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How American education fosters innovation, creativity

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By Haewon Helen Whang

In his book "Ungifted," Yale-educated cognitive psychology professor Scott Barry Kaufman states that we should all strive to be knowledge producers, not just knowledge consumers.

Having students simply memorize facts may produce an erudite population, but it will hardly benefit society unless something is created with that knowledge. It is this act of using knowledge to create that has made America one of the most entrepreneurial and technologically advanced societies in the world.

For many American children growing up in affluent neighborhoods, the focus on engendering confidence, creativity and collaboration starts early by having children participate in fun group activities.

From Show and Tell in preschool, in which children do a presentation on their favorite toy, to book discussions in kindergarten where children can agree to disagree with each other's opinions, children are encouraged to speak up.

In 2nd grade, children pair up and work collaboratively to analyze the books they have just read and to dissect them critically. In 7th and 8th grade science class, they work in a virtual ecosystem to solve a mystery as to why fish are dying in that habitat. In a 12th grade writing class, students critique and help each other to become better writers.

Even outside school, proactive involvement is highly encouraged in American kids.

Young children are awarded medals just for participating in sports or programs so that each child can value his or her role on the team.

Parents encourage their children to participate in sports because they build camaraderie, teamwork and a competitive spirit in a safe environment. Sports also teach children resilience after failure (because everyone has experienced losing in sports).

In addition to sports, children also actively participate in fundraising for events such as bike-a-thons and swim-a-thons in which children ask adults to pledge money for charity in exchange for the children's participation in the event. Girl Scouts knock on our doors to sell cookies to raise money for their teams or a child sells self-made lemonade in front of his house.

Children are encouraged to express themselves, be it by ordering at a restaurant or debating with a teacher. These are scenes that evoke the very texture of Americana. These participatory activities are far more effective for learning than rote memorizing.

Dr. Grob-Zakhary, a Johns Hopkins-educated medical doctor and neuroscience professor who is now the CEO of the Lego Foundation, agrees: "Play allows us to test our capabilities, as all forms of learning should. It stimulates children's learning abilities by fostering creativity, building critical thinking, sparking intellectual curiosity and facilitating learning by doing."

Similarly, MIT researchers Laura Schulz and Elizabeth Bonawitz found that children learned more when left to explore features of toys on their own than when a teacher gave instructions about the features they may find.

They concluded that although direct instruction may be an effective way to get children to learn something specific, it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and reach creative conclusions because they assume the teacher will just teach them.

This philosophy of letting children explore their own interests and learning through self-exploration is supported by the biographies of great creative minds like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.

They all possessed the traits to be creative geniuses such as "openness to ideas, curiosity, persistence, originality, intellectual risk-taking, metaphorical thinking and thrill seeking" that were expressed through self-directed learning outside of the rigid confines of traditional schools.

American education fosters innovation by encouraging children to express their ideas freely and to appreciate dissenting opinions. By advancing individual expression without fearing the shame of dissenting opinion, American education promotes creation and risk-taking _ the root of innovation.

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson noted, "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything creative." This explains why countries like the U.S, Israel and Sweden with children who are found to be the most confident, despite their poor performance in PISA assessments, have the highest venture capital investments.

Conversely, out of innovation-driven economies, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Japan are among the best PISA performers but score the lowest in entrepreneurial confidence. In fact, there is a direct negative correlation between PISA scores and confidence in entrepreneurship _ cultures that tested well are not confident about their ability to start a successful business.

Perhaps this is just another way of saying too much emphasis on test preparation stymies creativity, confidence and collaboration, which are traits needed for successful entrepreneurship and innovation. If we want our children to become successful innovators, we need less tests and more participatory activities for them.

Haewon Helen Whang is the founder and CEO of English Hound (www.EnglishHound.com), a New York-based online English reading and writing tutoring company for advanced students. She is also an attorney and lives in New York with her husband and her two sons.




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