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Kids Need Real Problems to Solve to Spur Creativity

08/16/2015 09:51 EDT | Updated 08/16/2016 05:59 EDT
Andrew Rich via Getty Images

Creativity is often a misguided principle in the pedagogical dictionaries of education systems around the world. It's a concept that's almost as vague in classrooms as it is in the previous sentence.

Misguided, because almost universally, education systems have approached instilling creative problem-solving in students through a lens of creativity for creativity's sake. The truth is, however, that some of the most compelling innovations are happening in Kenya and countries alike, where creativity is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Students are cast a warm blanket of assurance when they are asked to be creative in an environment where there is actually no urgency to be innovative. Undertaking problem solving in a creative way cannot be predicated as an added value, there have to be real stakes of losing value, to really engage people -- upbringing necessity and urgency in order to be creative.

Students unfortunately are not tackling real problems in classrooms and do not feel the full thrust of why creativity is a necessity not just an added value. Almost wherever you are in the world, curriculums are plagued with hypothetical scenarios or assignments. There is nothing wrong with this case study based approach to education, sometimes that's the only option -- however, it becomes problematic when case studies are all that students are exposed to.

There are many things we can learn from entrepreneurship in Africa -- but if anything, it should be their approach to creative problem solving. After just finishing a recent trip to Nairobi, I became aquatinted with their mobile banking system: M-Pesa. They have essentially bypassed the need for credit cards and use M-Pesa to transfer money through the most basic phones-- all you need is a SIM card. The necessity was obvious -- people needed to pay one another through a medium other than cash in some of the most remote areas of the country. The barriers were equally as obvious -- people didn't have enough money for complex smartphone solutions. So the parameters were clear -- people don't have money but they need a solution to transfer money wherever they are. And so M-Pesa was created in 2007 and is one of the simplest and most accessible money transfer systems in the world with almost two-thirds adult uptake in Kenya. Again, this is the kind of innovation by necessity that has swept through the continent-- it was inspired by the genuine urgency of the problem and the parameters of the solution, not by creativity for creativity's sake.

Of course, you cannot replicate this in the global north where a lot of life's essentials are not urgent concerns with such engrained parameters but this approach of urgency and necessity as pillars of creativity, can in smaller ways, be replicated in education systems. Give students real problems with real stakes that their communities face. If they are not creative, there have to be stakes to lose. Give them something to engage with that's worth their time and creative capacities.

You cannot think outside the box when a box does not exist. We have effectively removed this box in education systems and replaced it with enough leeway, freedom and time to kill most students' ambition to begin thinking of creative problem-solving. Creativity doesn't have to be defined by ambiguity -- sometimes it's most effective when it's forced.

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