No right brain left behind

Must kids prep for ‘risk-taking’? asks USA Today in a a story on the “right-brain future” spiel of Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools (private schools).

Here’s the Cliff Notes version: As traditional jobs in the left-brain world of finance shrink, the USA’s economy will increasingly be tethered to creative innovations rooted in right-brain thinking.

Bassett was inspired by Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.

At High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego, students are encouraged to use those skills to practical ends such as dreaming up new sources of energy or calculating ways to stretch the West’s limited water supply, says the school’s CEO, Larry Rosenstock.

“You want kids who are math whizzes, yes. But you want them to also have the creative talent to apply those math skills to find answers to big questions.”

Barrett praises other schools that are pushing students to think outside the box. He cites Fay School in Southborough, Mass., whose students last year teamed with peers at South Saigon International School in Vietnam. Using video chats and a specially created online wiki-space, they designed a “socially conscious business model” that involved both selling products and creating public service announcements to build awareness for disaster relief.

“That’s the future,” he says. “Kids being analytical and creative to come up with solutions for us all.”

Well, the kids are our future. Or, at least, they used to be.

The “killer app” of the 21st century will be combining right-brain innovations with left-brain skill sets, proclaims a companion story.  Hmmm. A whole brain is better than half a brain!

Put bluntly: The economic engine needs more iPods (a talisman no one really knew to miss until it arrived) and fewer data-crunchers (tasks that can be shipped overseas or tackled with software such as TurboTax).

The article’s examples aren’t always convincing:  Is our economic future dependent on lawyers who become interior decorators, Wall Street analysts who start cookie businesses or investment bankers who turn into web photographers?

On the other hand:

First- and second-year Harvard Med students now vie to get into (Joel) Katz’s 10-week course that uses Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to teach future physicians how to critically analyze famous paintings.

Those who take the art course typically show “a 50% improvement” in assessing a patient’s symptoms, says Katz, himself an internist. “Usually doctors are not trained in humanism. Students usually say this has expanded their way of thinking, which benefits the patient.”

Though I was a creative writing major, I’m a logical, linear thinker. I don’t look around and see a surplus of logical thinkers, nor a shortage of “creative” types. What we need are those whole-brain people.

Risk takers? Sure. But that’s not something anyone learns in school. It’s part of the American culture.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. One of my cousins attended Fay Elementary. Virtually all of its students come from the most advantaged circumstances (my cousin’s father was a highly successful stockbroker at the time). The school can afford to devote time to fostering “right brain” skills in a way that the typical school cannot. It’s like Sidwell Friends in D.C. or the Little Red Schoolhouse in NYC. What works well in an affluent, selective private school might be a recipe for disaster in a regular government-run school.

  2. How would the effectiveness of this type of activty in schools be evaluated?

    I think the best a teacher can do is try to avoid discouraging their student‘s attempts to be creative and try to discourage students from thinking of themselves as talented in only certain areas.

    I think risk taking has its place but: The bigget riak takers in school are thoses who take their tests with no prior studying or preparation. Do we want risk taking surgeons or airline pilots?

  3. “How would the effectiveness of this type of activty in schools be evaluated?”

    Intuitively, of course.

    I don’t know many teens who need further encouragement in the way of risk-taking. It’s surprising so many of them reach adulthood.

  4. I don’t look around and see a surplus of logical thinkers, nor a shortage of “creative” types.

    So true. Big problem.

  5. Perhaps we should define “risk taking” as “intellectual risk taking”–and specify that we’re not talking about risky behavior here. While risk taking (in the best sense of the phrase) is not necessarily something one learns in school, we should be sensitive to the ways in which schools can stifle students’ desire to take intellectual risks.

  6. On the surface, this sounds to me like another one of those “And Einstein was a C student” beliefs: that if you have enough woo-woo power, you are more SPECIAL and therefore will be the success in the future, and all of the students who are swotting away and actually trying to learn stuff are just dinosaurs who will be left in the dust.

    And as one of those once and future swots, that attitude really chafes me.

