Imagination Trumps Knowledge

I am heartened to read in Business Week the results of a recent survey of 1500 chief executives, which I believe validates the need for many diverse educational paths for youth including the Rodney Dangerfield of educational pedagogies, “Unschooling”. Frank Kern, senior vice-president of IBM Global Business Services, reported in the May 10 edition, “What Chief Executives Really Want”

There is compelling new evidence that CEOs’ priorities in this area are changing in important ways. According to a new survey of 1,500 chief executives conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value (NYSE: IBM – News), CEOs identify “creativity” as the most important leadership competency for the successful enterprise of the future.


Since IBM is a big time purveyor of consulting services, they have marketing self-interest in maybe teasing out and publicizing such results. But still, it validates Einstein’s quotes, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”. Maybe 150 years ago the important knowledge was a finite quantity that could actually be mostly learned by a single person. But today knowledge is expanding geometrically, and like monetary hyper-inflation, it significantly devalues the currency.

Imagination and creativity, on the other hand, are traits I believe all people are born with. Developing these capabilities goes well beyond just drawing a picture, inventing a story, or doing a diorama to illustrate the theme of a lesson. Their exercise is all about developing the agency and compass to investigate and synthesize new data and invent new ways of working with it. It is not necessarily about studying and employing the algorithms and analysis of experts, though that does have its place.

And there is an important dynamic here… it is very difficult (if not impossible) to develop someone else’s imagination and creativity, it is something they have to have the inspiration, free space and enriched environment to do themselves.

I am afraid most school systems today offer an externally mandated, prefabricated, pedagogically dogmatic curriculum that is the anathema to imagination and creativity. Where is the imagination in being told by others what the subject and lesson will be each hour of each day for twelve mandated years of school attendance? Even kindergarten (originally conceived by Friedrich Fröbel as literally a children’s garden for developmental play, Einstein’s “highest form of research”) has become academically regimented. Where is the creativity in having little or no role in the design and management of ones learning environment or choice in the adult mentors one chooses to associate with.

According to Kern, creativity now trumps “operational effectiveness, influence, or even dedication”.

Coming out of the worst economic downturn in their professional lifetimes, when managerial discipline and rigor ruled the day, this indicates a remarkable shift in attitude… Until now creativity has generally been viewed as fuel for the engines of research or product development, not the essential leadership asset that must permeate an enterprise.

There are some very innovative free schools, including the Summerhill School in Kingswinford England and the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts USA, that expect their young students to design their own curriculum and participate in the governance of their schools. At least anecdotally, students who have attended and matriculated from these schools tend to be very entrepreneurial, with their imagination and creativity intact, since there is nothing structurally in their education to militate against developing those characteristics that business leaders now view as valuable.

Even the teacher-led instruction of a conventional school can be part of a self-created curriculum if that instruction is chosen by the student and/or their family rather than mandated by the state. But I think ubiquitous educational content standards that end up mandating most of what a student must study (particularly in middle and high school, and the high-stakes testing that accompanies it) suppresses creativity in favor of “cramming” knowledge.

Our daughter Emma had the experience in her first (and only) year of conventional high school “cramming” Geometry (with me as her tutor), a subject she found no interest in but the State of California demanded that she learn to the extent that she could get a passing grade on her tests. She quickly tired of going from one mandatory class to another, unable to really explore the digital arts that were supposedly featured at this “digital arts magnet” high school. By the end of one year she was ready to stay home and try unschooling like her older brother.

So once she was at home and responsible for her own curriculum (after an initial transitional period of testing her new freedom by doing very little and confronting boredom) she started to develop her own agency and launched into projects that were particularly compelling to her. If I were planning her curriculum, I would never have thought to encourage her to participate in a massively-multiplayer role-playing game on the Internet (See my earlier piece, “Massively Multi-Player on the World Wide Web”). But at the suggestion of her older brother, she did.

What better way to learn to write than to spend hours each day for several years creating and writing the words and story of a fictional character (a female pirate in her case) interacting with other characters (created by other online players around the world), together creating a fictional narrative in an invented world. Today at age 20, she is a budding young science-fiction writer, working as a manager at a small restaurant as her “day job”.

Getting back to Kern’s article, he says…

Against that backdrop of interconnection, interdependency, and complexity, business leaders around the world are declaring that success requires fresh thinking and continuous innovation at all levels of the organization. As they step back and reassess, CEOs have seized upon creativity as the necessary element for enterprises that must reinvent their customer relationships and achieve greater operational dexterity.

The increasing transition of the world from a hierarchical “command and control” model to more of a partnership one (see Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat) has made business leaders realize, according to Kern, that a new approach is required that he labels as “creative disruption”, which includes…

1. Disrupting the Status Quo – Kern asserts that the need to perpetuate the success of “legacy products that are both cash-and-sacred-cows” restricts innovation. What is required instead is “to break with existing assumptions, methods, and best practices”.

Isn’t the externally mandated curriculum and dogmatic educational practice of our current school system a 180-year-old “legacy” of the early 19th Century OSFA (one size fits all) educational dogma of Horace Mann and other progenitors of our public school system? How can such a system encourage the needed creativity, imagination and entrepreneurial orientation, unless our youth are given more of an opportunity to make their own choices and design their own curriculum?

2. Disrupting Existing Business Models – Kern notes that CEOs “select creativity as a leading competency” and “are breaking with traditional strategy-planning cycles in favor of continuous, rapid-fire shifts and adjustments to their business models”.

How can creativity be nourished by school system that works against young students pursuing “deep learning” in their area of interest in favor of a state-mandated curriculum that requires what you need to learn and when you need to learn it?

3. Disrupting Organizational Paralysis – Kern says that creative leaders are challenging the conventional wisdom “to wait for completeness, clarity, and stability before making decisions”.

Don’t are youth need to be involved in schools where they can play an active role in governing those schools to develop an advanced ability to make institutional decisions, and not be a passive consumer of existing structures and instruction?

Summing up, Kern says…

Taken together, these recommendations describe a shift toward corporate cultures that are far more transparent and entrepreneurial. They are cultures imbued with the belief that complexity poses an opportunity, rather than a threat. They hold that risk is to be managed, not avoided, and that leaders will be rewarded for their ability to build creative enterprises with fluid business models, not absolute ones.

To meet this challenge, we need to profoundly rethink the model of our education system which currently trains much of our youth to be passive consumers of existing approved knowledge and methods of learning. As a starting point, we need to rethink the methodology we use for evaluating schools and other educational venues to encourage, rather than restrict, profoundly different alternative educational paths, like free schools and even learning outside a formal school environment. It is what I keep beating the drum for… what I call “many paths”.

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2 replies on “Imagination Trumps Knowledge”

  1. Bette Moore says:

    I also commented on the Ed Week article and would like to know more about your “Unschooling” experience. I so agree with your statement that learners need “free space and enriched environment” in order to express themselves. I would add “free TIME” . . . although most teachers – and especially administrators – would have trouble with that.

    Bette Moore

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Bette… The two pieces that best call out my own and my kids’ unschooling experience are “Unschooling in the Art of War” and “Unschooling rather than Highschooling” (with the link at the end to its follow-up “Uncollege”). I must warn you that they are all long pieces, but if you manage to wade thru, I would be very interested in your comments!

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