Information Age Education
   Issue Number 149
November, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This IAE Newsletter is an addition (Part 16) to the previous series on Education for Students’ Futures.

Education for Students' Futures Part 16:
Innovating Minds—What Students Need for the Future

Marcus Conyers
Center for Innovative Education and Prevention

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you, and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” (Steve Jobs; inventor; 1955–2011.)

“We are convinced the world will increasingly be divided between high imagination-enabled countries, which encourage and enable the imagination and extras of their people, and low imagination-enabling countries, which suppress or simply fail to develop their people’s creative capacities and abilities to spark new ideas, start up new industries and their own ‘extra.’” Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum; That Used to Be Us (2011).

The present and future envisioned in these two quotes sound both a challenge and an opportunity. The words of Steve Jobs in particular capture the essence of the mindsets students will need for the future as they take their place in a world where automation and outsourcing of routine work are transforming the landscape and their career prospects. I have had the enormous privilege of teaching cognitive strategies that support creative thinking to students from kindergarten through college age and have been inspired by their incredible potential to learn, to innovate, and to solve problems.

I recall one class in particular on a day when I was sharing a strategy for fostering creative collaboration that I call story scape. The students were mostly from low-income families, the children of migrant farm workers, with limited English proficiency and background knowledge. They were bright-eyed, brimming with potential, and a joy to work with, though they lacked confidence in their ability to write a story. With the story scape strategy, I act out a story based on the creative input from all students. Usually the stories end up with my character in great peril. My goal is to make sure that even shyest students contribute and that all experience the thrill of success fed by the release of dopamine in their brains over this positive, energizing experience.

We began with the invitation to complete the opening line, “Once upon a time there was a man who was wearing … ?”

“An Elvis Pressley outfit,” the first contributor suggested.

“And he was looking for a … ?”

“Guitar,” piped up a previously reluctant learner who was now at risk of not being the coolest kid in class, because his friend who had made the first suggestion was now the center of attention.

“And then he heard a terrifying sound behind him, and he began to run because he was being chased by … ?”

“A giant frog!” exclaimed another student.

“A giant purple frog!” supplied another.

As I acted out the part of a man dressed as Elvis, looking for a guitar as he is pursued by a giant purple frog, I asked the students, “What happens next?”

“He trips over the guitar, and the frog is going to get him!” This suggestion was greeted by peals of delighted laughter.

“OK, now what creative way can he solve his problem?” I asked.

The room fell silent, as every brain strained for an innovative solution to this dilemma. Some students looked pensive and others a bit anguished, and I could almost see them playing out various scenarios before their minds’ eyes (which is itself a strategy to facilitate creative thinking!).

In a quiet voice, a shy girl who had yet to speak said, “The Elvis man picks up the guitar and sings the giant purple frog a lullaby, so he goes to sleep.”


I was stunned by how perfect her solution seemed, and so were her teacher and classmates. Our silence was broken by a great spontaneous round of applause. Then the excited students set out to write their version of the story, adding details about the characters, plot, plight, and resolution.

This experience captures a great deal of what has fueled my passion for developing strategies to cultivate the cognitive skills that underpin innovative thinking and entrepreneurial doing so that every child is empowered to create his or her own story.

‘Sputnik Moment’: Urgent Need to Learn and Teach Creative Thinking Skills

“The problem is that there are only 1.2 billion full-time, formal jobs in the world. This is a potentially devastating global shortfall of about 1.8 billion good jobs. It means that global unemployment for those seeking a formal good job with a paycheck and 30+hours of steady work approaches a staggering 50%.” Jim Clifton, The Coming Jobs War (2011, p. 2).

In That Used to Be Us, Friedman and Mandelbaum (2011) make the case that for organizations to survive and individuals to thrive, each of us must harness the power of imagination and enhance our capacity for creativity and innovation to deliver that necessary something “extra.” We can better prepare students for that uncertain future through explicit instruction on how and when to use cognitive skills that are the everyday tools of innovators and entrepreneurs so that they may take their place in what Richard Florida (2014) calls the creative class. At the core of the creative class are people whose “chief economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content.” Developing this skill set is imperative for success in an evolving and devastatingly tight job market:
  • The creative class makes up one third to nearly one half of the workforce in the economically advanced nations of North America, Europe, and Asia. It represents about 40 million jobs in the United States.

