How schools can cultivate creativity

Pitching a key skill to succeed in the real world
April 11, 2016
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How schools can cultivate creativity

S ir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on how schools kill creativity has been a huge hit, chalking up more than 27 million views. He grabbed people’s attention as he sketched out the unspoken tragedy of the education system: children losing their creativity because they are scared of being wrong.

He argued if we are not prepared to be wrong, we will not come up with anything original. The national education system is based on exam-orientated outcomes in which mistakes are the worst thing one can do. As a result, we are educating people out of their creative capacities to innovate.

How can our education system be structured to cultivate creativity? Let us look at two of the most creative persons of their eras: Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs.

Thomas Edison was a prolific inventor with more than 1,000 patents to his name. His innovations include the electric light bulb, the phonograph and one of the earliest motion picture cameras. He also created the world’s first industrial research laboratory.

Edison, who died in 1931, was dubbed “a wizard”. But his famous sayings —

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”, and “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”

— suggest he believed there was no substitute for hard work, and in never giving up.

Jobs — who brought the world the iPhone — is regarded as a creative genius. Unlike Edison, Jobs did not invent any of the technology — cell phone, touch screen, music player, processors, mobile web browsing — that went into his products.

Asked what creativity meant, he replied, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seems obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

So, how do we learn creativity? Should our children sit under an apple tree all day to let their minds wander? Many argue that schools should allow play and games. Is play the answer? I strongly believe our schools can cultivate creativity and innovation through two key areas: 1) structured thinking process, and 2) culture that stimulates the mind.

As Jobs said, creativity is about connecting things. In simple terms, it is about problem solving. I am recommending that schools teach TRIZ — a systematic problem-solving method based on logic and data, and not the intuition or spontaneous creativity of individuals or groups.

TRIZ is a Russian language acronym that means Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. TRIZ is globally recognised by multinationals in various industries, including Samsung, Intel, Procter & Gamble and IBM. The International TRIZ Association (MATRIZ) was set up in 1997, and the Malaysian chapter can be reached at

TRIZ was started by a Russian patent engineer, Genrich Altshuller, in the 1940s. He studied 200,000 patents worldwide, narrowing it down to 40,000. He found problems repeated across industries and sciences, and the solutions being repeated correspondingly.

The essence of these solutions was consolidated into 40 Inventive Principles. In recent times, more than 2.8 million patents worldwide have been analysed, but these principles still apply.

TRIZ is not intended to find one correct answer like in school examinations. It comprises a set of tools for situation analysis, problem definition and directional search for best solutions — a methodology to generate new ideas and concepts.

Faced with a problem, TRIZ students will be able to address it in a structured manner, use multiple tools and find multiple possible solutions. They no longer need to look for one particular answer or wait for teachers to spoon-feed the answer.

In addition to the methodology of thinking, schools need to create a culture of creativity. This can be cultivated by providing an environment that encourages innovation and developing the right mindset of practise, practise and practise.

Approaches to promote this culture include:

Classroom design: Schools should not have the typical rows of tables with the teacher standing in front with a white board. Instead, classrooms should have more colourful and non-uniform designs. Tables could be pentagon or hexagon-shaped, students could sit in groups, and seating positions could be rotated.

There could be a white board at the front, flip charts at the side and a projector screen at the back. Teachers can walk about. There could be beanbags or tyres for those who don’t want to or can’t sit still or even bar tables for those who prefer to stand.

  • Exposure and experiment: Promoting a culture of creativity would require students to read about current issues in Malaysia and the world, and understand their impact on society. Study tours or field trips are a great way to expose them to any subject. According to Jobs, it was his visit to the Xerox research centre in 1979 that led him and his team to create the Macintosh computer.

Study tours need not be expensive overseas trips, such as those organised by some international schools here. They could be simple trips to science labs in universities or hospitals, R&D centres of Malaysian corporations, and art and design galleries .

  • Project-based learning: Learning becomes more dynamic when students are encouraged to actively explore a subject matter and gain knowledge and skills by working in groups. For example, students could be asked how to apply the “7 Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs” in the book by Carmine Gallo. They would first study the contents, facilitated by a tutor, then form groups to discuss the concepts, ask questions, use resources and develop answers.

The tutor would then ask open-ended questions to challenge their understanding and application of ideas or concepts. Students then present their findings and get feedback from classmates on the quality of their work, leading them to make revisions or conduct further enquiry.

  • Practical action: One of the key objectives of schools is to produce practitioners who can improve real-world situations. Part of the curriculum may require students to participate in social innovation, by carrying out an activity or making a product, based on new ideas, that is considered positive for society. From this, they learn the importance of failures and learning from mistakes, as failure is the key to success. Each mistake teaches us a lesson.

Students could also be required to learn computer coding to create apps. One way is via the free online computer programming course by Khan Academy, facilitated by tutors. Students would pick up practical learning through online and work independently — another important attribute of the data technology age.

  • Make learning fun: Schools need to engage students to keep them interested in any subject. Studying any subject matter or theory, including TRIZ, can be boring. This is where play and games come in. Teachers can make any subject more interesting and lively by incorporating games or play around the subject matter.

Students would definitely learn better when any subject or theory is more fun and relevant to their daily life. However, parents and other stakeholders must not lose sight of the fact that play is only a tool to promote the culture of creativity and innovation, and not the answer.

Our school system is outdated in today’s age of data technology. We need to go beyond book smarts and impart street-smart soft skills that are practical and relevant. To move forward, the curriculum needs to embrace futuristic thinking by incorporating creativity and a culture of innovation.

Wynce Low is executive director and head of Debt Origination and Distribution, Asia, National Bank of Abu Dhabi

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 20 – 26, 2015.

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