Monday, 21 April 2014

Unleash the Power of Collective Imagination

     The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. That is the beauty of human civilization.

     Look around you for a few moments at everything that makes up your home – the fan, the television, the light bulbs, the carpets , curtains and sofas, the kitchen ware and crockery…did you make any of these? Did you make even the simplest clamp or screw that fits the beautiful artefact to the wall? Perhaps the artistically inclined amongst you created the lovely wall painting or piece of embroidery to adorn your walls. Certainly I cannot claim any such competencies. It is a matter of wonder to me very often that we live in a world which we have created collaboratively over several centuries. I marvel at and salute all those people existing and those gone by, who have made it possible for us to use all of these products. Everyone of these products is again produced by some collaboration – if you painted the masterpiece on your wall, someone made the paints, brushes and canvas. Someone, or more accurately, many hands at some factory produced the hammer and nails which the carpenter uses to put up your masterpiece on your wall. It is mind boggling to think that collaborative effort of totally disconnected people has woven this beautiful tapestry of civilization that exists today. It is the brilliant power of collective imagination that actually has made all this possible. It could be one tiny discovery, invention, or innovation which triggers another. It then has a seemingly cascading effect, and many innovations lead to a totally new product, perhaps. When Apple launched the iPhone with a few hundred Apps, little did they imagine it will lead to the flood of Apps we see today. All it did was create the platform for people from anywhere in the world to create Apps that many, many more people could use.

     We build on what is left to us by previous generations in the areas of Science and Technology. Every now and then a breakthrough comes out of the blue and speeds things up at a phenomenal rate and the world is never the same again. Like  the leaps and bounds human civilization made in the 20th century…Like the digital revolution…Like the revolutions in communication…Always, however, it is up to the users, be it the leaders of the most powerful nations, or the teenagers at home, to make judicious choices when using these products of collective imagination laid down at their feet by civilization.

     Our daily world is filled with just so many examples of the products of individual creativity, collective imagination, collaboration and critical thinking. Yet, we have not picked up the pace of consciously building these skills into daily teaching and learning in the classroom. It is time to create the conditions that will make these skills an implicit part of facilitating learning. The way forward is to surely, consciously build skills of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking in our schools. Jobs today are very different from what they were a few decades ago. Even clerical jobs have changed. The person who sits at the computer in a call centre today has to be discerning - it does not suffice if he or she merely speaks with a good accent and answers politely. Newsreaders do not merely read the news any more -merely good diction and an unaffected style of speech do not suffice as essential attributes for the newsreader today.A person with an authoritarian style of work is no longer considered good material for being a manager. Today a manager should be a person who is able to think critically and creatively, communicate effectively   and   who is able to work collaboratively with team mates and other stake holders to get the job done.

     When we quell choice and stress on implicit obedience in overcrowded classrooms we instantly create conditions that stifle creativity. When we foster conditions that encourage competition we build conditions to eliminate collaboration. When we rate skills of arithmetic higher than knowledge and skills in the fields of languages, humanities and arts,  we foster the “only one answer is correct approach”, and we are training our students to shut off many areas of their brain.   I will relate one small incident which happened some years ago. My daughter had drawn and coloured a pond with lotuses and ducks – a typical scene a kindergartner draws in India, immaterial of whether he or she has ever seen an actual pond with ducks and lotuses! Her teacher in Kindergarten had to “correct” this and place her signature on this in her drawing book! So, diligently, she corrected in red ink and wrote the remark “use light blue for water”!  My daughter had used dark blue from her crayon set. Perhaps the ducks would also have to be coloured blue because they drank blue water and swam in too? ! I certainly wouldn't want light blue or dark blue water supply from that pond for my house! She was an otherwise kind teacher and I can’t say my daughter did not learn anything from her or from that school which she attended for a brief three months. Although she was upset, I am glad that this incident did not dissuade my daughter in any major way, and to this day she continues to sketch, paint, and write poems and articles, while she pursues a degree in Chemical Engineering, which she claims is the best course ever in the world! Kindergarten is not the gateway to University!

     However, imagine what would happen eventually if this were the attitude adopted time and again by a majority of teachers in that school. Believe me, this is not uncommon. I have come across many teachers who behave in a similar manner. Not that they are to blame entirely. Are the teachers even trained to foster creativity? Can the average Primary School teacher in India recognize what creativity is? Are our teachers allowed to be creative at all in a profession which is essentially a creative one? If allowed the time and given access to professional development and the right conditions with small class sizes and limited “teaching periods”, is it too difficult to invest time and effort to foster creativity?

     It is time we realized the only way forward is by collaboration and not by competition. When we compete against one another, we build walls of distrust. Ever wondered why for most of us our college days were probably the most enjoyable times of our lives? Probably for the first time we were given more freedom of choice – both academically in choosing our majors or ancillary courses, and even personally. By then parents stop  supervising your daily work, you should have learnt to manage your time effectively and you can choose when to go for a movie or ice-cream with your buddies. Above all, it is time when you experience the collective generosity of your friends. They share notes with you, help you to study and get a better grasp of concepts that seem foggy, appreciate your talents unconditionally, criticize you and cut you down to size when they have to, but again stand up for you in what could be dire circumstances you put yourself in with a Professor, and in some cases may even give you the daily morning wake up call! And you would do the same for them any day. You collaborate with your friends to run your daily life, study long hours, get your dissertation done on time, and also have fun. And you also collaborate with your Professors who essentially are there to help and guide their students. Everybody is working collaboratively towards the common goal of ensuring that you and your friends get that much coveted degree with flying colours! And that is why the whole process turns out to be so joyous. But what happens when you enter the work place? Why does it seem so different? If your workplace is one that pits one against the other and declares an individual as a topper every month based on the volume of sales or number of phone calls one attends or number of pleased clients, well it is one that is merely focusing on competition and not collaboration. The joy of a job well done returns when you are part of a team that works creatively, solves problems, communicates effectively, acknowledges the contribution of its team members, but always recognizes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

