Why Does Daniel Pink Hate Me?

Phrenology ChartIt’s been an interesting phenomenon to watch so many educators flock around Daniel Pink’s best-selling book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. The book is a rallying cry for more creativity and arts, especially in K-12 education. It’s hard to argue with that. Stories of schools canceling recess, arts, music, even history and science to focus on boosting math and reading test scores makes your heart hurt. It’s beyond tragic to know in your bones that we are boring kids, wasting their time prepping for tests that don’t matter, and ultimately losing them.

It’s a gift to be able to raise a bestselling book like a golden shield against this insanity. Right?

But what if this gift is actually fool’s gold. What if it’s a misleading accumulation of misinterpreted anecdotes, pseudoscience, made up “exercises” and a profound misunderstanding of math, engineering, and science. Does this help or hurt educators who are trying to improve schools? Can you build a solid case for change on a foundation of sand?

Plus, I think Daniel Pink hates me.

Pink describes so called left-brain characteristics as “sequential, literal, functional, textual, and analytic” and assigns them to programmers, accountants, and people who got good grades in school. According to Pink, these attributes are “…prized by hardheaded organizations, and emphasized in schools.” This is in contrast to right-brain people who are “creators and caregivers, shortchanged by organizations, and neglected in schools.”

I’m a woman who loves math and science, earned an electrical engineering degree and worked as a programmer in the aerospace industry. Obviously I fall into the “left brain” camp. But although I got pretty good grades in school, it was spotty. I did great in Algebra and Physics. I was terrible at Geometry and Chemistry. I have no idea why. Maybe I was only “left-brained” in even years.

As I read Pink further, I became more and more puzzled. Right brainers are the future, the key to staying globally competitive. They are more caring and probably better looking. What did I do to deserve this life sentence of obsolescence? Where does all this animosity towards me and my kind come from? And shouldn’t I be making more money from some “hardheaded organization”?

It’s incredibly divisive to create two types of people and set them up in competition for grades and good jobs. It’s also ludicrous and misleading. You might as well say that all artists have emotional problems or all musicians have long hair. It plays into silly cliches and jealousy (or fear) of people who aren’t like you.

There are many types of people who happen to be good at math, science, or programming. Some are good at the school version of these subjects and some aren’t. To draw a hard line between the sciences and creativity shows a profound misunderstanding of both. I can tell you that programming is as close to composing music as anything else. It’s something that you feel, that you can lose yourself in, that comes from a place inside that is sometimes unexplainable.

I guarantee you that programmers out there are going, “w00t! tell it sister!” – and everyone else is thinking, “are you kidding?” But you have to believe me. Math, science, programming, and engineering are deeply beautiful and creative. Look — I believe you when you tell me that opera soothes your soul or that paint poured on a basketball is art. (I don’t really, but I’m polite enough to take your word for it. So take my word for this, OK?)

It’s a shame that this beauty is often lost in the K-12 curriculum. But that’s a problem with curriculum, not a problem with people’s brains.

Building his case on such an impoverished view of creativity in the sciences weakens everything Pink says. It shows a profound misunderstanding of people who aren’t like him and sloppy thinking about the cause and effect relationships he claims exist.

I’m suspicious of his analysis especially where it relates to children and learning. Pink tells a story about an artist visiting a school. He asks each classroom full of children if they are artists. In the kindergarten class, all hands go up with enthusiasm. In the first grade class, fewer hands go up, and so on, until by the sixth grade no hands go up. He concludes that the world doesn’t value creativity.

Oh, please. If you ask kindergartners if they want to be scientists, ballerinas, firemen, astronauts, or pretty much anything, you will get an enthusiastic show of hands. Sixth graders won’t. It has nothing to do with the value of art and everything to do with understanding the difference between 5 year olds and 13 year olds.

In another vignette, he takes us to a charter school for architecture and design, where students work on real world, interdisciplinary projects. He reveals that this school is safe and orderly, colorful murals line the halls, it has no metal detectors, and attendance is high. According to Pink, the success of this school is due to the “design” focus of the curriculum. However, anyone with any sense can see that creating a caring, lovely, safe school with a relevant curriculum is the reason for its success. But apparently, looking at facts is simply old-fashioned “left brain” (hiss, boo) thinking.

