Disclaimer: this is a bit of a tangent filled ramble and is my attempt at drawing together a few ideas and concepts I have been thinking about recently.
I recently watched a TED talk by Ken Robinson – ‘do schools kill creativity?’ if you haven’t watched it please do. A lot of the following discussion was inspired by it and it linked to a my previous post of education and intelligence.
Education has been commoditised, it’s a transaction not an experience. Well, it certainly was for me, when I was at school all I thought about was ‘if I get these GCSEs then I can do A levels’ then ‘if I get these A levels I can go to uni’ then ‘if I get a good degree then I can get a good job.’ But when I look back on my education all my positive memories regarding learning (so ignoring all the fun things, like the bin we named Manfred in Maths…don’t ask!) were times when I was given a bit of freedom e.g. do a project on teeth (Primary school), write about the English Civil War (Secondary school), choosing my own dissertation topic. It was less prescriptive and I could show my learning in any way I wanted (within reason for my dissertation), I remember tracing pictures of Royalists from a book to transfer into my report (it was before we had a PC, and no I didn’t reference it!) and adding in an extra bit (I can’t remember what it is now but I remember the teacher being impressed) that I had found interesting, just because I could.
Early on at primary school I can remember having formal lessons on some things like writing and Maths and regular one-to-one reading time, but other than that I guess I just learned stuff as we went along. In an Egyptians project we did creative activities alongside Maths, English and Science. Teachers taught us information and skills by stealth. Sure I remember worksheets and tasks but they didn’t feel like a chore. I suppose this is helped by the fact that when you’re small you don’t know a lot so all (most) topics and activities seem exciting! There wasn’t the pressure to get everything right or do things in a certain way. Later on in my schooling it was no longer safe to suggest answers in class that might be wrong, particularly when working towards exams and coursework. I fear this may have crept into lower levels of education now too!
As I moved through education doing things “right” became more important, and although I was doing ok in most subjects Maths was/is my achilles heel. In Maths I was put in set 2, an intermediate group, which I still found difficult and because I HAD to work hard to get the right answers, and Maths is all about right answers, there’s no leeway in that and I struggled. I got tired of being wrong, switched off and then had too much fun and ended up naming a bin Manfred*. I can even remember liking Maths at one point when I was at primary school but as soon as I started to consistently not do very well (in years 4+) I felt bad and all my mathematical curiosity died. For those who are interested, I did alright in Maths in the end, I got a B. I put this largely down to the grade I achieved in my coursework which I was allowed a bit to choose the topic/problem I investigated, I can distinctly remembering some colouring in!
In the UK the obsession with league tables and grades has limited the education of thousands, probably millions of children (in my opinion). Of course we need to monitor school performance and ensure young people have a certain level of skills/intelligence/knowledge but do we have to soley rely on grades for that? (all suggestions on how to change this are welcome) By the time students finish school/college/uni they may have a fabulous array of certificates but did they enjoy it? Or did they spend 14 years in an almost constant state of anxiety? Did they learn anyhting apart from reciting answers? (I hope so).
Robinson’s TED Talk really struck a chord with me – I was WAY more creative, fearless and curious when I was younger. I have, over the years, tried to hold on to these traits; for instance I have just started an anatomy and physiology colouring book to help me when I support health students. I don’t have to do it so I am enjoying the learning process, and the colouring in. I do think the way our education system and wider society is set up limits/stifles creativey and curiosity. Now I am no longer a student (although I love to learn, but only on my own terms) I feel I have more time/freedom to be creative. At work I am encouraged to be creative on how I approach my tasks, especially with my teaching, as long as the learning objectives are achieved it’s fine.
Day to day in my job I see anxious students everywhere, they are so scared of “getting it wrong” and not getting a degree that they worry themselves into a hole. Lots of them have already switched off. If they get behind on their work they worry even more. It’s a downwards spiral. I don’t want their educational memories (let’s face it their social ones will be more exciting) of university to be of stress and anxiety like a lot of mine are.
Therefore, I have made it my goal to make my teaching as relaxed and as stress-free as possible, yes the students do need to learn how and why to use search tools, critical analysis and the other stuff I teach but I can give them a bit more freedom on how they learn. I make a conscious effort to avoid using ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when teaching but I have found this difficult, it is a hard mindset to get out of; particularly when the students just want to know exactly what to do – they have little desire to explore what’s available to them; and they don’t see why they should. A large proportion of the students I see want to “get through” uni so they can go to work. Curiosity has been killed by the curriculum. I try my best to phrase my support as recommendations, suggested improvements, guidelines to help them to learn for themselves and exercise their curiosity but it seems they really struggle without THE ANSWER.
I encounter this issue mainly when it comes to students do literature reviews: “I can’t find articles that back up my answer”, they forget/haven’t internalised that the answer comes from what they find not what they think it should be. Panic often sets in when “there’s isn’t an answer” and then they try to get a square peg to fit a round whole. As far as I am aware the government does not want a society full of people who can regurgitate facts. Innovation, development and forward thinking requires a creative mind; someone who acknowledges the wood in the trees but powers through the forest to find something exciting on the other side.
Maybe it is too late, at HE level, to try to reignite student curiosity and creativity – who knows? But I am going to give it a damn good try.
*The bin named Manfred. I should probably explain. In Maths class me and some friends (who will remain nameless) used to mess about a bit (a lot). Maths was hard, the class was big so the teacher didn’t have time to see everyone and we got away with it most the time. We messed about in the usual way; chatting, doodling, eating, irritating other people, texting, I think we once tied someone to a chair and a textbook or two definitely went out the window. But then there was Manfred. For some reason we had been messing about with the bin – probably chucking each others’ stuff in it – and one of us had a Tipp-ex pen (can you remember those bad boys?! They were classroom currency) so we drew a face on the bin. And he was christened Manfred. We used to sit Manfred next to our table, or take him on trips around the room much to the teacher’s dismay; we also asked the teacher to add him to the register and caused a fuss when she didn’t call his name out. Basically we were odd and naming the bin Manfred was hilarious. He still had that face by the time I finished my GSCEs. I wonder if he is still there…