Einstein doesn’t work here anymore – creative thinking in Higher Education

(with apologies to Maurice B. Cook)

Universities all over the world are under pressure to be more cost effective and generally improve the service that they offer to their students. So, there is much discussion about what this all means: what standards to set and how to achieve these standards. In the UK the government have stepped in with the REF (Research Excellence Framework) (REF, 2018) and TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) (GOV.UK, 2018) which set funding dependent standards for universities. In their present form, both of these are proving to be badly flawed and their procedures counterproductive to their stated aims. This is not surprising since there has been inadequate consideration given to what they are trying to achieve.

It is a truism that there has to be rules but it is a mistake to think that rules solve all problems. This leaves us in a quandary because not only is it difficult to say what the rules should be, but it is also even more difficult to say how they should be applied.

One of the problems here is the definition of the educational product. A way to clarify this point is to look at the difference between education and training. In the past I was involved in training for many years. We were providing a service for organisations to improve the efficiency of their employees. The training company would agree a list of skills that were to be taught. The trainer would then deliver an agreed course which would demonstrate the skills to the delegates who would show that they had acquired the skills by completing tasks unaided by the trainer. This is a comparatively simple process. However, education is much more complex.

Education is not only about acquiring skills, though this is a part of it, but it is also about shaping a person. The student, at the beginning of the process, is not quite the same person as the graduate, at the end of the process; an alchemy has taken place which is a process of personal growth. This process is a hard one; it involves bouts of frustration, confusion and despair. If it doesn’t involve these things, the alchemy cannot take place. And, this is why the TEF principle of asking the student about how satisfied they are with the process is misleading. One of the main problems is that it makes assumptions about why students enrol on a course which do not necessarily apply to all students. For example, when the lecturer is saying something that the student does not understand it could be a deliberate challenge to stretch the student to try to understand but this could be perceived negatively by students who have no wish to be stretched.

None of this can be done according to a formula. If you provide students with model outputs, for example a model essay, the student will (understandably) try to imitate it rather than to think for themselves, the exercise will have no effect on their personality and you will be delivering training not education. Originality of thought cannot be imitated, only discovered through following a steep and stony path of self-discovery. The problem is that by setting standards that are readily measurable, education is being transformed into something inferior, something that is more like training.

Research at the University of Toronto (Peterson, 2017) found that there was no correlation between creativity and academic success. Yet, what kind of a person would you hope that a graduate might be? Is a graduate someone who has a ready-made list of solutions looking for problems to apply them to or someone who can approach a problem with an open mind, assess it on its merits, and devise a solution that fits it? In other words, do you expect a graduate to be capable of some creative, or innovative, thought? Increasingly, graduates are falling into the first category because universities are not encouraging curiosity, critical thinking or independence of thought. After all, none of these things can be easily measured.

In the business school, we tend to teach a menu of theories which are often instantly forgotten by the students because they don’t know what the relevance of them might be. Too much, we fail to teach students to think critically and creatively and approach problems with an open mind. The move towards using case studies for teaching is a step in the right direction but too often the case studies are contrived so that they fit the text book theory and this creates the impression that that the students are learning the one best solution to problems which are often, if not always, foreseeable.

Instead we need a new approach to teaching. We need to foster a habit of curiosity and critical thinking. Experience tells us that that the best problem solvers are often the ones who can make imaginative leaps rather than the ones who proceed methodically through a prescribed procedure. To develop this capacity to make imaginative leaps we need to set students demanding tasks, like solving problems that do not have one correct solution and requiring them to develop an extended argument in an essay. Instead, we have an institutional fear of not being able to describe exactly what students should produce in response to an assessment brief and asking them to write reports instead of essays. In other words, we place too much emphasis on conscientiousness, such as deadlines and correct answers, and not enough on creativity, such as producing imaginative solutions and making a case for a particular course of action.

There are some pedagogic methods which are rarely employed but which can be effective in producing graduates with character. For the business school, these include personal tutors, slow education, cafés, the dérive, and connectivism:

