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Why Creative Problem-Solving and Lifelong Learning Should Anchor 21st-Century Education

Take creative skills back to school to future-proof tomorrow’s workforce.

Workforce, meet the iPhone generation. They’ve grown up in a wholly digital, graphics-based world, enmeshed in the random access that defines their content consumption. These early career professionals must master the skills needed to excel in the age of automation, where creative problem-solving is king.

For generations, the path from school to the workforce was clear cut: students chose a focus, studied, learned critical “hard” skills, and — diploma in hand — hit the ground running. Now,  “digital native” students learn differently, and are prepared to learn endlessly. And those already in the workforce are finding new ways to head back to school for a regular refresh.

How we learn at every stage of life — and the skills we need — are being redefined by our world of fast-paced innovation. In our Back to School collection, we’re taking a look at how technology is changing how we learn and why we think a focus on creative skills is foundational to every course of study.

Creative problem-solving — the one skill critical to success

How can schools and educators prepare students for a future career given the speed of technology and innovation? This constant shift means the very tools students will be using in their not-yet-discovered careers may still be emerging — or may not have even been invented yet.

In the Adobe-commissioned global Creative Problem-Solving study, researchers pulse-checked enterprise leaders, teachers, and policymakers on what it takes to prepare students for jobs in the age of automation. Responses confirmed an undeniable gap between what students need to learn and what teachers are teaching, while, simultaneously, highlighting creative problem-solving as the one skill that’s critical to success, now and in the future.

“Creative problem-solving is a skill that really matters in terms of setting students on a course where they are likely A) to have a job, B) have a job where they can make money, and then C) have a job that can ultimately lead toward a leadership position,” says Tacy Trowbridge, who heads up Adobe’s global education programs.

Defined as the process of “redefining problems and opportunities, coming up with new, innovative responses and solutions, and then taking action,” creative problem-solving has become an increasingly critical soft skill. In the study, 97 percent of educators and 96 percent of policymakers agreed that creative problem-solving is important for students to learn in school, with three in four saying professions requiring problem-solving skills are less likely to be impacted by automation.


While agreement on the need for creative problem-solving is universal, the majority of respondents feel these skills aren’t being nurtured by the curriculum requirements schools face. “In schools today there are tasks, but no value is placed on creative solutions,” said one German policymaker as he articulated a common sentiment, “only on the fact that the tasks are executed correctly.”

The discrepancies and challenges are broad reaching. Less than half of educators feel they have the training and the knowledge to help students develop creative problem-solving skills. Nearly four in five educators say they lack the time to create curriculum around problem-solving, and three in five say they don’t personally have control of the lessons within their own classrooms.

Updating education for the 21st century

More and more educators and practitioners are recognizing the importance of teaching creative problem-solving in the classroom. To integrate this effectively, though, teachers must first learn practical strategies and tactical approaches to effectively and efficiently engage students. They must, in short, learn to speak the language of digital natives, and relate to them on their always-on level.

That means abandoning many core elements of the traditional classroom experience. Textbooks, whiteboards, pencils, and paper are disconnected from the preferences and mindsets of today’s students. “Today’s students have grown up interacting with apps on their phones and the ability to create and share on the fly,” Tacy says. “This creates an interesting challenge for Adobe — how do we design and build tools that give young creators a digital experience in an interface and on a platform that makes sense to them?”

But it’s not a matter of simply putting the same content in a digital format. “If we try to digitally duplicate outdated practices, educators won’t get far,” says Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). “A lot of time has been wasted applying new tools to digitally duplicate dusty old processes — and that doesn’t work.” Instead, our focus should be on using technology to implement better, smarter practices.


“Technology is an accelerator,” he says. “If you apply it to good practice, if you apply it to solid principles of learning science, you will accelerate great experiences and opportunities for learners. However, if you apply it to poor practices — things that don’t make a difference and aren’t helpful — you will accelerate those inequities and those bad experiences.”

Adobe is fortunate to work with and provide support for a network of teachers who excel at bringing technology and creativity to the classroom. They share their expertise and experience on the Adobe Education Exchange. Professional learning networks like ISTE and the Education Exchange allow forward-thinking educators to give and receive help.

