[EMBASSY VOICE]Identifying talent and accepting failure

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[EMBASSY VOICE]Identifying talent and accepting failure

I’ve got news for you. Your hard-won educational qualifications are being devalued as you read this.
Here’s why. In 1800, the population of the earth was 1 billion. It took only 130 years to reach the second billion in 1930. In 1970 there were 3 billion of us. By 2000, the global population doubled to reach 6 billion people. And so on.
This means in the next 30 years, there will be more college graduates than in the whole of history. In the 1960s, if you had a bachelor’s degree ― any degree ― you had a job. Now, a master’s is the bare minimum. Qualifications are in a downward spiral of devaluation.
So is the answer a desperate scramble up an ever-shifting educational mountain? Obviously not. But at the inaugural International Education Forum hosted by the Australian Government in Brisbane in April, where international professionals gathered to discuss what education would look like 10-20 years hence, one man proposed the germ of a solution.
At the forum, participants noted that an average person now has 29 different jobs in a lifetime. This number will increase and the speed of technological advance will make constant retraining essential. “Distance” and “nation” will become less meaningful; everyone will be connected by the Internet and its successors. The year 2020, forum participants said, could be captured in four words: globalization, networking, open-sourcing and branding.
How will educators equip people to excel in this environment?
The closing speaker at the forum was a British academic, Ken Robinson, the man tasked by Tony Blair with leading the UK commission on creativity, education and the economy. Sir Ken started his presentation by politely noting that no one had questioned what the word “education” means.
He listed the figures with which I opened this article, and then he discussed the origins of public education. Formal systems grew from the needs of industrial economies ― based on manual labor with a small clerical class. Because education systems are designed to produce skills for industry, they are similar worldwide.
There is a perceived hierarchy of disciplines. At the top are usually languages and mathematics ― they are taught to everybody all the time. Science is in a close second tier and then come the humanities. At the bottom are the arts. At the very bottom of the arts is dance. There is not a school system on earth where dance is taught like mathematics, for example: every day, systematically, on a compulsory basis and to every child.
And disciplines are discrete. Most of us believe that science and the arts are totally different, and people usually distinguish between intelligence and creativity. But, Sir Ken said, people are more creative than they believe, and more intelligent.
He cited a series of tests examining the capacity for associative thinking, reasoning by analogy and non-linear connections in which 1,600 children aged 3 to 5 were tested. In this group, 98 percent performed at “genius” level. The same group was tested another four times over 20 years. By the age of 24 to 25, the “geniuses” had declined to 2 percent. Why?
This group had been through an educational system where there is a “right answer.”
Everybody is creative, Sir Ken believes; we can be creative with anything ― not just the arts ― and we can create conditions under which creative capacity flourishes. He illustrated the task of educators with the story of Gillian Lynne.
In the 1930s, Gillian was doing so badly in elementary school that the principal called in her mother. After he had talked to her mother with Gillian sitting next to her, he explained to the girl that he and her mother would leave the room. He told Gillian to be good and not to move.
The principal turned on the radio as he left, and after closing the door, he told her mother to watch Gillian through the window. The moment Gillian was alone with the music, she was up and moving around. She was dancing.
The principal told Gillian’s mother: “Your daughter is a dancer. Take her where she can be with dancers.”
She did, and Gillian later became the principal ballerina at the London Royal Ballet and the choreographer of “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.”
Today, she might have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and prescribed medication.
So how do we nurture creativity? The key is to first identify natural abilities that you love and not fear failure.
In March, during a tour of South Korea, the Australian Nobel laureate Dr. Barry Marshall, the discoverer of ‘Helicobactor Pylori,’ was asked to give a message to young South Korean scientists.
He said, “Be encouraged by failure.” Only through failure can you know there is something still unknown.
Sir Ken made the same point: To be creative, you must ask questions and be willing to be wrong, a quality usually schooled out of us.
To be truly creative, you must also have the inner strength to analyze critically existing ideas or conventional approaches.
Teachers: Therein lies your challenge.

* The writer is counsellor of education, science and training at Australian Embassy in Seoul.

by Mary-Jane Liddicoat
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