We Know The Answers, But Do We Have The Questions?

By Carlee Mallard

A Pew Research Center study shows that Millenials are on their way to becoming the most educated generation in history, meaning that more of us are graduating with undergraduate and graduate level degrees than any other generation. This means that more of us have formal education and training. What this doesn’t mean is that we are the most prepared for the working world than any other generation.

In fact I believe that traditional education has left most of Gen Y unprepared for “creative economy” work. A study last year by the Conference Board found that 97 percent of American employers agree that “creativity is increasingly important in U.S. workplaces” and 85 percent of employers who seek creative employees state that they struggle to find them, as summarized by Wendy Waters, a contributor to Richard Florida’s website The Creative Class.

Unfortunately I have to blame this lack of “creativity” in the workforce on a traditional education system focused on producing really great factory workers. Free formal public education didn’t even come about until the 19th century to meet the needs of industrialism. They used the “efficient” factory system as a model for free public education to produce standard workers for the industrial economy and the system worked quite well for that purpose. Here we are in the 21st century in primarily a service economy though, and our education system has not changed much. As a young student I learned pretty quickly that school was really just one big game I had to play. It was instilled in my classmates and me that we would only be rewarded if we knew the right answer on our tests and if we regurgitated that which our teachers told us was true. The education system that once prepared students for the industrial economy no longer works in preparing students for today’s service economy that thrives on having original and often unconventional ideas.

I want to share an example of this from my 3rd grade Spanish class. It was around Columbus Day, so my teacher asked us to write something celebrating Columbus and share it with the class. I began telling the teacher that I had nothing to contribute because I didn’t believe we should have a day to celebrate such a bad man as Christopher Columbus who was responsible for spreading disease to and slaughtering the natives of the land. And when she insisted that he should be celebrated for discovering America, I questioned whether he even ever set foot on American soil.

The teacher immediately called my parents in for a conference about my “disruptive” classroom behavior. My parents were stunned by the teacher’s request, but in the end the teacher suggested I no longer attend her Spanish class. Maybe I was wrong or even a little bit too stubborn, but as a 3rd grader I should have been encouraged to ask good questions, even question the status quo, and think creatively instead of being punished. From that incident forward, I cannot remember any moments in which I openly disagreed with a teacher or asked an obscure question. Looking back at my educational history and the relationships I have encountered between teacher and student, it ends up that I have always disliked the ways I have been taught. Unfortunately, I had been so deeply socialized in the traditional education system that I was completely unaware of other educational methods.

I’ve recently been exploring and happening upon various other education systems where creativity, self-expression, and ownership of education are valued, including homeschooling, Montessori schools, and Democratic Free Schools. Systems where children are encouraged to ask questions and think on their own don’t require courses later in life to teach creative thinking (i.e. the purpose of many humanities-based universities); it would instead come naturally.

While I don’t think that my own education has completely failed me, I do believe that it failed to prepare me for that which employers are currently seeking: creativity. And while I cannot undo the damage done, I do believe that our generation has a vested interest in education and we will strive to make sure that our own children are not denied their curiosity or creative abilities and will be prepared for the working world that awaits them.

“Creativity is as important as literacy—and we should treat it with the same status” – Sir Ken Robinson

Photo credit: e-magic

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8 Responses to “We Know The Answers, But Do We Have The Questions?”

  1. Scott Templeman

    I don't think it's our education system catering to an industrial nation, as the US started shifting away from manufacturing before we were born, however we did attempt to industrialize education, which I agree squelches creativity. Government mandates of standardization & bench marks gave states an incentive to lower the bar to get more money. Furthermore, even on the microlevel, schools with the best scores got more money allocated to them. Thus our children became a raw material which School districts used to game the system to benefit themselves in typical economic fashion. So where does creativity fit in here? With a greater emphasis on assembly-line grading, we got scantron after scantron shoved in our face, with choosing the correct answer over creating a correct answer. Anything that couldn't be translated into multiple choice questions and (perhaps) a few 2 paragraph “essay” questions lost focus. It evolved to the point where some of my classmates got through HS without Physical and/or Arts Education, both of which I think are fundamental to a balanced upbringing. Another thing I loved how you pointed out is that Teachers were often angry and upset with unique/creative answers, often wanting folks to take a particular stance/viewpoint/angle on a subject without hesitation. I was fortunate enough to have a great AP US History teacher late in my HS career, and the classes were almost entirely discussion. Unfortunately, AP tests (which are much more creative and less scantron) cost money to take so most students don't get the chance to take them

  2. Carlee Mallard

    No, we're definitely not still predominately a manufacturing nation at all, which is exactly why I'm confused that the government still treats the public education system as if we were. The government complains about not being competitive enough in STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) fields, but then continues to think that the best way to become more competitive is to focus on teaching math & science skills harder and then measure STEM skills using multiple choice tests. When really the best way to make the US more competitive in STEM fields we have to get students INTERESTED in the fields first. They don't just need more lecturing, they need to explore, question, and find their own creative spark in STEM–that's when the US will really start seeing some real competition with Asian nations.

    AP tests though, those are in a league of their own. I took quite a few of those – Calculus, Statistics, Environmental Science, etc. and those were some of the most challenging tests I took before college (but in a good way, of course). And my US History teacher was pretty fantastic too. My middle-school level US History teacher ended up going on to teach AP US History at a special Charter High School (and I know this because she was so awesome I had to follow her trail). Then in high school I don't remember much from US History except for a month our teacher let us pick one book related to the Civil War and write a “reaction” or something like that. That is the ONLY part I remember from that class, but because he stepped outside the box and let us pick something that we were more interested in learning about, I actually remember something about the Civil War even if the book didn't provide the answers to the test questions.

  3. Scott Templeman

    We also have a very restrictive copyright system that the large corporations are gaming, acquiring a huge library of patents to stifle innovation from competitors (Apple is one of the worst in this department currently). It might be time to redefine or cleanse the copyright system so that people have more economic incentive to BE creative. One thing I am loving about the development of Social Media is the ability to see the art, pictures, video, comedy, or whatever else direct and unfiltered from the creator. Reality TV sans TV.

  4. Carlee Mallard

    Wow, I didn't really realize that was going on, but it makes sense. I, too, love how RAW social media is (Twitter especially). It seems like people aren't afraid of throwing out their crazy ideas to the world (not afraid of sounding dumb OR having a great idea “stolen”).

  5. alexpearlman

    I totally agree with you – but I beg to differ that we are the best-educated generation. The reason so many people are graduating from undergraduate programs is not that we've been better-educated, it's because the difficulty level of an undergraduate education is equal to what tenth grade was fifty years ago…. So really, we're all just getting the same level of education as those that graduated high school in the 1950s and 60s, on top of not being encouraged to be creative!

    It's a sad time.

  6. Carlee Mallard

    Oh no, I never said we were the “best-educated generation” at all — in fact I don't think we are at all. What I was saying is that we're the MOST educated, meaning more of us graduate with bachelor's, master's and PhD degrees proportionally than any other generation. We're not necessarily learning any more than previous generations, although I do think that *what* we're learning is sometimes vastly different from older generations and sometimes that means we're cramming more “knowledge” into our brains than previous generations. But my greatest concern is that just because more of us go to college doesn't mean more of us are prepared for the “real world”; my concern is that our education system is broken.

    Sad time, indeed.


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