Why Education Without Creativity Isn't Enough

Science and math won't improve U.S. job prospects. But creativity will.

<a href=Phaneesh Murthy, CEO of Indian outsourcing company iGate Patni" />
Phaneesh Murthy, CEO of Indian outsourcing company iGate Patni. | Photo by Ritam Banerjee

Last April, when sharing a stage at Facebook with CEO Mark Zuckerberg, President Obama summed up the conventional wisdom on what's needed to shape American minds for the global marketplace. "We've got to do such a better job when it comes to STEM education," he said. "That's how we're going to stay competitive for the future." If we could just tighten standards and lean harder on the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, mathematics—we'd better our rigorous rivals in India and China, and get our economy firing on all cylinders. As with much conventional wisdom, this is conventional in the worst sense of that word.

If you want the truth, talk to the competition. Phaneesh Murthy is CEO of iGate Patni, a top-10 Indian outsourcing company. Murthy oversees 26,000 employees—not the ones snapping SIM chips into cell phones or nagging you about your unpaid AmEx bill, but the ones writing iPhone apps, processing mortgage applications, and redesigning supply chains—in jobs that would be handled in the U.S. by highly paid, college-educated workers. In other words, you. Yet Murthy, a regular bogeyman of outsourcing, believes American education is by far the best in the world. "The U.S. education system is much more geared to innovation and practical application," says Murthy. "It's really good from high school onward." To compete long term, we need more brainstorming, not memorization; more individuality, not standardization.

Murthy will tell you that the outsourcing industry is not some unstoppable force: It's hitting real limits. Indian engineers are not nearly as cheap or plentiful as they used to be. "Labor costs were so cheap you could always throw more people at a problem," he says. "But wages are up 14% to 15% each year for the last 20 years." A software engineer who would have earned $700 a year in the late '80s now gets roughly $12,000 a year—still a huge discount compared to the U.S., but not peanuts. Despite the lure of these higher wages, India's schools can't keep up with demand. In the late '80s, Indian software companies hired about 100 graduates a year; 25 years later, they need about 200,000 every spring, an astronomical increase in demand. And yet the supply of engineering grads has merely doubled, making it harder than ever for Murthy to compete for talent.

As a short-term solution, iGate Patni is hiring grads who majored in other disciplines, including math and physics. The company is also spending more on training, which is both a necessity and a virtue. "We've developed much stronger training programs in-house," Murthy says. "Four months of training in engineering fundamentals, and then for eight months the new hires are paired with a senior person for mentoring." This commitment to ongoing education is something U.S. companies would be smart to adopt, says Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur and tech-industry scholar with appointments at the University of California, Berkeley; Duke; and Harvard Law School. "These companies have perfected the art of workforce development. At Infosys, it's four months of intensive training and an additional week of training each year. At IBM in the U.S., new hires get a day and a half of orientation and they're lucky to get a week of vacation." Wadhwa argues that such training justifies India's enormous annual wage leaps, in that workers are becoming more valuable and productive each year.

Yet this kind of corporate training can only move the needle so far. A few times during our interview, Murthy repeats, "Overall, in iGate Patni, we want to re-create the McDonald's model." This means, he explains, that the company will set forth standard routines for as much of its business as possible, to provide "a consistent level of service." This McDonald's-ization of the company would allow it to spend less on training; as creative achievements are translated into checklists and routines, the high-quality, high-pay jobs of today become the high-turnover, low-wage jobs of the future. Pity the Indian software engineer!

Or don't. This is simply the natural progress of economies, says David Autor, an MIT economist who has drawn the clearest picture anywhere of the impact of technology and globalization on labor markets. He describes the pattern as "labor-market polarization." At the bottom of the market, there's a growing number of service-sector jobs that require hands-on interaction in unpredictable environments—driving a bus, cooking food, caring for children or the elderly. These are impossible to outsource or replace with technology (at least until the robot revolution takes off). In the middle are jobs requiring routine information processing: accounting, typing, filing, approving a mortgage application or an insurance claim. These were once well-paid jobs held by relatively educated Americans; now they tend to be done by iGate Patni's employees, and in the future, says Autor, they are likely to be performed by a computer.

