The Pink Prescription: Facing Tomorrow’s Challenges Calls for Right-brain Thinking

Change may be the only constant, but it’s also a constant challenge for educators trying to prepare students for the future. If the world is always in flux, what should teachers be teaching? What should schools be doing to develop the next generation for the dramatic shifts taking place in the way the world works and lives? Does the current curriculum make the grade?

Today’s pace and nature of change call for a shift in the way we think about education, argued Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind and The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, in a keynote speech at a recent Wharton Evolution of Learning Symposium. In a world where jobs can be sent overseas, tasks can be automated and the feverish pace of technology can render even last year’s innovation obsolete, students will have to learn how to think differently than their parents in order to survive and prosper.

A generation ago, students were given a formula to follow: Get good grades, go to college and use that education to find a good job, Pink noted. Students with good language skills were advised to become lawyers; those who were good in math or science were encouraged to become engineers or go to medical school.

“Those are the rules that I got. Those are the rules that middle class kids all over the advanced economies got,” said Pink. “That was how the world worked. And our education system was very much geared towards that…. It was designed to build those sorts of capacities — those lawyer-, engineer-, accountant-sort of abilities. My argument is that those sorts of abilities still matter, but they matter relatively less today, and a different set of abilities matters more.”

To face today’s challenges, Pink argued, it’s not only important what we learn; it’s important how we learn. Specifically, are we developing the right or left hemispheres of our brain? The left side of the brain specializes in linear, logical and analytical thinking. The right hemisphere takes on big-picture, non-verbal tasks — for example, processing things all at once instead of in sequence, interpreting facial expressions or synthesizing rather than analyzing. Responding to the challenges of tomorrow’s world requires more right-brain thinking, Pink said.

“It used to be that the most important abilities in any kind of white-collar profession were characteristic of the left hemisphere … the logical, linear, sequential, analytical, spreadsheet, SAT, zero-in-on-the-right-answer abilities,” Pink said. Those abilities are still necessary, “but they’re no longer sufficient. Artistry, empathy, inventiveness, big-picture thinking: Those are the abilities that in this economy, in my view, matter most.”

Pink summarized his theory by pointing out three drivers of change in today’s world: Asia, automation and abundance.

By “Asia,” Pink referred to the movement of jobs overseas to countries like China and India. The first wave came in manufacturing, when jobs left the U.S. for low-wage economies in Asia. Now, even service-sector jobs — which many once thought could never be outsourced — are beginning to move to India, where software engineers, financial analysts and other skilled and creative workers handle projects once reserved for better-paid counterparts in the U.S.

The number of service-sector jobs shipped to India is still small compared with the controversy it has caused, said Pink. “But if off-shoring is over-hyped in the short run, it’s under-hyped in the long run,” he noted. Given its population of more than one billion people, India could absorb a huge proportion of jobs from the world’s advanced economies even if most of its population remained in poverty.

“A small percentage of a very large number is still a very large number,” Pink said. “How much is 15% of one billion? Fifteen percent of a billion is 150 million. That’s bigger than the population of Japan…. So even if 85% of India’s population gets left behind, you would have more talented, ambitious, college-educated Indians than the entire population of the world’s second-largest economy.”

Routine: A Death Sentence

The common characteristic of the work moving overseas is that it is routine, Pink asserted. “Routine is a death sentence for the economy today,” said Pink. “Any work that is routine is disappearing from not only this country but from any advanced economy.”

Pink classified as routine any “work that can be reduced to a script, to a spreadsheet, to a formula, to a series of steps that has a right answer. If you can write down the steps and it has a right answer, that kind of work isn’t valuable. That kind of work just races to wherever it can get done the cheapest.”

If routine work is not off-shored, much of it can be automated. Many Americans turned to cheap accountants in India to process last year’s tax return, Pink pointed out. But a far greater number turned to software such as Turbo Tax. Another example: In the past people had no choice but go to an expensive lawyer to file for divorce. Today, for simple no-fault divorce cases, there are automated web sites such as CompleteCase.com, 3StepDivorce.com, or 123DivorceMe.com, offering online forms that allow cheap, quick do-it-yourself divorce without exorbitant fees.

“Last century, machines replaced our backs and our muscle. This century, software is replacing our brain,” Pink said.

Finally, the increasing abundance of material goods has created another set of challenges that require big-picture, right-brain thinking. “In a world of abundance, in a world saturated with stuff… the economic premium is on giving people something new,” Pink said. It is no longer enough to improve an existing product — the real economic value lies in invention. “How many of you have an iPod?” Pink asked the audience, a majority of whom raised their hands. He continued: “How many of you knew eight years ago that you were missing an iPod?”

His point: In a country where 98% of homes already have a color TV set, for example, coming up with a better color television is not an economic advance. “The real thing is to come up with hulu.com — to deliver television in a way that nobody knew they were missing. These are big, bold, conceptual sorts of breakthroughs.”

The flip side of abundance is the collateral damage it creates — such as the environmental impact of the 460,000 mobile phones thrown away in the U.S. every year, Pink added. Coping with such challenges will also require right-brained thinkers. “We need big, bold, inventive thinkers to address those problems, whether it’s climate change, dependence on oil or wealth imbalance.”

Pink noted that many right-brain abilities — such as design, storytelling, synthesis, empathy and pattern recognition — are difficult to outsource, so people who are strong in these abilities could find their skills in demand.

Even traditionally left-brain oriented professions are now demanding right-brain skills, Pink said. Companies seeking engineers say they want people with engineering skills who can innovate, communicate, thrive in a multicultural environment and work with a sense of passion, to name a few. “These are not the cognitive skills that you develop through multiple-choice tests. These are not routine things.”

Yet, there continues to be a gap between what is needed in the world of work and what is taught in academia. In a survey comparing attitudes of school superintendents vs. employers, for example, school superintendents defined creativity as “problem solving,” while employers defined it as “problem identification.”

“That’s a disconnect,” said Pink. “Think about the problems you get in school. They’re perfectly defined, single-discipline and they have one right answer. Now think of a problem you had a work…. It was most likely multi-disciplinary, it was almost certainly poorly defined, and it had multiple answers, none of which were perfect.”

It’s possible that schools need to develop new metrics and methodologies to bring more right-brain learning into the classroom, Pink suggested. Even traditionally left-brain focused careers can benefit from expanding right-brain capabilities. Jefferson School of Medicine in Philadelphia, for example, has developed an index that measures physicians’ ability to empathize with their patients, Pink noted. The index showed that the more empathetic the doctor, the better the patient outcome was likely to be.

Art for Doctors

In another case, medical schools at Yale and Harvard have begun taking students into art museums to increase their observation skills, Pink said. The logic is that in today’s world, a huge amount of medical information is already available online. But learning to observe a patient is something that can’t be memorized from a checklist.

“Doctors have to be able to ask the right questions,” said Pink. “That calls for extraordinary observation skills — the observation skills of a painter, of a sculptor. So, medical schools are taking students to art museums to make them better diagnosticians. And, lo and behold, doctors who receive this type of diagnostic training are better diagnosticians than those who haven’t.”

Pink calls the results of these experiments “a great irony” for the educational system as a whole. “We want to prepare kids for science-oriented careers, so we cut out the arts. Meanwhile, people who are preparing for science-oriented careers are bringing in the arts.”

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