Education: Design, Creativity, and Knowledge

Why aren’t our elementary schools teaching reading, counting, and creating?

Debates on education are heating up across Europe, particularly in France, and they are quite worrying. Today, more than ever, the clash of civilizations, values, and beliefs is growing to mammoth proportions and turning our routines, ways of thinking, and comfort zones upside-down. 

Philosopher Pierre-Jakez Hélias once said, “Before we become, we come from.” But today’s societies are such a hodgepodge that the thought of hanging a “Cultural Origin” sign in schools has become mission impossible, as have the references we hold in common, be they cultural or historical.

If all knowledge and culturally based teachings were to undergo thorough examination, and if we were to rely solely on our own beliefs, it would seem only natural to revisit and rework the role of the teacher or master. But it’s almost impossible to link of parents, teachers, and the world that the master and apprentice can make sense of. Who are we to believe? What are we to believe?

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Nearly three hundred years ago Montesquieu wrote in The Spirit of Laws, “Today, there are three different or contradictory types of education out there: that of our parents, that of our teachers, and that of the world. Everything we are taught in the latter undermines everything we are taught in the first two.” 

For the sake of the apprentice, I would like the practice of design and its creative potential to play a central role in breathing new life into the master’s purpose. A driving force in the teaching and understanding of all things, the master enables the apprentice to take ownership of the design field’s breadth and the myriad opportunities available therein. The master fosters broader reflection and helps channel context- and reality-based scenarios.

By embracing solutions dependent upon creativity globally, the practice of design would allow every man and woman the possibility of configuring his and her own knowledge base. Creativity is the binding agent in the acquisition of knowledge. It shapes ingenuity and instinct, the ability to think ahead and plan for the future ultimately brings out the humanity in us. Even if computers become the be-all and end-all source and disseminator of knowledge, machines will never have what it takes to stand for something and stand behind it, solve the Epimenides or Liar Paradox, or reach a feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction.

Teaching creativity means teaching free will, bias, freedom, and accountability. 

I’m reminded of the story of the “circus flea trainer,” who exemplifies what the master embodies: Once upon a time, there was a flea trainer who taught his circus act how to jump. Before making his entrance, he would put the flea in a glass, and with the audience’s help, he would ask the flea to jump. The flea would start to jump all over the place, higher and higher, executing death-defying and increasingly complicated acrobatics. The more the flea performed, the more confidence it had to tackle new and even riskier figures; ones that had even escaped the flea trainer’s wildest imagination.

The flea trainer was no longer in a position of force or authority. His role was now to encourage, entertain, and give the flea what it needed to continually move forward and re-invent itself and its act. There were limits, however, to how much and how far the flea trainer could intervene for, ultimately, it took being a flea to know what was and was not possible. 

The flea fed off the enthusiasm and cheers from circus onlookers to come up with even more spectacular combinations and novelties. Left to jump about freely above the glass, it wowed all those present. In the span of the circus act, the flea managed to “change the world” of those in the audience, happy to be taking part in something so whimsical.

Feeling deprived of applause and acknowledgment, the flea trainer decided to take matters into his own hands. He took a moment to exchange with the audience, and when doing so, placed his hand over the glass. When the flea heard the audience cheering, it began to jump around. Once, twice, three times to no avail. It kept bumping its head against the flea trainer’s palm. It was confused as to why the flea trainer was so set on wanting to keep its antics bottled up, but never did it think to question him for he was the master. Surely, he knew what he was doing.

After several minutes had passed, the flea trainer lifted his hand from the glass, and asked the flea to show off its expertise. The flea jumped and jumped. To the audience’s dismay, the flea could no longer jump all the way to the rim of the glass. It was lights out for death-defying acrobatics and freedom. The master just pulled the plug on the creativity of his apprentice.

Whether training fleas to jump or teaching children about life, a master’s job is to open doors, not to make knowledge an oppressing force. Knowledge is meant to be passed down to the apprentice, who is given free rein to do with it as he pleases, infusing it with his touch and identity to trigger a different purpose, a purpose that surpasses its predecessors. Regardless of time spent mentoring, the master remains a catalyst of progress and change.

What else should we want for our children than that they do better than we did? 

Creativity-inspired education means accepting that the apprentice is brighter than her master, enabling her to forge new bonds with the world, build new bridges to the future, and go down paths that have not been fully explored by those who shaped them. Doing what has already been done makes little sense. Doing everything better makes much more sense.

In an era when the answer to any question is a click away, the claim that teachers are the possessors of knowledge resembles myth more than it resembles reality. In this new age the master-apprentice relationship is a fantastic opportunity to rethink and re-construct the foundation of the school as well as restore trust in its purpose as a thriving and ever-evolving habitat of knowledge and creation. This means having the desire and determination to set in motion a new way of living, thinking, doing. It means being open to letting go of the apprentice, letting her fly solo, and giving her just the right amount of guidance and confidence to make her a go-getter and a builder of tomorrow so needed by society.

It means teaching creative thinking and design from a very early age. Reading, counting, creating should be the new trilogy in elementary schools. Steve Jobs spent a lot of time tinkering in his garage growing up. At school, children should be encouraged to do the same.

Christian Guellerin has been president of Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Schools of Design, Art and Media since 2007. Under his leadership the organization grew from 80 to 178 establishments in 44 countries in 2008; today they’re expanding to China and India. He is also the executive director of the Ecole de design Nantes Atlantique, which trains professionals to create and innovate for socio-economic development, with an interface between technology, economics, and the sciences. He writes frequently on design and pedagogy and teaches in several schools and universities in France and abroad.

Read more posts from Christian Guellerin here.

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