  • Even as traditional skills are being outsourced or rendered obsolete through automation, creative and innovating skills are hot commodities.

  • The current limited opportunities for education and training in these skills contribute to the deepening economic divide—the difference between landing good-paying jobs with opportunities for advancement and minimum-wage work.

  • Underscoring the critical need to empower this generation with the creative and innovative thinking skills that will increase their opportunities.

  • An Adobe Systems poll of 5,000 people on three continents reports that 80% see unlocking creative potential as crucial to economic growth. But only 25% feel they are living up to their creative potential.

  • A recent IBM survey of more 1,500 CEOs reports that creativity is the single most prized competency among employees and managers.

  • Research on creativity—how well people generate ideas, how original their ideas are, and how they persist in the work of turning ideas into effective action—shows a steady decline in skills related to creativity and innovation over the past 20 years.
In an era where virtually all new jobs created are in small and mid-sized enterprises, we must find ways to nurture innovative thinking and entrepreneurial mindsets in today’s workforce and in students who will be the future job candidates—and proprietors—of those enterprises. As Florida puts it, “Prosperity in the Creative Age turns on human potential. It can only be fully realized when each and every worker is recognized and empowered as a source of creativity—when their talents are nurtured.”

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first human-built satellite into orbit around the Earth—and so began the space race with the United States that spawned a remarkable decade of engineering and exploration ending in astronauts walking on the moon. The current creativity crisis should be our wake-up call to better prepare students to become tomorrow’s innovators. Unfortunately, current education and training systems in the United States and other industrialized nations focus on developing analytic skills and the retention of facts, which are necessary but no longer sufficient for engaging young minds and preparing them to thrive in the working world. For many of us, capacities for creativity are not cultivated and may even be discouraged in the process of our education. One study, for example, found that the vast majority of young children start school exhibiting high levels of creativity, which decline steadily throughout the school years into adulthood, leading one researcher to conclude that “non-creative behavior is learned.” Research indicates that creativity has declined steadily in the United States since the 1990s across key domains (Kim, 2012).

However, emerging research from fields such as mind, brain, and education—and studies of creativity—indicate tremendous opportunities for nurturing the creative capacities of children and equipping students and adults with a cognitive toolkit of skills to enhance and act on their innovative thinking.

Awakening the Brain’s Creative Potential

The word education is derived from the latin root e-ducere, which means “to lead out.” Experiences literally shape the brain, and the neurocognitive systems associated with creative thinking are malleable. Furthermore, creativity is relatively independent of traditional measures of human potential such as IQ. New research is also overturning the common myth that creativity is a special gift that only a lucky few possess. The profound implication of these findings is that almost all of us have the capacity to learn to be more creative and innovative. It is now possible to create learning environments and opportunities in classrooms and workplaces that lead out more of the creative potential of all learners. In our work across North America and Europe and around the world, one thing has become clear: In the hyper-connected innovation age, it is essential that we cultivate the cognitive skills for identifying opportunities and creating, evaluating, and applying new ideas that generate unique, relevant, added value. We need to be both innovative thinkers and entrepreneurial doers. We need to develop innovating minds.

Every day learners of all ages come to school with their brains powered by some 87 billion to 100 billion neurons. Through brain imaging and other technologies, neuroscientists have begun to identify key neural systems involved in the creative process. The science of creative cognition is expanding our understanding of the cognitive skills that drive the creativity. At the same time useful theories can be applied in the process of cultivating creative and innovative thinking.

Sternberg (1985; Sternberg & Lubart, 1995) describes three key abilities that can be developed to increase creative thinking skills. In essence, these three abilities underpin what innovating minds do in terms of creative thinking and entrepreneurial doing:
  • Synthetic ability refers to generating novel, creative ideas. People with well-developed synthetic thinking are recognized as innovative because they make connections that others don’t recognize.

