Saturday, 2 November 2013

Creativity and "education"

During the last Nunavut territorial elections campaign there was a young Inuk man who said that education was the most pressing issue as far as he was concerned, that without the practice of getting homework (K to junior highs school) Inuit students struggle unnecessarily when they get to the secondary levels. I tend to agree with him, but I'd go a step further and say that it's not just getting homework to do that is a problem; it is lack of engagement (and sense of achievement) that is the problem.

When I worked as a policy analyst for an Inuit organization I was often invited to participate in symposia and workshops on Inuit education and curriculum development exercises. I enjoyed every single invitation because I not only got to engage with Inuit elders but really smart teachers (both Inuit and non-Inuit) - I mean, besides being given the opportunity to discuss and explore technical considerations.

It was during that time I got to thinking about the notion of "education" - philosophical, technical, theoretical dimensions of pedagogy, and what the layman would assume education to be. Often I was struck by the "consumer product" regard of "getting" an education (ie, getting a diploma at the completion of going to school). To me this is an ersatz version of education, very bureaucratic, very Piaget.

In fact, I consider Jean Piaget along with Benjamin Spock as the demon duo of Disney's Hercules, Pain and Panic. I know less of Spock but I blame him for the misinterpretation and misapplication of Dewey's theories on education (specifically, student-centered pedagogy), and I consider Piaget the anti-Vygotsky of the humanities' cosmology (a hint that I'm an advocate for liberal arts education). (here is a link to Vygotsky's version of child development that a good introduction: http://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html).

I'm also informed in my views on education by Northrop Frye, especially a collection of his essays and speeches called, On Education (1988). Frye said that:

The university can best fulfill its revolutionary function by digging in its heels and doing its traditional job in its traditionally retrograde, obscurantist, and reactionary way. It must continue to confront society with the imaginations of great poets, the visions of great thinkers, the discipline of scientific method, and the wisdom of the ages, until enough people in the democracies realize that a way of life, like life itself, must be lost before it can be gained. (On Education, The Critical Discipline, p. 37)

-In the course of writing this blog entry I also came up with this excellent link on education: http://www.wideawakeminds.com/ that I think is worth checking out.

More than historical development pedagogy (as Frye advocates immediately above). more than socio-cultural approaches to education (as Vygotsky says we need), I think we need to celebrate that uniquely human ability to create. I'm not just talking about drawing pictures, writing essays, etc. but something more.

When I was asked by an educator what I meant about mathematics, I said that we should focus on the mechanics of arithmetic only from K to grade 3 but after that algebra and creative problem solving (working thru and formulating possible questions and solutions - ie, the conceptual emphasis that go beyond the textbook) should form the basis of the curriculum.

In Marcus du Sautoy's book, The Music of the Primes (2003), he describes a man named Wilhelm von Humboldt:

In 1809 Wilhelm von Humboldt became the education minister for the north German state of Prussia. In a letter to Goethe in 1816 he wrote, 'I have busied myself here with science a great deal, but I have deeply felt the power of antiquity has always wielded over me. The new disgusts me...' Humboldt favoured a movement away from science [the practical, the utilitarian] as a means to an end, and a return to a more classical tradition of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. (p. 59)

This view is contrasted with the "Republican arithmetic" of Napoleon's utilitarian philosophy of education serving the needs of the state:

Humboldt's drive from teaching science as a practical tool to the more aesthetic notion of knowledge for its own sake had filtered down to Schmalfuss's classroom. The teacher steered Riemann's reading away from mathematical texts full of formulas and rules that were aimed at feeding the demands of a growing industrial world, and guided him towards the classics of Euclid, Archimedes and Apollonius. With their geometry, the ancient Greeks sought to understand the abstract structure of points and lines, and they were not hung up on the particular formulas behind the geometry. (ibid, p. 61)

As most people of my ilk are stereo-typically fascinated by trains, I too have a deep fascination with gothic cathedrals and bridges. But it is less the engineering (though it is that to be sure) but the aesthetic geometries and combinations of abstract shapes that hold their magical sway. I've always been fascinated by structures - whether linguistics, maths, physical structures, orthographical conventions, rhetorical devices, etc. - for there I see the divine that which drives me yet onwards to seek knowledge further and test my ability to comprehend. This aesthetic appreciation has always served me well for it is the key (as I've figured out) to critical thinking and the ability to formulate original insight.

Jay

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