Monday, 21 April 2014

Unleash the Power of Collective Imagination

     The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. That is the beauty of human civilization.

     Look around you for a few moments at everything that makes up your home – the fan, the television, the light bulbs, the carpets , curtains and sofas, the kitchen ware and crockery…did you make any of these? Did you make even the simplest clamp or screw that fits the beautiful artefact to the wall? Perhaps the artistically inclined amongst you created the lovely wall painting or piece of embroidery to adorn your walls. Certainly I cannot claim any such competencies. It is a matter of wonder to me very often that we live in a world which we have created collaboratively over several centuries. I marvel at and salute all those people existing and those gone by, who have made it possible for us to use all of these products. Everyone of these products is again produced by some collaboration – if you painted the masterpiece on your wall, someone made the paints, brushes and canvas. Someone, or more accurately, many hands at some factory produced the hammer and nails which the carpenter uses to put up your masterpiece on your wall. It is mind boggling to think that collaborative effort of totally disconnected people has woven this beautiful tapestry of civilization that exists today. It is the brilliant power of collective imagination that actually has made all this possible. It could be one tiny discovery, invention, or innovation which triggers another. It then has a seemingly cascading effect, and many innovations lead to a totally new product, perhaps. When Apple launched the iPhone with a few hundred Apps, little did they imagine it will lead to the flood of Apps we see today. All it did was create the platform for people from anywhere in the world to create Apps that many, many more people could use.

     We build on what is left to us by previous generations in the areas of Science and Technology. Every now and then a breakthrough comes out of the blue and speeds things up at a phenomenal rate and the world is never the same again. Like  the leaps and bounds human civilization made in the 20th century…Like the digital revolution…Like the revolutions in communication…Always, however, it is up to the users, be it the leaders of the most powerful nations, or the teenagers at home, to make judicious choices when using these products of collective imagination laid down at their feet by civilization.

     Our daily world is filled with just so many examples of the products of individual creativity, collective imagination, collaboration and critical thinking. Yet, we have not picked up the pace of consciously building these skills into daily teaching and learning in the classroom. It is time to create the conditions that will make these skills an implicit part of facilitating learning. The way forward is to surely, consciously build skills of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking in our schools. Jobs today are very different from what they were a few decades ago. Even clerical jobs have changed. The person who sits at the computer in a call centre today has to be discerning - it does not suffice if he or she merely speaks with a good accent and answers politely. Newsreaders do not merely read the news any more -merely good diction and an unaffected style of speech do not suffice as essential attributes for the newsreader today.A person with an authoritarian style of work is no longer considered good material for being a manager. Today a manager should be a person who is able to think critically and creatively, communicate effectively   and   who is able to work collaboratively with team mates and other stake holders to get the job done.

     When we quell choice and stress on implicit obedience in overcrowded classrooms we instantly create conditions that stifle creativity. When we foster conditions that encourage competition we build conditions to eliminate collaboration. When we rate skills of arithmetic higher than knowledge and skills in the fields of languages, humanities and arts,  we foster the “only one answer is correct approach”, and we are training our students to shut off many areas of their brain.   I will relate one small incident which happened some years ago. My daughter had drawn and coloured a pond with lotuses and ducks – a typical scene a kindergartner draws in India, immaterial of whether he or she has ever seen an actual pond with ducks and lotuses! Her teacher in Kindergarten had to “correct” this and place her signature on this in her drawing book! So, diligently, she corrected in red ink and wrote the remark “use light blue for water”!  My daughter had used dark blue from her crayon set. Perhaps the ducks would also have to be coloured blue because they drank blue water and swam in too? ! I certainly wouldn't want light blue or dark blue water supply from that pond for my house! She was an otherwise kind teacher and I can’t say my daughter did not learn anything from her or from that school which she attended for a brief three months. Although she was upset, I am glad that this incident did not dissuade my daughter in any major way, and to this day she continues to sketch, paint, and write poems and articles, while she pursues a degree in Chemical Engineering, which she claims is the best course ever in the world! Kindergarten is not the gateway to University!

     However, imagine what would happen eventually if this were the attitude adopted time and again by a majority of teachers in that school. Believe me, this is not uncommon. I have come across many teachers who behave in a similar manner. Not that they are to blame entirely. Are the teachers even trained to foster creativity? Can the average Primary School teacher in India recognize what creativity is? Are our teachers allowed to be creative at all in a profession which is essentially a creative one? If allowed the time and given access to professional development and the right conditions with small class sizes and limited “teaching periods”, is it too difficult to invest time and effort to foster creativity?

     It is time we realized the only way forward is by collaboration and not by competition. When we compete against one another, we build walls of distrust. Ever wondered why for most of us our college days were probably the most enjoyable times of our lives? Probably for the first time we were given more freedom of choice – both academically in choosing our majors or ancillary courses, and even personally. By then parents stop  supervising your daily work, you should have learnt to manage your time effectively and you can choose when to go for a movie or ice-cream with your buddies. Above all, it is time when you experience the collective generosity of your friends. They share notes with you, help you to study and get a better grasp of concepts that seem foggy, appreciate your talents unconditionally, criticize you and cut you down to size when they have to, but again stand up for you in what could be dire circumstances you put yourself in with a Professor, and in some cases may even give you the daily morning wake up call! And you would do the same for them any day. You collaborate with your friends to run your daily life, study long hours, get your dissertation done on time, and also have fun. And you also collaborate with your Professors who essentially are there to help and guide their students. Everybody is working collaboratively towards the common goal of ensuring that you and your friends get that much coveted degree with flying colours! And that is why the whole process turns out to be so joyous. But what happens when you enter the work place? Why does it seem so different? If your workplace is one that pits one against the other and declares an individual as a topper every month based on the volume of sales or number of phone calls one attends or number of pleased clients, well it is one that is merely focusing on competition and not collaboration. The joy of a job well done returns when you are part of a team that works creatively, solves problems, communicates effectively, acknowledges the contribution of its team members, but always recognizes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

     Some years back, when I said 5-6 year olds should begin to work collaboratively in a reading class, a math class and then eventually even do small projects together, teachers in a school were flabbergasted. They said this wouldn’t be possible.  But then they had to face with my conviction that it is perfectly natural for even little children to work together and the fact that I spoke from prior experience with little kids working together. When things beyond their lesson plans began to unfold in the collaborative classrooms, the same teachers were overwhelmed! Here were little ones sharing their thoughts about the story they had read, making little story books together, communicating with one another, explaining  to each other, helping one another to understand better, and above all, resolving conflicts! If this is an example of what we saw in Grade 1, similar wonderful scenarios opened up in all the other grades. It is indeed possible to foster creativity and critical thinking, through skills of collaboration and communication, at all levels of the school.

     Like it has been said time and again, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So, let us unleash the power of collaboration and collective imagination in our classrooms.

- Dr. Gayathri Deepak

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