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Teaching Children to Think Creatively

This was brought home starkly when India participated for the first time in PISA 2009, the Programme for International Students Assessment. PISA is an OECD initiative that evaluates the reading, science, and mathematics abilities of 15-year olds across the world.

PISA 2009 covered 74 countries. 16,000 students from two Indian states, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, drawn from public and private schools across urban and rural areas, were evaluated. The results were shocking – Indian students ranked second from last in performance, just above Kyrgyzstan. The top five countries were China, Korea, Finland, Singapore, and Canada.

There has been widespread consternation about these results and the government has tasked the NCERT with finding out the causes for this abysmal performance. The results are all the more disturbing because the two states chosen for the testing, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, are considered among the more progressive in the country.

The PISA survey brings up interesting questions. On the one hand, Finland, a top performing country has a state-run school system that assigns minimal homework and engages children in creative play. This is diametrically opposite to schooling systems in the top performing Asian countries where the emphasis is on highly structured classroom teaching and gruelling competitive grading.

India, with its emphasis on rote learning and examinations, has followed its Asian counterparts’ style of teaching but has spectacularly failed to achieve their results. Clearly, our present system needs an urgent fix.

Theories on Creativity

While it may not be possible to quantitatively measure creativity, there are certain frameworks that educators can apply to analyse and understand its nature. Professor Howard Gardner’s research is today considered to be definitive in this area. Gardner, a developmental psychologist and professor of cognition and education at Harvard University, classifies creative thinkers into three broad categories: Big C thinkers – people who have demonstrated breakthroughs in various fields (Isaac Newton, Steve Jobs); Middle C thinkers – ordinary people who demonstrate creativity in solving everyday problems (making a creative display shelf at home); and Little C thinkers – people who use specialised knowledge to solve problems (engineers, for example).

Where Gardner classifies at a broad level, Dr. Arne Dietrich, a professor of psychology at the American University of Beirut, gets down to the nuts and bolts. According to Dietrich, creativity can be understood as a matrix involving the deliberative and the spontaneous, and cognitive or emotional, as shown in the image.


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