Creative Education

“It is time for Asia to transition from a perspiration economy to an inspiration economy,” executive director Jisung Park stated in his opening to the K.E.Y. Platform 2015: Education in Sweden breakout session.

He was alluding to Paul Krugman’s analysis of the Asian growth miracle that has seen South Korea explode to the top of nearly every economic indicator. Less than half a century ago, such a high level of economic development would have been unfathomable – following World War II, South Korea was on par with some of the most destitute nations of the world. Fast-forward to today, where hundreds of skyscrapers dominate the landscape of Seoul, and the growth truly does seem miraculous.  As Jisung mentioned in his presentation, South Korea is literally the textbook case of rapid scale-up of industry and modernization.

The general consensus is that much of this miraculous growth can be attributed to South Korea’s rigorous education system. Recently, however, this education system has been viewed under heavy scrutiny, as some fear it breeds a culture of economic stagnation. For this reason, “Education in Sweden” was chosen as a topic of discussion at this conference.

But before we unpack what that means, let us first take a step back and lay out the theoretical framework regarding growth and education. Historically (and globally), economic growth has generally been correlated with increases in education. The logic is simple: a smarter and better-trained workforce is a more productive one.But the practical application of this is more nuanced – in order to be efficacious, the education system of a country must match a country’s stage of economic development. In order to elaborate on this point, Jisung divided general macroeconomic growth into two large subsets: Phase 1 and Phase 2 growth.

Phase 1 is characterized as “catch-up growth.” The primary feature of developing economies, this phase is dedicated to catching up to the established technological frontier that already exists. Phase 1 is pure industry: spitting out products from an assembly line as quickly and efficiently as possible, iteration after iteration.

Meanwhile, Phase 2 is “endogenous growth.” This means internally advancing the technological frontier. Instead of accepting the current status quo as the standard to reach, a nation in Phase 2 is constantly seeking to push that standard a little bit higher. Developed nations reside in Phase 2 growth, where production is paralleled by innovation, and the accepted norm is for every product to eventually be superseded by a better version of itself.

The transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2 growth is the transition from a perspiration to an inspiration economy, as mentioned above. It means shifting from manufacturing and industry to the provision ofservices and ideas; it is going from “an economy of things to an economy of growth.”

This transition requires more than just a change in industry; it requires a change in education. As one might imagine, education systems needed for Phase 1 growth are drastically different from systems needed for Phase 2 growth. The former is extremely compatible with rote learning and conformity. The Korean education system is notorious for its long hours of schooling and emphasis on memorization. Exams are geared towards generating the correct answers; classroom discussion is black-and-white, with little room for creativity. Success in school is defined by stamina and consistency, which mirrors success in an industrial workplace ruled by the assembly line.

In Phase 1, success – and analogously, economic growth – follows a strict algorithm. Phase 2, on the other side of the spectrum, demands the destruction of such algorithms. The same variables are at play, but they serve as scaffolding, rather than as foundation. Phase 2 growth needs creative, independent thinking. It involves mastering rules to know when to break them. As such, students should not be obsessed with finding the right answers, but rather, with asking the right questions.

If Korea is currently defined by Phase 1-styled education, then Sweden represents what it wants to become. Sweden is a prime example of Phase 2-styled education. Peter Varbrand, Vice President of Linkoping University, and Hans Adolfsson, Vice President of Stockholm University both presented creative thinking programs that they have initiated in their respective institutions. Their breakout session, which was moderated by Mallory Dwinal, founder of Oxford Day Academy and S&S affiliate, highlighted programs like “Demola” at Linkoping and “OpenLab” at Stockholm, which serve as creative centers for students to find innovative solutions to challenges in society.  In the classroom, less emphasis is placed on rote memorization, and more is placed on skills-based learning. As Varbrand implied in his presentation, when the world is changing so fast, we need students to be more focused on gaining skills to adapt to any circumstance, rather than solely memorizing and regurgitating the equations of the past.

In this context, the transition in education styles is incredibly important for more than just pure economic growth – the challenges we will continue to face as a global community in regards to climate change will necessitate fresh and creative ideas. The world will only keep changing from here on out, and we need students, innovators, and policymakers to be ready to change with it.

Original Slides:  K.E.Y. Platform, 23 April 2015

Image Credit: Samuel Orchard via Wikimedia Commons.

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