Creativity and Problem Solving: If You Could be Any Toy…

I was always amazed in my over two decades of higher education experience at how difficult it was for college students to make the transition from accumulating knowledge for building a knowledge base to learning knowledge in order to problem solve. Some examples:

One day, a work-study student came into my office for his work shift, and he was completely enraged. He had just handed in an economics problem-set in which he was sure the answers were all correct. The professor then proceeded to divide the class up into groups and had them work on a case study related to the problem-set. The student was enraged because “there was no one right answer.”

Another student left a business case interview disgusted because one of the questions before the actual case was “If you could be any toy, what would you be?” She felt that it was a silly question to ask in a “serious” interview. The career staff pointed out that this was an excellent opportunity to flex her creativity. One answer could have been Mr. Potato Head because she could be flexible and change as needed. She considered the answer and said, “Ok, but flexibility is limited by the number of extra parts in the box.” So then the discussion became, “How do you expand the options? What are the consequences of expansion?” That really is what employers are looking for: Viable problem-solving options.

I know next to nothing about the Common Core curriculum, but I wonder how it is going to prepare students to take on the role of problem solver  in school and in work life. Workplace needs are dynamic, and what was the right answer last week may not work as a solution for this week’s problem. And your concept of the “right answer” may differ from those of your team mates. What to do? I asked a recruiter from Mitsubishi, “What happens when an automotive designer’s ideas clash with what the engineers come up with? Who is ‘right?’ Who wins?” His answer: “They both have to come up with a solution that works.”

In other words, in the real world of work, it is no longer enough to memorize the textbook, the white papers or the manuals to get the “right answer.” You still need that knowledge; however, creative application of that knowledge, often in conjunction with other people, is what is needed to solve problems.

This leads to a question I often get from parents of college students and college personnel: Which is better for getting a job: a liberal arts degree or a specialized degree? Both types of degrees are useful if students acquire a solid knowledge base while understanding how to use it to solve problems.  And letting go of the idea that there is one right answer frees up the process to let creativity in, to try on what-if scenarios and examine their consequences before implementing them. People do not always like that answer because it becomes clear that getting a job is not about who has the most knowledge and skills, but who can use those knowledge and skills to adapt to a dynamic workplace and be able to provide solutions.


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