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Education and the Creativity Crisis

We need to cultivate creativity in our children, or we're effectively crippling them before sending them out into the world.
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In the fifth grade, a teacher brought me into an extra credit activity that involved brainstorming ways to solve global problems. I can't remember if it was Model UN or part of the gifted program or whatever, but I distinctly remember our charge: Come up with solutions to address the shortage of potable water.

Bear in mind that this was the '80s, and acid rain was at the top of everybody's global threat list. Everyone rattled off their ideas, however cockamamy (brainstorming requires that you disengage your internal filter and put all ideas on the table).

I tend to be somewhat pragmatic, which might explain my contribution. "The human body is 98% water. Is there a way we could reclaim that water after the body dies?" The teacher looked horrified (while trying not to), and restated my ideas as "squeeze water from dead people." The conversation moved on, but you can imagine I didn't chime in much after that.

It's been years since I thought about that experience, but it came back to me after I heard Chase Jarvis speak at World Domination Summit 2013 in Portland, Oregon. (Check out the sketch notes of his talk.)

His presentation detailed how the current educational system in the United States stifles creativity in our children. He went on to ponder the ramifications of this over the long-term.

How many unconventional ideas that might save lives are discarded out of hand by a would-be inventor? How many valuable insights does the internal critic silence before they're uttered? What stories will never be told because potential authors learn to focus on "practical things" instead of "spinning yarns?"

"Creativity needs to be at the core to solve the world's biggest problems," Jarvis admonished, and yet the educational system values conformity over creativity. He went to far as to characterize the current state of affairs as a "creativity crisis," and I don't think he's overreacting.

Sure, my water reclamation idea may have been a little too Soylent Green to warrant serious consideration, but the point of brainstorming is to follow one idea to the next to the next until you hit upon something that does have potential. Maybe my next idea (or the one after that) would have been the one, or maybe it would have inspired someone else to come up with "the one." Either way, we'll never know.

Chase Jarvis is right. We need to cultivate creativity in our children, or we're effectively crippling them before sending them out into the world. My friend C.C. Chapman is another proponent of creativity. He even started a foundation to "make the world better through creativity."

So, what does this look like? The easiest point of reference I can provide is based on what it doesn't look like: a dismissive acknowledgement of an idea, accompanied by an unmistakable disdain. The school system is damaging our children. We need to reclaim their creativity.

Open the floodgates to "crazy ideas." Let the collective intelligence decide which have potential and which don't. But let's hear them. And let's teach schoolchildren to find their voices again, and not wait until their impossible to please inner critic gives them the go ahead to share.

Start simply. Changing the world doesn't have to be daunting. Engage in creative play with your children outside of school. Encourage their interests, and listen respectfully to their ideas. That might be enough to effect change in ways we can't foresee.

My late father really excelled at talking to my siblings and me as peers, on an equal intellectual footing with him. He never talked down to us or patronized us, and because he expected genuine participation from us, we actively engaged in discussions with him about life, school, politics, art, and everything else.

Do that for your children. Give them the gift of paying attention and recognizing their potential. You don't have to instill them with creativity: they've already got it. What you have to do is protect it.

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