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This guest blog is from Andy Penaluna FRSA, who recently represented the RSA at the OECD’s summit in higher education and creativity.

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I recently did a TEDx Talk where I held up a cardboard toilet roll holder and asked the audience about the power of imagination. My story related to a drive into work in the ‘80s when four year-old Jamie was annoying me by waving his cardboard toilet roll around and asking me to open the rear window. Apparently he was making a torch by collecting sunlight. 

Of course, as an adult I dismissed his silly imagination. Now solar power is everywhere and solar torches are a reality, so who was the silly one I ask myself?

The thought came to mind again at a recent meeting at the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) in Paris, where the RSA had been invited to follow up on its thinking since our Creativity in Higher Education event with Sir Ken Robinson last year. Back then the questions were:

  • Should HE be more proactive in developing the creative capacities of their students - to better prepare them for future careers, societies and economies?
  • Where are the major systemic barriers to this, and what innovations offer us potential ways forward?

So I asked myself, where could this OECD meeting go and where could it take us? They wanted to discuss Higher Education interventions that would develop more creative and critical thinkers! It certainly aligned with the RSA’s perspectives, but what was needed and how could it be achieved?

Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, Senior Analyst and Project Leader at OECD/CERI had opened the session with discussions surrounding schooling, and immediately the conversation turned to what a struggle it was for higher education to shift the mind sets of those ‘taught to the test’, and how easy it was for the University sector to simply follow suit. If we continue to assess students the way that we do, what can be expected was the first thematic debate.

As someone who is well versed with the concept of divergent thinking preceding convergent thinking, it didn’t surprise me that the first few sessions seemed to evolve into a constant flow of alternative discourses; all undertaken in a very explorative way. The energy flowed; everyone was full of ideas and wanted to share them.

First of the guest speakers up was Meredith Davies of North Carolina, who are ‘boldly going where no University has gone before’ – trying to bring creative and critical thinking into every university programme of study. This was impressive stuff as a rubric had evolved and was being deployed. Even more impressive was that the results were being evaluated and ways to progress further were being considered.

Next came Hideyuki Horii of the i.School at the University of Tokyo. Most memorable for me was the ‘happy camera’ in the workshops, as it automatically recorded smiles and from those they could gather the success of their projects. I immediately linked him up to Martin Lackeus at Chalmers in Sweden, who has developed a mood app that seemed to align well with their plans.

Katja Hölttä-Otto of the Design Factory at Aalto University introduced us to her way of design thinking and Ben Koo of the i.Center, Tsinghua University (PR China) discussed their way of fostering creativity and critical thinking.  Particularly impressive (3000 a year) was the sheer volume of students learning these techniques, and they were working out of what used to be a truck building college!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we then got into the language of what we meant by creativity and critical thinking, and when the idea was raised at to what kinds of exams might evaluate performance every eyebrow in the room must have been raised up in instant protest.

Alenoush Saroyan of McGill University (Canada) and Thera Jonker of HKU University of the Arts in Utrecht (Netherlands) followed up with their thoughts on the problems and issues, and then it was my turn to speak, so I got everyone onto their feet and pretend to be trees. It had worked at the RSA, so why not here? There was reason behind my madness beyond simply bringing energy back into a room that had heard considerable debate, I was getting them to pretend that they were brain cells trying to connect with one another.

John Kounios and Mark Jung Beeman in the States had provided me with some useful evidence relating to brain restructuring through learning, so as it aligned well with divergent and convergent thinking models, it seemed to hit the spot in terms of pulling a few things together.

By the end of the 2-day session we were already developing a rubric. One that avoided complexity and emphasised skills such as knowledge harvesting, the ability to redefine problems, the ability to offer multiple solutions to perceived problems, with all of these providing a foundation for flexibility in changing situations and developing the persuasion skills required to communicate to audiences.

RSA’s Mathew Taylor has recently been discussing that the future is ours to create. He mentions the kind of people society wants and needs, and creative and fulfilling thought sits at the core. Should Universities engage more? Should they have a better grasp of developing and enhancing creative thinking? The OECD CERI team seem to think so.

The RSA, with its international network of fellows, may have a significant role to play. A global network of creativity-focused universities would be a first step. We need to envisage a future that embraces creativity at all levels of education, and the insights of experienced universities could be the very spark we need to ignite the process.


Follow Andy on Twitter: @andypena


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