First published in Dutch on the 3rd of May 2015
At the Radboud University Nijmegen, where I work, I was asked to make a prognosis about the student of the future. What do they look like in the year 2020 or 2025? What is expected of him or her? Will they have to develop different capacities than is now the case? I was immediately cautious not to make strong claims. As a boy, I was very interested in science fiction and I watched many films and television programs about the future. All sorts of beautiful high-tech adventures amused the viewer, but once the years in question actually passed (1984, 1999, 2001, 2010), it turned out not to have changed that drastically. The cinematized changes in human needs, behavior, and capacities were considerably over-estimated. I am therefore quite skeptical about making broad claims about 2025.
The Robots are Coming!
The future will certainly have its challenges. Lodewijk Asscher, the previous Minister of Social Affairs and Employment, formulated a clear concern that I have heard more often. In his speech on the SWZ congress of 29 September 2014 he rang the alarm bells. He sketched a doom scenario where robots threaten our employment opportunities. They will take over more and more of our activities because they are becoming cheaper, smaller and smarter. Even though this may seem pleasant, it has disadvantages. Due to their refinement, these robots will take our place on the labor market more and more. Large companies such as Amazon are already replacing their warehouse staff with robots and not much fantasy is needed to see that the experiments with self-driving cars will have a considerable impact on the employment opportunities in the transport sector.
People often turn to education for solutions when a broad societal concern is formulated. Asscher draws the conclusion that we need to deliver a completely different type of student, whose employability cannot be easily threatened by the artificial newcomers on the labor market. Which standards does this student have to meet? In his plea the minister proposes the following: “… the digital economy relies increasingly on conceptual thinking, broad pattern recognition and complex communication.” Students of the future will have to possess these skills, and apparently, this is not the case yet.
Without any doubt, I dare to say that the minister has indeed touched on three incredibly important skills. They are indispensable to our functioning in this complex society. With his appeal, Asscher implicitly acknowledges that the current education of development stimulates these capabilities too little. I think it is hard to deny this. Ironically, we even approach the student as a sort of robot since standardization, protocolization, and quantification are so dominant in education. The achievements on which a student is judged are generally formulated in ways that can be met by robots by definition. If the minister is truly serious about his claims, a much deeper change must take place than he implies.
It is tempting to devote the rest of this essay to a critique on education, but I won’t do this because there is a crucial point on which the minister and I disagree. I think he went too far in his claim about the responsibility of education: “Not training for routine, but for the unexpected. Not on facts, but on creatively analyzing and finding new ways”. This way he overestimates the possibilities of education and underlines an interpretation of creativity that I don’t share.
The minister seems to interpret creativity as something opposed to routine. Creativity would be something completely different, a sort of cognitive leap rather than a logical level stemming from a cumulative process. This is an appealing thought because robots are by definition unable to reach it.
I come across this viewpoint more often. I recently attended a congress in which the counselling of highly gifted students was the main point of focus. The keynote speaker talked about stimulating creativity and discussed several different definitions. He told us he was most enamored by the definition: “creativity is thinking around the corner”. Using this definition, he emphasized the conviction that creativity is a completely different process than the inductive/deductive working method with which we normally describe the learning process.
I am always careful with dichotomies. They often turn out to be false and, in my view, routine versus creativity is also a false dichotomy. All the way at the bottom of the list of definitions that the keynote speaker presented, I saw a description that appealed to me much more: “creativity seems to me to be a quite overblown word for the work I do between now and Tuesday”. This definition touches on the essence for me. Creativity is something common. Creativity is essential for any form of functioning and cannot be separated from routine. They are both part of the same continuum.
Levels of creativity
Take a common activity that we also consider to be creative: preparing a meal. We can distinguish between different levels of dexterity that I all consider to be creative. One person is very well equipped to create an extensive meal where he follows the cooking instructions religiously. Another is more playful with the proportions and the sequence but isn’t bold enough to diverge from the recipe. The next person is able to play with the ingredients and the proportions and thereby creates new variations on the dishes. Others are so skillful that they are capable of inventing completely new delicious combinations and therefore create absolutely original dishes.
