand, depends on prolific options and a tolerance for the fact that many of them will fail. “Sandboxing” is one way of encouraging such gambits: Students try out multiple ideas before getting graded, receive feedback, and then pursue one of their options to completion.

For a part of each school day, classrooms need to become studios, workshops, and laboratories. Teachers sometimes express the concern that those kind of open-ended activities invite chaos. To the contrary, the data indicate that creatively engaged students are less distracted and disruptive. A 2013 study from Houston public schools, for instance, found a correlation between high arts involvement and decreased disciplinary and truancy rates—even after the researchers controlled for ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English-language fluency, and special education or gifted and talented designation. And there’s a good reason for that: Our brains gradually tune out the predictable, making it a struggle to stay focused in the face of drills and rote learning. Surprise captures our attention.

Creative activities keep the school day filled with the unexpected, spurring focus. Around the country, schools that have added more creativity into the curriculum—whether though the arts or robotics—have seen their dropout rates and disciplinary problems decline.

Creativity is built into the human brain. Compared to other animals, we have more brain cells interposed between sensation and action—making us less reliant on reflex and more capable of flexibility. And our large pre-frontal cortex enables us to simulate possible futures. As a result of our evolutionarily recent brain expansion, every child carries on his or her shoulders the most inventive piece of machinery nature has ever produced. Creativity is a lifelong gift that needs to be rewarded and encouraged from a young age.

We’re not only losing future Albert Einsteins, but also Emily Dickinsons, Lin-Manuel Mirandas, and Elon Musks. Over half a century of research has found the same creative abilities across all demographic groups. When cultivating creativity becomes a matter of privilege, society stalls its own engines. Cognitive flexibility is paramount in navigating our fast-changing world, and companies are clamoring for innovators. We can’t afford to let another crop of students get marginalized. There’s no reason an underserved classroom can’t be as creatively vibrant as a well-funded one. Nurturing human ingenuity in every neighborhood will make our society not only fairer, but also more visionary and resilient.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2018 edition of Education Week as The Gentrification of Creativity

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