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the creativity gap

A class at Quest University in Squamish B.C.William Thompson

They gather around tables in groups of four or five, preparing to bid on land that will be auctioned off tomorrow. Some analyze complicated geological maps and manipulate models made of modelling clay, theorizing about ground water patterns. Others sketch on graph paper and scrutinize rock samples in an effort to identify the most promising spots for exploratory oil drilling.

This isn't a room full of oil executives, but an undergraduate class in geology. These first-year students at Quest University, an unusual undergraduate-focused school in Squamish B.C., are learning more than the difference between a quartz and a feldspar; they are also studying how the fundamentals of geology are used in the real world and the political processes involved in exploiting resources.

The classes here are anything but typical. A class on volcanoes includes a ten-day field trip to Hawaii. An international relations class is taught by the Canadian ambassador to Mozambique. Instead of taking five classes during a standard semester, they study only one at a time, intensively, for 3-1/2 weeks in a block system. "It's the opposite of multitasking," explains Quest president Dr. David J. Helfand.

The Quest model is not about graduating job-ready students with specific skill sets. Rather, the school encourages students to intellectually wander and explore, hoping they come out at the end with a broad understanding of many topics and creative abilities they can apply in many possible careers. According to Dr. Helfand, this unorthodox style of undergrad learning is a valuable solution to a very Canadian mystery. Although Canada ranks highest of OECD countries on the percentage of university-aged people attaining some higher education, we lag behind when it comes to indicators of innovation, such as patents. One theory as to why: We need more creative graduates.

Employers are increasingly looking for applicants who can analyze disparate sources of information, critically analyze data and approach problems from various perspectives, according to Dr. Helfand.

Quest students must take set classes for their first two years, but they aren't standard fare. For instance, one class, on asymmetry in nature, is taught by a variety of professors from disciplines such as molecular biology, astrophysics, philosophy, psychology and French literature. The theory is that disciplinary mobility is essential for fostering creativity.

Bjorn Munte, who was part of Quest's first graduating class last spring, says he applies his broad education daily to his new job in real estate investment at a Berlin bank. He says the creative skills he gained at Quest make him better at analyzing complicated real estate investments, by giving him a knowledge base to examine potential investments from many perspectives and encourage him to question assumptions. "To me, this is what creativity is about: Adjusting your solution to a problem if the assumptions don't make sense, and being able to respond to a new problem quickly and eloquently," he says.

Quest's unique approach is not universally admired, however. The university is non-profit, private and expensive (tuition is $28,000 a year, although many scholarships are awarded), and whether it could be adapted into a larger public institution is far from clear. When Dr. Helfand presented about the advantages of the block system at a small undergraduate-focused university in Ontario, he was heckled by faculty. The university also has difficulty getting its courses recognized; Quest has been unable to access membership in the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, which many universities consider de facto accreditation.

Dr. Helfand chalks up this hesitancy to deep conservatism in universities. "There is clearly interest in changing the way we teach undergraduates, but the resistance to change is strong in highly bureaucratic, unionized institutions like universities."

Dr. Helfand, for his part, was initially skeptical that this style of learning could work in his field of astrophysics, but he is now entirely convinced of its merits. He has taken an extended leave from his role of chair of the department of astronomy at Columbia University to work at Quest. "It is a measure of how excited I am about the educational project that I am willing to live here in Squamish," he says. "Let's just say that there is no Metropolitan Opera eight minutes away by subway."

Special to The Globe and Mail