At the top of the market are the jobs everyone wants. And guess what? These are the jobs that many graduates of the American education system are well prepared for. These jobs require creativity, problem solving, decision making, persuasive arguing, and management skills. In this echelon, a worker's skills are unique, not interchangeable. "These jobs deal with a tremendous amount of information, but the added value of the worker is in doing the non-routine parts," says Autor. Technology and outsourcing routine tasks make these top workers even more powerful and productive, giving them even more data and tools with which to innovate.

So with all due respect to Bill Gates, Zuckerberg, and President Obama: Science, technology, engineering, and math are not the future. Or more precisely, they're not enough. Workers at every level benefit from an education that emphasizes creative thinking, communication, and teamwork—the very kind of excellence already offered at top American colleges. Once in the workforce, the U.S. should take a leaf from the Indians, and steadily train and update practical and technical skills. Indian workers, meanwhile, could stand to take a few lessons from the U.S. "The irony is that in India it takes engineers two to three years to recover from the damage of the education system," says Wadhwa, who believes that engineers require real-world experience and training before they can excel at complex work such as R&D. "They're used to rote memorization."

Our education system has plenty of critics; I've been one of them. But when facing the mercurial demands of today's job market, it seems there's still a profound need for the social, discursive, American liberal-arts model at its best. Which may explain why 100,000 Indians are currently studying in the U.S. One of them is Murthy's elder son, who just started his freshman year at UC Berkeley.

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17 Comments

  • Jane Bailey

    This has exciting implications for education for all
    levels.  When we designed new online Master of Business Administration and
    Master of Education programs at Post University, we made a conscious effort to
    incorporate creativity and innovation as a formal part of the
    curriculum. Additionally, we included a course in the future of education
    so that educators are looking toward new rather than old models. These are
    only small steps that need to be taken on each level of the broad
    pre-K-to-lifelong-learning spectrum.

     

    One thing we know about creativity and innovation is that
    the spark happens at unlikely thought intersections.  Steve Jobs noted
    this in an iPad keynote address when he credited Apple’s innovations to living
    at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. Maybe the real question
    is how we can help children from a young age make connections between and among
    unlikely disciplines. Children cannot make creative connections in a stove
    pipe system of education.  

     

    We need curricula that break down the pipes; reward flexible
    and fluent thinking; and use authentic, real-world application measures of
    assessment. Students need to be creating and producing things so they’re not
    just demonstrating they know information, but rather, can use information and
    put it together in new ways to share it with others. 

     

    McGill University promotes the use of Active Learning
    Classrooms (ALC’s) wherein students engage in active, collaborative learning
    experiences.  Somehow we need to create an active, collaborative learning
    culture wherein we help each other not only enjoy learning, but enjoy learning
    for life.  Creating such a culture will be a wonderful creative project
    for both educators and parents alike!

     

    Jane M. Bailey, Ed.D.

    Dean, School of Education

    Post University

    Waterbury, CT 

  • Jane Bailey

    This has exciting implications for education for all
    levels.  When we designed new online Master of Business Administration and
    Master of Education programs at Post University, we made a conscious effort to
    incorporate creativity and innovation as a formal part of the
    curriculum. Additionally, we included a course in the future of education
    so that educators are looking toward new rather than old models. These are
    only small steps that need to be taken on each level of the broad
    pre-K-to-lifelong-learning spectrum.

     

    One thing we know about creativity and innovation is that
    the spark happens at unlikely thought intersections.  Steve Jobs noted
    this in an iPad keynote address when he credited Apple’s innovations to living
    at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. Maybe the real question
    is how we can help children from a young age make connections between and among
    unlikely disciplines. Children cannot make creative connections in a stove
    pipe system of education.  