    And: What Norm said.

  7. Ragnarok says:

    Hmm, I thought those “traditional jobs in the … world of financewere held by highly creative risk-takers!

    They were so creative that nobody understood them, and so risky that they hammered the economy into the ground.

    This piece could only have been written by people with no understanding of intellectual rigour and beauty. Perhaps they should have read Snow’s “Two Cultures“.

  8. tim-10-ber says:

    Actually the risk takers in the world of high finance are highly analytical quants…isn’t that a left brain function?

    Read John Taylor Gatto’s newest book called Weapons of Mass Instruction. Before compulsory government education kids attended school for a few years and then were off. Creativity, independence, entrepreneurs were in abundance…this was the American dream…had an idea, make it work and you would be self-sufficient.

    Government schools were designed to kill this natural instinct in children. They succeeded. Adolescence was invented at the turn of the last century to keep these naturally curious, creative, inventive kids out of the world and stifle their future…they succeeded.

    And with the government schools we get the mess this country in today.

    Right brain — that is the creative side…let the kids explore this side…

    My son at age 7 figured out how to do go motion (think california raisens). No one showed him how…he just knew and did it…

    The list is endless for countless others…get the government out of the schools…let kids explore this side of them…think micro loans and the possibilities are endless…wow!!!

  9. What tim-10-ber said!

  10. The mere mention of Gatto makes me roll my eyes so hard it hurts. We have whole neighborhoods just full of enterprising teenagers who quit school at 8th grade. Some of them make pretty good money for their risk-embracing business strategies.

    I think Pink is incorrect in his analysis and that his ideas are going to fall apart with the economy. Nobody needs designers and empathic life counselors after the auto plant, the suppliers, dealers, surrounding restaurants, K-Mart, and Starbucks close.

    But I’m still trying to figure out how to get one of those corporate poet jobs.

    I’m with Joanne on this one. While half a brain is certainly better than none (see the sterling example with three kids who mouths his way to the unemployment line), a whole brain certainly seems to be the way to go.

    I agree with Claus, too.

  11. Ragnarok says:

    “Actually the risk takers in the world of high finance are highly analytical quants…”

    No, they’re mostly traders (Milken, Meriwether, Madoff etc.).

    “…see the sterling example with three kids who mouths his way to the unemployment line…”

    If you mean Bobby Krotendorfer, I think it’s admirable that he’s doing what he can, particularly when two of the kids aren’t his.

  12. Tracy W says:

    Adolescence was invented at the turn of the last century to keep these naturally curious, creative, inventive kids out of the world and stifle their future…they succeeded.

    May I ask what evidence you based this assertion on? The evidence I know is to the contrary. For example between 1830 and 1900 GDP growth per capita in the UK was 157%. From 1930 to 2000 it was 274%. In the USA GDP per capita growth was 191% between 1830 and 1900, and 365% between 1930 and 2000. See http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/Historical_Statistics/horizontal-file_09-2008.xls

    In other words, since the invention of adolesence, people became far more productive economically, which implies a lot of innovation going on.

    Also, since 1900 we’ve had the Civil Rights movement, and now there’s a black president of the USA, the second wave of feminism, with female Prime Ministers in the UK, NZ, and India and elsewhere, and female Secretary of States in the USA, the Gay Rights movement, etc. So the future for blacks, women, homosexuals, disabled people has been opened up, the opposite of stifling.

    We’ve had the vast increase in creativity shown in Hollywood, Bollywood, and the Hong Kong and Japanese film industries. We’ve had the invention of TV and the incredible creative richness of that, from Monty Python to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While you can find early examples of SF in the 19th century, Asimov, Heinlein, Greg Bear, Terry Pratchett are all 20th century writers.

    In science we have had amazing inventions and discoveries – the development of penicillin, the discovery of the structure of DNA, the Coase theorem in economics, the proof that ulcers are caused by a bacterial infection, Chomsky’s idea of a “universal grammar” in linguistics, etc.

