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“Bring me into the company of men who seek the truth, and deliver me from those who have found it.” ~ Cletus Young

One of the characteristics of our educational system has different subjects put into neat separate boxes. Math, reading, art, science. Today, we see much more blurriness and convergence between subjects like science, religion, philosophy.

This “Gnostic syncretism”-the combining of knowledge-is especially apparent when teasing out the details surrounding revolutionary innovations. The inspiration that leads to breakthroughs in technology, science-even cultural breakthroughs-many times involve a bringing together and merging of ideas formally not associated.

Many pivotal inventions, ideas, concepts have been birthed through a sort of revelatory experience breaking down barriers and opening up the mind to new ways of doing things.

For example, Nobel Prize winner Charles Hard Townes describes the unconstrained interplay of “how” and “why”-questions that both religion and science seek answers for-as he developed the principles for masers sitting on a park bench in Washington, D.C. in 1951. Masers led to lasers and an amazing plethora of inventions and discoveries in medicine, telecommunications, electronics, and computers in common use throughout the world today. Townes describes the genesis of his idea as an “epiphany”, and “revelation as real as any revelation described in the scriptures.”

Are there ways to prepare student’s minds to have revelations such as Townes had?

How do we germinate and spur on the kind of abstract thinking that leads to innovation, entrepreneurial creativity, and solutions to the larger challenges facing humankind?

The “teaching to the test” approach that initiatives like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) created, encouraged a rote and mechanistic memorization of answers to questions that a multiple choice test would ask. What gets left behind in this approach is attention toward abstract and critical thinking, depth of knowledge-the exact seeds that need to be planted to develop innovators and inventors. The bulwarks upon which whole economies are built.

Take Apple and Steve Jobs for example. When Wozniak and Jobs built their revolution in their garage the difference was in the synthesis of different disciplines together to make a truly unique product in the hobbyist computer industry. Jobs demanded that all the chips inside the Apple line up in neat little rows, blending an artistic and aesthetic perspective into what was, before, the equivalent of geeky electronic erector sets. Fast forward to the design elegance of iPods and iPads and you see the shift that has now emerged into an entire economy. Point being, the assembly line repetition that “teaching to the test” engenders does not foster the cross-disciplinary tools used in innovation.

In a recent article published on Science 2.0-“Join the Revolution”-a defense is made for NCLB, and that it’s concerted and imminent exit, possibly premature.

Hank Campbell makes statements like,

“If you teach kids critical thinking, they are not going to do as well on standardized tests, plain and simple.”-or- “Teaching ‘thinking’ means you have to teach both sides, teaching facts means young people have a lot less confusion and they can learn the subtleties in college.”

Campbell lays out the conflict between NCLB-based education on one hand and teaching critical thinking on the other as fact vs. fiction.

In other words, if we teach critical thinking, kids will have to look at all sides of a particular subject (imagine that!). For example, he warns global warming as a “fiction” will have to be seriously considered, or even evolution debunked. I understand the point, but this is a straw man argument. Critical thinking does not mean embracing falsehoods, but rather, in the finest traditions of science, examining all the evidence available to arrive at a more refined and informed perspective-a higher order of truth composed of nuances. And I’ll make the argument that in a hyper-interconnected world full of an exponentially larger set of data, information, and differing points of view, sending kids out in the world armed with only the mastery of dogmatic facts (and a lack of critical thinking) is, intellectually, sending lambs to the slaughter, so-to-speak.

We need critical thinking because in this generation we are processing more information than ever before. We have to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff from the beginning of our education-not only when students move past high school, as Campbell suggests, “…they can learn the subtleties in college.”

Hank Campbell continues in Teach Facts Or Teach Thinking? Why NCLB’s Demise Could Hurt Science Classes,

“Progressives are less likely than conservatives to dispute global warming. Progressives are less likely than conservatives to dispute evolution.   But progressives are far more likely to object to a standardized national program like NCLB, because the education unions instead want the status quo of 60 years ago, except with more money each year, and progressives don’t want to anger education unions any more than conservatives want to anger the military.  The fact that NCLB had more improvement in education in its first five years than had occurred in the previous 28 years, along with an all-time high for black and Hispanic grade schoolers, was declared unimportant.”

“It hasn’t been declared unimportant,” stated St. Louis Parkway School Board member and attorney Tom Appelbaum.

“Early on in NCLB there was a push to focus on the lower performing students, how they performed on standardized tests, and highlighting achievement gaps-but the fact remains NCLB is in the process of creating a crisis in education as fallacious and artificial as the debt-ceiling crisis was,” explained Appelbum, St. Louis Public Schools Examiner. “Because according to NCLB, by 2014, every school has been mandated that 100% of students reach the level of proficiency on standardized tests-an impossible task. Meanwhile, schools are often severely penalized for not being able to do the impossible.”

So facts versus thinking.

It really seems like you can’t have one without the other-and a comprehensive and thorough education will involve both. NCLB ratchets down the critical thinking piece and replaces it with assembly line precision. But the prize of the American economy is not fact regurgitation, nor even professional classes like engineers (China and India are cranking out engineers at a rate we’ll never match)-the prize of the American economy is creativity, entrepreneurialism, and innovation.

The prize is intellectual property-an industrial sector that has performed at a trade surplus since its inception. Publishing, software, technology. And all this goes down in a realm not defined by neat boxes, it happens in the nether world where ideas and disciplines collide freely and emerge as new things. In a recent appearance on the Daily Show, New York Times columnist and author Tom Friedman gave a vision for an America re-discovering its former heritage of success and becoming the place in the world where new projects are launched. If ideas flourish here, they’ll have a good chance of having global legs. It makes sense, and points toward the need to embrace creativity, entrepreneurialism, and innovation as the chief characteristics of what we teach to our children-and what we support through public policy, research, and reducing barriers for new talent to have access to our marketplace.

The study of
crossing disciplines has increasing pertinence in fostering abstract and creative thinking and problem solving. Promoting “academic symbiosis” in student’s minds-as they metabolize each individual subject-will build a higher order appreciation and capacity to utilize their total educational experience in productive and creative endeavors in the real world.

The idea for this piece came from a TED talks group discussion held on Linked-In. The question that was posed:

“What are the most important topics or things which should be taught at school, and currently aren’t, and which would give the best possible tools to children for life?”