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Andrea Kershaw of IDEO on Creativity In Education

Andrea Kershaw, Location Director of IDEO, Singapore, observes that creativity is at the fringe, rather than at the center of the educational experience. She shares why enabling creativity is so important now, and how teachers, who are in fact creative leaders, can be enabled to become drivers of change.

IDEO is a global design and innovation firm, consistently ranked as one of the most innovative companies in the world. It engages with a variety of sectors and clients to create positive impact.

We’ve all heard the story about the toddler, on Christmas morning, playing with just the empty box that housed his gifts more than the toys that were inside them. Such a scenario suggests that children are born naturally with a capacity to imagine and create.

If you watch a child play, say, with a toy where different shapes have to be put into its matching-shaped holes, most studies show that the child would at first struggle to put a round-shape into a round-hole. After a few attempts at the toy, however, the action develops into second nature.

“Children are fantastic at learning through associated situations to deal with problems,” Andrea Kershaw, Location Director of IDEO Singapore, says. “They make inferences from one situation that was like but not the same as another situation they encountered.”

This instinct—of wanting to engage with open possibilities and solve problems—that comes naturally shows that humans have such inherent abilities.

But if the world were to solely rely on this ‘instinct’, and sit back and relax, the future might be vacant of innovative prodigies—such as Thomas Edison, recently-knighted Apple design guru Sir Jonathan Ive, and fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld, so to speak.

To develop creativity, Kershaw believes that education is paramount. In fact, she says, it strikes her to be of ever “increasing importance… [as] problems to be solved are getting ever more complex”.

30 years ago, IDEO, one of the largest design consultancies around the world, was busy designing the world’s first commercial computer mouse. Today, this innovative company employs design to take on challenges of systemic natures—these include reducing obesity rates, developing conscious energy-consumption behavior, and increasing access to safe drinking water.

“There are, today, many such systemic problems emerging,” Kershaw notes. So to prepare children with the ability to tackle these more complex problems within their workplace, in society and in life, they need to be “educated in creativity”.

If we go back to the notion that creativity is about problem solving, then with creativity, innovative solutions can be executed in all industries—even those not viewed as ‘cutting edge’.

Take Spanish fast-fashion retailer Zara, for example. It is one such company that uses creativity to develop cutting-edge solutions. Zara has been recognized for having one of the most sophisticated supply-chain management systems in the world. Unlike its competitors, the clothing retailer’s unique business model, of short decision-making durations that cause no delays in shipping, makes new on-trend clothing available for sale in a timelier manner—resulting in unparalleled business advantages.

But for creativity to flourish in all industries, creative people must first exist. So in this fast-paced and ever-changing world, where problems are getting more intricate and new skills are required, how do education systems keep up with times, for schools and teachers to edify the future generation to be creative? Could it be the case where schools are killing creativity?

In Singapore, for example—where the fundamental purpose of education has not changed—creativity in education is almost non-existent; teachers impart knowledge to students and students imbibe knowledge.

Kershaw says that creativity in Singapore has been on the education agenda for many, many years, “but still feels like it exists only on the fringes”.

For creativity to become meaningful, the purpose of school must first be rethought and discussed. “The purpose of education was once [useful and] perfectly-designed to do what was [supposed to] be done. But the world has moved on, requiring new skills,” she explains. “For a country to be successful, its education must move with the times.”

New purposes for schools should be created and worked towards. Teachers could be more about “curators of learning experiences” rather than “broadcasters of information”; and students less spoon-fed and less like sponges that merely soak in information.

“If Singapore sets itself a new purpose for schools, it would be a relatively straightforward task to create a series of briefs to set changes in motion for the redesign of curriculums, KPI’s and roles of teachers,” Kershaw adds. “Schools could prototype new ways of working and incrementally move towards a new purpose.”

Over the Atlantic in California, USA, IDEO has been supporting Ormandale Elementary School to shift its philosophy to ‘Investigative Learning’. Kershaw explains that “it is about inspiring students to be seekers of knowledge rather than passive receivers of information”.

Teachers could also play a major role in taking a different approach to learning, by experimenting with new ways of engaging students. “For example, how might a lesson be redesigned so it has a balance between imparting information and enabling students to participate in some form of ‘discovery’ activity?” she adds.

IDEO’s ‘Design Thinking for Educators’ is an option that can help empower educators to create impactful solutions. The educational toolkit offers new ways for designing lesson plans, which could encourage creativity.

The open platform ‘Back to School’ is also another avenue where teachers and students—and in fact, anyone, such as doctors and lawyers—can access and share what they have tried and learnt.

IDEO’s method used to encourage creativity? Simply, “a human-centered design approach.”

A method that can be applied by any industry, where employees go out into the world to get inspired by things, people, situations in different cultures, countries and industries.

“We use qualitative research methodologies, such as ethnography; we use techniques, such as brainstorming to generate ideas; we prototype extensively to bring ideas to life… and we iterate rapidly to learn faster and succeed sooner,” Kershaw elaborates.

But is there a pitfall of making creativity central in every aspect? What would it mean if the children of the future become “too creative”?

In general, curiosity is an imperative personality trait that makes one creative, so that one thinks about “how things could [always] be better”. But being “too creative” means being a “prolific generator of ideas”, she says. In itself, this is not a bad thing. “But it’s often unproductive if that person does not also converge those ideas to make them actionable and act on them.”

Perhaps what Kershaw implies is the wise old adage that there should be moderation in all aspects—even when it comes to creativity. One can be as creative as he or she wants, so long as it’s put to good use when it comes to what’s important. Prolific idea-generators could work with people who can build on the ideas, and turn the ideas into practical and valuable solutions. When finding solutions to problems, creativity should be free to blossom, but the need to focus must not be missed out and the superfluous must be skillfully pruned back.

To nurture creativity, education systems should find new ways of adapting, and not undermining, creativity. Instead, a system as a whole should work towards being an institution that can challenge and encourage a child’s budding intelligence.

Cover image and top image from Shutterstock
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