  • Analytic ability refers to critical thinking and problem-solving skills resulting from the identification and evaluation of possible solutions. Analytic thinking supports creativity by weeding out bad ideas and highlighting the most promising possibilities. Innovating minds rely on analysis to consider all angles of a creative idea and test it out.

  • Practical ability refers to translating ideas into reality. Innovators use practical ability to make an abstract concept concrete, to demonstrate its usefulness, and to identify the people most likely to benefit from its use.
Different “brain states,” or ways of thinking, can be applied to enhance creative and innovative thinking. Some of these states may not come easily to everyone, but they can be cultivated over time. We can train our brains to become more creatively productive and to proactively apply innovative ways of thinking to creative challenges (Carson, 2012).

Neuroscientists have identified two key brain networks, referred to as the executive attention and default mode networks, involved in creative thinking. The executive attention network, connecting outer regions of the prefrontal cortex to areas in the posterior region of the parietal lobe, is active when cognitive control is required in the problem-solving, evaluation, and implementation phases of innovation. In contrast, the default mode network, which some researchers refer to as the “imagination network,” is involved in “constructing dynamic mental simulations based on personal past experiences such as used during remembering, thinking about the future, and generally when imagining alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present” (Kaufman, 2013). This network involves areas in the prefrontal cortex, temporal lobe, and parietal cortex, drawing on information stored in long-term memory and on regions associated with personal memories. Studies suggest that this network is highly active during the brainstorming and free association phases of creative thinking. As research continues on which areas of the brain are most involved in creative cognition, we may learn more about how and when to tap into these networks to come up with innovative ideas and then to evaluate and implement them.

Game-Changing Opportunity

To thrive in the global innovation economy, today’s students need to become creative thinkers and entrepreneurial doers who can collaborate, create, and implement new ideas that add relevant added value. They need to become skilled in identifying problems and opportunities, dreaming up and dialoguing possible solutions, elaborating and enhancing the best ideas, and applying and refining them in response to feedback. All of these skills can be taught and learned. Students have great untapped potential to become more creative and to make the most of their creative, analytic, and practical abilities. The question is whether we have the will to provide the game-changing opportunity to cultivate the innovating minds that students need for the future.


Carson, S. (2012). Your creative brain: Seven steps to maximize imagination, productivity, and innovation in your life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Clifton, J. (2011). The coming jobs war. Omaha, NE: Gallup Press.

Florida, R. (2014). Rise of the creative class. New York: Basic Books.

Friedman, T.L., & Mandelbaum, M. (2011). That used to be us. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Kaufman, S.B. (2013, August 19). The real neuroscience of creativity [Beautiful Minds blog]. Scientific American. Retrieved from

Kim, K.H. (2012, July 10). Yes, there is a creativity crisis. The Creativity Post. Retrieved from

Sternberg, R.J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A triarchic theory of intelligence. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University.

Sternberg, R.J., & Lubart, T.I. (1995). Defying the crowd: Cultivating creativity in a culture of conformity. New York: Free.

Vartanian, O., Bristol, A.S., & Kaufman, J.C. (eds.). (2013). The neuroscience of creativity. Boston: MIT.


Marcus Conyers is cofounder of the nonprofit Center for Innovative Education and Prevention and author of several books, including Positively Smarter: Using Educational Neuroscience to Increase Happiness, Achievement, and Well-Being (in press with Wiley), Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice (Teachers College Press, 2013), and Innovating Minds: Using Educational Neuroscience to Increase Creative Thinking Skills (in process with Wiley), and will be developing the website as a free resource to support educators in fostering creative thinking skills globally. He is the developer of the IDEA process for cultivating creative thinking skills and is a codeveloper with Donna Wilson of curriculum for graduate programs with majors in Brain-Based Teaching at Nova Southeastern University. He can be reached by email at

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