     

    We need curricula that break down the pipes; reward flexible
    and fluent thinking; and use authentic, real-world application measures of
    assessment. Students need to be creating and producing things so they’re not
    just demonstrating they know information, but rather, can use information and
    put it together in new ways to share it with others. 

     

    McGill University promotes the use of Active Learning
    Classrooms (ALC’s) wherein students engage in active, collaborative learning
    experiences.  Somehow we need to create an active, collaborative learning
    culture wherein we help each other not only enjoy learning, but enjoy learning
    for life.  Creating such a culture will be a wonderful creative project
    for both educators and parents alike!

     

    Jane M. Bailey, Ed.D.

    Dean, School of Education

    Post University

    Waterbury, CT 
    http://blog.Post.edu

  • Germain Anthony

    I hate to say it but Anya, you are NOT quite right. I read this article because of its title. Half-way through, I was not sure if the purpose of the article was to make a case for encouraging creativity in schools OR merely to place doubt on Obama's plans for Education reform in the US. In my experience as an educator, creativity and mathematics (and science for that matter) are not mutually exclusive. Yes, best practices from both US and Indian education practices should be adopted. The renewed emphasis on STEM subjects does not spell the end of creativity. In fact, plans to introduce these concepts and by no coincidence, computer science, earlier into the school curriculum are aimed at tapping the huge creative potential that children have at an earlier age. Further, a better grounding at an earlier age in critical thinking and problem solving will prepare students better for entering into college programs. The key is to attract the students to the STEM subjects by supporting their understanding and development as early as possible. Improving pedagogical approach to STEM and how we teach is important. So Anya, STEM disciplines are no threat to creativity, they are the foundation for which all creative ideas will grow if we allow children to play and be active in their learning.

  • Scott Moore

    Open-minded critical thinking skills are terrific and important.  We shouldn't throw the baby out, just add a little more STEM - especially math, to the bath water.  I teach economics and finance at a liberal arts university where some students have trouble setting up a problem in a simple linear equation and solving for a variable.  These are students with plenty of horsepower intellectually but they've been convinced by years of poor math education that they can't 'do the math.'  The ability to quantifying isn't everything, or the only thing, but it is an important thing.  In my experience, creative kids with solid analytical skills see a lot of blue sky in front of them.  

  • Liz Jayanti

    I find it ironic that individuals from other countries
    (i.e., India, China) value the creative education model that the US has—which is
    exemplified by the liberal arts education—while in the US, this form of
    education is devalued. Many companies prefer to recruit technically skilled
    candidates over those with a liberal arts—that is a creative—education. I suspect
    the US is only beginning to feel the economic impact of this decision, which is
    the result of eroding our core value and competency.

  • prasanta kumar parida

    PROBLEMS OF USA CAN BE SOLVED IF & ONLY IF OBAMA WILL PROPOSE THE NAME OF HILARRY CLINTON AS THE NEXT PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE WHO CAN TACKLE THE ECONOMICAL PROBLEM OF USA BY SIMPLE EXTENDING A HELPING HAND FOR REUNION OF PAKISTAN & BANGLADESH WITH INDIA LIKE EAST & WEST GERMANY,SO THAT, UNITED INDIA CAN BE A SAFEGUARD FOR USA AGAINST THE SUPREMACY OF COMMUNIST CHINA & USA WILL NOT HAVE TO SPEND A PIE FOR COUNTER ATTACKING CHINA & THE SAID FUND CAN BE UTILIZED FOR THE ECONOMICAL REFORM OF USA,THANKS

  • prasanta kumar parida

    prez. obama is a good orator but after staying inside whitehouse, he is becoming a fool day by day as other people with vested interest are thinking for him,history will say he is the worst president of usa. As per hindu mythology, wealth is under the control of mother laxmi & education is under the control of mother saraswati& both of them are enmically disposed of,for which an educated & learned man is always poor & a wealthy person can not be educated in any field and is bound to utilise the learned & educated persons as their human resources.SO AMERICANS INCLUDING OBAMA CAN NOT THINK ABOUT AN INNOVATIVE & PIONEER PROJECT TO BE IMPLIMENTED FOR THE BENIFITS OF USA