Pink has no qualms about using anecdotes like this that not only don’t support his conclusions, but stand in direct contrast to what he is saying. Luckily for him, he is an accomplished writer. I stand in awe of his ability to enthusiastically plunge past inconsistencies on his way to trumpet unsupported conclusions.

I’m all for encouraging creativity in schools, but treating A Whole New Mind as a blueprint seems rash and insubstantial. This book celebrates fake science and entrenched stereotypes about people that are harmful and hurtful. Schools need to celebrate the gifts of all children, not label them as “new” or “old”.

Besides, he hates me.

Sylvia


Also published on Medium.

24 thoughts on “Why Does Daniel Pink Hate Me?”

  1. I’ve never read any of Daniel Pink’s books, but I like the idea of making the playing field more equitable for “left-brained” and “right-brained” folks. The reality, of course, is that very few people are strictly one or the other, just like with any “typing.” Classifying humans, in education or any other field, is a dangerous business. I have used Myers-Briggs and Dominance Profiles with students, but I am always very clear with them that such “types” are just generalizations and can never fully describe a unique individual. They help us perceive things that may be true about ourselves — things that we may have not noticed before — but they can do more harm than good if applied as labels.

    I applaud any author who supports the arts because the idea that “the MFA is the new MBA” could mean more funding and longer lifespans for successful arts and enrichment programs that make our students truly well-rounded. However, any book that takes a one-sided view should be viewed with skepticism. I did really well in school, in all subjects, so I must be left-brained, right? I am creative, play music, love to create things, etc., so I must be right-brained, right? Neither is likely true. I’m human. And I had a great support system and fantastic New Jersey public schools where I grew up. Involved parents and having enough food and clothes had more to do with my success than what side of my brain was firing sparks on any particular day.

    The truth of the matter is that education needs to be properly funded and better run. Period. It doesn’t help if books are, as you pointed out, causing divisions among people in our field. We don’t all have to teach or think the same way, but being too radical on either extreme will not best serve our students.

    P.S. I don’t hate you.

  2. Hi! I just happened stumble across your blog.

    Have you happened to see Ken Robinson’s YouTube video about creativity in K12? I was curious if you would find his approach as harsh or if you’d find yourself nodding in agreement.

    As a parent, I can tell you the idea of my child’s creavity being educated right out of him terrifies me. I think it terrifies me because I’m witnessing it. I know the school values test scores above creativity. Although I have not a single doubt that most teachers detest the state mandated rules set down to them, the sad fact is they have to follow them if they want to stay employeed.

    Oh, I could go on about this, but it’s time to head out the door! I’ll try to stop back in and catch your response.

  3. Diane,
    I think you are right – even if the motive is right, the tactics are wrong.

    Krista,
    I have seen the Ken Robinson video. It’s a much more nuanced view than what I found coming from Dan Pink. Robinson makes great points about how school squashes creativity, and these points could be made for any subject. School often squashes creativity in math as well as dance.

    I can tell you that some of the best mathematicians I’ve ever met were high school dropouts. Most of them were told in school they weren’t good at math, or they just thought it was boring. But when they became programmers for video games, they had to deal with 3-D motion graphics on a level that surpasses most graduate school mathematics. But they do it because they love it.

    What school calls math is often a pale reflection of what math really is. So it’s sad to see many kids get their interests ignored so they can learn the difference between divisor and dividend. Nobody cares about that. All it does it prove to kids that “math” is an endless series of increasingly boring things. A few amazing teachers can work within the system and still make math come alive. I am in awe of these people.

    Elementary curriculum in particular focuses on preparing students for the “next thing”, speed, and odd vocabulary. It should be about exploring the world through measurement and prediction.

  4. As an organic chemist, math teacher, and programmer, I’m afraid the author would find little of value in me as well. After reading his book and realizing I had a couple more decades ahead of me in the workforce, I, too, wondered if I should plan for my impending obsolescence.

