Is our education system meaningful?

What causes this sharp and intense decline in the creativity of otherwise naturally gifted children when they go through schooling?
Formal schooling is actually designed to make children conform to predetermined patterns. (Representational Photo | AP )
Formal schooling is actually designed to make children conform to predetermined patterns. (Representational Photo | AP )

I like to paint and sketch, and I do so as often as I can. This love of art has often led me to interact with children of all ages to encourage them to paint. Here is what I have consistently observed: preschool children are very creative in their use of colours; however, after they enter school, over time this spontaneous creativity diminishes exponentially. My inference is that formal schooling almost destroys their creativity and instills a fear of experimentation. I am not far from the truth in making this inference even though my evidence is largely anecdotal. 

This inference of mine was actually first established scientifically in 1968 by George Land, who observed 1,600 children from the age of five onwards. In fact, George Land had devised a creativity test and 98 per cent of these 1,600 children at age 5, when tested, were deemed to be in the genius category. However, in the same group of 1,600 children, at age 10, only 30 per cent were deemed to be really creative through this test. As this group progressed through school and through stages of life, the situation became quite dismal. For instance, at age 15, this same group had become highly non-creative, as only 12 per cent qualified as being creative.

The story does not end here. At age 25, in this now grown-up group of 1,600, only 2 per cent were found to be creative. Make no mistake, George Land and I have not been the only individuals to know this; there are other studies that have made similar conclusions. So what is going on? What causes this sharp and intense decline in the creativity of otherwise naturally gifted children when they go through schooling?

The answers do not require rocket science. Formal schooling is actually designed to make children conform to predetermined patterns. All children — no matter where they stand in terms of innate talent — are expected and required to learn in identical fashion and also do well in routine tests set by very ordinary people. No one pauses to think that perhaps the ‘tester’ i.e. the teacher may not be administering tests in the most desirable manner.

Remember, a test is only as good as the person who sets it. If the person to be tested is at a higher level, how do we expect a lesser person to be able to judge such an individual? Are we then surprised that even after Einstein had created his theory of special relativity, he applied for promotion from Patent Clerk Third Class to Patent Clerk Second Class and was rejected? Do not forget that Einstein held more than 50 patents of his own! So he knew the business of patenting well.

The same happened to Mendel when, after discovering the laws of genetics, he was repeatedly failed at the qualifying examinations to be a teacher. If you think that these happenings are things of the past, think again. In the 21st century, and just three years ago, here is what a student from one of our best known IITs had to say in his fourth and final year of study: “The three and a half years are an academic void. This is going to haunt me for the rest of my life. The little I learnt during the course of mugging for exams got erased as soon as the exam was done.” A few years ago, Kiran Karnik, then director of NASSCOM, had observed that in India, three out of four graduates were unemployable.

It is obvious that the situation in India is not very encouraging in the realm of formal education. And make no mistake in inferring; the foundations are laid at the level of schools. So what is portrayed above also tells us that in general, our school education is not in a very happy situation. The moot point is not whether we know this. Rather, the issue at hand is and should be the challenge of identifying the remedial pathways. 

The heartening news is that much has been done in our land from the hoary past to modern times to guide us towards a better situation. To my mind, a few simple lessons can take India very far in the realms of education and knowledge. 

Let us first recognise that to be truly on the path of good education is just a journey inwards towards discovering the self; such as when Gandhi discovered his calling to adhere to the truth no matter what the cost, or when Tendulkar discovered that his inner drumbeat called out for cricket. 

So any institution of education and knowledge must enable a student to discover the drumbeat of her soul, and then it must further enable the student to march in the real world in harmony with this drumbeat. This calls for learning in a hands-on manner through projects and group-based activities that are connected to the real world and which enhance the skills of communication, analysis and simple quantitative thinking. It also calls for the blackboard to recede more than a little, and it also calls for teachers to transform into mentors.

It also calls for learning in a trans-disciplinary manner. The curriculum must recognise — as someone said — that an ounce of experience is better than a ton of theory, and that teaching more leads to less learning; and that experimentation to a large extent leads to deep insights. Such a prescription should recognise that skills and knowledge are two sides of the same coin and they must go hand in hand. We tried all this with enormous success at Delhi University.

( Dinesh Singh is former Vice-Chancellor, University of Delhi, Adjunct Professor, University of Houston, Texas, USA )

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