     Some years back, when I said 5-6 year olds should begin to work collaboratively in a reading class, a math class and then eventually even do small projects together, teachers in a school were flabbergasted. They said this wouldn’t be possible.  But then they had to face with my conviction that it is perfectly natural for even little children to work together and the fact that I spoke from prior experience with little kids working together. When things beyond their lesson plans began to unfold in the collaborative classrooms, the same teachers were overwhelmed! Here were little ones sharing their thoughts about the story they had read, making little story books together, communicating with one another, explaining  to each other, helping one another to understand better, and above all, resolving conflicts! If this is an example of what we saw in Grade 1, similar wonderful scenarios opened up in all the other grades. It is indeed possible to foster creativity and critical thinking, through skills of collaboration and communication, at all levels of the school.

     Like it has been said time and again, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So, let us unleash the power of collaboration and collective imagination in our classrooms.

- Dr. Gayathri Deepak

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Towards Liberal Education...

Dr. Gayathri Deepak is the Director of Centre for holistic Empowerment of Teachers, Children and Adolescents, [CHETANA] which is CHILD's school mental health wing. She has successfully led International Schools in India and abroad and is now executing revolutionary training protocols with educators to usher in the practice of emotionally literate pedagogy in mainstream education.

     It is that time of the year again…time for the scramble for college admissions. Despite the huge variety of jobs available now, what are still the most popular courses? Engineering, Medicine, Commerce… has anything changed in the past few decades?
Why should we think that the sole goal of school education is to prepare students to enter University? And in particular, with emphasis being placed mainly on Mathematics and Sciences, the jar of gold at the end of the rainbow seems to be that much coveted seat into an Engineering college or Medical college. 

     As the Principal of an international school in India, I was often questioned by parents who sought admission to Kindergarten, whether our school   and the curriculum prepare their child to face entrance exams to join IIT. Well, quite frankly, it didn’t. We could not give such promises because we did not believe that is what education should be all about. And we ran a school, not a coaching centre for entrance examinations! And it baffles me no end that there are several parents out there who think that certainly Kindergarten is the gateway to University, particularly a foundation for a  career in Engineering or Medicine!

     Let’s take a few moments to ponder about the status we in general give to subjects other than Mathematics and Sciences…
We as a nation celebrate the achievements of our cinema stars, and deify them. We celebrate the achievements of our authors, classical dancers and musicians too. We are justifiably proud to belong to a nation that produced such all-time greats as M.S. Subbulakshmi, Ravi Shankar, Padma Subramanyam, AllaRakha, Rabindranath Tagore, to name just very few of the stalwarts.  It seems such a paradox that we as a nation celebrate performers in the classical or modern arts, perhaps more so than any other country, and yet fail to give due place for the performing arts or literature in our school curriculum.

     Time and again research has proven the immense benefits and powerful impact of Drama or Theatre in the curriculum, but we steadfastly choose to ignore it and refuse to bring it into mainstream curriculum. Even in schools which do offer Drama, it is offered usually only up to Middle School. In schools where it might be offered in High school, it might get about 2 periods a week, compared with 5 to 8 each for  English, Math and Science.
In fact, we seem to have regressed rather than progressed in providing holistic education. In my grandfather’s days, schooling placed emphasis on areas like Languages and Literature and Philosophy, apart from Math and Science. They even had to learn Greek and Latin, apart from English!

     How can we now claim to have progressed in providing education when our focus has largely become narrowed to the Math and Sciences alone?The general perception amongst some schools, parents and larger society is smart children are only those who excel in these subjects! The only “other” stream available in most Chennai schools is the Commerce or Business stream. How many schools are actually offering courses that prepare students to seriously pursue streams like Design, Geology, Sociology, Sports, Drama, Music, Media, Hotel Management?

     And all schools actually claim that they cater to “holistic development” or “wholesome” development! Most modern schools in our country today claim to base their pedagogical practices on the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Are schools really justified in making such claims when they totally neglect the Arts, Humanities, Languages and Physical Education?

    Let us for a moment consider simple facts…Drama and Dance come naturally to little kids. Even a kid left alone enacts little scenes by herself or stands in front of the mirror imitating her mother or teacher. When a group of kids get together, it is perfectly natural for them to enact scenes in a school or home setting. It is a natural way of expressing themselves and making better sense of their worlds. When we see toddlers or  young children, the natural grace with which they move fascinates us. Children love to move – it is normal for them to break into a skip even as they are walking. It is natural for them to spontaneously tap to music or dance. Their whole body seems to be happy when we see them move, act, sing, run or play.
Research has proven the value of the Performing and Creative Artstowards emotional development. Literature and the Humanities kindle the finer aspects of human nature and make us the social beings that we are.

     So, why do schools feel compelled to allot little or no time to physical education and the performing arts? It is sad and actually dangerous that it is increasingly becoming the trend to allot these important areas of learning to “after-school activities”.

     Given that Universities set almost impossible “cut-off” marks for admission, schools and parents blame them for fostering the “rat race” for top scores. Statistics year on year show that stress levels during Standards 10 and 12 are just so high, causing serious mental health problems like depression, anxiety and even leading to suicide. It is time for Universities and Colleges to base admissions on the overall achievements and talents of aspirants and not merely on their marks/grades in their qualifying and entrance examinations.

     It is time we wake up to the importance of encouraging inter-disciplinary learning and providing a liberal education in schools, colleges and Universities.