    You’re right. The author does not understand the beauty and creativity that is inherent in the sciences. I remember the day I received my copy of the American Chemical Society’s “Big Book of Molecules” in college and how awed I was by the beauty of molecular structures. I feel the same way now when I see mathematical proofs or stumble upon a clever bit of code. The amount of creativity behind each of these disciplines is tremendous.

    Perhaps the author, like many people, has only been exposed to rote learning, mysterious algorithms, and isolated facts in his math and science courses. Those of us who know better should really consider designing new curricula. Otherwise, I may have to dust off my guitar, take some art classes, and wake up the right side of my brain.

    Great post, Sylvia.

  5. I think too few people understand the beauty of mathematics. Hardy said it better than I ever could, “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.”

    Then again, I teach math, I don’t think he’d like me either.

  6. I haven’t yet read Pink’s book but I do think he has a few good points, based on what you’ve said here and what I have read elsewhere. It’s true about career aspirations of high schoolers versus kindergarten students. Yes, while a group of students in KG will tell you they want to be all sorts of things from astronauts to dancers (even that they want to do them all at once!), none of my 10th graders want to pursue a career in a creative field. They want careers in finance, business, politics, and engineering. I do believe that math, chemistry, etc. can be creative, BUT the average school out there is not teaching the creative side of these topics. Curricula for these areas are often skills-based and not concept-based.

    And it does have something to do with not only how we teach, but the value we place on it. Many kindergarten students have music class 3 times a week, or even every day. Or they are learning via music every day. By the time they get to high school, either

    A) they get music once a week
    B) they get music for once a week for one semester (or perhaps less)
    or C) music is no longer an option, unless their parents decide they should take private lessons.

    The fact is, a lot of schools do not place value on those things which are inherently creative and artistic. If Pink’s book gets us to change this, then that’s a good thing.

    As for the stereotypes… I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m somewhat divided. As a right-brainer, I actually feel quite comfortable with the stereotyped behaviours that most associate with us “creative” types. But I don’t hate left-brainers, as they are definitely needed to counter the crazy and often misguidedness of the creative world — and hopefully neither does Pink!

  7. Sylvia,

    Dan Pink doesn’t hate you; he’s just addicted to counterintuitive thinking. Plus he wants to sell books. I read WNM and I have to say it was a helpful book if you don’t take it too seriously. What you saw as an attack on your person, brain hemisphere, and love of l33t speak is really just an attempt at shifting the focus to the kinds of skills that are traditionally undervalued.

    Also, I often find it’s more important for a book to be interestingly wrong then mediocre and timid. His structure of important skills (play, design, story, making fun of programmers) is just made up stuff with no real basis in research but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Any teacher can look at the list and compare it to what happens in the classroom and come up with some interesting conclusions.

    Still, it’s nice to be validated. Did you see Gary Stager’s response (http://tinyurl.com/33ftt8) to DP? He calls it the worst book of the century. It’s a good hatchet job until the end when it has a sort of anticlimactic ending, probably because at a certain point it becomes clear that it’s just a book, a writer who has a view, and not an attack on the moral underpinning of society.

    Also, I think basketballs covered in paint are so clearly art.

    Nate

  8. @Nate – you’ve made good points here, and I don’t REALLY think DP hates me – it was just a more dramatic and entertaining way to make the point.

    It seems to be commonly acknowledged that “right brain” skills are undervalued. In fact, I see just the opposite. Who do we most reward in this society – it’s certainly not mathematicians! And I’d say school most often misses the point on both sides, what it values is neither right or left brain. I think it’s just “grass is greener” thinking.

    @Colleen I understand… let’s never speak of it again 😉

  9. I have always enjoyed Prof John Hattie’s take on the left brain right brain stuff

    Check out the following from Intelligence – WA Inaugural Seminar on Gifted and Talented Children Observation City, Perth WA
    15th December, 1989

    Let me add a rider here about one of the worst of information processing gone wrong. I have heard so much rhetoric about left brains and right brains and could not miss the opportunity for a little proselytizing on this matter. I completed a study a few years ago using as the basis one of Paul Torrance’s new tests to solve the problem of identifying creative children (Hattie & Fitzgerald, 1983).

