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Do Rigid College Admissions Leave Room for Creative Thinkers?

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Getting kids into college is the main goal of many high schools. There are plenty of arguments about why higher education isn’t right for every student and myriad ideas about how young adults could productively spend time exploring their passions. But in most cases, high schools have a close eye on application requirements at universities and strive to produce “college ready” graduates, students who are equipped to make informed choices about the next phase of their lives and are prepared academically to succeed in college.

Universities say they're looking for students who are engaged citizens and independent thinkers with a desire to be a part of the school’s community. But many of the measures used to determine college admission don’t test for those qualities. Instead, colleges look at SAT or ACT test scores, the number of Advanced Placement classes a student has completed, GPAs and the ability to write a strong essay. There is often a disconnect between the kind of student colleges say they want and what students have to do to be admitted. That’s why high school graduates are increasingly becoming, “robo students” in the words of Stanford Lecturer Denise Pope, young people “doing school,” but not necessarily learning.


Given this phenomenon, some universities and colleges are beginning to rethink their admission policies and recognize more directly how their requirements influence the kind of teaching and learning that happens at the K-12 level.

“I think that colleges need to change what they look for,” said Robert Sternberg, who recently resigned as president of the University of Wyoming (UW). “We should be admitting students for their active citizenship and leadership skills, the kinds of skills that are really important for life.” Sternberg spent 30 years as a professor at Yale University, five years as a dean at Tufts University and was the Provost of Oklahoma State University for three years before becoming President of UW. In all of these roles, Sternberg has pushed the institutions to rethink admissions policies.


“The tests we rely on so heavily really don’t measure creative thinking and they don’t measure common sense thinking, wisdom, ethics, work ethic -- they don’t measure your character,” Sternberg said. In his view, students go to college to develop into active and engaged citizens. If colleges kept that ultimate goal in mind in their admissions process, it would send a message to high schools about the skills that universities value and want to see in prospetive students.

Sternberg's research as a psychology professor at Yale centered on measuring intelligence and creativity shows how socialization steers the way kids develop. Kids who grow up in adverse circumstances learn to adapt with practical survival skills, while more affluent kids are often asked to focus on analytical and memory skills. The traditional college application process largely tests analytical skills, giving the kids who developed in an environment that valued those qualities an advantage. That system doesn’t allow colleges to admit the most creative and adaptable student populations, Sternberg said.

successful-intelligence2While at Tufts, he helped the school pilot a new admissions policy based on testing students for their creative and practical skills in addition to their analytical skills. The school found that the new method helped them better predict student success. The application asked questions like, “How would you persuade a friend of an idea that the friend didn’t immediately accept?” Or, “How could one of your personal passions positively affect the world?” Students could choose to express their answers in multiple ways including essays, creative YouTube videos, and through drawings. Admissions officers were trained to look for the thinking behind the answers, not just writing skills.

Tufts had to hire a few more admissions officers and retrain the existing ones, but Sternberg said gradually the student population began to change. “The benefits were much greater than the costs because admissions should be based on the mission of your college or university,” Sternberg said. “It changes the kids who are accepted and it begins to change how you think about what it means to have a talented student,” he said.

Students learn what's important for them to know from their environment. “The point is that what you ought to be measuring is how well they’ve learned the skills that allow them to adapt to the environment in which they grew up,” Sternberg said. That knowledge will help colleges understand how the student will adapt in a new environment. Tests weighted towards skill sets that weren’t necessary for survival in certain environments, make those students look comparatively much worse.

“We need to send the message to high schools that we’re looking for more,” Sternberg said. “The way to do that is augment what we use to admit kids.”


Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a public magnet high school in Philadelphia is a fairly young school, just eight years old. But in that short time, it's developed a reputation around the country as a shining example of the merits of inquiry-based learning approach. Colleges sometimes have a difficult time understanding the school’s approach to developing autonomous, critical thinkers. For example, SLA doesn’t offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses, because making students take a summative test at the end of the year is antithetical to the concept of allowing students to guide their own learning based on interest and collaborative work -- and just as importantly, the value of the incremental learning process.

