Education and the Death of Creativity

It is now a few weeks since I took my daughter for her first day of school. As an education activist who is aware of the realities of education in South Africa and the broader region, this day had a very special meaning for me. As I dressed my daughter in her beautiful light green and white uniform, I thought how lucky she is to have the opportunity to go to school at all.And hers is not an ordinary southern African school where teacher-student ratios no longer matter, facilities are wanting, infrastructure is in a sorry state, and texts books are almost a luxury.

Former Education Programme Manager

February 12th, 2012

It is now a few weeks since I took my daughter for her first day of school. As an education activist who is aware of the realities of education in South Africa and the broader region, this day had a very special meaning for me. As I dressed my daughter in her beautiful light green and white uniform, I thought how lucky she is to have the opportunity to go to school at all.And hers is not an ordinary southern African school where teacher-student ratios no longer matter, facilities are wanting, infrastructure is in a sorry state, and texts books are almost a luxury. My daughter is particularly fortunate because she is going to a school where she will have her own class teacher and have less than 30 other children in her classroom.Looking at her as she walked into her classroom for the first time, I thought of the thousands of children in our region who are deprived of this opportunity. These are children who will never step into a classroom at all – and will never take the first exciting step on the journey of education.Like other proud parents, I took a host of photos of my daughter on her momentous day – pictures that capture her excitement, anxiety, curiosity and desire to learn about the world. But there was also an unsettling thought in my mind – a fear that even in this school, the education system might not allow her creativity to flourish.Like other six-year-olds, my daughter is a very creative little girl. Give her paper, glue, dough and cloth and she will make things that leave you wondering where on earth she got the idea from. Her mind is inquisitive and will ask you questions outside the norm.For example, at the end of last year, I suggested to her and her older brother that we travel somewhere else at Christmas – not back to Malawi as normal. Her brother welcomed the idea. But not his sister. A few days later she told me she would not be coming with us but would be going to Malawi alone because she had found out that she was old enough to go on a plane as an unaccompanied minor. In her own small world she had come up with a solution to the problem she was faced with. Will her school and education nurture this creativity? Or will it just fizzle out as is the case with so many of our learners?As I watched her settle into school, I kept thinking if this day would actually signal the start of the slow death of her imagination, curiosity and creativity – and her (often irritatingly lengthy) quest to understand things by asking question after question after question.I remembered a short clip I had watched on www.ted.com on how education kills creativity by Sir Ken Robinson when he addressed the Apple Education Leadership Summit in 2008.  In his address, Robinson discussed the distinctive ability of human beings to imagine and be creative. Furthermore, he said that this creative imagination is the most unique capacity that humans possess and that it is the source of all human achievement – and yet this creativity and imagination is systematically jeopardized in the way we educate our children.Robinson argued that we need creativity in order for us to face the future, “Education is meant to take us into a future we can’t grasp (and therefore we need creativity),” he said. “Yet we are educating our children out of creativity.”And while Robinson’s address focused largely on the creative arts, I believe creativity goes beyond just the arts to encompass curiosity, hunger for learning, experimenting and questioning to find answers and solutions. Amazingly our young ones possess these qualities in abundance.But for how long? Looking at her that day, I realised that creativity and imagination can die very quickly at school unless it is carefully nurtured. At school, she would learn ‘what is and what is not’, that black is black and white is white. They will be programmed to appreciate some subject areas and not others. They will be taught that they will not make it without maths and science – and their love for drawing, dance, drama, sport and other things will be given little attention until they give it up. A lot of their questions will remain unanswered. Indeed, as they get older, many of their questions will remain unasked as they learn to stay within the parameters of what is taught.But who is to blame? Is it the teacher? Or the curriculum? Or the ideology that is the driver of our system of education? Or perhaps parents and communities?I believe all of these have contributed in one way or the other to this problem.Our education systems take most of the blame. Poor teacher training ensures that most teachers do not understand how to foster creativity or why they should. Most curricula are designed to simply pass on information – leaving inquiring minds frustrated and unchallenged. And of course, it is very hard to promote creativity in a class with over sixty children clamouring for the teacher’s attention.And to cap it all, the ideologies of the state, religious institutions and the prevailing culture will influence education systems and impose their views on what education is and what its role in society should be. These determine what kinds of learners are churned out of the system. For example, simply producing more graduates may be the goal of the state – rather than ensuring that graduates can analyse and think creatively enough when they are finished to come up with innovative solutions to the problems that countries like ours face. So we end up with more graduates but graduates who are armed with irrelevant knowledge and skills and ill-prepared for the challenges ahead.While it is easy to point the finger of blame at the educational establishment, I believe it is also important for us to question whether our homes and communities contribute to this death of creativity and imagination. As parents, we should be asking ourselves – what was the last creative activity we engaged our children in? Have we nurtured their passion for the arts or sports? How many times have we told our children to shut up and stop asking questions? And are our communities supportive of children who possess non-academic talents? Or is everything focused on getting good grades in class?There is no doubt that much more needs to be done to nurture our children’s creativity. However, one critical thing to remember is that creativity cannot happen when we are denied the freedom to be who we are, the freedom of thought, the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, the freedom to decide who we want to become, and the freedom to nurture our aspirations. But our children think of what is ‘right’ – of the things they think their teachers, parents and society will want them to do or say or think.Unwilling subscribers to the ‘norm’, their freedom to disagree with us is limited and so is the space for them to express their opinions. Disagreeing earns them bad marks in school or at home or in the community.But this is wrong. Children need be encouraged to use their imagination and creativity and not be forced to conform. To achieve this, we need a total transformation of our education systems to create an environment that nurtures children’s creativity, curiosity and imagination. Indeed, these should be the pillars on which we build our education systems. And everyone needs to play a role in supporting these new structures – from the state to teachers to parents to communities.Starting school is so exciting. But it would even more exciting – and worthwhile – if it were the start of a journey that would allow children to achieve their fullest potential and ensure them of the brightest possible future. A future based on knowledge inclusiveness, knowledge tolerance, and knowledge relevance – knowledge that would assist in the realisation of a better, more productive and more peaceful world.By Wongani Grace Nkhoma, Education Programme Manager, OSISAPhoto: © Eva-Lotta Jansson 

About the author(s)

Wongani Grace Nkhoma is the Education Programme Manager. Wongani has over 10 years experience working in the development sector. Before joining OSISA, Wongani worked with ActionAid International - Malawi as Regional Manager and Education Policy Coordinator

Contacts

  • 1 Hood Avenue/148 Jan Smuts; Rosebank, GP 2196; South Africa
  • T. +27 (0)11 587 5000
  • F. +27 (0)11 587 5099