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Stimulating creativity in K-12 education

Since the start of the new millennium, I have been regularly visiting India’s higher education institutes including Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). A striking feature of these institutes is their poor track record in generating new knowledge which requires path-breaking research. Many of the senior faculty with whom I interacted, blame the country’s weak K-12 school system for its inability to encourage and nurture original and creative thinking. “Though the students we get in IITs and IIMs are trained to put in long hours of hard work in assimilating knowledge, they lack creativity and struggle to generate original ideas in novel situations,” says Dr. Pritam Singh, the highly-respected former director of IIM-Lucknow (estb.1984).

Therefore, a very important question arises: How can schools enhance the thinking skills of students and make them more creative?    During the past two decades there’s been extensive research in neurosciences or study of the human brain. In a new bestseller Maximum Brainpower (2013), authors Shlomo Breznitz and Collins Hemingway highlight that some 15 years ago, neuroscientists were almost unanimous that 90 percent of the human brain is fully developed by age eight. Hitherto, it was believed that intelligence is static, that the adult brain was incapable of producing new neurons. However, new studies have conclusively established that the human brain can be sculpted to become more intelligent and creative throughout life.

Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity are now established new sciences. Neurogenesis is the process of continuous and accelerating neurons generation when a person is engaged in sports or physical activity, even into adulthood.

When the brain is challenged to think or concentrate to acquire knowledge, neurons make new connections and enhance intelligence. Moreover neuroplasticity of the brain can be enhanced to develop intelligence and creativity through proper stimuli. In short, if an individual invests effort to acquire knowledge, she willy-nilly helps the brain to become more intelligent and healthy. The more the conscious part of the brain is challenged to think, the greater the stimulus for neurons in the unconscious to make new connections, which stimulates creativity. Latest research studies in the neurosciences indicate developing the brain is like sculpting the body by working out at the gym. The more it’s used, the more it grows.

Against this backdrop, it’s pertinent to note that while India’s best schools have succeeded in inculcating the hard work ethic in their students, many unwittingly diminish, if not kill the natural creativity and curiosity of children, thus inhibiting their cognitive skills. Ever since Lord Thomas Babbington Macaulay (1800-59) rooted out the ‘beautiful tree’ of the Indian gurukul system of education and replaced it with Western concepts to transform India into a nation of clerks, the country’s school education system from primary level onwards has produced conformists required in the assembly-line culture of a bygone age. Unquestioning obedience to teachers, intolerance of ambiguity and risk aversion have become hallmarks of India’s K-12 education system. Rote learning is one of its offshoots, with the brain being used as a bucket to store information.

Quite clearly, there’s a mismatch between what most of our K-12 education institutions teach, and what new age businesses, corporates and higher education institutions demand. However, the silver lining is that some school managements have begun to understand the challenges of the new millennium, and have introduced best practices such as inter-disciplinary teaching, collaborative, peer-to-peer, experiential, and flipped classroom learning.

Yet at bottom, acknowledging the vital role teachers play in developing a nation’s human resource and respecting and remunerating them accordingly, is the vital prerequisite of developing India’s cognitive capital. Although myopic ideologues of all stripes and hues tend to deplore the higher salaries and perquisites being demanded – and paid -- to school teachers, this positive development has prompted the emergence of a small minority of new generation teachers constantly innovating to make teaching-learning processes stimulating, and ensuring their students are challenged to generate new ideas and knowledge. As a result a growing number of students are becoming active participants in knowledge creation and are beginning to question and actively cerebrate. Such teachers are the critical differentiator of schools that have topped the EducationWorld India School Rankings 2015.

Governments in Finland, South Korea and Singapore invest heavily in teacher welfare, development and remuneration and have succeeded in transforming teaching into an attractive profession for aspirational youth. It’s time 21st century India’s Central and state governments take policy decisions to attract the best minds towards teaching and the academy. This is the pre-condition of India becoming a force to reckon with in the new interconnected and borderless world. 

(Premchand Palety is chief executive of the Delhi-based multi-disciplinary research organisation C fore)

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