These networks are a critical means of discovering new tools and accelerating learning. “When we ask teachers what’s valuable to them about being a member of this community,” Tacy says, “they talk about what they learn from their peers and how their peers inspire them by sparking new ideas.” This immediately shortens the learning curve teachers have to traverse.

“If you’re a teacher and you’re struggling with something, you can immediately jump into these online networks and say, ‘Hey, how do you do this?’” says Richard. “You can get responses from teachers around the world that help support you in the moment.”

Keeping up with next-gen careers

The need for skills with broad application is seen in the idea that today’s students must somehow be prepared for jobs that don’t exist, using technology that doesn’t exist — yet. If we don’t know what they’ll need for future roles, it’s essential we prepare students to navigate the unknown, overcome hurdles, and come up with cutting-edge solutions to unfamiliar challenges. This, ultimately, is where creative problem-solving skills shine.

“There was a trend in hiring where companies sought graduates from engineering programs over business schools,” says Alex Gay, Adobe’s director of product marketing for educational institutions. “This was driven by a desire to bring in problem-solvers and parts of the engineering curriculum supported this skill development. Leading business schools have responded to this by introducing programs such as design thinking to help nurture this mindset.”

“Broad learning skills are the key to long-term, satisfying, productive careers,” says Cathy N. Davidson, founding director of the Futures Initiative and a CUNY professor. “What helps you thrive in a changing world isn’t rocket science.”

Having creative problem-solving skills ensures students and professionals can continuously learn through success and failure, work within diverse teams, accept challenges, and take risks, all anchored in persistence, grit, and entrepreneurial spirit.

To shift curricula toward preparing for a life of creative problem-solving, schools, educators, and students must shift from their content-centric approach to education.

“We are preparing students to be learners, and we shouldn’t just give them content,” says Richard, “because no amount of content we can give them is going to prepare them to be lifelong learners.”

The alternative — and more effective — approach? “Help them learn to be creators and problem-solvers, and to distinguish between true and false information,” Richard says. “Those are the critical skills that will help students survive in a world where they will have to be continually learning — doing things we can’t even imagine right now.”


One way to make this shift is to reposition the educator in the equation. “The educator no longer holds the answer to the challenge,” Tacy says. “He or she is posing the challenges. They aren’t just the person with the answer key. The students need to practice investigating, inventing, and developing solutions. It’s shifting the educator’s role from being the dispenser of knowledge to creating problems for his or her students, without knowing where they’re going to go.”


Another way to support a change in focus is to offer the tools and resources students and educators need to improve creative problem-solving skills — an area where inequality tends to bubble to the surface. The gap in resources is something Tacy says she’s fighting to change. “With Adobe’s new licensing model for K-12 schools, students have access at school and home,” she notes. “They can use Adobe tools on their own electronic devices, which is fantastic. Right away, it helps to reduce that barrier.”

A lifelong learning environment

It’s not just educators or policymakers that need to embrace a change in learning. Going forward, people of all ages — including those already entrenched in careers — will need to commit to lifelong education versus earning their diploma and then stepping away from the learning front.

There’s always going to be a critical role for higher education to play — that’s never going away. But many are seamlessly making the switch to add ongoing learning to their career development plans with participation in bootcamps, symposia, challenges, and more.

“The future of work is constantly fluctuating,” says Alex. To keep pace, students and workers must embrace the idea that “learning doesn’t end when you graduate. Employers need to provide opportunities for their employees to continue learning beyond their graduation and throughout their career.”

“As workers adapt to becoming lifelong learners and gain new skills to respond to real-time changes in technology, individuals and businesses alike will need to think differently about how to meaningfully invest in ongoing training and education,” says Tom Ogletree, senior director of social impact and external affairs at global educational company General Assembly.

This, he says, comes back to preparing students for the future of work. “There’s a broader paradigm shift happening as all companies become, to one degree or another, tech companies, and so firms across multiple sectors are grappling with what it means to have a workforce that possesses both the skills and the agility to succeed in the digital economy.”

Just as educators are shifting to provide learning opportunities, Richard says, “Employers need to focus on providing opportunities for employees to explore, play, and continue to learn. That’s broader than the standard class that an HR department might offer. You’ve got to foster an environment where learning is essential, where change is anticipated, and where innovation is expected.”

For more stories that explore the intersection of technology and education, visit our Back to School collection.

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