    He came up with his notion of “Your style of learning and thinking” which was based on the notion that the left cerebral hemisphere is the locus of logical, analytical and linear propositional thought, whereas the right cerebral hemisphere is the centre of visuospatial and appositional thought and imagination. The implication was that right dominant persons tend to be more creative, and left dominant people more intelligent. He then listed various tasks which have been considered to be more left dominated and those more right dominated. Students ticked these off, and the conclusion was that those with more right dominance are creative and the more left and intelligent.

    I do not mock but only report this recent study by Torrance.

    What is forgotten is:
    a) if we knew which brain hemisphere was dominant what can we do. We certainly cannot get inside brains and alter this;
    b) dividing the world into two types is not different from dividing the world into 12 star signs. Interesting but that is all;
    c) it implies a deficit and therefore nothing can be done;
    d) it omits all discussion about blood flow, which is actually quite important;
    e) it is easy to compile a list of other functions which are specialisations of one hemisphere which have absolutely nothing to do with creativity or intelligence (e.g., discriminating stereoscopic depth, tracking movements of the tongue and jaws according to an acoustic signal of varying pitch);
    but most significantly,
    f) it ignores the role of the frontal lobes. Luria demonstrated that the frontal lobes, which begin development about 9-10 years old, are paramount in the development of executive functioning,planning and attention. These functions are imperative for the development of integrative and synthesis competencies, and therefore in my analysis are critical in the development of intelligence. Piaget demonstrated the role of formal operations, which is merely the advent of the functioning of the frontal lobes.

    The right and left brain idiots constantly forget these points, and so when I am asked whether I am right or left brain, then I reply, I am frontal.

  10. I read Dan’s book, and I used it significantly in a district-wide staff development session last Friday. I don’t think I can significantly add much to what has already been said here, but, this is why I liked the book.

    – it was easy to read
    – it inspired me to think
    – it forced me to question assumptions and stereotypes
    – it provided some ideas for what we might do better with students, or even with one another (fellow educators)
    – it reinforced Richard Florida’s proposition that “we can all be creative,” that it need not be one person or another

    We had teachers take the empathy survey and the humor survey, and do the interview. I got very positive comments back. “I never knew so much about… that was really good to know where they came from, etc.”

    Does he simplify things? Yes. Does he go too far in some areas? Yes. But he’s a writer, not a scientist or an education specialist. Your post here should serve as a reminder to all of us that whether or not information comes in a book, a blog, a wikipedia article, or a magazine article, it must be evaluated.

    Sometimes when you’re headed too far in one direction, something heading you too far into another is needed to course-correct.

    @Artichoke – thanks for sharing. Puts a lot into perspective.

  11. I appreciate your critical take of Dan’s book…I’m up to the chapter on ‘Symphony’ and as I read I’m starting to really doubt some things. I WANT to believe what he’s saying but I need to feel intuitively. I bought the book after reading an interview in The School Administrator. I was very eager to read this book. I’m a music teacher with significant right-capacities BUT I’m not sold yet.

    OK. So right-brained expression will ‘rule’ but where are the jobs? What is he talking about exactly? Everyone is going to be a designer? Really? When, How, in what ways? How will this be profitable if everyone is doing it?

    He comes to the big conclusions in logical ways (things have been a certain way for such and such a time and now its all gonna change) but I’m not exactly convinced. I’ve heard (read) this kind of things before. Remember the Celestine Prophecy?

    Exercising our WHOLE MINDS is perfectly fine and I welcome his recommendations about how to do this. That’s where the value lies for me….in building these capacities and helping to build them in children.

    THAT “right brainers” will “rule” the future. Hmmm. I’ll keep reading.

