Dare to create

One of the things I love most about Purdue (and makes me feel at home here) is that I get to work with so many people from all around the world. I can’t help but notice the legacies of various educational systems leave on students. These are just my observations, and I’m most probably over-generalizing here, but here I go:

We often hear complaints about the American education system: kids don’t learn the fundamentals; they can’t spell; critical thinking suffers. People coming from educational systems such as China, India, and (I’d say) Romania do learn the fundamentals. They can understand and synthesize ideas. Their work endurance is much higher. They simply put in more hours without expecting to have as much fun.

And then I saw in the news this story about a 17-year old girl who built a neural network that diagnoses breast cancer that’s 99.1% sensitive to malignant cells, in her trials.

And then I stumbled upon this company that makes plush toys from your dog’s photos in order to generate funds for animal shelters. It began with a little girl’s idea and her insistence, and, of course, parents who went along with it. 

My observation is that people like me, who come from the Romanian, Indian, Chinese educational systems (they must have some things in common) are really good at learning, understanding, explaining information. But we are afraid to create. I know in Romania at least, we are told that we first have to master all that came before us before we can start creating. It is a daunting task, and by the time we’re done, it’s often too late. We have this reverence for the “great thinkers”… I remember how shocked I was when I first started grad school in the U.S. that you could argue with Aristotle. “What do you mean, question Aristotle? He is ARISTOTLE!” I am still amused, outraged, and in awe of American irreverence and the freedom people take (even people who don’t understand Aristotle well) to just argue – to improve, to innovate, upon Aristotle’s ideas (and by “Aristotle,” of course, I mean any big name).

Creativity and innovation cannot be attributed solely to the educational system. Culture and economy inform entrepreneurial spirit. And yet, the question has been bugging me, What kind of educational system does it take to foster creativity and innovation? What are some practices that we should include in the way we teach and learn, that will encourage and foster creative, innovative thinking?

I leave you with a TED talk by IDEO’s David Kelley on building creative confidence. It doesn’t answer my question, though, so please let me know. What have been your experiences in school that you feel have helped foster your creative, innovative thinking?

  1. Nice blog that provokes an open discussion.

    As a Korean student, I can understand your feeling.

    For a comment, I will add two thing: One about Korean education system and one about US system

    Do you know that we Koreans are top scored with the Finland in PISA testing, but Korean students studies twice or triple times longer than Fininsh student? And we hate to study while Finish student enjoy it.

    But there is good thing to learn from Korean system, too. The parents really invests all of their resources to the education of kids. I think it was one of factors that enabled such a fast economic development in Korea. And surprisingly it is now preventing for us to proceed more, like as in the innovators dilemma.

    And about US system, in my mind, their best thing is they tolerate the failure. One way of expressing this is they count only the positive outcome. So If someone failed a lot, he can still have a chance to be successful. Maybe this was possible because they have a lot of resources with vast land.

    • Good points.

      I actually think tolerating failure is really needed for both learning and innovation, and we don’t do enough of it even here in the US. For example, we grade students on their first try. We don’t allow enough room to experiment and fail. The problem is, if you do that in just one course, students won’t take it seriously, and they will focus on the other courses where the pressure is to succeed in the first try. It’s something I struggle with as a teacher and that’s why I try to work with several drafts of projects and reports… but it’s not feasible when classes are large.

    • Xin_Cindy_Chen
    • August 31st, 2012

    My committee taught me a great lesson that some PhD students (including me) would initially care more about the skills and methods they use and the products they make rather than whether they are answering a meaningful question and creating useful knowledge.

    I think I know where my problem comes from. I have this job security fear. When I look at all the industry job ads, what they require is a list of practical skills. They would at most say they want somebody with good written and oral communication skills, but they seldom say they want somebody creative or have created useful knowledge before, and creativity is this mysterious and amorphous thing that cannot be easily measured. In the short term, the job market only cares whether you have the proper skills to produce the products they want in order to make profit, and they don’t care whether you have created knowledge that benefit the humanity. There seems no direct connections between education and the job market. The two should be intertwined at some level, but not obvious to entry-level students at this moment.

    My previous education gave me the impression that creativity is this mysterious thing that only gifted people like Einstein and Steve Jobs have. They were geniuses and they were born with some mysterious talent that we can never learn. We ordinary people have to acquire skills in order to have a safe future. I think the fear of future financial security and the thinking that “creativity is not my thing” that prohibited many people from being creative.

