Creativity isn’t learned in class

Japanese visitors asked Fordham’s Mike Petrilli how the U.S. produces innovative leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s not a school thing, he replies. It’s an after-school thing. While Japanese adolescents are going to cram school, American kids are doing “sports, music, theater, student council, cheerleading, volunteering, church activities, and on and on.”

If you are looking for sources of innovative thinking, leadership and teamwork skills, competitiveness, and creativity, aren’t these better candidates than math class?

Or course, some “are just hanging out, smoking pot, getting in trouble, etc.,” Petrilli writes. But “some of these young people end up creating successful start-ups too!”

And then there’s the American parenting style. U.S. parents don’t teach their children self-discipline and delayed gratification, asserts Pamela Druckerman in Bringing up Bebe.

This, she suggests, fosters out-of-control toddlers and may lead to serious problems down the road, particularly for kids growing up in neighborhoods where community bonds have frayed.

On the other hand, by allowing our young to negotiate endlessly with us and stand up for what they want, we are also teaching them a form of self-assuredness. Treating little kids as equals might wreak havoc in the short term, but it’s possible that it creates non-hierarchical, confident, transformational leaders in the long run.

Certainly, Steve Jobs exemplified the brilliant brat, but I’m not sure that self-discipline and creativity are antithetical.

Learning leadership

Don’t cut sports to save money, urges Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. Students learn leadership and responsibility through extra-curriculars.

He cites education analyst Craig Jerald’s report on “life and career skills,” which are said to include “flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity and accountability, and leadership and responsibility.”

(Jerald) quotes a 2005 paper by economists Peter Kuhn and Catherine Weinberger for the Journal of Labor Economics: “Controlling for cognitive skills,” they said, “men who occupied leadership positions in high school earn more as adults. The pure leadership-wage effect varies, depending on definitions and time period, from 4 percent to 33 percent.” A Mathematica Policy Research study also shows that although math had the biggest impact of any skill on later earnings, playing sports and having a leadership role in high school also were significant factors.

But perhaps active, healthy students who take leadership roles start with more leadership abilities than their coach-potato classmates.

Kuhn and Weinberger found evidence, Jerald said, “that leadership is not just a natural talent, but one that can be developed by participation in extracurricular activities.”

I’d hate to see sports go, but let’s protect the mock trial team, the robotics club and the theater program too. There are lots of ways to learn life skills.