Wednesday, July 21, 2010

what's your CQ?

I caught the tail-end of an interview on NPR's On Point yesterday. It sounded interesting. Po Bronson was one of the guests. I've not yet read any of his books, but with sincere reading-intentions I did check one out from the library once and read the intro before the book reached overdue status (that's worth something somewhere, right?). I'm intrigued by and appreciative of what I know about his approach to writing, reporting, and people. Due to all these factors, I hit up to find out what I'd just missed.

Among the topics du jour was Bronson's recent Newsweek article: The Creativity Crisis. It's a fascinating article that dredged up memories of taking IQ tests as a seven year old to see if I qualified for my county school system's gifted program. It also dredged up memories (from much more recent files) of things I observed about education systems while traveling abroad.

For whatever reason, I asked quite a lot of questions of my hosts, especially in Africa, about what education looks like in their locales. Maybe I did this more intentionally once I learned that African school systems in the former British colonies I visited are mostly based on the British system in terms of nomenclature for grade levels, etc., which means the terms aren't completely interchangeable with those of the American system. The British system never completely made sense in my American head, mostly, I think, because no one ever offered to draw me the diagram my visual self needed (all that A-level and O-level stuff doesn't seem to have an accurate American parallel). Eventually, though, many questions later and even sans map, I managed to get the gist of it.

I also had opportunity along the way to spend brief bits of time in schools. The bulk of my exposure was in Uganda where I assisted an aid organization with distribution of some school supplies, including at some schools that had been bombed by LRA rebels; toured and interviewed students at a private school; taught a class of 50-some students for almost an hour; and saw some study materials when kids on an island in Lake Victoria showed me what they were studying. In Zimbabwe I spent two weeks interviewing students at a university. In Ghana we spent time in villages where our guides described the changes Ghana was making in their public education system and the challenges of helping people understand the importance of it. In Haiti I visited a Save the Children summer program set up to prepare rural children to begin kindergarten in the fall, interviewed some older school-age children, and spent time on the grounds of a private school interviewing its founder/director. In London I participated in a junior high career day (students lost a fair bit of interest in my career path when the learned how little we writers make :-) ).

There's just something about understanding schooling that is one of the foundational pieces for understanding a culture. One of the observation gleaned from my educational question-asking in Africa three years ago and more recently from Africa-educated friends who now live in America is that the education systems in the parts of Africa I visited (particularly in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda) are very much based on memorization and rote learning. Training in problem-solving tends not to be a regular facet of mass education in these countries.

And, unfortunately, that reality bears out in many of the contemporary challenges that plague these particular countries. People complain of infrastructure that isn't maintained, systems that aren't effective, and other problems that can result when situations inevitably arise that require some imagination to solve, situations for which the rote answers that were hammered into them during their formal education aren't adequate. This is the state of things not because of lack of ability in the people but because they aren't taught or encouraged to think freely, to think outside the box, to figure out innovative solutions. Freedom and encouragement are key nurturing elements for creativity. Doing things as they've always been done and following the pack are not.

These observations all jive with what is described in Bronson's Newsweek article. The disconcerting evidence presented in the article indicates that while countries like China are making the switch from rote, memorization-based learning models to creativity-building models, American education is reverting to a less imaginative, more straight-laced model.

I'll throw my hat into the ring of agreement to say that based on my cursory observations abroad of the way lack of training in creativity impacts societies, this shift does not bode well for America. I agree that it's imperative for our own future problem-solving good and for the good of the rest of the world for us to re-incorporate creativity while we still can. Start by reading the article and then thinking of ways to solve this new crisis. Don't be surprised if you also find yourself wondering what your own creativity quotient, your CQ, is and how you can grow it.