Education: the killer of innovation?

March 3, 2016

There is a lot of buzz in the UAE about ‘Innovation’. The Official Summit for Arab Education and Innovation was recently held was, sponsored by the UAE Ministry of Education. In November there was the nationwide Innovation Week. Underpinning these and many more initiatives is The National Innovation Strategy released at the end of 2014. This strategy aims to make the UAE one of the most innovative nations in the world within seven years.

But what is ‘innovation’? How do we innovate?

Some might argue that children are inherently able to innovate through the application of creativity and imagination. Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson labels Divergent Thinking as a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. It is the ability to interpret a question in many different ways and the ability to see many different answers to a question. It is, he argues, “an essential capacity for creativity.” Divergent (therefore innovative /creative), thinking typically occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing, 'non-linear' manner, such that many ideas are generated in an emergent cognitive fashion. This way of thinking is inherently suited to primary age children and, as such, divergent thinking could be considered a paradigm for innovation and therefore young children become masters of the process.

Unfortunately, our capacity for divergent thinking (and therefore innovation?) deteriorates with age.

Robinson gives the example of the question “How many uses can you think of for a paper clip?” While most people might come in with up to 15 or so answers, a ‘divergent thinker’ could come up with a couple hundred more. A longitudinal study gave a test of divergent thinking for which reaching above a certain score indicated ‘genius’ status in this type of thinking. 98% of the kindergarten children who took the test scored at genius level, indicating we all have this capability. But over time, the study found that those same students’ divergent thinking scores declined. Rather than developing students’ thinking, it was concluded that education, being the commonality, stifles thinking and consequently creativity and innovation.

So how do we ensure children, proven to be ‘the innovators’ retain this ability? How do we ensure that our children not only retain this skill, but indeed develop it further, gaining the knowledge and understanding of how to innovate.