Creativity and Innovation in Education – Going Beyond Technology
(An article based on my presentation in the EdTechReview Conference of Principals and Educators held in Pune on 4 August 2017)
Creativity and innovation in education has been a topic of keen interest for me, absorbing my attention for over two decades. I come from an engineering background and made the shift to the field of education very early in my career. After a long and arduous search I arrived at the conclusion that education provides the most effective means and tools for the transformation of society, by helping human beings attain to their innate nobility and realize their varied potentialities to the fullest.
Having entered this field I had to learn more about education. I got involved in running a school which my parents had established in Patna. Beyond working with teachers and children within the school environment, I soon became part of a team of young and dedicated teachers which involved itself in experimentation and trying out different things. We questioned many set conventions at that time and tried out new things. We learned new things and found better and more effective ways of working with children.
We were, of course, guided in our work by sound educational principles that were available to us at that time. This meant that I had to study education, which I did for the following several years. We were also guided by the principles of the Baha’i Faith, the new and unique teachings of which aim at the unification of the entire human race, and the carrying forward of an ever advancing civilization.
Thus began my tryst with creativity, innovation and out of the box thinking with particular focus on classroom teaching and learning. We made sure to document whatever we did and whatever we learned. As the body of learning accumulated over the years, I felt it was time to share some of that with others. And this is how I got involved in training of teachers (I use the word training for want of a better word!).
I also occasionally accepted school leadership positions, having served as school Principal for over ten years, helping me learn more about creativity and innovation in education. I am currently serving as Principal Consultant with RiverDale International Residential School, Pune.
This presentation has nothing to do with technology! However, the word ‘technology’ has been included here for a purpose: to draw attention to the fact that any talk of innovation and creativity almost always makes people think about technology! Technology is not always accessible to everyone. If innovation and creativity in education has to begin and end with technology, then I will have to wait for someone to come and offer it to me, convince me of its usefulness, and help me use it. This is a rather disempowering process!
Now, I have nothing against technology and see it as a viable tool, but only when it forms part of a well thought out and comprehensive solution to a problem.
The Process of Change
Innovation + Creativity = Change
Essentially, when we talk about innovation and creativity we are talking about change: Change that is necessary, meaningful, for the better, and offers solution to a problem without creating new problems.
If we look at our school education system in India we will find that although a lot has changed over the decades, the core of how classroom teaching and learning is carried out has not changed much. Children are still involved in the lower order thinking skill of remembering or memorization, with the sole purpose of passing tests and examinations. It is quite acceptable for children to forget most of what they have ‘learned’ in this way because there is so much more that they will have to commit to memory and it is not possible for the human brain to remember everything. This is the core of classroom transaction which remains pretty much unchanged since as long as we care to remember.
This begs the question: why is such change so hard to come by? I believe this is because change is externally driven; or, as I would like to call it, ‘push’ driven! Someone external to the system comes along once in a while and draws attention to what is wrong and how it can be made right. This process of change will not work! Change has to be internally, or ‘pull’ driven! People within the system, notably teachers should be the drivers of such change. Once sufficiently empowered and supported, teachers can bring about the much needed change in our education system more speedily, effectively and permanently.
The Change Agenda
There is a lot that is wrong with our school education system today. The following are only a few pointers:
1. A rigid system that is averse to change
Let us face it, our system of education is averse to change! Proof of this lies in the implementation of the provisions of the National Curriculum Framework (2005), or lack of it! Twelve years later, the provisions of this wonderful document created by the NCERT are yet to be universally adopted and implemented by schools in India. This, in spite of the fact that the recommendations made in this document are based on sound educational principles and recent research and findings.
On a related note, let it be known that the NCF (2005) lays down the road-map of what is destined to be the future of education in India as it enshrines provisions of the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations, to which India is a signatory.
2. Too much competition:
Our school education system is characterized by too much competition which is hurting our children. We have over-simplified the quantification of classroom assessment basing it on marks and end results and in the process, have created numerous problems for ourselves in schools.
