Two pieces published in the New York Times this week entirely separately support the argument made here that our students need not just “hard” knowledge and skills to prepare them, they need also to be powerfully effective in their ability to create, imagine, innovate, and apply these skills in the real world.  In one, a military expert pleads for more innovative thinking from our Army leaders, and in another, we learn about preparing students for careers which blend digital skills and creativity.  I will end by connecting these ideas to a recent piece from Yong Zhao, arguing our schools need to teach creativity more effectively.

The first piece, an op-ed by Mark Moyar, a professor of national security affairs at Marine Corps University, is entitled “An Officer and a Creative Man.” The crisis emerging in the armed services, Dr. Moyar writes, is “a significant portion are not demonstrating the vital leadership attributes of creativity, flexibility and initiative.”

Researchers have found that the leadership ranks of big organizations are dominated by either “sensing-judging” or “intuitive thinking” personality types. Those in the former category rely primarily on the five senses to tell them about the world; they prefer structure and standardization, doing things by the book and maintaining tight control.

Today, the Army has more intuitive-thinking people among its lieutenants and captains than at the upper levels.  To their credit, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, have been trying to fix this problem, directing promotion boards to value creativity and initiative. But more drastic treatment is required. More immediately, our generals should repeatedly visit the colonels who command brigades and battalions to see if they are encouraging subordinates to innovate and take risks. Commanders who refuse to stop micromanaging should be relieved. The change may be disruptive and painful, but in the long run it will save lives and shorten wars.

The second piece, entitled “New Programs Aim to Lure Young into Digital Jobs” argues that “hybrid careers like Dr. Halamka’s that combine computing with other fields will increasingly be the new American jobs of the future, labor experts say. In other words, the nation’s economy is going to need more cool nerds. But not enough young people are embracing computing — often because they are leery of being branded nerds.”

A first observation is that something I love about schools like my own, St. Gregory, is how rarely we encounter the problem of “nerd-branding;” at schools like our own, it is cool to be a lover of learning and a fan of computing, science, and math.

More importantly, we need to think about what computer science courses look like in high school.

“Today,  introductory courses in computer science are too often focused merely on teaching students to use software like word processing and spreadsheet programs, said Janice C. Cuny, a program director at the National Science Foundation. The Advanced Placement curriculum, she added, concentrates narrowly on programming. “We’re not showing and teaching kids the magic of computing,” Ms. Cuny said.  One goal, Ms. Cuny and others say, is to explain the steady march and broad reach of computing across the sciences, industries, culture and society.

The point made here is that computing is not sitting in a basement writing code anymore; it is about bringing the technical skills of computer programming to “fields that are made possible by computing, like gene-sequencing that unlocks the mysteries of life and simulations that model climate change. ”  It is about art, and animation; it is about “drawing on a computer, using specialized graphics and modeling software. Her computer science education, she said, is an asset every day in her work, less for technical skills than for what she learned about analytic thinking… “Computer science taught me how to think about things, how to break down and solve complex problems,” Ms. Lehtomaki [A Disney animator] said.”

A solid grounding in computing, experts say, promises rewards well beyond computer science. Most new jobs in the modern economy will be heavily influenced by technology, said Robert Reich, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and former labor secretary in the Clinton administration. And they will require education beyond high school, though often two years or less.

“Most of them will not be pure technology jobs, designing computer software and hardware products, but they will involve applying computing and technology-influenced skills to every industry,” Mr. Reich said. “Think Geek Squads in other fields,” he added, referring to a popular tech-support service.

I think the article is more important that it realizes; the argument it makes really runs in both directions, a point it only partially takes notice of.  It is essential that students have the computational skills to bring to creative arts and and other fields, but it is also essential they have the creativity and ingenuity above and beyond the technical skills to best put the package together and succeed most powerfully.   And it is essential that our computing classes ask kids to bring their skills outside of the box, outside of the programming code lines, and into tackling real world challenges.

I’ll end with a lengthy and impassioned quote from Michigan State University Professor of Education Yong Zhao, who regular readers here know is a great inspiration of mine; I have written extensively here about his wonderful book, Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization.   Zhao’s piece in EdWeek is entitled Over the Top: Six [Tongue in Cheek] Tips for Winning the Race to the Top Money.   Zhao is emerging swiftly as among the very most important critics of the national movement to narrow and standardize academic achievement, and is arguing, as both the articles above support, that we need broad minded students who have mastered core knowledge AND developed their creativity and talents.   In responding to Race to the Top’s emphasis on STEM learning, he points out that “what children will really need to be successful in the 21st century global economy [are] cross-cultural competencies, foreign languages, and digital capabilities.”

He concludes with the following, which must be read appreciating his sarcasm:

“Oh, while you are at it, include a proposal to bar all children under the age of 18 from entering museums, public libraries, and music events; lock up all musical instruments in schools, and fire all music, art, and physical education teachers; close sports facilities; disconnect all Internet connections; and cut down on lunch time, because the Race to the Top initiative wants to lengthen the school year and school day, and all these are distracting kids from studying for tests…

But that requires you to discard the notion that creativity, talent, and technology are important for the future. You must also not think that a healthy society needs musicians, arts, and athletes.   Nor can you assume that a well rounded human being is essential for a democracy.  Of course, you should also deny the fact that creativity, art, design and music play significant roles in the world of science and technology today.”

It is this last point that looms largest for me, and connects the dot.   Whether for military leadership or computer programming careers, we have to recognize and implement the critical importance that successful careers will require not just technical proficiency (it will require that!) but also the broader skills of creativity, design, intuition, and risk-taking.