Creative problem solving: Education reform to prepare students for future challenges

There has never been a greater need for education reform than the present moment. Educators and parents face an enormous challenge today in preparing present and upcoming generations for a rapidly changing and highly unpredictable future. In the next few decades, automation and artificial intelligence may make seemingly stable professions largely redundant. Changes to our climate may lead to sweeping migration and drastic transformation of economic production models. Technologies that seem cutting-edge and rich in opportunity may be entirely obsolete by the time today’s kindergartner enters the job market. As a result, an educational model that was developed for the industrial era is likely to be entirely insufficient to the actual world our children and students will live in.

So how can we best prepare these children for the world they will inherit, whose parameters we can only guess at? The philosophy of education known as inquiry-based learning or phenomenon-based learning has been developed and applied with great success in countries such as Finland and Singapore that regularly score towards the top of global educational benchmarks such as the Programme for International Student Assessment.

Unfortunately, educators in U.S. schools often fail to teach our children how exciting and mesmerizingly beautiful the inquiry process can be — fixating on the destination rather than the journey of learning. If our nation’s citizens are to acquire the skills necessary to remain competitive in an age of accelerating change, it is paramount that we urgently engage in a humanist approach to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education reform to revolutionize our standings in the global knowledge economy.

So how does one teach creativity? One of the most effective ways to do this is through integrated, interdisciplinary investigation of problem, theme, or phenomenon, where learners become open to making unexpected connections. For example, a teacher may choose to extend an exploration of sustainable systems by challenging students to improve the overall energy efficiency of their own homes. A third-grader may tie together her understanding of energy loss, simple machines, and magnets to conceive of a device that will keep the door to the family refrigerator shut once and for all. Given the time to test, analyze, and redesign her invention, this child will not only have reduced her carbon footprint, but mom and dad’s energy bill as well.

Now, imagine that your child attends a school where inquiry-based learning is encouraged. A first-grader is motivated by natural curiosity and asks: “Why are some ladybugs yellow?” Supported by enthusiastic interest from the rest of the class, the teacher orders several dozen ladybug eggs that the children raise in the classroom over the course of the next month. Your child and her classmates record observations of the ladybugs in interactive notebooks each day — watching as they hatch into some larvae, crystallize into some pupae, and emerge as adult ladybugs.

Together, the class develops a list of critical questions that they would like answered. They form a variety of hypotheses that they test while they acquire and practice skills in measurement, mathematics, biology, and drawing that they need to record and analyze their data. Collaborative planning amongst your child’s teachers results in supplemental activities involving reading, writing, engineering, multimedia design, visual and performance art, civil debate, public outreach, and much more.

Driven again, by the authentic interest of the class, the teacher facilitates a series of daily, mini-experiments. Does a ladybug prefer a wet or a dry habitat? What is the ideal temperature for a ladybug habitat? What is a ladybug’s favorite food?

“But why are some ladybugs yellow?” one student asks again. As the insects begin to hatch, students see some yellow ladybugs, but then they switch to red. The students grapple with their observations in search of an explanation until finally, someone has the idea to put a hidden camera in the ladybug habitat. The following day, the teacher shows a video to the class that reveals a ladybug hatching from its pupae! Eagerly leaning forward, the class watches together and … the new ladybug is yellow! Your child raises her hand to suggest skipping forward in the video and sure enough, the ladybug has turned red after several hours. Yellow ladybugs are just red ladybugs that have freshly hatched!

It is a different era, and we need fresh approaches to pedagogy and education. It is worth noting that in a 2013 study of Google employees, the seven most important qualities were: being a good coach, communicating and listening well, possessing insights into others, having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues, being a good critical thinker and problem solver, and being able to make connections across complex ideas. These qualities are valuable in many fields beyond technology.

A holistic approach to education creates minds able to rapidly acquire new modes of learning, develop new strategies, adapt to the needs of future quandaries, and fully explore their own passions. In this model, the individual interest and talents that make each child unique are not ignored, but rather, fully embraced in order to create a dynamic community of diverse learners. Autonomy, creativity, and lateral thinking are valued over rote memorization, creating students fluent in their ability to generate original ideas. Motivated not by grades, but by the natural curiosity that is present in every child, a humanist approach to education creates intrinsically motivated kids that simply love to learn.

A generation of creatively literate citizens is a non-negotiable requirement for future success. It is therefore important that students are taught how to teach themselves, how to define and solve their own problems, and how to work collaboratively towards meaningful goals; all skills that will empower them to become the innovators, leaders, and change agents of tomorrow.

Deborah Bradley-Kramer is MUSE Academy’s Head of School. For more, visit