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Is Nurturing Creativity a Luxury or a Necessity for Schools in Developing Nations?

By Jim Teicher on November 26, 2014

After attending the World Innovation Summit for Education, I’m convinced that creativity matters – particularly as it applies to teaching and learning in developing nations.

The central theme of this year’s summit was “Imagine-Create-Learn: Creativity at the Heart of Education.” Creativity is the process by which we bring together seemingly unrelated ideas to make something – almost anything – new. Creativity is fueled by the passion to seek out meaning from the things we do.

For example, if schoolwork is perceived to be overly abstract and have very little real-world meaning, then students will have very little motivation to learn. This is why creativity plays a central role in both the UNESCO ICT Competency Framework for Teachers and the International Society for Technology in Education Teacher Standards and Student Standards for learning, teaching, and leading in the digital age.

Going into the summit, I initially thought that creativity was a luxury discussion topic. Developing nations have more pressing needs, like teaching primary school children to read. But I soon realized that teaching reading while nurturing creativity might actually be a good idea, even in the poorest of nations.

In fact, I’m convinced that creativity is one of the only ways out of the vicious cycle of poverty. It’s hard to imagine a problem that’s more complicated to solve, and creative solutions through education, entrepreneurship, globalization, and the use of technology are essential. Whether students are taught to read or to use computers and the Internet, they will benefit from learning good questioning skills, collaborating with each other, and searching for answers to questions they find meaningful. Ultimately, this will help them understand and manage the world around them and improve their lives.

From the conference discussions and post-event reflections, I’ve found five key insights about creativity in education:

  1. The dominant model of education does not encourage creativity because students are tested based primarily on their ability to be passive learners and absorb information – to memorize facts rather than solve problems.
  2. Everyone is creative, but we are creative to different degrees and express our creativity at different levels of frequency. The recipe for creative thought brings together our knowledge and memory of things as well as our ability to connect this information to solve problems. To become more creative, we need to proactively focus on solving meaningful problems.
  3. Creativity depends on education, and to become more creative, we need more prior knowledge. For example, the odds of creating a new way to generate electricity are greater if you know a lot about the subject. Consider the case of William Kamkwamba, a young Malawian from a poor village who constructed an electricity-generating windmill out of bicycle parts and other scraps. His ability to create was realized primarily through intense passion, collaboration with others, and frequent visits to the library.
  4. Failure is an important pathway to success. It was the American inventor Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” When we work to solve problems, it is inevitable that we fail. The willingness to take risks – and fail – is good. Still, most of us are afraid to fail because failure is rarely rewarded.
  5. Basic skills education – literacy and numeracy – is not in conflict with the need for students to learn in meaningful ways that lead to creative problem solving. Rather, basic skills education is an essential building block that will improve students’ ability to become more effective problem solvers. The ability to calculate using mental math and estimation, and to read quickly with a rich vocabulary and a high level of comprehension, help to develop the mental shortcuts necessary to solve more problems faster.

It’s much easier to talk about creativity than to systemically put it into practice in education. There are lots of challenges, including breaking out of traditional teacher-centered pedagogy and assessing students in ways that measure more than their ability to memorize.

I think that much of the talk about creativity with regard to using ICT in education relates to how we, as practitioners, can develop and apply creative solutions for global development. Let’s spend equal time thinking about how teachers and students themselves can use technology in ways to find meaningful solutions to the problems that concern them the most.

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Jim Teicher founded and directs CyberSmart Africa, a social enterprise that has innovated an interactive classroom learning system designed for massive scalability in Senegal and sub-Saharan Africa. CyberSmart Africa grew out of his experiences as CEO of CyberSmart Education, a digital learning company.
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2 Comments to “Is Nurturing Creativity a Luxury or a Necessity for Schools in Developing Nations?”

  1. Joel coulter says:

    To engage student led creativity facilitated by teachers and their partners the educational engagement and instructional
    Methodologies are Project Based. Since 1995 the US led by a broad spectrum of academic and industry/NGO partners have launched PBL programs that First Robotics. Auvsi education foundation,AAI Impact Lives with FoodForKidz and other service learning programs for students are proving to have resilient community development results. Joel

  2. Prabhas P says:

    Sounds like great conversations.
    We are extremely lucky in Nepal to have a new start-up called Karkhana (http://karkhana.asia/) that is tackling exactly the same problem, and working with young elementary-aged kids on problem-first and project-based learning. Karkhana means factory, which is a brilliant term for them to have re-appropriated. I encourage those interested to check out their work!