“You can never be a revolutionary at the expense of the kids,” said SLA principal Chris Lehmann. He says there are plenty of things that high schools can do that are innovative and different, but schools need to know when that is appropriate and when experimentation might hurt its students. SLA has a good track record of sending students to college, despite some of its non-traditional practices -- 97 percent are accepted to colleges.

Lehmann describes SLA as taking the traditionally recognizable school mold and stretching it to its edge. “One of the reasons we chose to do that was because we knew we had to get kids into college,” Lehmann said. “There are so many colleges who really want kids who can problem solve, who can lead, who can think and who have a really innovative mind,” he said. That’s why SLA invites college representatives to visit the school and observe for themselves the kind of learning taking place there.

“We’ve spent a lot of time bringing colleges to SLA and showing them what SLA kids can do,” Lehmann said. “What sells colleges on our kids is our kids,” he said. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Lehmann says a school doing something out of the mold always has to be prepared to argue for its approach, especially when it’s a new district school, not an established private one. Lehmann says he has been pleasantly surprised at how well college representatives respond to the SLA model.

Grades are another area where Science Leadership Academy has compromised between its ideal and what colleges want. Teachers give a lot of narrative and qualitative feedback on student work, but at the end of the class they also give students a letter grade -- that’s what colleges want to see. It’s a delicate balance between building school cultures and practices that genuinely reflect the values of its educators and playing within the system. It can be done -- but it takes extra effort and awareness.

While change is slow, Lehmann says some schools are beginning to shift how they teach to be more in line with SLA’s inquiry-based approach. Schools like Drexel University and MIT are trying out hands-on programs, and Bard is experimenting with its admissions strategy. “Colleges sometimes are slow to recognize the good work and best practice that is happening around them,” Lehmann said.

“For me the evolution of education has to understand that it requires one part vision and one part history,” Lehmann said. “Let’s not think that we need to remake everything that has ever happened without an eye to the past. That’s when you make mistakes.”


From the perspective of employers, college graduates need to be ready to enter a working world that requires flexible, adaptable, nimble thinkers and doers.

Jump Associates, a strategy and information firm, is an example of a company that requires a more "hybrid" nature of skill sets in the working world. Companies hire Jump to solve complex, ambiguous problems. For example, the company worked with Samsung to try and come up with a tablet that would outshine Apple’s iPad before the iPad had even been released. There was very little information on hand, but a solution had to be reached.

“All of these organizations are facing problems of extreme ambiguity,” said Dev Patnaik, CEO of Jump Associates. ‘The world is changing, what do I do about that.’ In that situation the biggest problem is to define the problem.” To do that, Jump Associates tries to hire what they call “hybrid-thinkers,” people who are "one part technologist, one part humanist and one part capitalist." “What we’ve learned is you start with people who have deep expertise in multiple disciplines at the same time,” Patnaik said.

But universities don’t often encourage that kind of cross-discipline thinking naturally. “Universities are set up to be incredibly siloed,” said Patnaik who teaches a class at Stanford. “These bigger more nebulous, more meaningful questions live in between and across these silos.” But it’s difficult to change the system because most people came up through that a system that encourages them to continually narrow their focus of study.

Patnaik thinks the U.S. is getting off track by trying to compete with China and India in math and science because of the assumption that those fields lead to jobs. “I worry that the last five years of economic recession has made us all very scared, and when you’re scared, you start thinking, 'What’s in it for me in the short term,'” he said. He doesn’t think the U.S. will ever be as good at pumping out math and science majors as India or China, but if the it plays to its traditional strengths – creativity, innovation, bridging cognitive gaps – then there’s an opportunity to be the country that shapes the problem. “We’re throwing that all away out of fear and calling it STEM,” he said.

Jump Associates asks its employees to solve seemingly unsolvable problems. “We need people to come up with ideas about what ought to be designed,” Patnaik said. While universities are slowly evolving to meet this challenge, focusing on more interdisciplinary learning for instance, students are often still focused on learning to become “successful,” rather than on learning because it makes them well-rounded and productive humans.


