“Creativity” is spelled with a “why”

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education
Here’s a science experiment for you: Take a standard-issue van. Equip it with household items – coat hangers, balls of string, maybe even a few potatoes – with which you could demonstrate certain basic scientific principles. Find someone who knows how to drive the van and teach that person some of those basic principles of science (or find someone who knows those basic principles and teach that person how to drive the van…). Send driver and van out into remote, disadvantaged villages. Observe how children react.

While waiting to amass the funds he needed to realise his dream of building a school in the Himalayas to develop creative leaders, Ramji Raghavan performed that little experiment – and discovered a way to ignite creativity. Thirteen years after the first van was sent out into rural India in 1999, the Agastya International Foundation, chaired by Raghavan, now dispatches 62 vans, most focusing on general science, but two specialising in ecology and one in the arts, across nine states in India, runs a Creativity Lab in the state of Andhra Pradesh, and reaches more than a million children – and their parents – each year.

“Creative people tend to be very good observers,” Raghavan noted during a recent visit to the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. “They are aware; they are able to associate different pieces of information, integrate them and apply them. These skills are all predicated on curiosity. But how do you spark curiosity?”

Raghavan, who was a banker in his early career (“when it was still a somewhat honourable profession”), found the answer to his question in hands-on, experiential learning. “People tend to remember things when they are personally engaged,” he says. That’s why the Agastya project also selects students with particular aptitude and interest and has them teach other children. Not only do these young teachers retain more of what they learn – some have even won special awards in national science competitions – but, through teaching, they also begin to develop other positive attitudes and behaviour – including, for example, empathy. “They begin to realise,” says Raghavan, “how difficult it is to teach.”

These unintended outcomes “can be more important than the original goal,” says Raghavan. “These children learn different ways of thinking and looking at the world.” For Raghavan, those different ways of thinking also need to be adopted by traditional teachers and schools. “We need a shift from ‘yes’ to ‘why?’ in school systems,” he says, “from looking to observing; from being passive to exploring; from textbook-bound to hands-on; from fear to confidence.”

Although the school in the Himalayas is still a dream, Raghavan has managed to change the reality for millions of young Indians who live a little closer to sea level. “There are magical moments in all our lives,” he says. “We may have found a way to deliver these kinds of transformational moments on a mass scale.”
Visit the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
See related blog posts:
The “extra” in extracurricular activities
Skills revolution will come from the grassroots
Photo credit: Mobile Lab / © Stephan Vincent-Lancrin
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