Learning unlearning and relearning
Growing up in the 80s, one of the silliest things we used to do was to play loud music in our cassette decks. Two-in-ones revolutionised our teenage years; the loud noise became synonymous with our existential crises. I often wonder what we were trying to say, screaming, Samantha Fox's "Touch me," Madonna's "Papa don't preach!", Baltimora's "Tarzan Boy," or Pink Floyd's "We don't need no education." Now, my YouTube list often takes me back to those silly days and makes me realise how tolerant and flexible our parents were. Imagine the hormonal rush of all teens of an entire area engaged in a beatbox competition from their cribs covered with posters of Michael Jackson, Phoebe Cates, Rambo and Led Zeppelin, and filling the air with rebel songs without any apparent cause! We were like free range organic chickens compared to the kids today, who are being processed to be lords in their own farms.
Back then, we would form clubs and libraries; we would steal flowers from our neighbour's gardens to join the morning rallies on Ekushey; prepare wall-magazines on Victory Day or Independence Day; go on a moon sighting spree before Eid Day; or throw paint on our targets on April Fool's Day. We were exposed to a wide array of cultural bytes. Through this process, we acquired the ability to engage in divergent thinking, and while doing so, the life skills of creativity, curiosity and flexibility were inculcated in us. They became a part of our essential selves, and only today they are being touted as essentials.
Creativity is a buzzword, which is being promoted as a 21st century skill that we must first unlearn and relearn. If you ask me, the issue of relearning and unlearning underlies a major flaw in our education system. Somewhere down the road, our formal schooling system has messed up our creativity big time. Looking back, I know why we were playing those songs so loud. They were voicing our inner rages, concerns and desires. We did not want to be "another brick in the wall". We did not want to be preached to. We wanted to be back with nature like a jungle boy or be touched to know that we were alive. But with the advent of airpods, our Generation Z is simply listening to themselves. There is no real network, except for virtual ones. Their creativity is more individualistic than collaborative as they are constantly being pressured to carve their own niches, find their own jobs through start-ups, and become their own bosses. It's about time, we reinvent creativity in our education system to address the issue of creativity of our next generation. We can take our cue from one of the pioneers in this field.
Undoubtedly, one major exponent of creativity in education in our part of the world is Rabindranath Tagore, the founder of Shantiniketan. He was among the first to point out the negative effects of formal schooling. For him, the traditional teaching in India was mechanical and responsible for killing the passion, creativity and individualism of a student.
In contrast, the rich and artistic experience that he had in his Jorasanko household gave him the subconscious learning that shaped his artistic attitudes towards life. In his essay My Reminiscences, Tagore wrote, "Most members of my family had some gift—some were artists, some poets, some musicians—and the whole atmosphere of our home was permeated with the spirit of creation." This creative atmosphere was developed by the patriarch Debendranath Tagore himself. When Tagore was 12, his father took him to the Himalayas during which the child Tagore realised, "The chains of the rigorous regime which had bound me snapped for good when I set out from home." One simple step out of the familiar taught him to use imagination to deal with the unfamiliar. He learnt to look at nature as well as to look into the lives of the people around him. This sojourn was instrumental for Tagore's relearning process.
Tagore recalled how his imagination flourished when he first encountered the lilting rhyme jol porey, pata norey in Vidyasagar's primer Borno Porichoy. He felt that the sound pattern took him beyond the purpose of the spelling lesson. He visualised the way the leaf was touched and moved by the drop of water to compare it to the way his mind was connected with the world. The lesson became a life lesson that underscored the use imagination for making sense of the world.
With the onrush of visual information—Netflix, YouTube, Instagram—our children are being supplied with infographics. They do not have to use their imagination even when they fall in love for the first time. They will never know how it feels to wait for the letter of a pen-friend in an age of instant messenger services. Their needs have changed, so have their creativity. Then again, it would be wrong to say that our children are not creative enough. Their creativity is of a different scale. A simple browse through the urban dictionary tells us how creative our younger generation has been in codifying its emotions. Who would have thought of cryptic expressions such as "lol", "ty", "rofl" or "btw" otherwise?
As educators, the challenge for us then is to understand what moves a child. Our job is to do what Vidyasagar has done earlier for Tagore: create a platform or an interface that will open the creativity of a child. The children need to be given the right text and context that will excite their imagination. They need to be given right educational materials that will encourage them to make sense of the world. Expecting them to merely memorise information that can be processed through the machine will never appeal to them. For instance, nobody needs to memorise the times table anymore, but everybody needs the computational skills to understand the sequential growth during an act of multiplication.
Recent studies show that creativity can be taught and cultured. A genius is not born, a genius can be made. For that we need to create the right atmosphere. Debendranath Tagore is a case in point. Only someone who is willing to learn what moves a child can move the system. Let us unlearn and relearn before we teach what to learn. At the same time, let us allow our students some freedom to realise what they want to learn before we hit the undo button to delete what they have been learning all this while.
Often, we mix up the issues of learning with teaching. Teaching cannot happen without learners. But in the school of life, learning can happen without teachers. As educators, our job is to make learning rewarding and exciting so that they continue to learn even when the teaching sessions are over. At a policy level, we need to keep the final outcomes in mind. As teachers, we need to instill passion in them, encourage them to get interested in problem solving. We need to expose them to various tools. Excite them about what they learn and how they learn.
Let's see, for instance, how Facebook works and remains attractive to our young generation. For instance, we don't ask our children to go to Facebook and spend some time there. Still they are drawn to it. It is probably because Facebook presents itself as an interface that offers a seeming freedom over the creation and curation of the content. We need a similar creative model that will make learning flexible, imaginative and innovative.
In our current emphasis on preparing the next generation for the knowledge economy as well as for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we often perceive a pedagogical model that thinks of changing the lifestyles while giving them the right skillsets to become leaders. I think it's also important to allow them to find their own vocations, career paths and life-interests. For that, they need to be exposed to various models of innovations and creativity, like we were in the 80s.
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English (on leave), University of Dhaka and Pro Vice Chancellor, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). He can be reached at [email protected].