Create or Cram : Is the education rat race becoming a rat trap?

The father of a six year old child father found her sitting at the table with her homework notebook spread out in front and asked her what she was doing.

“Thinking…” she answered.

“What do you mean, thinking?? You have written nothing on the page!”

“But, Appa, how can I? I was thinking with my writing finger! After that I will write.”

“What??? You think with your head or a finger?” demanded the thoroughly annoyed father. “Show me how!”

The child placed her right finger on her temple near the eyebrow and said, “This is how…I always think with this finger” not understanding why she was being scolded. The father was only attempting to be a responsible parent,butunknowingly tried to “educate” her out of her way of thinking.

Is “creativity” in opposition to “education”? Many children do not have the opportunity to show or develop their talent. Despite important exception, overall social attitudes in India inhibit creativity and many adults lack the capacity to nurture it. Now and then geniuses are discovered despite the system, not because of it. Education is commonly treated as a standardized and sequential activity –training, providing identical skills and transmitting predetermined information. Students are fed received doctrines, positions and views. They are expected to repeat them back to the teachers in tests and examinations. An overcrowded classroom or school curriculum does not leave even willing teachers much scope to spot and nurture talent. Anxious parents, caught up in the race for children to get those precious marks, use coaching classes to supplement school teaching. Starting from the first standard, right up to the tenth board exams, plus-two and then preparing for university admissions…it goes on and on.

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? Why? 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. So I picked an amoeba that my big sister told me about… I liked it because it has no fixed shape! And it moves about using pretend feet…

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

How many times have you heard young students say something like, “I by-hearted and by-hearted all the expected questions but the question paper turned out to be totally unexpected …”.

Parents too can find creative children difficult to handle. They might even consider a creative child hard to educate, a bit irritating, a trouble maker, like the boy in the story above. No doubt, there are a few “alternate” schools that do allow creativity to flower. But as the child comes closer to the eighth or ninth standard, many parents start to become uncomfortable about “alternate” schooling systems. The pressures of board exams cannot be wished away—that is when schools are switched in the quest for marks. Examinations and standardized testing techniques tend to reward homogeneity and undermine creativity.

That does not, of course, mean that standardized testing has no value. In the medical field, for example, standardized 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, the BMI, is within acceptable limits. However, the problem arises whendoing well ona standardized test becomes the ultimate aim of learning.

But is creativity really in opposition to education? There seems to be quite a lot of misunderstanding about creative people—that they are indisciplined or unreliable.But 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! And VishwanathanAnand’s chess?You need to be very good in your field and also have the freedom to innovate. Creativity is not limited to specific fields like art or music – creativity can be 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 fulfillment, you will also be able to contribute by innovation and resourcefulness. So 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
  • 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

In the Republic of Korea the government has started making raids on hagwons—private tuition classes after school–to stop children from after ten at night. Political leaders are trying to change university admission policies to reward creativity rather than cramming. While US schools are trying to get a bit more Asian, these schools are trying to become a bit more American. Education experts have argued that the old model of sequential and standardized education can, in fact, “train students out of their creativity”. Learning by rote, memorizing and reproducing preset information is not the essence of education. It can help in doing well in standardized tests, but not much more. Once you actually start to work you may find that it is people most in demand are those who are resourceful, who innovate, and can find ingenious ways of doing things.

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 can further not just knowledge about a subject, but also nurture divergent thinking, try different angles and answers to a question. They can build confidence among students to speculate, to experiment, to think differently, however unorthodox it may seem at first.It does not mean that they should be ignorant in the subjects. Students need to be on top of a discipline; they should speculate, innovate, explore many different angles too, as a core part of learning the discipline. Young children can have enormous confidence in doing things that may seem unusual–push ahead without any fear of failure. Adults should notundermine this confidence by discouraging them.

There is the 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.

Do we really want to discouragesuch a child?

Anuradha Rajivan

Adapted from an article by the author, “Creativity and education: Contradictory impulses” 22 March 2009, The Hindu.

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