Wednesday, August 24

Thinking Divergent: Divergent Education

ShovelsWe've all been there. (Agency people more than most.) You enter a meeting with a brilliant idea and, inexplicably, some people can't see it. In fact, if the thinking is divergent enough, most of them won't be able to see it. They've been programed not to.

In advertising, it's where all those little rules come from — complete nonsense that calls for the company name to always be in the headline, five bullet points to accompany every ad, or never starting a sentence with "And." Of course they can't see a creative concept beyond the rules they've added to their road map of success.

Most of them have had divergent thinking trained out of them years ago. And that's a problem not only for them, but for our children. Right. The same symptom that prevents some clients from buying a campaign or an investor failing to find the next Apple, is the same challenge being faced in education. Most students are being taught reactive regurgitation.

Reactive regurgitation, better known as rote memorization, still has mainstream appeal in a world that requires more and more divergent thinking for success. For evidence, you only need to look at some of the most successful companies created in the last 20 years. Almost all of them were created with divergent thinking — user interfaces for computers, touch screen phones, search engines, digital newspapers, expensive coffee, social networks, shoes you can't even try on before you buy them.


There are hundreds of them. And we celebrate most of them. We celebrate them because they are the most unlikely success stories, even if we still apply the same rote rules to dismiss others who have something equally unique all over again.

The model of success is programmed to fail.

Sometimes we can't help it. Most of us have been programmed to approach life much like our education was laid out for us — reactive regurgitation, which is best described as a singular unified reaction to something on sight.

For example, much like the video suggests, baby boomers were educated to believe that a college degree ensured employment. Most of us know it helps, especially with organizations that require them in order to minimize the number of applicants. But degrees are not guarantees. Nothing is guaranteed, even if the political climate sometimes suggests citizens might expect this or that. Besides, given the right circumstances, anyone can pursue a degree. Equally true, anyone can come up with an original idea.

But we don't want to believe that, do we? From the way most people buy and sell stocks (with the rise and fall of the market) and the expectations placed on instructors at a university (kids want bullet lists to memorize) to the way politics is boiled down into two equally unpalatable choices (vote on this or that) and even people's own sense of self-worth as it is attached to various labels (smart or dumb and big company or little company and startup or blue chip) — all of it can be destructed into rote theories that imprison people to constructs from the 1800s.

And for whatever reason, we want to believe them even if history continually proves that the opposite is true. We were programmed, and most of us want to pass this programming on to our kids.

A model for success might is just as likely to be no model.

What I like best from the presentation of Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned education and creativity expert and recipient of the RSA's Benjamin Franklin Award, is that he suggests we reverse the assembly line mentality of the current system and begin to pay attention to nurturing individual potentials. Maybe, he suggests, instead of teaching kids to see one possible answer, we teach them to see many possible answers — the same kind of thinking that has driven us forward as civilizations.

Ergo, Einstein could have never conceived the theory of relativity by simply following the groundwork laid down before him. Van Gogh would have never become a celebrated artist had he only colored inside the lines. Apple would have never turned a corner if it had believed that the touch screen was an unobtainable dream.

But even more importantly for children, such divergent thinking is vital for future success. Why? Because such thinking provides an opportunity to excel in not only the thing you have learned or done, but anything we happen to approach. It removes the answer "I can't" from our vocabulary.

Where I might add on to Robinson's thinking is that it is not just our education system that abandons divergent thinking. Entertainment choices do much the same. Gamers are rewarded for mastering rote memorization, with success related to perfecting what worked last time. Cable programming might appear to be more diverse with 1,000 channels, but children are equally likely to settle on fewer shows than their predecessors because they can record every episode and watch them all over again and again. The sameness is almost startling; and they are rewarded for it.

If we want to break away from our current trajectory, both teachers and parents might start rethinking education. Rather than pushing children down the path of sameness, we might be better off pulling them up the path they've already chosen (and away from entertainment designed to hypnotize them). But then again, that in itself is probably too divergent for most people. Maybe.
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