Apr 18 2008

Danger Ahead

Author Daniel Pink describes how legislation is stopping schools from producing creative thinkers.

“We need to prepare kids for their future, not our past.” If you had to sum up author Daniel Pink’s speech last month at the Consortium of School Networking conference in 11 words, this phrase would be it.

Pink, the best-selling author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, spoke to a full room of education and technology leaders at the closing session of the CoSN conference in Washington, D.C., on March 12. Pink’s latest book speaks about not only how the brain functions, splitting up tasks between the left side and the right side, but also how shifts in the worldwide economy will favor so-called right-brainers in the future.

“Routine work is disappearing,” Pink says. He used the example of how most parents, including his, thought becoming a lawyer was a way to secure a safe future. But lawyers who make their money on bread-and-butter tasks such as divorces and wills, no longer have a future, he said. This is because software programs that complete nine-tenths of the work electronically are cutting into traditional legal work.

Pink went on to explain how design and entertainment, mostly right-brain activities, are becoming a bigger part of the marketplace, even in companies such as Procter & Gamble and General Motors. “Design is about selling products,” Pink says, recounting the story of how a 26-year-old designer created a new prescription drug bottle that is now used by Target stores.

Pink was careful to explain that the core subjects schools are centered around remain important, but that mastery of these topics is no longer enough to guarantee success.

Speaking to reporters before his speech, he centered on the implications his book’s findings have for education. “Schools are moving in the wrong direction,” he says, talking about placing more focus on high-stakes tests and less on creativity and ingenuity. “In some ways, it’s idiotic. We have to stop fighting the last war.”

But Pink says it’s not teachers, principals and superintendents who don’t understand these lessons, but legislators. “Legislators are clueless, and they design the system,” he said. “Twenty-first century skills call for a more realistic and nuanced view of science and technology, rather than a vending machine for right answers.

“Society wants people who can think and see around corners, not technicians,” he adds.

Looking at the effects that No Child Left Behind has had on education, Pink says, “If the United States had an enemy bent on destruction, this [emphasis on standardized testing] is what they’d like to do.” He says teachers do “heroic work” and often smuggle interesting lessons into class, “making the best of a bad situation.” Teachers need to be given more autonomy, and schools need to break down the walls between disciplines and investigate more team-teaching opportunities, Pink says.