Redefining education

Make it creative, encourage risk-taking and expand the idea of success

Written by Satyam Viswanathan | Published:January 18, 2016 12:00 am

During his recent India visit, Google CEO Sundar Pichai spoke of how India’s education system would do well to emphasise greater creativity and risk-taking. We ought to listen.

There is perhaps no other country in the world that glorifies examination results and starting salaries the way we do. In most cultures it’s a bit rude to talk about these things even in private. But in India, it’s the stuff of front-page, prime-time news. Buses and outdoor hoardings are plastered with images of top rankers who have “cracked” significant exams and “aced” standardised tests. We put starting salaries and entrance exams on a pedestal and force a singular definition of success down our collective throats. Is the purpose of education really to max standardised tests and rake in the cash?

Most Indian parents today, themselves products of a top-down, instructional model of education, replete with corporal punishment, mindless cramming, and regurgitation of facts, would agree with Ken Robinson, that such a system, devised during the Industrial Revolution, is ill-suited to the needs of modern society. At the same time, there is huge anxiety among parents, teachers and children in India today about a society where 99-per cent cutoffs are the new normal for college admissions. Multiple voices compete inside the heads of everyone involved. Shouldn’t education be about a holistic exposure to all facets of life rather than a cracking of tests? Shouldn’t education be a force for peace, a means to overcoming prejudice? But the material world doesn’t reward these qualities! Yes, I want my kids to be creative and curious but didn’t the work ethic and analytical abilities drilled into us by old-fashioned Indian public schools make us a generation of high-achievers? Will new-age approaches to education turn my kids into under-achievers?

Multiple studies have shown that personality attributes such as grit, curiosity, and self-control are stronger predictors of achievement than IQ. Writer Paul Tough in his book, How Children Succeed, challenged what he called “the cognitive hypothesis” or the belief “that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills — the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests, including the abilities to recognise letters and words, to calculate, to detect patterns”. Instead, Tough offered a character-hypothesis or the idea that non-cognitive skills, like persistence, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control, are more crucial than raw brainpower to achieving success. Tough believes that character is created by encountering and overcoming failure. A culture that allows children to explore, take academic risks and learn from failure is a culture that creates curious, passionate, confident, and empathetic adults. As Einstein famously noted, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

An education system that values creativity is one that makes a deliberate effort to spark thoughtfulness and independent thinking, teaches students how to learn, instils a lifelong love of learning, pushes students to find their own interpretations, and guides the development of a strong moral compass. Creativity in education has to do with a constructivist approach to education, where learning is an active, contextualised process of knowledge construction that builds on prior knowledge, social interaction and authentic tasks, rather than the passive receiving of information.

By glorifying starting salaries and standardised tests in India, we also propagate a singular definition of intelligence that skews our incentives and priorities in unhealthy ways. This creates, for example, a society where blind obeisance to corporate imperatives is valued far more than, say, the pursuit of teaching or the arts. To be fair, this is a flaw intrinsic to capitalism but one that is at least recognised and partially redressed via generous subsidies and grants in the developed world. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner introduced the theory of multiple intelligences in 1983, and posited that IQ was an inadequate measure of human ability. Beyond the linguistic and logical-mathematical skills that IQ tests entail, Gardner proposed musical intelligence, spatial intelligence, bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence and naturalist intelligence as key expressions of human ability that find relevance in a wide variety of professions. Gardner’s research expanded the idea of intelligence. We could do with such an expansion in India.

A society that values multiple intelligences, encourages exploration, accepts failure, prizes environmental conscientiousness, and allows people to define success on their terms may be what Pichai had in mind. For India’s over-populated, hyper-competitive context, such a reality may still be a while away. But it’s a goal that’s well worth aiming for.

The writer is a consumer researcher and part of the founding team at Junoon Theatre