We need graduates who can take new approaches to problems

The pandemic challenged higher education everywhere to refocus on the purpose of a meaningful university education. That purpose has evolved through the ages and will no doubt continue to do so as society transforms and universities strive to meet those changes.

If we go back to the earliest reported purpose of higher education it was to inspire curious and creative thinkers and engage learners in analytic debate.

The Athenian philosopher Plato (c 428-347 BC) viewed education as a place where students could think, discover and acquire knowledge for themselves. He espoused a liberal education that would help learners achieve freedom from ignorance and develop into decent global citizens. Plato advocated for open inquiry and space for new ideas to be freely communicated, trialled and examined.

In more recent years the rise of globalisation and technology has stimulated some of the biggest changes that have taken place in the purpose of higher education. There has also been a gradual shift away from a liberal style education to one that prepares graduates for the workforce, for a job.

Adaptability and creativity

Universities play a significant role in broader society. They not only respond to community needs, but are also drivers of change. They are looked to as agents of influence and innovation by industry, governments, professions and business.

An important part of their role is to prepare graduates as idea-creating professionals who can positively contribute to society throughout their career and life and who can react with confidence to unexpected circumstances. This would suggest a purpose for education that stresses not only attainment of fundamental knowledge and skills, but also inclusion of critical and creative thinking, something of a return to what Plato saw as the purpose of education.

There have been endless forums, conferences, articles and so forth in the past few years highlighting the top competences graduates of today will need to succeed in life. They invariably include analytical thinking, innovation, initiative and creativity.

The arguments put forward make it very plain that study programmes that expect memorisation of loads of facts and the passing of high-stake make-or-break exams will not set graduates up for success in the future work environment they can expect.

Yet it is still an ongoing struggle to convince some well-meaning instructors in some institutions in some countries to make the necessary changes. They feel compelled to fill students up with all the knowledge they have about their subject, just as their instructors did with them.

They believe they are failing their students if they don’t pass on all the knowledge they have acquired over the years. They consider the most appropriate way to measure students’ aptitude is by setting hefty examinations that test students’ recall of that same knowledge.

Just as challenging is convincing them that critical and creative thinking is not the sole domain of the arts, nor is it something that can or should be taught as a separate one-off subject not connected to any other subject within a degree programme. Every discipline can and should incorporate critical and creative thinking in its programmes.

Why creative thinking matters

While there is no single agreed definition of creative thinking, it invariably includes the ability to produce a diversity of new ideas, challenge conventional ways of thinking and consider prevailing conditions differently.

Purposeful critical and creative thinking occurs when reference to a real problem or issue relevant to the discipline being studied requires a different approach or solution. It is about discovering alternative ways of doing, making new connections between ideas and producing useful novel results.

Let me provide a quick example. It demonstrates how a curriculum fixed on imparting traditional technical knowledge without any opportunity for critical and creative thinking is the antithesis of what society needs when it comes to its newest graduates.

If, for example, bridges built using certain design principles or materials have been continuously found to experience particular faults, then this represents a real-world problem for students to deliberate. Of course, there will be existing technical standards that must be adhered to. However, students working within the boundaries of those well-established standards could consider different ways of interpreting them without compromising their integrity.

They might uncover alternate explanations for the problem and propose different design concepts that could potentially solve the existing problems and lead to new improved engineering models. Without the opportunity for creative thinking and the exploring of alternative possibilities the existing design problems will likely endure.

Another example is a group of business marketing students who have been asked to resolve why a new model car hasn’t been selling well despite an ad campaign consisting of flashy brochures and billboards advertising its qualities.

After some brainstorming and critical research on competitors that are doing well, they might come up with the idea of creating a more dynamic campaign that includes a short video or a YouTube clip showing the car being driven by both a female and a male driver along different terrains, with a voiceover highlighting its various merits.

The need for new thinking

The challenges facing graduates now and into the future are complex. There are social, cultural, economic and environmental demands that will call for graduates who can confidently apply critical reasoning and creative thinking to these challenges.

These are the types of graduates needed, namely those who help to advance society positively – graduates who have practised creative thinking and can question, take a new approach to existing problems, and trial and evaluate new concepts and ideas. And universities will need to respond accordingly.

A quote attributed to Einstein sums up these principles well: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions in Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, and invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.