  12. Many of you have lamented about the squelching of creativity in our classrooms and how teachers value test scores above all else. I am a teacher. Believe me when I tell you that we would LOVE to have the freedom to challenge all of our students to be creative, high level thinkers, inventors, problem solvers. Unfortunately we have this tiny little thing you may have heard of called “No Child Left Behind” which involves testing, testing, testing, often for very high stakes. We are not the ones in love with the test scores. We are given mandates by policy-makers, then subsequently administrator who demand performance on those tests. I will be among the first to say that the intent behind NCLB originally (holding schools accountable to providing effective instruction in every classroom) is admirable, and necessary, but the method being used is not only ineffective it is detrimental to our students’ education and the ability to keep and recruit great teachers. We agree with you that we need to challenge kids to think and create. We need to teach them that learning is not about regurgitating information for a test. But we are not given the latitude and the support to do what we know is best, because the classroom teacher, despite the fact that he/she knows his/her students far better than any administrator or policy-maker, knows what strategies and outcomes are needed, and wants to see the fire in each child’s eye as they make discoveries, is weighed down by bureaucracy. And, by the way, parents who make judgements about the quality of schools based on test scores published in the local paper rather than writing to representatives about valid justifications for all those test, are not helping the situation to improve. And I don’t blame parents for that at all; for most people, those little score rankings are the only inforamation they have to go on.

    We would love to have some parents and employers use their voices to affect legislation so that testing can be de-valued and a well-rounded education can be more valued.

  13. Good Morning Sylvia,

    I’m a ‘left-brainer’ who swings both ways! LOL I find beauty and creativity in the sequential and linear, I nuture my ‘artisitic’ nature by creating works of art and masterpieces on the computer, dabbling in watercolor, photography, and beading.

    I’ve not read Pink’s book, nor do I plan to (I’ve got at least 2,361 books on my list to read before I get to his!). I will, however, read ‘Brain Rules’ (this afternoon actually) which seems to me to be more relevant to looking at how we teach.

    Why haven’t I picked up Pink’s book? I’m not a proponent of extremes. I truly don’t understand why an individual can’t be at one end of the spectrum, then swing to the other, and occasionally just hang in the middle.

    Why am I glad that others have read Pink’s book? I think any time something sparks heated discussion and gets people to look at how things are being accomplished and what they believe is always a good thing.

    P.S. I don’t think Pink hates you…

  14. Hi Sylvia,

    While I would fall into the right-brained preference category that Pink is lauding, I also know there is beauty in numbers – and the combination of raw numbers and visual elements can result in exciting and aesthetically pleasing results. Just for beginners, M. C. Escher ( http://www.mcescher.com/ ) and Edward Tufte ( http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/index and http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_vdqi ) each come from a science (left-brain) aspect to the visual/creative side . . . and they do it with delightful success.

    I haven’t read Pink’s book, and I am not particularly interested in doing so. I think that any pendulum swing to the extreme isn’t going to improve education in any significant way. The problem I see (as a result of reading many comments about this book) is that it continues to push a status quo approach to education – just his own status quo. There doesn’t seem to be any effort to re-imagine the whole learning paradigm and put forth ideas that would drastically re-invent school and the approaches within.

    Being a “right-brainer” I felt like so much was missing in school, so I do feel strongly about the fact that educational policy puts so little value in “the arts” and sees them as disposable. However, on the other hand, I watch my son, who loves and excels in math, and marvel at what he can do – the artistry of what he can do – with numbers. It’s a balance that needs a relevant architecture so that kids have the chance to see the beauty in the learning and express their understanding in unique and innovative ways.

    – Greg

  15. Hi again Sylvia . . . as a secondary note in regards to Julie’s comment. I am on a path designed to take a different angle at educational reform. I am entering a paralegal program in the fall (13 month intensive) and plan to pair that with my 23 years of teaching and find work in the arena of educational policy. I plan to be a vocal agitator for policy that truly allows teachers to teach and learners to learn – instead of forcing them to be the dog-and-pony show for politicians who try to get re-elected by promising wonderful educational platitudes.

    – Greg

  16. Hi Sylvia,

    I get very annoyed by “left brain”/”right brain” discourse. It is a limiting idea, and one which doesn’t contain any insights. I like the way you put it: to draw a hard line between sciences and creativity “shows a profound misunderstanding of both”.

    As a chemical engineer with computer science training, I feel there’s a fairly widespread “profound misunderstanding” about technical professions (engineering in particular).