    What I gradually become to understand during my PhD years here is that creativity can be encouraged, cultivated, taught and learned. Everybody is gifted with creativity in their blood, and they need the right environment and culture to let it out. Tough question is what is the right environment and culture? It may differ from person to person. There can be many systemic or non-systemic ways to become creative (the inquiry process of being a PhD student can be one of systemic ways if you meet the right professors).

  2. Nice point about the job security. I agree with your ideas about:

    – Fear about job security limits creativity
    – Creativity is hard to measure.

    Your input encouraged me to proceed one step further.

    It is a little long, and anyway I have to fill up my empty new blog.

    So you can find it here.


  3. Xin, I have been thinking a lot about the disconnect that you notice between education and required job skills. At some level, I am happy things are that way. Here are some thoughts as to why:

    1) Higher education is not, and should not be, mere professional training that prepares employees. It should help you grow as a human being. It should help stretch and explore your potential, so you may do things in life that are not yet imagined in current job descriptions. While jobs are important, and we are happy when we can help our students launch their careers, work and jobs are only part of a complete, complex human being. I am not interested in training employees for corporation X or Y. I am interested in helping human beings discover and achieve their full potential. The investment you make while pursuing higher education is in your own personal growth. That is long-lasting and valuable, even if it doesn’t help a corporation’s profits right away.

    2) A friend of mine who works in instructional design once asked me about a course I was creating: “What can you teach students that will still be useful to them in 50 years from now?” I thought about this for weeks. I am still figuring out the answer, years later. Training you for a job that might not even exist by the time you graduate is not the answer, that I do know.

    3) Many companies train their employees. What they look for are smart people, problem-solvers, thinkers. The rest can be trained easily. I see my job as helping you grow as a thinker, as a learner, as a caring human being. That will serve you 50 years from now. You may choose to put your energy to work towards a corporation’s bottom line, or you may choose to spend the rest of your life saving stray dogs in Romania. As long as I have helped grow your thinking, problem-solving, and social responsibility, my job is well done either way.

      • Xin_Cindy_Chen
      • September 2nd, 2012

      Dr. V, really really great post! I truly agree that while it is important, job is only part of a complete and complex human being, personal growing as a thinker, a learner, and a caring human being is a goal that can serve students further in life. Out of similar understanding, when you asked what our goal is in the first CGT512 class, I said I want to become a beautiful woman with lots of wisdom for life and work, rather than what kind of job position I want to be in. After all, many jobs are not yet there while we are in school.

  4. As a student who’s quite active in Purdue’s academic programs in entrepreneurship, I’m surprised by the notion that the university’s international students are afraid, inhibited, etc., to pursue innovative projects or research. Most of the students I’ve encountered in programs such as the Discovery Park Undergraduate Research Internship (DURI), Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS), and the Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship are foreigners to the U.S. From my firsthand experience, Purdue’s international students are pushing the innovative envelope with entrepreneurial prowess akin to Silicon Valley’s foremost purveyors of novel technology.

    Purdue has fostered creativity and innovation by providing students with a variety of entrepreneurial opportunities. The burden is on us, the university’s students, to take full advantage of the resources we’re offered.

    • That’s interesting, Geovon – I did not know that participants in entrepreneurship programs are mostly international.

  5. Great post! For an international student who comes from Chinese educational systems, creativity is more of a learned process, not a natural thing. It emphasizes rote learning rather than creative problem solving.

    When I was in high school, I was told that the most important thing was to get good scores and enter a good college. The College Entrance Examination decides all your life. So a great number of exercises make up the bulk of time and we have no time to create or no awareness of innovation. Finally I went to the college and my instructor told me that the more practice you have, the more likely it is that you’ll find a good job. Good score, good college, good job and then we are all very good students but not a person with creative thinking.

    This started me thinking about what I feel passionate about. If we find our work is meaningless and unsatisfactory, how can we come up with innovative ideas and put it into practice. We are more likely to foster creativity and innovation in a career that gets us excited and brings us joy. Just as Xin said, she wants to become a beautiful woman with lots of wisdom for life and work, rather than what kind of job position she wants to be in. I do agree with her. Whatever makes you creative is probably something that you are very passionate about. Therefore I think that our instructor should help students find what spark their creativity. These things seem to always expand its horizon, always coming up with new, fun, and exciting ideas. Students can develop similar creativity in related subjects. This is the first but most important step to encourage and foster innovative thinking.

  1. August 30th, 2012
  2. August 30th, 2012
    Trackback from : Dare to create « Dr. V
  3. September 1st, 2012

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