Curriculum, EdTech & Design, Promising Practices

Adding the 4Cs to the 3Rs: Making a Place for Creativity in the Curriculum

Thought leaders, CEOs, and governments around the world universally agree that an organization/country’s ability to innovate will be one of the key determinants of success in the 21st century economy. IBM’s recent International survey of 1,500 CEOs re-affirmed that claim, citing creativity as the most important attribute needed for success in the global economy.

The Conference Board of Canada ranked us 14th out of the 17 major industrialized nations on measures of innovation, further commenting that it was “Canada’s greatest economic weakness (a ‘D’ grade).” The World Economic Forum also ranked us 14th, and what is even more alarming, we are getting worse; last year we were ranked 13th. We are literally in a race for last place!

The Conference Board of Canada ranked us 14th out of the 17 major industrialized nations on measures of innovation, further commenting that it was “Canada’s greatest economic weakness (a ‘D’ grade).”

Our productivity track record has fared no better; we stand a troubling 15th, with the annual output per Canadian worker roughly 75 percent that of an equivalent American worker.

These measures lead to some obvious questions:

  • Since our economic health seems to be the envy of the world, what accounts for such a poor showing in our innovation and productivity?
  • How can our economy and culture be so tightly linked to the U.S., which is a world leader in innovation and productivity, when our own showing in these areas is much poorer?

There have been numerous debates about the root causes for this lacklustre performance, with “too much reliance on our natural resource wealth” being the most common theme, but I believe there is another fundamental issue that has been overlooked for years across Canada – one that has had an even greater impact on the very foundations of Canada’s national innovation/productivity strategy and success.

The Foundations

Experts around the world agree that education is the key foundational building block for innovation skill development, and that the seeds of innovation – curiosity, inquisitiveness, experimentation, risk taking, teamwork, and interest in science and math – are best planted in Grades 3-7. The research further suggests that in Grades 8-12, the roots take hold, with creativity development being key to the whole process, and in university and beyond, the investments finally start to bear fruit.[1]

So, here is the question: Is Canada’s K-12 system doing a good job of developing these key (and strategic) creativity and problem solving foundational skills – the ones that are the building blocks for tomorrow’s world class innovators?

Over the past half century, fundamental change to Canada’s K-12 education system has definitely been a challenge. It is still very much fashioned after the Industrial Revolution model, with standardized testing the norm; individual results the focus as opposed to teamwork; memorization and regurgitation standard practices; the agrarian calendar with summers off; and little focus on developing higher level skills. 

Over the past 18 months, I have had the opportunity to meet with more than half of Canada’s Superintendents/Directors/Directors General of Education. When asked to comment on these observations, they agreed: “We’re educating the creativity out of children…they’re afraid to take risks…they think there is only one right answer…they have limited if any team skills…success is measured only by grade point average… we’re doing a poor job in developing the key skills they need for the 21st century economy.” One summed it up best: “We need to add the four Cs…creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication…to the three Rs.”

Additionally, our universities are adding fuel to the fire, often using grade point average as the only criterion for admission.

To make the job even more challenging, the recent Kaiser Family Foundation Media Study found that 8-18 year-olds in America are now connected to some form of media (Internet, TV, music, etc.) 12 hours per day. Hence the question: Are today’s classrooms in sync with how these kids now think, or do the kids have to “dumb down” the minute they enter the classroom? 

Billions of dollars have been invested by the Canada Foundation for Innovation since its formation in 1997 to improve Canada’s performance, yet we continue to fall behind. Could it be because our “National” Innovation Strategy doesn’t click into high gear until the post-graduate level? Have we left it too late? Why isn’t K-12 curriculum part of the national innovation dialogue? One Superintendent commented, “To use a hockey analogy, it would be like giving Sydney Crosby hockey equipment at age 21 and asking him to become a world-class hockey player, overnight! He started at age 3 in Tim Bits. K-12 has to be part of Canada’s national Innovation strategy.”

Educators are the first to agree that there is a gaping hole in Canada’s national education strategy when it comes to  “4C” development, but what can we do quickly and cost-effectively to address this need? While there is consensus that the national K-12 curriculum needs to be revisited, a number of significant issues make reform difficult, including political risk, aversion to change, stakeholder buy-in, funding cuts, union resistance, lack of national standards, and parent pressures, to name but a few.