  • Beverley Abrahams

    I enjoyed this article very much, and it is so relevant to the African context. My daughter is currently pursuing a degree in Engineering, a field that is of great importance to a country like Zimbabwe which needs economic recover, yet opportunities for study are limited and competition for the local university is ridiculously high. I have to say that all my efforts to get her into a university in the Unites States failed as she was unable to secure funding; despite being an exceptional young girl. We settled for a university in a neighbouring country,which offers an excellent programme. Regretably, whilst living in a country which values an engineering skill, the educational system is not geared to providing opportunities for the students who want to enter it. Corporate sponsorship is sorely lacking! One wonders how we are to progress?    

  • bluepigcreative

    I'm disappointed that this article doesn't really look into the role creativity can bring to education, as perhaps hinted in its title. It seems more of an advert or promotional piece for iGate Patni.

  • Marcello Nocito

    The American Dollar, the NYSE, the NASDAQ, the World Bank, the IMF and the NAFTA are American Financial and Commercial Partners because they carry out the American Financial Recovery Mission, they join the same Powerful Team, and they stand up for the American Legitimate Financial Leadership in the World!

  • jas

    ANYA; HOW YOU WILL SOLVED 22.8 MILLIONS EDUCETED US. UNEMPLOYEE, OUTSORCES ALL OF THEM IN INDIA and CHINA? HA HA ! YOU SMART UNDEWEARE !!!!

  • J Scott

    In 1969 I went to our small city downtown public library asked the librarian for help to research the best career that would resolve my need for ROI as I was paying for college, alone. We worked for 3 months, found Computer Programming. I added Systems Analysis, and IT Manager for a plan that would last about 20 years. Because I had a plan, I took a few years off to become a mom at home with little boys, went back to work and completed the full plan in less than 10 years. My career took off from there with Systems Engineering/Specialist, Management, Record Breaking Sales all at top performance levels by 40 years old. Now I own my own firm of 130 experts.

    Start with research - get a bored librarian to help with all those new tools, and live the life you want. I came from the projects and had moved up to the ghetto by 1969. Our sons learned and thrive, I train others to do this. Not that difficult for a right brained woman with left brained stretch.

    We as Americans need to increase self-expectations or learn Mandarin
    www.superbspeakers.com
     

  • Tom Tresser

    At the IIT Stuart School of Business, we heartily agree. I developed and am teaching "Got Creativity? Strategies & Tools for the Next Economy." It's highly experiential and half the students were from China and India. Details at http://tomsclasses.wordpress.c.... I'd love to talk to business school teachers and administrators about bringing Studio Thinking and an appreciation for the Gift Economy into the business school training agenda. tom@tresser.com.

  • Kristine Beisel

    Ms. Kamenetz said "Workers at every level benefit from an education that emphasizes creative thinking, communication, and teamwork..." There is a program available to students from kindergarten through college that teaches these skills - Destination ImagiNation (DI). DI offers challenges that supplement the curriculum standards and stretch students to find new, innovative, and creative ways to solve the challenges. Students work within a small team to solve the challenges without adult interference. They imagine all the possible solutions and then work to make their ideas come true. Much like the innovation process that happens in successful businesses around the world. You can find more information about the program at www.idodi.org.

  • atimoshenko

    Ah yes, the sides of education – knowing how to solve already asked questions, and figuring out which questions actually need asking.

  • Richard Geller

    Access and affordability are arguably the biggest challenges facing American higher education. American colleges and universities have long been able to do a pretty fair job of educating their students. The challenge now is finding ways to affordably provide access to that higher educating for larger and larger portions of our society—both to assure their future and the future of the country. Having students exit college and graduate school burdened with ever more unmanageable student loans is not a solution. Somehow, higher education needs to be reformed to provide affordable access to all capable of doing the work.