How Innovative is our Youth: A Study Worth Talking

Our current academic system in Bangladesh is not well-equipped to educate learners to be extraordinary change agents. Students need to develop a set of skills in different areas, such as critical thinking, innovation and risk-taking, skills which are integral to being a successful change agent. Critical thinking involves the ability to perceive out of the clichéd box and constantly question the convention. The status quo is rooted in the past and can provide much-needed stability, but it needs to be balanced with contemporary innovation and problem-solving. Innovation is needed for the ‘hard problems’ like energy crisis, traffic congestion and environmental degradation; these seem deceptively simple, but in reality are very difficult to overcome. Risk-taking is also an integral component of leading change. The progress sparked by innovators’ ideas is not easily realized. A tremendous amount of work and a great deal of risk bolster every new idea that eventually makes its way into the real world. To better understand how well the nation’s youth are equipped with such important skills as critical thinking and calculated risk taking so that they could become more effective change agents, this article looks at a sub-set of themes from a recent youth survey.

pi STRATEGY and Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC) jointly studied the perception of 11 disparate themes, amongst a cross-section of the youth of Bangladesh. The sample size for the survey was 200. It primarily constituted delegates attending the three-day BYLC Youth Leadership Summit 2011. While the sample selection was limited to those who had applied to attend the Summit, there was an unequal but random mix of students from Bengali, English and Arabic medium schools known as Madrassas (See Figure 1). Most of the students came from the higher secondary levels (A Levels, HSC, or Grade 12 equivalent) (See Figure 2). The household incomes of the students were roughly equally distributed across socio-economic income groups (see Figure 3). The survey provided some interesting insights. Innovation is a crucial part of the two sub-themes closely studied for this article. According to leading practices, innovation constitutes three important components: creative process, distinctiveness and impact. Only 13% of the respondents were able to identify all three components. However, of the 13% respondents who identified all three components, 40% of them still felt that creativity is the same as innovation (See Figure 4). Evidently, a clear understanding of innovation is largely absent amongst those surveyed.

A question in the survey sought to assess the critical thinking ability of the respondents. The question was ‘how many squares are there in a chess board?’ The natural initial response is 64. When someone looks at the chess board critically, he begins to see some squares that are 2×2, 3×3……8×8. Collectively there are 204 squares in a chess board in all combinations. A quarter of the respondents answered the question correctly. While more than one-third of the respondents from English medium schools answered the question correctly, only six percent of the Madrassa students got it right (see Figure 6 on page 12). This result raises the question how well Madrassa curriculum caters to the development needs of its students when it comes to critical thinking skills.

Among the various career paths available to graduating students, starting a new business (being an entrepreneur) can be considered the most risky. Despite the widespread knowledge of such risk, over forty percent of the youth surveyed expressed interest in starting their own business (See Figure 5). Yet, a considerable portion of them (nearly 30%) have inadequate understanding of basic economic concepts. This could potentially come in the way of launching and operating an entrepreneurial venture successfully.

One may have expected that people from higher income groups are more likely to start businesses of their own; however, survey findings do not support this intuition. Respondents willing to start their own business are almost evenly distributed among different income groups. However, there is a link between the willingness to start a business and the satisfaction with their household income. About three-fourths of the respondents who expressed their interest to start their own business are those who felt they live comfortably or can cope with the income their families have. Respondents, who felt it is difficult to live on the income they have, prefer taking a job somewhere rather than taking the risk of starting a new business.

The results of the survey can be explained by the prevalent practices of conducting business in this nation. In Bangladesh, we see a strong preference towards a ‘copy-paste’ mindset when it comes to starting a new business. Entrepreneurs most often prefer to ‘borrow’ successful business ideas and soon there is excessive proliferation of such businesses. The phone-fax shops and garments outfits of the 80s, the cyber cafes and coaching centers of the 90s, and beauty parlors and real estate developers of the last decade, are all examples of this mindset. This ‘copy-paste’ strategy is detrimental and cannibalizing to the respective industry as it leads to price spirals, degradation in quality and prevention of innovation.

Bangladesh needs to break away from this mindset and create new, compelling, value generating business opportunities. To do this well, the nation needs strong critical thinking skills to analyze existing products or service offerings, and identify gaps and opportunities for improvement. It needs innovative solutions, incremental or disruptive, to solve existing challenges. It needs risk-taking entrepreneurs to create compelling business models to capitalize on opportunities.

However, to do this well, our country needs to get the right building blocks in place. The education system is at the heart of what constitutes strong building blocks. The survey findings indicate that entrepreneurial aspirations exist among the youth. However, the academic system the youth find themselves in today does not seem to create an enabling environment for trend-setting entrepreneurs.

The existence of an academic atmosphere which fosters innovation and critical thinking is a prerequisite to having a competitive business climate and sustainable economic growth. Growth can generally be attributed to the following fundamental forces: an increase in factors of production, improvements in efficiency of resource allocation, knowledge and the rate of innovation. Assuming full employment and efficient allocation, growth is thus largely driven by knowledge accumulation and innovation. Innovation pays dividends in significant amounts. The impact of innovation results in quantum leaps in value creation that encompasses effective results. The ability to systematically stimulate and capitalize on innovation is consequently considered to be one of the critical issues in comprehending growth.

It is very promising to see that the government has recognized the need to develop critical thinking skills and have already begun taking steps to address this problem. The Creative Question System, a new type of question pattern, was introduced in the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examination in 2010. This question pattern is designed to engage the students in critical thought. Students are asked to relate some given information, which is presented in the form of a scenario, a map or a diagram, to relevant topics that are part of the curriculum. It requires insights into a topic of study in order to recognize and answer these questions since there are no straightforward answers to such questions. This approach will encourage students to better grasp the underlying concepts on a topic instead of simply memorizing them.

This new method is expected to be gradually introduced from Grades 6 to 12, until the Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) examination, including in Madrassa and Vocational education institutions.

The education system plays a fundamental role in supporting individuals develop the skills required to be extraordinary change agents. Therefore, it is essential to keep the focus on creating an enabling environment which fosters critical thinking and innovation for the aspiring young change agents of this nation.

This article looks at two of the 11 themes explored in a World Bank supported report titled BYLC Voices of the Next Generation Survey where pi STRATEGY provided pro-bono consulting services. Special gratitude is extended to ASM Maruf and AFM Shahed for this piece.