3. No joyful learning:
How can children do well at something that they don’t enjoy doing? Students become unmotivated when classroom teaching and learning is uninspiring and not enjoyable.
4. Learning not seen irrelevant:
Most teachers fail to relate classroom teaching with real life applications and as a result, students don’t find their learning useful and relevant.
5. A didactic approach:
Students are almost always expected to conform and comply with instructions given by the teacher while research clearly shows that children work better when they have a say in the things they are expected to do.
6. Outdated pedagogies:
With all the talk of technology, teaching and learning methods remain mundane and uninspiring. The numerous and wonderful benefits that cooperative learning, conceptual learning, activity-based learning, experiential learning, and other methodologies have to offer are lost on the imagined pretext of lack of sufficient instructional time, structural difficulties, and the like.
7. More focus on ‘teaching’; very little focus on ‘learning’:
Findings based on the principles of Constructivism and brain-based learning have shed new light on how children learn, thus redefining the role of teachers as facilitators of learning.
8. Little practice of higher order thinking:
As mentioned earlier, children are happily involved in the most basic order to thinking skill, while higher order thinking skills such as application, analysis, evaluation and creativity are dispensed with, at the detriment of students’ intellectual and mental development.
9. Unhealthy teacher-student relationships:
A degree of ‘clinical detachment’ has been allowed to creep into what was intended to be a warm and close relationship based on mutual respect and trust between teachers and their students.
10. Outdated classroom-management and discipline techniques:
How often do we still hear teachers demand ‘pin-drop silence’ from their students? Teachers still employ classroom and discipline techniques that are decades old, even though more effective and humane approaches are now available to them.
11. A content driven approach:
This is perhaps the bane of our school education system where temporary retention of information borne out of textbooks is preferred over generation and processing of knowledge.
12. Ineffective systems of assessment:
Assessments have been over-simplified in terms of marks and end-results, with no attempt to measure the effort that students put into their work.
13. Development of values not a priority:
Most schools have no programs for value and moral education of their students, and most of those that do, have adopted a content-based approach to it, with utter disregard for the cognitive and affective components of a meaningful program that helps children acquire sound moral virtues.
14. No skilling of children:
Skills such as decision making, problem-solving, communication, critical thinking, team-work, soft-skills, social-skills, learning-skills and many others are skills that children will require in their adult lives but which the existing system does not equip them with.
Nurturing a Culture of Change
There is so much to change and whatever change is happening is far too little and far too slow. So, what are we to do?
For change to thrive we need to nurture a culture in our schools that supports and promotes creativity and innovation, and therefore change. Many theories exist on the dynamics of nurturing organizational culture, and cultural change, but I wish to treat this subject differently. Mentioned below are some of the things that I believe should be happening more in schools if they wish to become the drivers of positive change.
1. Change has to become everybody’s business:
Creativity and innovation are usually seen as specialized skills at the moment. Creative director, creative executive, innovator, ideation specialist, and similar others are actual positions for which people are hired in the corporate sector showing how creativity and innovation are not currently everybody’s business. In context of the cultural change that we seek in our schools, creativity and innovation will have to take in their embrace the entire school staff, especially teachers.
2. Targeted and structured approach:
There is much that needs to change, but a good way to start is to identify a relatively simple area and work to a plan. A structured approach rather than a haphazard and sporadic one is the way forward.
3. Teachers’ ongoing learning and development:
It is important for schools to adopt a systematic program for their teachers’ ongoing learning and development. If teachers are to employ creativity and innovation in their work and thus become the drivers of change, they will have to know what to change and how to do it well. Without proper orientation and training of teachers, driven change runs the risk of becoming subjective, random and arbitrary.
On a related note I have to add here that schools generally appear reluctant to adopt a systematic program of in-service training for their teachers. Let me make a case here for a change in mindset and approach among such schools. Consider this: what happens when an engineering graduate is hired by a company? He or she is not assigned to a task straightaway but is put through a series of orientations and trainings–induction, technical, on-the-job and others. It is much later that this person can be expected to independently perform a specific assigned task with a degree of expected efficacy. This is true for other professional positions as well: doctors, lawyers, chartered accountants, and others. Why not teachers?
