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How Creative Must Education be in the 21st Century?

A look at some of the most creative approaches in education, and why they're much needed.
BY Skendha Singh |   12-06-2015

The answer is simple. Very.

But there are roadblocks – biases, a lack of imagination and obsolete methods.

‘The vision is very clear – it’s either to be an engineer or a doctor (and) get a professional degree. . . The child says, “I want to be a painter.” The dad says, “No, you’ve got to be an engineer. Painting can (at best) be a passion. . .”’

(Mrs. Deepika Singh, Principal, The Air Force School).

The preference for Science and vocational studies is deeply entrenched in the middle class. The children are encouraged to opt for Engineering/Medicine degrees in India and pursue STEM subjects abroad. The education system must bear part of the blame of fostering this bias. One major reason is the hierarchy of disciplines. Highest scorers are eligible for all the fields, but are encouraged to pursue the Sciences in school, whereas those at the bottom must perforce opt for the Humanities.

The prestige play off between Science and Humanities implies not only that Sciences are superior to the Humanities but that each discipline is independent of the other. A silly idea in our interconnected world. Everything today depends on how humans and technologies interact. So how can Humanities and Science afford this stand off?

What is needed is a broader approach to learning. Various institutions and countries across the world are taking the lead with this. New York University for instance.

“(W)e created a digital game center where we give an undergrad degree in digital games. And we have the . . . business school, the engineering school, the computer science school and the art and film school all together. So they get a degree that makes them able to be a creative and a business person (who is trained) in computer science.

In other places now, we’re seeing Big Data in Humanities . . . So you’re using analytical capacity . . . to solve social problems.

I’ll give you a third example. We have a centre called Gov Lab . . . It means government laboratory. It’s in the engineering school and it’s using engineering techniques, data, social media, (and) information technology, to help provide services to the government in a better way.”

(Jerry M. Hultin, NYU)

Cross disciplinary learning then, yields obvious dividends. For one, it encourages lateral thinking and more creative solutions.

Students in Finland would know coming on top of international tests and assessments as they regularly do. The schools are introducing phenomenon teaching. The method emphasizes practical topics rather than traditional subjects. So, for example, a topic like the European Union, would include elements of history, geography and languages. And a vocational course on gardening would include elements of math (computing land area), biology, botany and geography.

What makes these methods interesting is that they recognize that knowledge cannot be forced in disciplinary straitjackets. They also respond to the world’s need for skills over theory, and demonstrate that skills are knowledge in action.

An institution that excels at this is 42 in France. A computer school without teachers, textbooks, tuition fees or grades for that matter! Their premise is as simple as radical. The students can be anywhere betweem the ages of 18-30 and are selected after a rigorous screening based only on aptitude. There is no other criteria for admission. Increasingly difficult problems are thrown at the students, who are expected to learn collectively and respond creatively. The results are only pass or fail, not grades.

To sum up, educational institutions need to be proactive in responding to the larger world around them. The age of schools being as inheritors of a monastic tradition have long since passed. Creativity, communication and collaboration are the key skills of our century. So creating environments which foster such skills is a priority. There are plenty of fine examples to provide inspiration.

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