"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Creativity and Education: Contradictory Impulses?

From The Hindu:

If education is seen and practised as an activity of regimentation, then creativity, by definition, would have no place in it. Is that what we want for our children?

This anecdote is based on a real life incident. Teachers in a school found a seven-year-old boy quite odd. Though he was well mannered and never got into fights, his answers were often seen as “different”. So the teachers tried their best to “educate” him.

Teacher: What does the cow give us?

Boy: The cow gives us cow dung.

Teacher: That’s not a good answer. You should say “the cow gives us milk”.

Boy: But why, Miss? Does the cow not give us dung?

Teacher: Stop acting over-smart! Why can’t you be like a normal child? I will send a note to your parents! You are the fellow who drew an amoeba in art class, right?

Boy: Yes, Miss. We were asked to draw an animal. I picked an amoeba that my big sister told me about! You see, I liked it because it has no fixed shape! And it moves about using pretend feet…

Teacher: Enough! Why do I get these oddballs in my class!?

Is “creativity” in opposition to “education”? Education is commonly treated as a standardised and sequential activity — like training, providing identical skills and transmitting predetermined information. Students are fed received doctrines, positions and views. First standard followed by second, third…tenth board exams, plus-two and then preparing for college admissions…

Notion of educaion
How many times have you heard young students say something like, “I byhearted and byhearted all the expected questions but the question paper was different …even our teachers agreed!” Or parents say “… the American system is different…children have to think. No use just learning things.” Teachers and even parents sometimes find creative children difficult to handle. They might even consider a creative child too fruity, a trouble maker, hard to “educate” like the boy in the story above. Of course, there are a few “alternate” schools that allow “creativity” to flower. But as the child comes closer to the eighth or ninth standard, many parents start to become uncomfortable about their choice of “alternate” schooling systems. The pressures of board exams cannot be wished away. Some switch — at times with a bit of reluctance — putting their children through regular “education” rather than “creativity”.

Examinations and standardised testing techniques tend to incentivise homogeneity and undermine creativity. That does not, of course, mean that standardised testing has no value. In the medical field, for example, standardised tests can be very useful. Such tests can provide information on whether your red blood corpuscles count is within the normal range or not or whether your body mass index, or BMI, is within acceptable limits. However, the problem arises when doing well on a standardised test becomes the ultimate aim of learning.

Is creativity really in opposition to education? Let us think again. There is quite a lot of misunderstanding about creativity. Creativity is not haphazard — creative work requires system and discipline to actually produce something. Take musicians for example. How do you think A.R. Rahman produces such superb music? Not by being haphazard! You need to be very good in your field and also have the freedom to speculate and innovate. Creativity is not limited to specific fields like art or music, creativity is seen in all fields. Medicine, physics, cooking, and even policing, benefit from creative input. Creativity is not opposed to intelligence — it is organically linked to intelligence. Top mathematicians and writers are highly intelligent people. That is how they think of new ways of doing things. Creativity does not make you do your work badly. In fact, if you are good at something and like what you do, you will not just find fulfilment, you will also be able to contribute by innovation and resourcefulness. Thus we need to counter at least three popular myths that surround creativity:

Myth 1: Creativity is limited to special fields, like art or music so it is no use trying to be creative if you are an electrician or a journalist; in fact all fields have the inherent potential for creativity.

Myth 2: Creativity is limited to special people; in fact all people have a streak of creativity in them.

Myth 3: Creativity is what it is, you either have it or not and there is not much one can do about it; in fact you can develop and build upon your creativity.

Education experts have argued that the old model of sequential and standardised education can, in fact, “train students out of their creativity”. Learning by rote, memorising and reproducing preset information is not the essence of education. It can help in doing well in standardised tests, but not much more. Once you actually start to work, you may find that it is people who are resourceful, who innovate, can find ingenious ways of doing things that are much in demand.

Encouraging diversity
Standard education may try to suppress diversity and inspiration (including in fields like art or music seen as inherently creative) but it is very difficult to eliminate them. Cars or bottle caps can be manufactured. It is much harder to “manufacture” people. Nor should education attempt to do so. On the contrary, teachers should be equipped to build and encourage creativity as part of their professional training. And how is that to be done? Teachers and parents should further not just knowledge about the subject, but also nurture divergent thinking, many different angles and answers to a question. They should build confidence among students to speculate, to experiment, to think differently, however unorthodox it may seem. It does not mean that they should be ignorant in the subjects. Students need to be on top of a discipline and also speculate, innovate, explore many different angles, as an inherent part of learning the discipline. Young children can have enormous confidence in doing things that may seem different — going ahead without any fear of failure. Adults can quite easily undermine this confidence by discouraging them.

Here is an example of a little girl in class two and her art teacher.

Teacher: What are you doing?

Girl: Making a picture of God.

Teacher: But no one knows what God looks like!

Girl: They will, in five minutes…as soon as I am done.

Now, do we really want to discourage this little girl? And the little boy at the beginning of this piece?

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  1. This column appears to be based on Sir Ken Robinson's talk at Ted.com, and comes across as plagiarism. Read my comments at:

  2. Nice article. Worth reading. Not pointworthy in pulling it down.
    I see no point in accusing this as an act of plagiarism. I have come across Dr Ken Robinson's TED talk much after having read over a dozen times the email forwards about the girl drawing a picture of god.
    Once something has joined mainstream you wouldn't need to quote the source. It is the inherent attribute of a great thought, idea, example to propagate, especially through media. you could thank the anonymous guy.
    If my guess is right, Dr Ken Robinson might've picked the example from the bunch of forwards floating around himself. And i needn't say there's something wrong in quoting it at TED...

  3. Anonymous8:26 AM

    There is a liberal sprinkling of Ken Robinson in this article I must agree... But it is interesting nevertheless.