    It seems that engineers are thought of as dull, introverted, grey-suited automatons, brainlessly following scripted routines with incontravertible rules. We are thought of as overpaid calculators, incapable of accessing the richness of human emotion. This is absolute rubbish, and can lead to a damaging mistrust of expert opinion (but that’s another argument).

    Engineering is an art, that uses science as a tool. It involves bringing into existence that which wasn’t there before – it is by definition creative.

    To practise it well, or to witness it practised well can bring the same visceral fulfillment, the same engulfing satisfaction, as can be provided by music or poetry.

    Sure, the field has misanthropes. What sphere of human endeavour doesn’t? The thing is, none of those misanthropes are likely to be successful. If all you can do is sums and calculations (can’t communicate, can’t conceptualise, can’t access intuition) you are going to make, at best, a mediocre engineer. This was true ten years ago, it’s true now, and it will be true ten years in the future. Industry has recognised that this is true and has been willing to pay a premium for well-rounded, passionate, creative technical people for some time.

    Dan is mistaken. There is no “trend” towards “right-brainness” from a historical preference for “left-brainness”. Defining yourself as either limits yourself, and makes you less valuable to any organisation.

  17. “To draw a hard line between the sciences and creativity shows a profound misunderstanding of both.” Amen.

    I also agree with what you wrote in comment to Nate. There is SO much, for lack of a better term, press about the importance of developing right-brain skills and thinking that a) you’d think there was a creativity drought, and b) left-brain thinking has almost become demonized (hmmm….modern version of left handed/right handed business?).

    Kind of like what happened with boys in school (in particular in science and math). There was such a concern that girls were not getting the attention they needed that educators began to focus solely on their needs to the detriment of the boys in the class. As a result, 20 years later people began crying out about their concern with boys in school.

    Balance. Balance. Balance, please.

  18. I came here via a recommendation from Gary Stager who also disputes Daniel Pink’s credentials and book worthiness.

    I’ll admit to loving DP’s book as I read it. Sure it is at times dichotomous and simplistic to make a point, but I did not read it as an either/or proposition. After all, he didn’t title the book The Right Mind, but rather A Whole New Mind.

    I looked past the U.S.-centric view of the economics (common in the business “how-to” market and yes somewhat tasteless to me as a Canadian) to a learning and development focus and understanding. While not an academic journal (nor does it profess to be), DP’s book stirs food for thought and makes that thinking accessible to all. As educators it may help us in tuning the policy makers and parents into what can matter in our schools.

    I agree that “drawing a hard line” is not appropriate, but sometimes we need to identify the line that needs to be crossed to develop, as the opening Coleridge quote in DP’s book suggests, great androgynous minds.

  19. @Cindy – I think Dan Pink is an amazing writer with an open, accessible style. Perhaps he’s opened a few people’s eyes, but more often, I think people like him because it validates what they already think.

    However, if people try and use it as the basis to do something beyond just feeling good about already existing beliefs, it provides a weak foundation for meaningful action. That’s the basis of my issue with its widespread use by educators.

  20. I picked AWNM because Karl Fisch was using it with his students. As a I began to read it I was thoroughly enjoying it ans thinking that it was very accessible for high school students to read. A quarter way through I read Stager’s vitriolic review. While I think he makes some good points I am amazed that he uses the same devices that Pink does to drive home his message as did sylvis when she said,
    “@Nate – you’ve made good points here, and I don’t REALLY think DP hates me – it was just a more dramatic and entertaining way to make the point.”
    I don’t think that Pink is promoting the LR brain debate, but he heavy-handedly makes the point that an emphasis on the “soft skills’ is necessary as we go into the 21 c, to balance what has been a right brained dominance in the information age. The right brain world will not die but it now needs to be balanced by the left (much like politics).
    I see nothing wrong with that point. As we all know pendulums swing and the preferred place is the middle, the balance, the moderation. Yet, ironically we need the swings to move us forward, I think or maybe not.
    Another point about this exercise in debating Pink and Stager is the incredible richness that my experience in reading AWNM has undergone by participating in the discussion- a model for critical reading and critical thinking.
    Thanks for the that.

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