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Art Is the New Math

I was recently helping my 13-year-old son Noah with his math homework. Long division. By hand. Ewwww. Looking at his pained expression, I realized how pointless and outdated this exercise was and how our schools are teaching kids the wrong things.

I've been a business leader for the last 20 years, and I have never used long division in my career. Not once. Thanks to technology, there are readily available tools that compute faster and more accurately than any human. I also don't live in a mud hut, ride a horse to work, nor communicate via telegram. So why does education focus on outdated concepts and techniques when there are so many more important thing to learn?

The world has changed dramatically over the last few years, and a new set of critical skills has emerged as the currency for success: creativity, original thought, and imagination. These are the only functions that can't be outsourced. In today's ultra-competitive, incredibly complex environment, creative problem-solving trumps rote memorization. Fresh ideas beat rigid processes.

So why do we teach the exact opposite? We're taught to follow-the-rules, guess-what-the-teacher-knows, be obedient, avoid risks, do what we're told, and most importantly… don't make mistakes! Yet this type of linear and fear-based thinking is the biggest inhibitor for creativity. The biggest inhibitor for success… in both business and life.

Nurturing creativity is job #1 for leaders of any organization, from big businesses to non-profits to families. We can't prepare students for the challenges of tomorrow by teaching the skills of yesterday. Instead of cutting "soft" programs like art, music, and drama (courses that develop right-brain, abstract thinking) we must recognize these skills as critically important. More important that standardized tests and flash-card memorization.

Most of us teach others in some capacity—as parents, leaders, colleagues, spouses, and even as customers. You will make a greater impact by encouraging creativity and imagination instead teaching how to follow procedures. Our organizations, companies, and families can benefit greatly by exploring new ideas instead of favoring rigid obedience.

This week, think like an art teacher instead of a math teacher. Encourage others to look at their situation as a big, blank canvas with limitless possibilities for creative expression. Let go of those rules-driven norms, shun the status quo, and have those around you—from kids to co-workers—paint instead of compute.

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  • David Kaiser

    I couldn't agree more. We need to teach risk-taking, recovery from failure, leadership, passion, innovation, and creativity. Unlike in school, there is rarely one right answer, and there is rarely someone who knows it who can correct you. The real skill is inventing the future, but our schools aren't teaching that.

    David Kaiser, Ph.D.
    Executive Coach and CEO

  • John Mitchell

    Though I agree with the theme of this article, I must disagree with the meat of it.

    Four quick points.
    1) Throughout my career in software testing (i'm 30 years old), I have been seen as an "out-of-box" thinker, constantly imaginative and quick to pick up new and innovative ideas and 'run with them''. According to this article, I am a mystery as I was trained in science (Photonics).

    2) The purpose of long division and such 'useless' mathematical practices is to instill base knowledge. This might be superfluous but by the definition of knowing division because a computer can perform it, I know every language because Google can perform an operation.

    I once had a Calculus teacher that only taught proofs (method for deriving from where an answer came). This way, no memorizing was necessary.

    3) My wife completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts at University and this was by no means a free thinking exercise. It was a confined narrow scope and stepping out of the line (pushing the envelope) resulted in possible expulsion. The reason, our education system needs tangible evidence that their curriculum has succeeded.

    4) Free thinking starts well before school, it is learned at a very early age. It is not something that can be tought, it is something that has to be learned through play, the self-discovery, through interpretation of the outside world that is not quite understood. As a side note, growing up, I had many toys. I can only remember a few things that I played with that really sticks out. One, was the cardboard box for a fridge. I play for hours in it.

    If you are interested in a good box on creativity, Orbiting The Giant Hairball by Gordon Mackenzie. On first glance, you'll realize the imagination of the author.