My dad sent me this TED video a couple of weeks back, and I only got a chance to watch it last night. Like all the TED series, I learned something new. Additionally, the presenter, Sir Ken Robinson makes his piece on education very light-hearted, funny, yet to the point. If you don’t learn anything at all from this video, you will definitely be awed by this man’s ability to bring humor to something as serious as accusing schools of killing creativity.

He notes that education is important because it is what will essentially take us into the “future we can’t grasp.” He states, “if you think about it, children starting school this year (2007), will be retiring in the year 2065.” His point being, we’re educating children for the future, yet we can’t even determine what will happen in the world in 5 years. At the bottomline, he contends that “creativity is as important as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.” Here’s the video.
I couldn’t agree more. The notion of ‘formal education’ has certainly done humankind a lot of good. Unfortunately, it has also done us a lot of damage, as thousands of people worldwide strive to meet the generic expectations of societies in order to survive. With the current economic situation, I have wondered more often than once whether the investment my parents made in my education has really been worth it. True, I have a B.A. degree, but I’m yet to find a job. And even as I undertake my job search, I am often tempted to steer away from applying to those jobs that genuinely intrigue and excite me, and instead apply for jobs that will assure me a steady enough income to pay back my school loans and help my siblings in the pursuit of their own education.
I jokingly mentioned to a friend the other day that we ought to start saving up for our children’s education, because God-knows how much education will cost by the time our lil’uns come scampering about. For a joke, it sure does hold a lot of weight. A college education in the U.S. today costs anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 a year depending on where you go. Take into consideration the fact that B.A. degrees are gradually becoming the barest minimum for securing jobs – I once saw a job description for working at McDonald’s which required the applicant to hold a college degree – and you’ll realize that in order to stay ahead of the game, our children will most likely need a Masters or PHD. Who knows? We might even have to create another level of higher education to deal with this situation.
When I think about the fact that I had greater leeway in expressing myself creatively in academics (not taking extracurriculars into consideration) while at a liberal arts college, I cannot help but ponder Sir Robinson’s words, “if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original…we’re now running national educational systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. The result is, we’re educating people out of their creative capacitities.” As a student in Ghana, I always tried to take a new twist on writing essays, reports etc. No sooner would I be done with my work, and I would hear a remark from a classmate saying “you’re too known.” The worst of it was when I would receive my marked work and see in bright, red writing “you’re not following instructions.”
Many of my friends have similar stories, and I think this is what has established and maintained the “chew and pour” situation in Ghanaian schools. I went to primary school in Ghana in class 4, after my family moved to Accra. Since we had been in Norway for a while, I had ‘forgotten’ all my twi, and boy, did I have a hard time in those Ghanaian language classes. I “chewed” or memorized no less than 3 essays for the B.E.C.E. Twi exam. Ironically, none of the essay questions I anticipated came, and basically all the things I memorized were of no use. The only way I was able to answer the questions on comprehension, was because the excerpt was an adapted version of “Chicken Little” which I had read years before on my own time.
After passing the SSSCE, I started applications to university. But even as I applied to the University of Ghana, I knew that’s not where I wanted to be? Why? Because at that point in my life, I had A LOT of interests, and I didn’t like the idea that I had to narrow all those interests into just a few subject areas. I did gain acceptance into Legon, and just as I’d feared, I was being told what to do, even though I had clearly stated what my interest areas were. When I opted for Economics, French and Computer Science, I was offered admission on condition that I pursued Economics, Mathematics and Geography. Not surprising, since I had studied Economics, French, Mathematics and Geography in high school.
I understand that for logistical, financial and other reasons, every prospective Legon student could not have the exact course offerings they wanted. And that’s what points to a deeper issue with our educational system. We have streamlined the system to the point where there is practically no leeway in how one is educated. And of course, there’s the hierachy in which institution you go to. Many young people find it especially distasteful to go to a technical or vocational school, but I believe that’s where creativity and invention are actually supported. In most of the other institutions, the emphasis on theory is at the expense of practice. Then comes the question of whether going to school is even necessary. There are many successful individuals who have made it despite (or rather because of) the fact that they dropped out. Take Bill Gates for instance.
Sir Robinson talks about Jillian Lynn, a renowed choreographer who is known for pieces such as ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Cats’. Apparently, as a kid, her teachers thought she had a learning disorder (the term used before ADHD was invented), but in reality, her very being just wanted to move and dance. The glamorization of specific careers – being a doctor, teacher etc – does great harm to human development. Why? Because no two people are created alike and different people are good at different things. We need to make some allowance for those differences. I find it really telling that ‘ideas’ and things done ‘just for fun’ have turned into huge businesses and opportunities in this era. Facebook for one, and Youtube as another example.
If we intend to continue on the march to development, we need to overhaul our educational systems. The current nit picking going on within Ghana’s educational system where government selects only one thing or another to change, is ridiculous. How do we expect an educational system that was put in place over two decades ago, at a time when Ghana had different needs and resources, to be effective today? And this whole hulabaloo about keeping the high school term at three or four years is just begging the point. Deal with the real issues. Add new areas of study into the curriculum. Focus on developing the logical and critical thinking skills of Ghana’s youth. Other institutions like Ashesi and the Kofi Annan Center for ICT have implemented programs that gear towards this, take a look at their models, modify them and implement them at the national level. “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we’re educated out of it.” Sir Robinson definitely hit the nail right on the head. What are we gonna do about it?

