Why are we fixated on creativity and problem-solving?

One thing that strikes me when I visit my students who are on placement in multinationals (mainly in the biopharma sector) is that each company has its own culture. For someone like me who has spent all his career in academia, multinationals have a cult-like feel to them. There is a company ‘way’ and if you are to succeed in the company you need to buy in to that way.

It strikes me that the sorts of people who will thrive in that environment are not the independent-thinking, creative types. In fact, successful employees are likely to be conscientious, hard-working, conformist graduates who will make good team players – who will buy into the company way.

And the whole issue of how problems are solved in the biopharma sector is interesting. It seems to me that problem-solving is not the creative process that one might think. Instead, problem-solving seems to occur through the application of SOPs that have been developed as a result of many years of experience and through scientist and engineers having a deep understanding of the process – not some ill-defined problem-solving ability.

Of course it might be different in other, less-regulated sectors, but given that so much of our economy is dominated by multinationals, and given that some of our best graduates are employed in multinationals, we should really be thinking a lot more about the sort of attributes we would like our graduates to have.

My own university used to be known as an institution that emphasised work-ethic and conscientiousness but then these attributes went out of fashion as everyone fixated on critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving. Throughout the HE system, there was a drive to place less emphasis on knowledge acquisition (we have Google!) and to put more emphasis on “skills” and ”independent learning”, the latter being formalised when module descriptors and learning outcomes were imposed on us.

The result is that students don’t really have to study all that hard to get a 2.1. Proof of this is the fact that most students don’t do anything like the number of independent learning hours that they are supposed to do. (See below based on Irish Survey of Student Engagement – 2015 data I think)

image002 (1)

With a 2.1 sending out no real signal as to a graduate’s work ethic, multinationals have to be rigorous in their recruitment practices. And in my experience of our graduates getting onto graduate training programs in the biopharma sector, multinationals almost invariably hire graduates who are at, or close to, the top of the class. These are the conscientious graduates that multinationals want.

The upshot of this is we need to real think harder about the attributes we want our students to have, or acquire, and stop simply repeating ridiculous mantras that are regularly trotted out by organisations like the World Economic Forum

1 thought on “Why are we fixated on creativity and problem-solving?

  1. Greg, you seem to be suggesting that these employers do not need “creativity” in our graduates. I’m not sure that is true. No doubt they value the other attributes more. However, even if creativity is worth developing I have not seen any evidence that we are capable of doing it. Many of the artificial projects or “problems” that we give students generally annoy them and don’t really mimic the real world very well. The best way to learn about solving “real-world” problems is in the “real world”. Perhaps we should just stick to teaching stuff.


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