Conformity and Creativity

The past couple of months, I have been teaching my Applying the Principles of Psychology to Education module here at Bangor, and have been reading (with great interest) some blogs, written by students, about the effect of conformity on learning (or education, as it may be).

It is clear that demanding conformity of students results in a loss of the freedom that fosters creativity (this is the learning bottom line). However, there are those who insist that conformity is vital in order to maintain control of the learning experience (this is the education bottom line).

This is the most (politely) contentious issue being discussed by my students.

On the learning front, evidence has been presented showing that if there is a high degree of conformity in the learning environment, there will be little (if any) creativity. In HE, we have numerous systems that create an atmosphere of conformity – grades, timetables, deadlines, classroom/lecture room physical spaces, essay guidelines, memorisation and regurgitation assessment techniques, didactic teaching and on and on. All of these arise from a factory model of education – turning out widgets (graduates) of a uniform shape and size that do exactly what it says on the label (conform).

On the education side, it would be impossible to administer a system as vast and cumbersome as the one we currently have without much of the conformist apparatus in place. How can we measure and ensure that the content that we are teaching is getting into the heads of our students. These are the same arguments that are used in primary and secondary schools – conformity is necessary for classroom management (administration) and content memorisation.

The primary victim is creativity. The skills our students learn are the ones that are reinforced by the whole system. Leaders in the workplace tell us that this is exactly what they don’t want, and, we are seeing this in their hiring practises. Unemployment amongst graduates in Europe and America is high and getting higher. They have been asking for creativity and initiative for at least a couple of decades, and we have delivered memorisation, regurgitation, fear of failure, and conformity. I don’t recall the last time that a graduate recruiter smiled and said “…of course there is a place for you in our highly specialised cramming and regurgitation department. We’re prepared to offer you a handsome pay package and other…” It just doesn’t happen, but we pretend that it does.

I was in a meeting last week, and questioned the number of closed book final examinations required in their programme (Computer Science – a rather practical area of study where creativity should be highly valued). I was shocked to silence when a long established, influential member of the department leaned over the table and said “Call me old fashioned, but I believe that good old memorisation and recall tests are a great demonstration of learning.” Needless to say that my observation was ignored. As Tony Bates wrote ” …the very narrow view of learning often held by the computer scientists who work in this field, who tend to focus (not surprisingly) on teaching as information transmission and retrieval, rather than on teaching as cognitive, personal and social development.” I think that this very narrow view is held by more academics than just computer scientists.

I believe that we can introduce creativity into the skill set that graduates leave with – I just haven’t yet figured out how to circumvent all of the hurdles that are built into the system we operate under.

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