Teachers need to be put through an ongoing process of learning and development, even veteran teachers. They need to be kept abreast with emerging knowledge and developments in the field of education if they are to remain effective in their work with the children entrusted to their care.
4. A predisposition towards learning:
Beyond participating in a systematic program of ongoing learning and development that schools may organize for them, teachers will do well to remain committed to a lifelong process of learning. Taking an online course, reading about new research, browsing the internet, attending seminars, etc. are only a few ways by which teachers can reiterate their commitment towards excellence. Schools should make it a point to recognize and reward such teachers.
5. Greater tolerance for mistakes :
We do not generally take mistakes well in India! What is wrong with making mistakes, especially when everybody makes mistakes! The only way not to make a mistake is by not doing anything! A culture that does not take mistakes well will not be conducive to change as nobody will ever want to stick out their necks!
6. A positive and encouraging approach:
People need to be supported, encouraged and rewarded if their participation in the change process is to be sustained and reinforced.
7. Mutual support:
The new organizational culture that supports and promotes innovation requires that teachers work together in a spirit of mutual support and collaboration, pooling their ideas and resources in order to achieve incremental change.
8. A humble attitude:
Anybody who wishes to learn something new or participate in the process of change will have to have the humility to accept that there is so much to learn, and there can be many better ways of doing something.
The Way Forward
As far as general principles of cultural change are concerned, all this sounds fine. But what are we to do? How does one begin to internalize this process? Here are a few concrete and actionable ideas:
1. Begin with clarifying your understanding of basic concepts
Innovation and creativity leading to change cannot be arbitrary. For it to be well-directed, agents of change will need to clarify their own understanding of related key basic concepts. From an educational point of view, clarifying the following concepts would be a good way to start:
School education is all about people: children, teachers, parents. It would be worthwhile to explore more deeply our understanding of human reality by pondering on the following questions:
- Who are we as human beings?
- What is the true nature of human reality?
- What is the purpose of our lives?
- What is the true purpose of human interrelationships?
- How do we view the children populating our classrooms?
- And others.
The other important concept to clarify if we are to help make education a dynamic and productive process is that of education itself. Some questions to dwell upon in this regard are:
- What is education?
- What is the aim, objective and purpose of education?
- Who is a real teacher?
- What are the characteristics of an ideal teacher?
- What are the characteristics of a good school?
- How do students learn?
- And many others.
The manner in which we define and understand these and other basic concepts will determine the direction in which we direct change.
2. Identify and address a problem
The next step would be to identify a problem that you wish to address. The issue to be addressed could be anything–changing the way we conduct the morning assembly, finding a way to make a noisy class quiet peacefully and quickly, ensuring more interactive classroom sessions, etc.
Following the steps mentioned below will help impart a systematic approach to addressing the issue thus identified:
- Define the problem: Start with something relatively simple. It is important to experience success as we proceed along the path of cultural change as it helps sustain the process and build capacity.
- Identify the related guiding principles: This is very important! Researching a bit about the facts, information and principles related to every aspect of the issue being addressed is critical to the success of the change process. A half-cooked and misinformed approach usually causes more harm than good, and can lead to differences, discontent and failure.
- Identify best-practices: We do not have to reinvent the wheel each time! Look around for best practices around the world that relate to the issue at hand, and draw upon existing experiences.
- Discuss, ideate and plan: This is where the core of a plan for action takes shape. Deliberations should be kept free and frank in a true spirit of consultation where everybody is heard, every idea is considered, and a general consensus is created. The plan for action must be worked out in as much detail as possible so that there is all round clarity on what needs to be done, how it is to be done, and within what timeframe it is to be done. Clearly determining and specifying key milestones and objectives to be achieved is another important element at this stage. Setting indicators of success will help objectively quantify success or failure, and in turn determine future course of action.
- Assign roles: Clarifying who does what is imperative to the success of this process. Normally two sets of roles will need to be assigned–individual and institutional. Many times well meaning and great plans fail because necessary institutional support was not forthcoming.
