Wednesday, March 14, 2012

do schools kill creativity

Seeing as it is the end of the term I thought I would double blog with something I wrote recently for the Mandela-Rhodes Thought Leader blog:

As a new teacher, I have a vested interest in education and I’m always wondering about how to be innovative. I recently had a SMART Board and a data projector installed in my classroom. I was astonished as my learners entered the classroom agog, declaring, “Ma’am your classroom’s been pimped … upgraded!”

Their excitement suggests that they have made a link between technology in the classroom and exciting, creative lessons for them in my English, Social Science and Life Orientation lessons. They assume that because I have new gadgets available to me, the teaching and learning experience is going to be different. In order not to get their hopes up, I tried to hide my own glee at the prospect of having the opportunity to try different methods of teaching, thanks to new technology.

The first term has been an effort in trying to understand as many of my learners as possible. And to run the risk of generalising, it seems to take a lot more effort keeping children riveted and spellbound in the classroom in 2012. The content I teach is often very uninteresting to my learners and they have no qualms nodding off by putting their heads on their desks, or staring into space or simply being disruptive as code for “this is boring!”.

When I observe the split second when I lose their interest, my heart breaks and I wonder if I am guilty of killing creativity in my classroom as Sir Ken Robinson accuses schools of doing in his famous TED talk “Do schools kill creativity?”. He argues that the current education system worldwide is designed to remove creativity from education. Classrooms have become spaces where children grow out of their creativity. The focus on Mathematics and Science in many schools means that the arts and humanities are relegated to after-school programmes rather than being an integral part of teaching and learning.

As a language teacher, this argument struck a nerve when I first watched the TED talk. As a teacher in a public school, I have become indignant at the thought that I have entered a profession that could potentially be destroying the creativity of the children entrusted to me. And the reality is, Sir Ken Robinson’s argument is very compelling even though I suspect that many teachers (if they had the time to listen to his 20 minute speech) would be baying for his blood because of some of the assertions he makes about what happens in the classroom. He suggests that teachers do not care about their learners’ emotional lives and different learning styles. He seems to suggest we simply think of outcomes, assessment standards, crowd control, administration and marking.

There is no perfect classroom and perfect teachers do not exist. Many teachers are people who are trying to work a miracle in difficult circumstances with limited resources. I have friends who left the teaching profession after two years, others are persevering in spite of teaching in classrooms where their learners do not even have enough seats. And I am in a privileged context with motivated learners who are equally difficult teenagers, and who would rather be outside basking in the Cape Town sun or playing cricket in the summer rain.

In my attempts to ignite creativity I have had poetry lessons in the park, I have been part of field trip to a rugby stadium during the Technology lesson, I have been a stage director trying to make Shakespeare come alive in the minds of Grade 10s. Being a high school teacher also means I have children who enter my classroom with seven years of school behind them. These are seven years I cannot erase. Because of the primary schools some learners come from, sometimes teaching is like sucking blood out of a stone because the only question learners want to ask is, “Ma’am, is this for marks?” Other days I am inspired and excited when learning happens in my classroom without too much of an effort. These are the days when the conversations clicks and learners extend their own minds and they make parallels between the social structure in France before the French Revolution in 1789 and modern day South Africa in 2012.

The place for creativity in classrooms (particularly in high school) relates to the question “why is education important?”. I am in a school that is committed to making sure that all our learners get the opportunity to attend university when they matriculate. But should this be our primary goal? Do we simply want our children to grow up and become citizens who will become cogs in wheels, get sucked up in corporations and further feed the industrial machine? Or do we want creative citizens who can use their imagination to solve the complexities we face in this country and the world? Sir Ken Robinson seems to think he has the answers, but since antiquity, these questions have remained unanswered because, like many other philosophical questions in our lives, there are no easy answers. However, this does not mean we should shy away from this conversation. When I consider the state of education in South Africa, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve ever had this conversation, especially with the people that we teach?