Creativity – Boon or burden in our education system?

Tricia Kaur

Creativity is allowing oneself to make mistakes.

The Dilbert Principle

Singapore has an international reputation for producing students who excel in mathematics and the sciences. But has our historic focus on the hard sciences, engineering, mathematics, important though these subjects are, allowed the innate creativity of our young people to flounder?

It is a commonly-heard argument that the Singapore education system lacks space for creativity and the political culture must inevitably shoulder the burden of this.

The authoritarian, top-down approach hardly encourages freedom of thought, speech and expression, not to mention harnessing the perspectives of teaching professionals.

Stability and respect for authority are paramount elements in the teaching structure. This, unfortunately, sits ill with the government’s overall approach to policy making; hence, encouraging creativity is unlikely to occupy a larger and larger part of the curriculum.

Many researchers have found that in order for a child to grow effectively, she must be provided with a creative environment in which to learn, explore, dream in magic and pictures and, most importantly, make mistakes.

If our educational outcomes are to match the economy of the future, then creativity will have to become a key element in the holistic growth and development of our children.

Although there is some significant emphasis on promoting creativity in our classrooms, the individualistic, skeptical and egoistic attitudes that can be typical of creative students do not seem to sit well with the list of desirable student characteristics. According to Ng and Smith, writing in 2004

When students start to behave in a creative manner, two tendencies are set in motion simultaneously: there is a decrease in student tendency to behave in a nice, passive, and submissive manner in class, in proportion to the increase in student tendency to behave in an individualistic, sceptical and egoistic manner in class. The more creative a class of students becomes, the more difficult it is to control and manage them.

This obviously is a great challenge to our teachers especially if it is expected of the teacher to maintain order and discipline in the classroom. This results in a paradox. Where – and how – then should the line be drawn when promoting creativity while maintaining order?

Another critical challenge is Singapore’s meritocratic system which focuses on being the best. As a result the education system stifles creativity because the current dominant approaches to creativity undermines the practices and beliefs of Singaporean teachers. They are expected to uphold discipline and control in the class although fostering creativity can present challenges for control.

Teachers are expected to perform as authoritarian leaders whose emphasis is on the ‘right’ way, the ‘correct’ solution and the ‘best’ approach. Instead of encouraging pupils to be imaginative and inventive in their approach to problems, all too often teachers guide their charges towards the ‘right’ answers.

They are teaching conformity when they should be encouraging uniqueness. They are teaching blind acceptance when they should be teaching healthy skepticism. This can result in the child’s psychological freedom departing early.

Though the education system barely rises to the challenge of nurturing creative minds, the process is often further stifled by formal assessments. Do these assessments contribute positively towards the drive to stimulate creativity?

Unfortunately, the attempt is weak and this is especially evident at the primary school level. Despite the many assessment and examination methodologies, the paper-and-pencil test seems to take precedence in assessing children’s understanding through a series of ‘tightly bound’ questions covering only the curriculum area.

Where is the nurturing of creativity in our education system if it is bound by assessment styles, teaching pedagogies and mindsets that are not facilitated, indeed encouraged, to change?

A concerted voice, coming from both teaching and parental groups, need to raise these concerns with policymakers so that we can begin to equip our future generation for the challenges of that future.

* Ng, A.K & Smith I. (2004). Why is there a paradox in promoting creativity in the Asian classroom? in Sing, L., Hui, A. & Ng, G. (Editors). Creativity: When East Meets West (pages 887-112). Published by World Scientific Publishing.

Tricia Kaur is an education consultant and volunteers with the SDP.

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