When Mae Jemison, the first black woman astronaut, who also has a long list of degrees, spoke at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People meeting in Salt Lake City, she made an important statement about children. She said everywhere she went people always asked what motivated her. She said that all children are born motivated, the question is: What do we do to take it out of them?
She is right. All infants are born motivated, with a sense of wonder and creativity. They see the world in awe. And while adults around them try to get their attention with goo goos and baby rattles, they are still checking out their new world. They soon begin to crawl, to stand and to fall. They take chances and fail more often than succeed. They don't know failure as we define it; they are too busy trying new things — innovating and creating.
It's only when they start meeting the demands of adults to focus that they start losing their innate ability to create. Adults call it learning. Infants are taught to focus and do it the right way. The message is don't risk, focus and do it the right way. In doing so, we limit a child's ability to be creative, innovate and imagine. It's called teaching: focus, follow the rules and learn facts. Failure is frowned upon, which squelches the innate ability and creativity a child brings into the world. And we call it education.
We still don't seem to see how our century-old education system that prepared children for past economies is now stifling our ability to prepare students for a digital economy, where innovation, creativity and imagination are the skills needed to succeed. Our schools continue to teach and test for jobs that are done by machines or that no longer exist. Today's students face a future where if they lack the ability to create and innovate they will not have jobs that pay a living wage.
While policymakers and educators struggle to find ways to teach creativity and innovation, they fail to understand it's not to be found in lesson plans, rather in creating an environment that nurtures the innate talent all children are born with — curiosity, creativity and being unafraid of failure. Children don't know what they don't know, until adults and our schools tell them differently. As the story goes, a first grade girl was in her art class drawing a picture when her teacher approached her and asked, "What are you drawing?" And the girl replied, "A picture of God." The teacher then said, "But no one knows what God looks like." And the girl said, "Just wait a minute and they will."
In our highly competitive society, parents often structure their child's life to accelerate their learning and shield them from failure. Often parents don't realize we deprive them of the opportunity to learn from failure needed to allow for their creativity to flourish. To deprive them the chance to fail is to deny children the chance to grow. While the hard skills are important to learn, the arts and physical activities may be just as important in cultivating the innate creativity and imagination within them.
Our world is in the midst of another social revolution where those societies that cultivate the creative and innovative talent of their young and old will thrive; those that don't will be left behind. While we talk about teaching out-of-the-box, maybe, if we watch and learn from infants, we could learn about creativity.
A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.