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Throttling Creativity In The Name Of Education: Are We Guilty Of Raising Thoughtless Students

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By Waled Aadnan:

Last night, I sat down to watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on whether schools kill creativity. Indeed, the 2006 talk filled with humorous anecdotes and references couldn’t have discussed the issue better. A parallel discussion on the issue of the victimisation of creativity at the hands of public education systems in the Indian context is long overdue. Throughout my following attempt to do so, I will refrain from considering creativity in schools in isolation but rather consider the broader social and institutional framework in which such creativity is nurtured, or in the present context, systematically stifled.


In the recent past, specifically in 2010, India’s University Grants Commission (UGC) introduced the Career Advancement Scheme (CAS) for university teachers which defines the rules for promotion in the academic hierarchy on the basis of “points” earned based on number of conferences attended, number of publications, years taught rather than the quality of such work. At the highest levels of the Indian education scene, standardisation has been conveniently substituted for standards. Can portents indeed be better at the school level?

The answer to that question can safely be said to be no. And the pessimism in this regard is far from being unjustified. India’s public education system was structured to meet the needs of increasing literacy post-Independence to stoke the development process in the country. Over the decades, a lot of debate has ensued over whether literacy should constitute simply writing one’s name or whether a more broad-based criteria of functional literacy should be considered. Given this rudimentary background, creativity has unquestionably taken the backseat, with the aim remaining to help children attain a standardised norm of educational attainment. Any historical criticism on this regard would be unfair if we ignore the strains of educating the entire diverse nation on a war footing with very limited resources. But after six decades of gains on the front of education as well as development in itself, is it time we once again take a look at creativity as an equally important component of education as literacy?

Picasso had famously remarked that all children are born artists and as Sir Robinson pointed out, we get educated out of our inherent art and creativity as we grow up. This excerpt from Stephen Nachmanovitch seems apt here:

“The child we were (and still are) learns by exploring and experimenting, insistently snooping into every little corner that is open to us – and into the forbidden corners too! But sooner or later our wings get clipped. The real world created by grown-ups comes to bear down upon growing children, molding them into progressively more predictable members of society.” Free Play: The Power Of Improvisation In Life and The Arts (Los Angeles: Jeremy Tarcher, 1990)

There are three main ways in which creativity is gagged in Indian education.

Firstly, the larger picture in Indian education points towards the effort to “kill history” by proclaiming that the ideals of the ‘American Dream’ are the highest attainable state of human civilisation and that alone is what society and academia should aim for. Such a narrow and intrinsically inhuman approach to education teaches us to stop looking for alternatives. This approach is exemplified and propagated by mass media which today decides everything from what to think to what to wear and eat and how to behave and react. Everything that we are, or aspire to be, is decided by the mass media. So instead of deciding for ourselves, we are taught to blindly ape those who the media considers to be role models, whether they be movie stars, business tycoons or the next Anna Hazare.

Secondly, at the micro level, the “system” inculcates in us from a very early age the notion that it is not alright to experiment and thereby run the risk of making mistakes. The system fails to distinguish a mechanical production process from a living human being and expects both to work in the same clockwork manner towards satisfying the needs of the economy.

This stigmatisation of mistakes is the inherent result and root cause of the rot in the Indian education scene. It is not without reason that Indian universities lag far behind their foreign counterparts in producing quality research. The causes lie back in the schools where the students have been taught to produce standardised answers and not “think too much”. An entire industry of private tutors survives on this framework. The examination patterns are such that only the standard answer is considered the correct one. An innovative approach runs the risk of fetching very less in terms of rewards. And it is natural that students are risk-averse as far as academic results are concerned. The end result is the degeneration of entire generations of Indian students into a standard industry output, no different from auto parts produced in a factory. The dichotomy of high standards and standardisation is in fact the defining characteristic of Indian education.

And lastly, we consider the effects that society or ‘samaj’ has on creativity in general and in schools in particular. The typical Indian child is still seen as a golden goose who will make it big and bring honour to the family. A scene from 3 Idiots comes to mind where a child is weighed in with expectations the moment he is born. That child is hardly unrepresentative. Most Indian children set goals, choose professions and live out their lives under the burden of the expectations of family and society. It won’t do for, say, a lone son to aspire to be a musician or a dancer. It won’t pay you, is what he will be told. Repeatedly. The stalwarts of Indian culture have become stalwarts not because of the society in which they lived, but in most cases, despite it. And although success stories are there to be seen every day, they are the exceptions that prove the rule in a country with human resources as vast as ours.

And this social attitude is reflected in the structure of our educational system. A hierarchy of subjects is clearly to be seen. The subjects that are most likely to lead to respectable, stable, well-paying jobs in the future are at the top of the pyramid: basic sciences, mathematics and English language followed by computer applications perhaps. The recurring theme of standardisation is to be seen here again. And this hierarchy of subjects leads to a hierarchy of professions as far as respectability is concerned. So while most parents would like to see their children turn out to be even mediocre engineers and doctors, in the process a large number of potentially promising actors, sportspersons, painters, writers are lost to the country. This economic cost of throttling creativity is enormous in the long run development of the nation.

The eventual results of this complex process are wide-ranging. Large sections of educated Indians are caught in that “wrong job” made famous by a television ad of an employment website. Due to the relatively disproportional importance given to different professions, we see today a structural problem in the Indian economy which is that of underemployment. Alternatively, we are looking at a state of academic inflation. Quoting Sir Ken Robinson, “…kids with degrees are often heading home to carry on playing video games, because you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a PhD for the other.” With an ever growing population of employable persons in the country, the trend is not a healthy one. What we are looking at, if rapid changes in education aren’t made, are a massive wastage of the talents and potentialities of children and youth in two ways. Firstly, as they choose professions which they are not best suited for. And secondly, as they face tremendous levels of academic inflation as they seek to start working.

Schools in India, instead of developing and nurturing creative processes in children, are mechanically conditioning them to become more egoistic, rigid, insecure, and dishonest. It is high time that alternatives to a dysfunctional system are looked into that go beyond constant evaluation and obsessive reward-based incentives to learning in competitive, high pressure environments.

Video: Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?

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