Canada’s teachers continue to do an admirable job of bridging the gap between how 21st century kids think and the curriculum they are being asked to work with, but the gap is widening, and student engagement continues to be a daunting task. When Google puts the world’s knowledge base at our fingertips, do we need to focus as much on content? Should typing replace script writing? Should process/assessment skills be the new norm?

Much needs to be done – and quickly. Some suggested actions include:

  • The Federal Government has to include K-12 in the national innovation dialogue…and now!
  • Every Ministry of Education should have 21st century skill development as their number one priority, with an ADM appointed to help drive the agenda.
  • Parents need to understand the challenge, and advocate for change, even though it may conflict with how/what they, themselves, were taught.
  • Every school district in the country should have a 21st century learning plan, with a pilot program starting this fall.
  • Business/industry needs to be actively engaged in the process of reform, as they will be the recipients of these changes.
  • Universities must broaden their entrance requirements to include alternate measures of success.

Destination ImagiNation

While curriculum reform must remain Canada’s number one education priority, shorter-term solutions must also be found that are cost-effective, scalable, politically acceptable, complementary to the curriculum, and agreeable to all the stakeholder groups.

While curriculum reform must remain Canada’s number one education priority, shorter-term solutions must also be found.

I have the privilege of supporting the world’s largest non-profit,  “4C” development program for students, Destination ImagiNation. If its principles – reflected in this article – were incorporated into every school district’s 21st century Development plan, we could go a long way toward nurturing creativity in our young people and closing the innovation/productivity gap that threatens to undermine our enviable economic status.

Now in its 28th year – and literally millions of kids later – Destination ImagiNation helps young people discover their true creative potential and fills in the skill gaps that might be overlooked in the classroom. Children learn how to become better team players, communicators, presenters, researchers, budgeters. and “out-of-the-box” thinkers, all while becoming world-class problem solvers and innovators.

Destination ImagiNation operates in all 50 U.S. states, nine Canadian provinces, and more than 30 other countries worldwide, and has a volunteer base measured in the tens of thousands. The program is competition based, with more than 400 tournaments held annually around the world. The program year culminates with a Global Finals competition, attracting more than 16,000 students and parents from around the world the last week of May. The event takes place in Knoxville, Tennessee, on the University of Tennessee campus.

Typically offered as an after-school, parent-driven program (but with more and more schools now moving the program right into the classroom), teams of up to seven participants work together for an hour or two a week over several months to create solutions to exciting Team Challenges, which can have a scientific, technical, structural, theatrical, improvisational, or current events focus. Teams also learn and practice creative quick thinking skills for the Instant Challenge portion of the program, where they will have just five or six minutes to solve a challenge they have never seen before.

The Destination ImagiNation program is a process-based program grounded in well-established creative problem solving theory, and helps young people build lifelong skills in a fun, cost-effective, and supportive environment.


Combining the “4Cs” with the “3Rs” will be key to strengthening Canada’s long-term international competitiveness. While volunteer-run, optional programs like Destination ImagiNation are filling the gap for some students, our school systems need to respond urgently to this country’s lagging performance by implementing similar programs for all children.

EN BREF – Le Conference Board du Canada nous classe 14e sur le plan de l’innovation parmi 17 grands pays industrialisés. Notre fiche de « productivité » n’est guère plus reluisante. Des experts du monde entier conviennent que l’éducation constitue la pierre d’angle du développement des compétences d’innovation et que les graines de l’innovation – curiosité, soif de connaissances, expérimentation, prise de risques, travail d’équipe et intérêt pour les sciences et les mathématiques – sont idéalement semées de la 3e à la 7e année. Depuis son établissement en 1997, la Fondation canadienne pour l’innovation a investi des mil­liards pour rehausser le résultat du Canada, mais notre stratégie d’innovation « nationale » ne s’enclenche vraiment qu’au niveau des études universitaires supérieures. Destination ImagiNation, un programme géré par des bénévoles, comble le vide pour certains élèves plus jeunes, mais nos systèmes scolaires doivent réagir d’urgence à la faible performance du pays en instaurant des programmes semblables pour tous les enfants.

[1] Based on personal communication with Dr. Don Treffinger and Dr. Scott Isaksen, authors of numerous books/articles on creative and critical thinking.

Meet the Expert(s)

Roger Garriock

Roger Garriock is the Managing Director of Destination ImagiNation Canada. rgarriock@dihq.org

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