  • Personal tutors – in the present climate of cost cutting and efficiency there is little time for one-to-one personal tuition. An approach more like coaching would help to develop a student’s interests and help them to develop personal goals. It is a better use of funding to spend the money on effective tuition than it is to spend it on, for example, library buildings when, these days, libraries should be online not bricks and mortar (Sudjic, 2011).
  • Slow education – an educational philosophy developed by Prof. Maurice Holt and Eton College master, Mike Grenier. The main principle is that students follow their own interests, so they are always learning about things that are personally relevant to them (Slow Education, 2018). One of the techniques is to have open workshops where junior students (eg. undergraduates) come along to work on anything they want, course related or not, and are helped by more senior students (eg. postgraduates) in any way that suits both parties. For example, this was tried at a comprehensive school (UK high school) with the sessions on a Saturday morning and the senior students being the sixth formers. It proved to be surprisingly popular with increasing numbers of attendees over the trial period. Because slow learning begins from the interests of the students, it is said to promote deep learning, curiosity and creative thinking (Benn, 2015).
  • Cafés – the café is a technique to promote free exchange of ideas and opinions between the participants and depends on unstructured conversation loosely centred on a given topic. A large room is set up with islands of tables around which participants sit, ideally in groups of 6 to 8 people. A topic is given by the facilitator and the discussion begins. After a fixed amount of time (usually 20 minutes) the facilitator stops the discussion and invites some of the participants to move to another table. This process is repeated twice more so that there is an intermingling of the different discussions. Finally, the tables are moved out of the way and the participants sit in one big circle and continue the discussion until the facilitator calls time. This method is extremely effective at generating new ideas and new perspectives (Gurteen, 2018). It can be used effectively with postgraduate students.
  • The dérive – developed by Prof. Clive Holtham of Cass Business School, London, and Allan Owens of the University of Chester, this is a method of encouraging curiosity. The participants are divided into small groups (typically 6 people) and given a brief by the facilitator. It might be something like “Find examples of effective communication”. The brief should be very loosely worded so that participants have the freedom to interpret it in their own ways. The participants then go out and wander wherever they want (an urban landscape is ideal but not essential) taking photos on their smartphones so that they can use them in their report back to the whole group. At the appointed time, the groups return and present their oral reports in a plenary. Participants often say that the best part of their experience of taking part is the conversation with their fellow group members (Gurteen, 2018).
  • Connectivism – this educational philosophy was developed by George Siemens (2006) and has at its core the idea that education is not about acquiring facts but about making connections. This, according to Siemens, has been facilitated in recent times by digital technology. In the connectivist approach, students are to see their education as being about building networks that include knowledge and people. Thus, there is a priority given to knowing where to find out about something, for example who to ask, rather than personally acquiring facts.Students are encouraged to follow the connections between the facts that they discover, learn through group activities, make contacts with people outside the educational institution and build electronic databases of contacts that will be useful to them during and beyond the course and build databases of information sources that will be useful to them during and beyond the course.

Not only does the university fail to promote creative thinking in its teaching but it also fails to produce imaginative research. The REF system awards funding to the university based on research output and ‘impact’. The research output, in this case, is measured by the number of publications of academic journal articles deemed to be of a certain standard. How these standards are set is problematic but beyond the scope of this post.

One problem I want to mention here is that it is not possible to develop significant theory in a journal article. To develop significant theory you need a book, possibly more than one, yet writing books is unrewarding for academics because they count for little in the REF system and, in any case, they take a lot more time. Consequently, in my field of organisation studies there has been little theory development in the last thirty years. Everyone is using the same theories over and over which limits the perspectives that researchers can have on the problems they investigate when a fresh viewpoint might be illuminating. Again, conscientiousness is being promoted at the expense of creativity and innovation.

Another problem is that the REF system encourages a situation where progress can only be made in small steps. It is a fact that with ‘normal science’ (Khun, 1971) progress takes place by following the path of knowledge where a new study builds directly on its predecessors with each new one adding a little bit to the whole body of knowledge. This is a very systematic and plodding approach where all the scientists in a field plod slowly, one behind the other, down the same path. However, it is the disruptive influence of original thinking that can make huge progress in one leap. Well-known examples of this are Einstein’s theory of relativity and Watson and Crick’s structure of DNA but also less well-known ones such as Porter’s five forces and Hofstede’s model of national culture. All of this happened some time ago and none of these innovative thinkers would thrive under the present regime.

At a time when universities are being put under pressure to justify what they do, it is not the best response to tighten the rules and procedures and enforce a tick box approach to quality control. It is far better, more effective, and more cost effective, to find ways to produce innovative graduates and imaginative, ground-breaking research.



Benn, M. (2015). The Slow revolution that makes learning fun, Times Educational Supplement, December, 2015. Available at: https://www.tes.com/news/slow-revolution-makes-learning-fun, Accessed on: 01/05/2018.

GOV.UK (2018). Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework Specification. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teaching-excellence-and-student-outcomes-framework-specification, Accessed on: 01/05/2018.

Gurteen, M. (2018). Conversational Leadership. Available at: http://conversational-leadership.net/, Accessed on: 01/05/2018.

Khun, T. (1971). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, Il: Chicago University press.

Peterson, J.B. (2017). What predicts academic ability? Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3A0pMX2r2LE, Accessed on: 01/05/2018.

REF (2018). Research Excellence Framework. Available at: http://www.ref.ac.uk/, Accessed on: 01/05/2018.

Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing knowledge. Lulu. com.

Slow Education (2018). Slow Education. Available at: http://sloweducation.co.uk/, Accessed on: 01/05/2018.

Sudjic, D. (2011). The Edifice Complex: The architecture of power. London: Penguin.