- Act upon the plan: Once all details have been worked out, all concerned must religiously act upon the plan. Consistency and perseverance are essential at this stage.
- Review: After acting upon the plan for a reasonable and per-determined amount of time, all concerned must get together to review the outcomes: What actions were taken? Were the provisions of the plan met in their entirety or not? Were all milestones achieved? Were all timelines met? Did all stakeholders fulfill their assigned roles? How far were the objectives determined for the initiative achieved? And so on.
- Continue to act with necessary adjustments: Make adjustments in the original plan based on the review findings and continue implementation.
The two stages of review and appropriately adjusting the lines of action should be persevered with till all intended objectives are fully achieved at which stage, creativity and innovation in action can be said to have successfully brought about intended change.
- Documentation: A simple document should finally be prepared capturing all that was done, right from identifying the problem and why it was a problem, to how it was resolved based on some creative and innovative thinking and lines of action. Such documentation leads to capacity enhancement, and leaves for posterity a valuable body of very useful learning.
- Move on to another problem: The team is now ready to take on a different and more complex problem by following the same cycle of consultation-action-reflection-documentation mentioned above.
The steps mentioned above are not easy but are doable. With perseverance and experience, this process becomes easier and easier to carry out, resulting in an ongoing development of capacity among stakeholders, particularly teachers, for bringing about desirable change from within the system.
This is an optional but highly desirable stage in the process of promoting change. The stages mentioned above are sufficient for creating a self-sustaining system for internal change. However, schools have the option of taking this process further by sharing their learning and experience with others, and inspiring them to also become agents of change.
Whether schools choose or not to engage in such outreach and initiate others along the path of cultural change by getting them excited about and involved in an ongoing process of creativity and innovation, there is one thing that they must do–take parents into confidence! Ensuring the support of parents is critical to the success of any change process within the school education system by explaining to them the purpose and benefits of the changes that are sought to be brought about.
Progression towards becoming a Change Agent
Teachers are generally found to be at four different levels of capability and motivation for them to get involved in bringing about positive change within the classroom. These are:
- Don’t know, don’t care and don’t do: These are teachers who are not sufficiently familiar with educational principles and processes and do not make the effort to try to find out more about these and so, they are unable to do anything differently and initiate any change in the classroom and the school.
- Know, but don’t care and don’t do: This group of educators is one that is aware of various educational principles and knows how beneficial doing certain things differently would be, yet they disregard all that knowledge and go about their work in a rigid and often unimaginative manner. Mind you, this group is better than the previous one, for with some motivation it would be possible to initiate them into the change process.
- Know, care, but can’t do: This is a yet different group of educators that can clearly see that what goes on in the classroom or elsewhere in the school is not good enough and can and need to change and improve. But they are not able to do anything about it for want of encouragement or adequate institutional support.
- Know, care and do: These are the champions of the change process! They are the teachers and educators who use their knowledge, understanding and experience to bring about necessary change where required. They do what they can, going about it quietly, assured in the conviction that they are serving the best interests of their students.
It is the responsibility of the leadership and management of every school to help its teachers progress along this path and help move them from a stage of ignorant indifference to one of informed and proactive initiative.
The Mantra for Change
Finally, I wish to share a mantra for change, a mantra that I have always used and which has helped me tread steadfastly along the path of creative and innovative change in the field of education. The mantra goes thus:
“Is there a better way of doing this?”
No matter what we have been doing and for how long we have been doing something, almost always a better way of doing it can be found. Ask this question and look for an answer sincerely and objectively. You will be surprised how often newer and better ways can be found for doing things!
There is a great deal that is wrong with our school education system, and it is only getting worse! We can no longer wait for someone else to come and change things because it is not going to happen. Change will have to come from within the system and teachers will need to be empowered and supported to become the agents of proactive change.
What has been described here is a doable set of ideas, ideas that many schools and teachers have adopted to their delight from the wonderful results that small incremental changes in approach have helped them achieve.
There is too much at stake and there is so much to lose if we continue to remain indifferent in our work with the children entrusted to our care.