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?
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.