Author

Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.

7 Comments

  1. I disagree with Sir Ken Robinson. What kills creativity is the current world view of education. What we learn in school/university, is a set of tools regarding a certain topic or topics. These tools can be as rigorous as we like (depending on the level of study), but at the end of the day they are just tools. Thus completing a PhD in mathematics will not make you the greatest mathematician of the century. This will be determined by the number of unique/revolutionary contributions to the subject (which requires some creativity). The problem created by the current view of education, is that one is lead to believe that learning about these tools is equivalent to using these tools (chew and pour). This kind of education does not encourage thinking (critically), which is a necessary condition for creativity. Although completing a certain level of study will challenge you think, we cannot expect universities or schools to teach us how to think ( we often have individual approaches to solving/thinking about problems). It is society, that can force us to do more thinking (because practice makes perfect). Thus we should ensure that those interested in art, should be able to acquire all the tools of interest (drawing, photography, textiles…ect), so that upon reflection they can make their own contribution to the world of art.

    I do agree that restrictions you experienced with choosing your curriculum should be dealt with. But I think we should also recognize that, the basic tools of numeracy, literacy and communication must be overcome in order to “liberate” our critical thinking,

    In Ghana we must recognize that any gains in our education system will come from society and not educational institutions. The American land grant system was truly unique and beautiful for its time. Ghana can learn by thinking carefully, to produce a sustainable and natural system for our time. What do we have to loose? Our survival.

  2. Hi Djemila
    I agree with many of your points. I think most African countries' education system is archaic [relevance of issues] and very stiffling [based on memorisation and spilling out word for word the lesson]. Emulating more successful, innovative and creative models is fine by there are very few incentives, let alone financing to do so. Incentives because how many of us Africans value the teaching profession? How many students today think that education is the key to their future not only because it will provide them with jobs but because they value knowledge in general? Not many. In terms of financing, if you look at budget allocations for education sectors, it's mind blowing to see that most funds go to salary, classrooms and equipment. Where do you add curriculum development and teachers' training? I'm not saying it's doomed. I think there's hope but it needs to be valued and appreciated. If parents and students 'demanded' and were ready to contribute time and resosurces, we would manage to alter the situation.

    Now allow me to make a comment on your personal situation. I think you're gifted and you should apply your talent to doing great stuff in 'development'. But I would advise you to get a Masters degree. Life is not very gentle for BAs in economics [my background] unless you convert yourself to an investment banker/consultant. Before getting your masters degree, try to do an internship or find a job somwhere that will enable you to go more depth on some of the issues you're interested in, to do research or policy work. As an African, time will not be an asset for you because of immigration laws (unless you're American or hold a green card). Going back to Africa is an option but make sure you have experience. As Africans we are not the first choice to work in our governments or in policy. So it's a bit like being 'stuck'. Figure out what's best for you.

    I did a B.A. in econ in the States, worked for a bit more than a year, then did an Msc. in development management in the UK. I now work in South Africa in the government doing policy work. My contract is coming to an end and it is non renewable and trying to find meaningful work after these 2 years and my masters is not easy. All I'm trying to say is that make sure you're at an advantage and you understand what you meet the requirements of the industry you want to work in.
    Wasalaam.
    anafricaninsouthafrica.wordpress.com

  3. I love this post. I have friends (foreign) who majored in creative writing and mathematics…can you believe that? But in Ghana it is either English or Maths and not the two. Presently, I am an M&E officer but I am not interested in this position why? I love to read and write and so I write poems and read them. I ended where I am because some people somewhere decided that with may grades I should read Science, which I did. I later went on to read Agric Econs and then had my MPhil in Agric Econs. Cast in block. But my passion is to write and write and write. See? That's it! We need newer ways to education, ways that would benefit our society

  4. That was an interesting read. The eternal debate between pursuing your calling and the reality of our circumstances that can force us to choose a completely different path so as to survive economically and financially.
    Yes, education is important, but you need more than that to succeed in the real world. I remember how excited I was after getting my master's in Finance thinking I was this finance guru and my disappointment when I started working. I realized that I barely used anything I learned in school,job training was more important at that time than any degree you had. The ability to adapt at a new job, learn quickly and think out of the box will help more than any degrees you hold. This led me to question the authenticity of my degrees and whether they were worth pursuing. But if for nothing else, at least they are words and recognition on my resume. A degree can qualify you or get you a job but it won't keep you there.

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    Schools skills creativity should be the key words for every school interested in helping children to become successful adults.

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