One start-up is tackling the notion of what an elite college education might look like. The Minerva Project received $25 million in seed money to produce what they call "high quality" higher education, entirely online. The university plans to accept its first class in September of 2014 and is working to finalize its hybrid curriculum and online delivery mechanisms.

“Our goal is to create leaders and innovators in a variety of disciplines that operate in a global context,” said Stephen Kosslyn, dean of faculty at Minerva Project. “That’s where we start.” By starting from scratch, the school is free of the traditions and expectations that become stumbling blocks for older institutions grappling with change.

Kosslyn has a lot of experience with tradition-laden institutions -- he was on the faculty of Harvard for more than 30 years, teaching psychology, and then as the Dean of Social Sciences. He’s familiar with slow moving initiatives to change the way universities run. “I was ready for something else,” Kosslyn said. “I wanted to do something that would really make a difference.”

The Minerva Project has thrown out all the assumptions about “college readiness” that have long existed. Instead, the founders focused on the skills students should have when they finish -- critical analysis, creative thinking and effective communication – and backed into thinking about how to get them to that point. Kosslyn admits that it’s difficult to define what is meant in each of those categories. Critical analysis involves critical thinking and the ability to evaluate tradeoffs and various outcomes. But critical thinking can also be more than one thing. “Breaking it down, we get to the point that we can teach things,” Kosslyn said.

Kosslyn and his team intend to help students prepare for an unknown future by developing skill sets that allow them to adapt. “We’re interested in cultivating habits of mind that become very effortless and automatic and allow you to do these things,” Kosslyn said. It also means they're looking for very different qualities in students they accept.

“We’re looking for a combination of cognitive abilities and personality characteristics,” Kosslyn said, not SAT scores. Minerva wants students that exhibit grit, an openness to new experiences, and maturity. They’re using a test they've created that tries to measure  these qualities that's agnostic of a student's class, background, and country of origin, important for a university expecting a global population. But Kosslyn said those test won’t make or break an application. “What you need to do is look at the entire picture, including what they’ve done before,” he said.

Students who attend Minerva will have to be self-directed and good at working collaboratively. Their courses will be delivered online and the university will likely leverage the information on the web to require students to be independently motivated. “What you need is people who are really motivated and have enough ability that they can teach themselves or can function in a group that’s helping them to learn,” Kosslyn said.

The hope is that students will begin to know their own strengths and bring those to collaborations. “The problems we are faced with are complex enough that we will need to solve them in teams,” Kosslyn said. And since collaborative work is a required skill in most jobs, Minerva students will learn it.

In fact, in the first year the students will take four courses: multi-modal communication, complex systems, empirical systems, and computational sciences. The intention is for traditionally separate subjects to be integrated if they involve complimentary skills.


As the Minerva experiment develops, some existing universities are taking steps to award college credit based on skills learned, not the amount of time they've been enrolled.

One approach to this problem is to standardize the definition by a college degree. “The learning and expectations should be the constant and if you can do it faster why should that be a problem,” said Jamie Marisotis, CEO of the Lumina Foundation, an organization working to ensure that 60 percent of Americans have post-secondary degrees by 2025. The Lumina Foundation supports experiments like College For America, a project of Southern New Hampshire University and the University of Wisconsin’s Flexible Option. These programs are experimenting with degree programs based on mastering required skills and contents at a pace the student sets.

“Competency should not mean competency in tasks,” Marisotis said. “What we’re really talking about in terms of competency are those broader things like constructing an argument.” He’d like higher education to follow the example set by K-12 education with the Common Core State Standards, a set of broad criteria that students master before graduating.

By eliminating the four-year degree and making sure that every student graduates with a similar set of skills, a college education would become less expensive and more accessible to a broader population. But, it would also undermine the pedagogical approaches of many university departments.

“I’m very sympathetic to the perspective of the faculty because what we’re talking about is very different than what they have done and what they’ve gone into their careers to do,” Marisotis said. He says those who want to see change in higher education need to be patient with faculty who are crucial to making any new system work.

“The main model is to produce high quality learners with high quality outcomes that they can apply in their lives,” Marisotis said. But to do that, he believes universities need to be clearer about what the learning expectations should be and where faculty fit into the vision.



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