How to Kill Creativity

Yesterday I received a disturbing email… A young person from South Korea sent me an urgent request. Her teacher had marked her wrong on a multiple choice test, and she wanted to contest the answer. So, she reached out to me for support.

What was the problem?

Her teacher had assigned a passage from my book, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. The reading was about seeing the potential in the craziest ideas. Essentially, teams come up with good ideas and bad ideas in response to a prompt, such as how to save water during a drought. When they’re done, the facilitator collects all the good ideas, reads them, and rips them up. Then, the facilitator passes the horrible ideas to another team, which is charged with turning them into brilliant ideas. The resulting solutions are always surprising and many are quite innovative. The lessons from the exercise are that good ideas are usually incremental, and bad ideas often open the door to interesting breakthrough ideas.

The South Korean students had to read the passage and answer a multiple choice question to demonstrate that they understood it. However, the question was written in such a way that even I couldn’t answer it! It was designed to trick the students, and clearly didn’t measure whether they understood the real meaning of the passage.

Ironically, I discuss this in detail earlier in the same book that was referenced in that multiple choice test. Here is an excerpt:

… students are typically given multiple-choice tests with one right answer for every question, and the bubbles must be carefully filled in with number two pencils to make for easy grading. In sharp contrast, in most situations outside of school there are a multitude of answers to every question, many of which are correct in some way. And, even more important, it is acceptable to fail. In fact, failure is an important part of life’s learning process. Just as evolution is a series of trial-and-error experiments, life is full of false starts and inevitable stumbling. The key to success is the ability to extract the lessons out of each of these experiences and to move on with that new knowledge.

This book has been quite successful in South Korea because it invites young people to break free from the constraints they have. It is crazy to think that the same book I wrote with the explicit goal of stretching one’s thinking is being used to shrink it.

I wrote back to the student with my thoughts on the test, explaining that it was a trick question that I would have trouble answering. Sadly, she wrote back, wanting a black and white answer.