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Battling China for Our Innovative Lives

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

China’s rise to the top of the global food chain has been fueled largely by their liberal borrowing of innovative ideas generated by the rest of the world, replicating those products, and flooding the global market with less expensive version – all supported by the Chinese government (NPR, 27 Nov., 2011). Now they are attempting to replicate our most valuable American commodity, the education system, particularly our ability to foster creativity, individuality, and an ability to produce innovators (Coppola & Zhoa, 5 Feb., 2012). If the Chinese are successful in turning their system into one which can support the same kinds of out-of-the-box thinking that the American education system has been historically known for, what will that mean for the U.S. position in the global economy? More importantly, is there anything that we can do to maintain our innovative edge?

How Do We Teach Innovation
At the risk of making it easier for the Chinese to steal the secret of American educational innovation it is worth explaining exactly how we foster creativity in our students. There is a strange contradiction in American education in that our education system is not built to support innovation in any way. It is a product of the industrial age and relies on a factory model that has as its sole goal the production of standardized, conditioned drones that can be plugged into industry as interchangeable components of the machine of capitalism (Marquis, 12 Oct., 2011). In fact, given this basic premise of the American education system, it should be impossible for it to produce innovative thinkers. So what is happening that has allowed us to maintain our place as the chief creators of ideas in the global economy?

Looking at noteworthy innovators such as Bill Gates, Walt Disney, John Rockefeller, Ray Kroc, and Harry Houdini, a disturbing trend becomes clear; all of these individuals dropped out of the education system prior to becoming successful, and most of them found their success before the globalization of the economy. One could draw a conclusion from this that innovation is an inherently American quality that is stifled by our education system rather than supported by it.

A deeper look at the education system however, reveals that these individuals are the exceptions rather than the rule and that many others have been successful in some part due to the system such as Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Cuban, Oprah Winfrey and Salman Khan, among many others. What do all of these successful innovators have in their common education backgrounds? Not much, and that is because the American education system is not really a cohesive system at all (The Economist, 8 Sept., 2005). It is really a loose federation of institutions that all receive government funding and provide a similar experience that serves the main purpose of socializing children to fit into American society. Part of that socialization is to help them believe in and aspire to the ideal of the rugged American individual who thinks for him/herself and solves the world’s problems through creativity. Our innovative education is more about attitude than any set of concrete skills or knowledge that is imparted to students.  We have managed to impart an innovative ideal in our students largely in spite of our education system, rather than because of it.

Can China Become Innovative
Fortunately for us, the idea that an authoritarian regime [http://www.forbes.com/sites/garyshapiro/2012/07/11/can-china-eclipse-the-u-s-on-innovation/] can become a great producer of innovative thinkers is an oxymoron. In the same way that our industrialized education system stifles creativity, the very nature of Chinese society does and will stifle innovative thinking in its citizens.

Gary Shapiro, writing for Forbes magazine, states that "while China’s successes in manufacturing and building are notable, the country is far from leading the world in creation and innovation. Innovation requires the ability to challenge the status quo. But unlike Americans, the Chinese have not been taught or encouraged to do this, and they are just now catching on (11 July, 2012).

According to Shapiro, the Chinese employ a two part strategy to improve their capacity for innovation. First, they actively recruit people of Chinese ancestry living abroad to return to China and bring their worldly experience and innovative knowledge back with them. Secondly, they send an ever increasing number of young students to be educated abroad in hopes that they will learn to be creative thinkers (11 July, 2012).

Despite this plan, it will be extremely challenging to overcome American innovation while the Chinese continue to have a closed, authoritarian society that, by its very nature, seeks to crush independent thinking and individuality. However, given our own recent push for standardization, accountability, and other creativity killing measures, America is going backwards in terms of helping our own citizens become successful innovators.

How We Can Stay on Top
The first step in keeping ahead of the Chinese in terms of creative development of new ideas is to stop moving backwards. As Shapiro points out in the conclusion of his article, "the United States is not helping itself because we discourage highly skilled immigrants and don’t make our innovation advantage a national priority.  Unless we take necessary steps to ensure our strategic innovation advantage, we may find ourselves eclipsed by the Chinese juggernaut" (11 July, 2012).

So what exactly can we do to ensure our continued dominance in the global production of ideas? We must, as Shapiro points out, make the cultivation of innovative thinking a national priority. Moving away from standardized testing and allowing teachers to pursue new technologies and teaching methods in meeting the individual needs of their students is one way to encourage creativity in students.

Making technology a core component in our schools is another. A technology-centric curriculum helps students become leaders in the global economy because:

  • Incorporating new media as the primary means of student expression and communication provides them with an understanding of the ways in which real world interactions occur and aids in developing technological literacy
  • Technology enhanced education facilitates a student-centered, personalized learning model that allows each individual to pursue their interests and to chart their own course for learning.
  • Technology helps to facilitate authentic experiences that allow students to apply knowledge, share their insights with the world, and participate in global discourse about real issues.
  • Individualized and adaptable education options facilitated by technology allow education to shift to a 24 hour a day 7 day a week model that would benefit all students by allowing them to learn at times that best suit their lifestyles and goals.
  • In addition to being available any time, technology allows education and learning to be accessible anywhere and in any medium so students can learn in authentic contexts as easily as well as at home or in the classroom.
  • Technology and student-centered, individualized learning options make it possible for education to become mastery-based rather than dependent on fixed schedules. Each student can strive to meet their own objectives or societally prescribed ones at their own pace rather than at a pre-determined times.
    (Based on Technology is the Answer to Educational Reform, Marquis, 23 July, 2012)

We can take steps to actively cultivate creativity rather than stifle it as we currently do. Moving technology to a central position in our curriculums would provide a solid starting point for helping to foster the kinds of individualized creative thinking that will continue to make Americans the world’s leading innovators.

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