Grades do not guarantee success - creativity does

19th April 2013 at 01:00

Dear Fellow Parent,

Do you want your child to get a good job when they leave school? Do you want your child to be attractive to prospective employers? Do you want your child to succeed and be off your hands by the age of 25? Of course you do.

Let's be honest: after we've proclaimed that we want our children to be happy and healthy, the overriding concern that most of us have as parents - especially as our children move towards the end of their schooling - is that they are "on track" towards "a good job".

So how do most of us respond to this desire? Simple: we take what worked for us - or what seemed to work for most other people - and encourage them to succeed at school.

And what does success look like? Again, simple - it's about the accumulation of qualifications at as high a level as possible, in order to gain entry to university and get "on track" towards that dream job - and the associated financial security (for them and us).

Well, I hesitate to tell you this, but you'd better think again. As the father of two sons - who both succeeded in terms of academic attainment at school but who both dropped out of their respective university courses - I have some real life experience.

I'm pleased to report that both of them have now made their own way in the world and I'd like to think that their success is down to their intrinsic drive, resilience and innovative ability over any academic success that they had at school.

I am not for one minute suggesting that academic success at school should be downplayed - in fact, quite the reverse. But what I am saying is that the manner in which we engage young people in learning needs to prepare them much better for the world which they will inhabit over their working lives of 50 or 60 years.

Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, argues that schools are not adding the value and teaching the skills that matter most in the marketplace.

He argues that the key quality employers are looking for in employees is the capacity to innovate. This is backed up by even the most cursory examination of some of the qualities global firms are looking for in new starts. For example, Rolls-Royce looks for people who can succeed in "complex, innovative and highly challenging environments"; Deutsche Bank is seeking interns who can "provide fresh, innovative thinking"; and Shell wants people with "intellectual, analytical and creative ability..." As one might expect, Google seeks people who can, "through innovation, take things that work well and improve upon them in unexpected ways". And IBM wants "people who have skills, creativity and passion... "

The common factor in all of these cases is clearly a requirement that prospective employees have a capacity to operate effectively in an innovative environment.

Such firms take academic success for granted - this is not a matter of knowledge taking a back seat to the skills agenda - but what is clear is that the goal of education should not be to make every child "university ready" but, as Wagner calls it, "innovation ready" - ie, ready to add value to whatever they do.

The word innovation derives from the Latin verb innovare, "to renew or change". The capacity to solve problems creatively, or bring new possibilities to life, and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are at the heart of innovation. Yet consider how rarely these qualities are utilised or developed in schools, especially as the high-stakes examinations come into view.

This is why what is happening in English education and Scottish education makes for such a fascinating comparison. Without wishing to enter into any political territory, it seems clear to anyone looking in that the English curriculum - via the encouragement and direction of Michael Gove (one of Scotland's exiles) - is modelling itself upon an episode of The Good Old Days, where the conviction, certainty and ideological faith regarding the place of knowledge overrides any reference to the modern skill sets that are essential in the modern workplace.

That's why Scotland, in common with countries such as Finland, Australia, India and Singapore (which has one of the highest-performing education systems in the world in terms of academic attainment) is on the right lines with Curriculum for Excellence - with its wider focus on developing personal capacities in addition to the acquisition of knowledge, especially the capacity to think independently, creatively and collaboratively.

Yet this is still an enormous jump for so many of us who have lived in a more secure and certain environment, where one's eventual place in the job market was directly related to how many Highers were achieved and the quality of the degree awarded.

I'll know we have changed when headteachers start to receive complaints from parents that their child is not being encouraged to think creatively or to develop the innovative skills he or she will require in the future - as opposed to not being given enough homework at the age of eight.

With best wishes and good luck,

Don Ledingham

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services, Midlothian, and executive director of services for people, East Lothian.

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