Gabriel Saada is a typical high school student in many ways, except that he happens to attend one of Paris’s best and most prestigious lycées. The halls of his school were once walked by the likes of Honoré de Balzac and Lionel Jospin, the former French prime minister.
When I ask him about school, he tells me his teachers and his guidance counsellor all stress the importance of getting into one of France’s elite grandes écoles by mastering the classwork. Listening to him describe his high school education, it strikes me that the overarching emphasis is on what is referred to as cognitive intelligence, or the ability to reason and analyse–what renowned American psychologist and academic Robert Sternberg has called “memorisationbased”, or “analytical”, intelligence.
With the results of the OECD’s latest worldwide PISA testing of 15-year-olds just in, it is worth asking whether education in the 21st century needs to complement the primacy given to cognitive skills with a greater focus on creativity. To be sure, the skills and knowledge PISA tests among 15-year-olds across the globe form a solid base on which youngsters can build in order to thrive and flourish in their lives and careers.
If the coming generations are to overcome the grave economic, social and environmental problems that are certain to be our legacy, there is a general consensus that they will need to possess one thing above all: the ability to innovate and create.
The word “innovation” is bandied about widely today. But what does it really mean in its simplest form? Combining existing elements of knowledge or understanding in brand new ways is one definition. It rests on an individual’s capability to come up with original and valuable ideas to solve problems. For the influential British educationalist Ken Robinson, this is the very essence of creativity.
Classrooms are places for building knowledge, memorising and interacting, but do they generate the kind of creativity that will be needed? How can creativity be fostered in the classroom at all levels? Clearly, creativity is a prime concern. According to a global study carried out by Adobe in 2012, 80% of working adults in France, Germany, Japan, the UK and the US agreed that creativity is the key to driving economic growth. Yet more than half felt their education systems stifle creativity.
In the 1980s, Sternberg established a ground-breaking theory that identifies three areas of intelligence that creativity draws on: the synthetic (creative), the analytical and the practical. The first involves coping with new and unusual situations and coming up with original ideas. Having students write a short story or create an advertisement, for example, would test this. Analytical intelligence refers to the ability to solve academic problems which often have only one right answer. Lastly, practical intelligence is what it implies: the ability to apply existing knowledge and skills to common, everyday problems.
Two concrete ways these ideas can be–and indeed are–put into practice in the classroom are problem-based learning (PBL) and group work.
In PBL teams of students are given ill-defined problems to resolve with incomplete information. Originally developed for medical students at Canada’s McMaster University in the 1960s, it has been used successfully at all levels of education around the world.
Its main feature lies in the way it mimics real life and leads students to work together and motivate each other. As Sternberg points out, intelligence that succeeds in the real world has to resolve poorly-formed problems, whereas education tends to favour well-structured problems with, in most cases, well-defined solutions.
Professors Linda Darling-Hammond and Brigid Barron of Stanford University in the US point out in their book, Powerful Learning, that a growing body of research demonstrates that children learn better when applying classroom knowledge to real-world problems.
They cite a 1995 study from the University of Wisconsin that showed that over 2 000 students in 23 schools did better on challenging tasks when the teaching was based on inquiry.
Sammamish High School in the US state of Washington is an example of a school that uses PBL. It is in the midst of transforming its curriculum to one that relies exclusively on PBL. Its principal explains that it is moving from teachercentred classrooms to a process where teachers serve as facilitators, engaging students in solving authentic problems.
Not surprisingly, PBL has had a significant amount of success in Southeast Asia. Singapore and Hong Kong-China, for example, began to put it into practice in higher education at the beginning of the 2000s. In 2010, Singapore’s National Institute of Education oversaw the use of PBL in eight secondary schools. Students from the schools worked collaboratively on different projects using a web-based platform.
As a teacher myself, I have often witnessed my students go from being passive, even bored, when I’m lecturing, to being animated and enthusiastic when they have to work together with their classmates on an assignment.
When getting my Francophone students to speak English, the hardest obstacle to overcome is often not their limited knowledge of the language, but rather their fear of making a mistake when speaking. This is largely because the French education system, with its heavy focus on memorising and analytical knowledge, teaches children that incorrect answers are unacceptable. Yet, as any innovator will tell you, making mistakes is a crucial aspect of the creative process. It is also central to PBL.
The point is not to eliminate memorisation and academic problem-solving. On the contrary, they are an important part of the learning experience. But, if they are to foster creativity, they must be complemented by a focus on the other types of intelligence.
Sternberg, Robert J. (2010). “Teach Creativity, Not Memorization,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 October, 2010. http://chronicle.com/article/Teach- Creativity-Not/124879/
See also www.oecd.org/education
© OECD Observer No 297, Q4 2013