While researching education systems in Asia, I had the opportunity to visit schools and universities in China, Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan. What I observed was a scarcity of creative thinking. While students in those education systems achieve some of the highest scores in the world in math and science, they have problems when it comes to “thinking outside the box.”
This is problematic for the future of these Asian nations because creativity is increasingly becoming one of the most important skills in the global marketplace according to several distinguished authors.
In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas L. Friedman states: “On such a flat earth, the most important attribute you can have is creative imagination—the ability to be the first on your block to figure out how all these enabling tools can be put together in new and exciting ways to create products, communities, opportunities, and profits.”
In Five Minds for the Future, Harvard professor Howard Gardner describes five kinds of minds—or cognitive abilities—that he believes are critical to success in the 21st century. Among them is the ability to think creatively.
In A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, business guru Daniel H. Pink outlines the four major historical ages: agricultural age (farmers), industrial age (factory workers), information age (knowledge workers), and conceptual age (creators and empathizers). Pink argues that while logical thinkers ruled the first three ages, creative thinkers will rule the upcoming conceptual age.
The scarcity of creative thinking in many Asian education systems bodes well for U.S. students, who score lower in math and science but tend to think more creatively.
This is not to say that knowledge in math and science is not important, because it is. However, knowledge alone is not enough. It must be combined with the ability to apply knowledge in new ways. As Einstein put it, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Applying knowledge in new ways is how innovation occurs, and innovation is critical to any nation’s economic and national security.
For centuries, the U.S. has been the world’s innovation leader. It’s critical that the U.S. maintain that position.
As U.S. factory jobs and back-office jobs continue to move overseas, Americans have fewer and fewer skills to offer the global marketplace.
Several Asian nations now know how to make products and provide services on their own; however, they are still relying on the U.S. to decide what those products and services should be. These decisions require creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation. This is where the U.S. still holds an advantage.
To ensure that American workers will be able to compete globally, educational efforts in the U.S. should focus on strengthening creative thinking skills. Contrary to popular opinion, creative thinking skills can be cultivated with time and effort.
In addition, the rewards from creative efforts should not be taxed at higher rates in the U.S. than in other countries. Otherwise, the most creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative Americans will be tempted to move overseas to work for rising countries like China and India.
As the land of opportunity extends beyond the borders of the U.S., highly educated and skilled immigrants are returning to their home countries in greater numbers to work and start new businesses. Who will fuel innovation and economic growth in the U.S. if highly educated and skilled citizens also leave the country?
The next generation of leaders will have strong creative thinking skills that will enable them to command a premium. Whether or not they will reside in the U.S. depends largely upon U.S. economic policies.