    And the arts have shown a remarkable level of creativity in coming up with weird stuff so the art collectors can continue to feel superior to the hoi polloi. This does strike me as a waste of time, but it’s creative.

    I don’t see how you can reconcile any of this with the belief that there’s been a loss in curiousity, creativity, or invention.

    Right brain — that is the creative side…let the kids explore this side…

    Creativity is fine, but you need analytical discipline as well. Otherwise you make remarkable statements like “Adolescence was invented at the turn of the last century to keep these naturally curious, creative, inventive kids out of the world and stifle their future…they succeeded” and don’t even apparently think whether to check this hypothesis against reality.

  13. Tracy W says:

    Returning to the main theme of the post, I’m surprised by this one:

    The economic engine needs more iPods (a talisman no one really knew to miss until it arrived) and fewer data-crunchers (tasks that can be shipped overseas or tackled with software such as TurboTax).

    While I don’t have any particular insight into Apple’s processes, my experience in other areas of engineering is that producing a quality product like an iPod is dependent on a lot of data-crunching – done by test engineers.

    As for critically analysing paintings, hmmm, a doctor who teaches the course thinks that it leads to a 50% improvement in accuracy. Perhaps we should apply a bit of critical thinking to that statement? Katz could be right, but he’s not a reliable source.

    Furthermore, the article assumes that there is something new about this. But there isn’t, the economy has always been dependent on a mix of creative thinking and tough analytical thinking. For example the development of the automobile and its mass production required a number of creative breakthroughs about new ways to do things. Ditto the development of the railway and electricity. Consider for example the breakthrough in realising that power could be transmitted by AC means rather than DC means. Or, to take a nastier example, Napolean’s innovation in military techniques back in the early 19th century forced other European nations to innovate back again. I’ve just been reading “The Mould in Dr Florey’s Coat”, about the development of pencillin as an effective medical treatment in the 1930s and this required a fair bit of creative thinking, eg how to make the pencillin stable so it could be transported and stored before injecting. The Green Revolution in agriculture happened in the middle of the 20th century.

  14. “The economic engine needs more iPods (a talisman no one really knew to miss until it arrived) and fewer data-crunchers (tasks that can be shipped overseas or tackled with software such as TurboTax)”

    What specific aspects of iPod: conceptualization, design, engineering, production planning, marketing, logistics–does this individual believe are incapable of being done overseas?

  15. Tracy W says:

    Good point David, after all New Zealand has been successfully outsourcing most of its technology improvements to the USA, the UK, Germany and Japan for over 150 years.

  16. > ‘Perhaps we should define “risk taking” as “intellectual risk taking”–and specify that we’re not talking about risky behavior here.’

    I’m not sure what would qualify as “intellectual risk taking”. If this simply means “initiative” then I agree it’s more a case of “quit stifling it” than inventing a new course to teach it. Perhaps an entrepreneurial approach to learning would be to define goals and let the students try to reach those goals by any means necessary.

    I suppose dropping out of school to become a black market entrepreneur could be considered intellectual risk-taking, in which case many districts already excel at this.

  17. The USAToday article is ridiculous. Their “right-brain” success stories are a collection of unemployed bankers and lawyers who’re trying their hand at supplying luxury goods (cookies, interior design, photographer.)

    Maybe my children will grow up to become customized website designers–but I suspect that accountants and dentists will earn more.

  18. Ringling sent my daughter, an incoming freshman, a copy. She’s already creative–that’s how she got in. She wants to be an animator. I’ve told her that she’ll need a basic understanding of copyright, intellectual property law, how to read a contract and how make a budget. She knows I’m right, even if it all sounds dull. At least she can figure out how to hire an accountant who won’t cheat her.

    Creative people need to learn the basics of negotiation, marketing, etc. Logical, linear thinkers can learn to do the boogaloo.

  19. Richard Aubrey says:

    The reason behind the acceleration in technological and organizational progress is simple numbers.
    The more people, the more likely it is that there will be somebody with a hot, new idea. If it is useful, it will spread. But if you have twice as many people, you have twice the chance that there will be the one with the new thought.