To me, these examples represent different levels of the same spectrum of creativity. None of these people are cooking in a robot-like manner, not even the first. The circumstances, proportions and timespan are always just a bit, or even completely, different. We use conceptual thinking and pattern recognition in order not to fall back into chaos due to small (or large) variations. In other words, our brain is made for conceptual thought, pattern recognition and complex communication.
Always been the case
For students in education, the situation is the same. Every student that has once been placed in the hands of the labor market, has had to implement their acquired knowledge and skills in unique situations. The gradation of uniqueness can vary strongly but the individual has always had to recognize patterns that correspond to that which he or she has learnt. Furthermore, the student has had to classify all sorts of characteristics of the new situation as either relevant or irrelevant. In the first situation, this means that the new information has to be incorporated. In the second situation, this means deliberately ignoring the new information. Accomplishing this process successfully requires having the right concepts and procedures at one’s disposal, and good communicative skills. This has always been the case. As far as I am concerned, the praise should go to all those students who, in spite of the rigid factory mentality in education, have managed to develop themselves into autonomously functioning professionals.
With their claims about creativity, people seem to focus solely on the final level that I sketched (making original dishes), but it is a misconception to think that this level is in some way isolated from the previous levels and could therefore be learned directly. We cannot train for the unexpected. That is a contradiction in terms. We can only train for the expected. And searching for new possibilities is only possible with the insights attained in the earlier levels of creativity.
I think it is important to underline these boundaries of our capacities because I often come across students who do believe in the misconception. When they have to write and assignment, they claim that they have it (read: the creation) in their mind but cannot manage to put it on paper. They see me as a sort of midwife who can help them giving birth to their ideas, but their experience is a deceptive representation of reality. The brain is very uncritical about its own inventions which makes them seem to have high quality. In reality, they are unfinished, and we have to take basic and even monotonous steps in order to structure, organize, and shape the ideas. Like carpenters, we have to saw, polish, and cut in order to arrive at a product of the much-coveted level of originality. The earlier levels of creativity cannot be ignored with impunity.
I didn’t use an example about cooking to explain the different levels of creativity by coincidence. Georges Auguste Escoffer (1846-1935) was an important French chef from the early twentieth century. He is considered the progenitor of modern French cuisine and experts claim that his efforts have elevated the art of cooking to a higher plane. People talk about the period before and after Escoffier where the former period is referred to as that confused mess of styles and preferences that was undoubtedly very creative but couldn’t be made heads or tails of. People were just messing about, and everyone was doing something else.
He managed to elevate cooking to a higher plane on the basis of two undertakings. Firstly, he revealed “the chef’s secret” by writing down the recipes carefully. Secondly, he introduced a strict organization of the kitchen; everyone had a specific set of responsibilities. It turned out that creativity can lead to codification and organization!
It may appear that he has destroyed real creativity, as most of us interpret it. But how could he then have elevated the French kitchen to a higher plane? This is easy: with his undertakings, he facilitated the possibility of thinking conceptually, to recognize wide patterns, and to apply complex communication. This is how the higher levels of the creative continuum could be logically attained. He constructed the crucial roads.
Every student will have to “cook” in the branch he or she will end up in. It is possible that in the future higher levels of creativity will be desired from students but this will not change the learning process, and this means that education also does not have to make drastic changes in order to stimulate the creative process. Education primarily has to create a situation where conceptual thinking, pattern recognition, and complex communication is possible. This requires a clear structure and decent organization that might be a bit different but should hardly be considered revolutionary.
The truly revolutionary is to be found elsewhere. People only attain higher levels of creativity if people dare to diverge from the “recipe”. Education has proven itself to be rather bad at encouraging this type of boldness. I have said this before: education is a culture of punishment. Students are discouraged to make mistakes rather than encouraged. This is the core of the problem and I don’t have to be Nostradamus to know that the future will benefit most from that approach. The saying “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” is very applicable in this case. This is what we have to teach the contemporary student and the student of the future.