One of the most urgent public conversations taking place today entails how best to educate the world’s children. How can we improve graduation rates and close the so-called “achievement gap” between students of different family incomes, races, and geographies? As well it should, much of this conversation involves robust debate about the allocation of public and private resources, the quality and performance of teachers and schools, the fairness and effectiveness of standardized testing, the use of new technologies, and more. It’s a broad and complex landscape, leaving students, parents, teachers, and administrators both anxious and excited about the future of education.
I have the pleasure of a role focused entirely on creativity in business—I am not an expert on education systems and challenges. But I have spent years helping major organizations, public and private, try to prepare for an uncertain future and develop innovative approaches, products, and services to keep pace with rapidly evolving trends. I have taught creativity to thousands of BCG folks and clients over the years, based on our approach to creativity called thinking in new boxes. And so during this back-to-school season, some ideas about education emerged.
First and foremost, foster doubt: As a society and as individuals, we need to reevaluate whether the most fundamental ideas, beliefs, and assumptions about education that we’re currently harboring are still actually serving us well. In order to come up with effective new ideas, paradigms, and solutions, we’ll need to imagine numerous possible futures for our children. And the intellectual starting place for creating and evaluating such multiple future scenarios is doubt.
Specifically, to come up with useful new paradigms or mental frameworks—or what we call “boxes”—you have to start by identifying and challenging some of the existing assumptions and constraints that make up your current way of seeing and doing things. And if you fail to acknowledge that your current thinking is only just that—a set of working hypotheses or “boxes” that are subject to change—if instead you consider (or allow them to become) “gospel” locked in stone, then you are highly unlikely to come up with any fresh and exciting ideas.
When it comes to the specific matter of preparing our children for life—of determining whether they are in fact “good students” at “good schools”—we need to doubt all of the perceptions we harbor about what education is, and what it requires. We need to doubt our ideas about what a good student, or good teacher, or good school involves, what a curriculum should include, and how students’ understanding of that curriculum should be confirmed. And we need to doubt what “success” means and how it should be measured, what a job or career or vocation entails, and what it truly takes to ready young people so that they can perform in those adult pursuits when the time actually comes. Because of the way the human brain works, we—as the adults who love and care so deeply about our children—will be unable to come up with the most creative and practical approaches to teaching our children if we allow ourselves to remain frozen in our own rigid beliefs, rule sets, and assumptions.
For example, if you think charter schools, say, are the only possible answer, or are a uniformly bad idea, or if you otherwise get too stuck in your existing ways of analyzing and doing things, your perceptions are holding you back, and bad outcomes, even disaster, can ensue. Throughout the educational system, in the workplace, and across all segments of our lives, we need to recognize that identifying and then challenging our current frameworks and perspectives is critical if we are ever going to learn how to see the world differently, and find new ways of solving problems.
Four more suggestions build on the general exhortation to doubt: