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It’s Time for Colleges to Teach Creativity

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

We live in a hyper-connected, fast-paced, global economy in which many of the jobs that do not require innovative thinking and creativity have been outsourced to other countries with cheaper labor costs. To a very large extent this change, coupled with a glut of experienced out-of-work professionals caused by the recession, leaves a limited slice of the employment pie available to college graduates. One of the few remaining areas in which new graduates are being successful is in creating their own opportunities outside of the traditional employment channels. Particularly by creating their own jobs. While this is a viable option for the few who have the innate ability to innovate on the fly, there is a real need for universities to begin teaching all of their students how to be creative in a world that demands it in order to survive. Here are four things that colleges can do to help their students cultivate this most essential ability.

1. Embrace the Liberal Arts – There is a lot of bad press about the liberal arts not being worth the return on the investment. However, as a product of just such a degree, I can assure you that it is well-worth the investment, particularly as the world changes so dramatically. The value of a liberal arts education is summarized nicely by David Shribman of the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. Shribman cites, for example, the fact that every member of the current Presidential cabinet, save one, holds a liberal arts degree. He further notes that eight of the top ten colleges in terms of alumni wealth 30 years after graduation are liberal arts institutions.

Universities should adopt some aspects of the liberal arts model in order to help their students develop the creative capacity needed to be successful after graduation. For starters, colleges should adopt broad-based core curriculums that require students to experience various disciplines and their associated perspectives on the world. Next, institutions must require students to apply their knowledge from various fields across multiple disciplines. Finally, encouraging students, even at the undergraduate level, to work on research that applies their knowledge and encourages them to interact with their peers, professors, and working professionals will help ensure that the application of creative thinking that is central to the liberal arts becomes part of every student’s learning process.

2. Encourage Study Abroad – While the curriculum in any given study abroad program may or may not encourage student creativity directly, the simple experience of living in another culture and studying their language will. One of the great side effects of studying abroad is the exposure to the culture and various art forms from that area. Visiting museums, attending concerts, plays, and other cultural events all expose students to different ways of thinking and thinking about the world. See my post "Make Creativity the Focus of Your Higher Education" to learn more about how the arts foster creative abilities and how they are useful on any job.

The greatest benefit to living abroad, however, is gaining insight into the ways in which other parts of the world function. We live in a connected global economy, and having an understanding of the ways in which hi-tech businesses in China, cattle farmers in Argentina, or even the neighborhood café in Italy function can open innumerable doors for innovation, collaboration, and economic opportunity for the creative individual.

3. Support Community Engagement – One thing that is often not supported broadly at the institutional level, particularly at larger universities, is community engagement for all students. Getting learners out in the community to share what they are studying, to interact with experts, or to gain experience in real world working environments helps them gain insights into their chosen career. These opportunities can also begin to formulate ideas and provide a space where what they are learning in the classroom can be applied in the field.

Students can become engaged in the community at any level: local, national, or even globally thanks to the Internet. Each student can also engage in their own individual type of involvement as well. Some ways that this can happen are through charity work, community service, coaching, mentoring, service learning associated with a course, by starting a non-profit, or even by starting a business. All of these endeavors will teach students to innovate, problem solve, and apply what they are learning in new ways.

4. Go Hi-Tech – One thing that all institutions of higher learning should be doing in the Information Age is going all in on technology. There can be no doubt that we live in a society dominated by advanced information and communication technologies and that students will be expected to use them when they enter the workforce. More importantly, they may well be expected to already know how to use them as a requirement of being hired. Regardless, knowledge of the latest tools and software can only enhance a student’s employability. In addition to making them better candidates, being thoroughly versed in technology helps students in other ways. It supports the development of technological literacy which promotes lifelong learning, for example. In terms of supporting creativity, going hi-tech allows students to use the latest tools for individual expression and to practice the kinds of real-world, global interactions that will almost certainly be a part of their work experience.

While technology may be expensive to purchase, outfit, and maintain, it really needs to be an expectation of every student that a university education will include access to the most up-to-date resources being used in their intended field. Students are paying for an education and that education should include access to the devices and software that will make them well prepared for their chosen careers. More importantly though, having access to this technology early on will help them apply their learning in new and creative ways and begin thinking through real problems that they will be expected to solve for the rest of their lives.

Be Deliberate
My recent post, "Make Creativity the Focus of Your Higher Education" admonished students to be deliberate in their pursuits of classes and activities that would help make them critical thinking, creative innovators who would be highly valued as employees in the hyper-connected global economy. Colleges and universities also need to be deliberate in their mission to support their students in developing these critical skills. The four suggestions above outline activities that schools can begin undertaking right now to help their students be successful after graduation and throughout their lifetimes. But in order for these initiative s to be successful, schools will need to promote and cultivate the types of interactions and opportunities described. We cannot forget that most college students are still young and may need a friendly nudge from time to time to help ensure that they are maximizing their educational opportunities.

One suggestion not made above because it can encompass all of the others is to support eLearning. There is no reason that every college or university in the country cannot provide some online learning options for their students, either in a straight online format or as hybrid options that integrate with field work and allow students to move further from the campus in pursuit of the kinds of activities that will support their burgeoning creativity.

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Image courtesy of Boaz Yiftach / FreeDigitalPhotos.net