Physics and Astronomy


Producing Contributing Members of Society

by Ed Meyer

Virtually any poll, study or questionnaire involving the skills for which today’s employers are looking produces the same top two skills. These are creative thinking/problem solving skills and communication skills. That is, the ability to come up with a new idea and to effectively communicate it to others. This is no surprise, as the mantra of today global, competitive business world is, “Innovate or die.”

Virtually all colleges and universities have a mission statement that contains something like, “produce contributing, productive members of society.”

This is a noble cause. Parents and students alike will agree that this is an admirable goal. Indeed, the world will be a better place if the next generation is prepared to contribute to the improvement of the human condition.

So, there appears to be a general agreement among employers, universities, parents, students and the government that it is beneficial if an education produces graduates that will be productive members of society.

Despite this apparent universal consensus, the actual result of a formal education does not produce the skills needed to contribute to the world in the 21st century.

Much of a formal education is answer-based rather than question-based. Too often school children are given answers to remember rather than problems to solve. Further, when they are given problems, they are trained to follow a procedure that will give them the correct answer. Students who are good at following procedures will be successful in this environment. This cannot be consistent with the goal of developing graduates with creative problem solving skills. In fact, this type of “education” is destructive to those students who are innovative and creative.

So, how can we produce creative problem solvers who can communicate their ideas? The only proven method is the same for developing any skill. If you want to become a good piano player, you practice the piano. If you want to become a better swimmer, you get in the pool and swim.

A good procedure to develop students who can creatively solve problems and communicate the results is to simply give them challenging, multi-level, NEW problems to solve. They can think about them individually and/or in small groups. After this, they can try to reach a consensus as an entire class by sharing their results and presenting their thoughts. This technique allows the students to develop the two skills in demand – creative problem solving and communication. It is the dominant technique used at the Gedanken Institute for Problem Solving.

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