Does formal education enhance creativity? | Sunday Observer

Does formal education enhance creativity?

6 September, 2020

Formal education in most countries follows a pattern of preparing students for the workforce which is the lifeline of the economy of the country. If the economy goes down, the citizens of the country will place the blame on the government and the chances of the policy makers getting elected again for the next term will also go down with it. That means the ruling elite will have to give up all the luxuries they have been enjoying. That becomes the main motivating factor for the rulers to keep the economy going well. They have to ensure that the human resources needed for that purpose will be ready and able. To do that most countries have legislation forcing every newborn to go through the country’s system of education which is designed to destroy creativity and independent thinking of the individual, and promote conformity and subservient mentality of worshiping the rich, the powerful and the authoritative.

Even when one finds employment at some place, more often than not one feels that the employer has done him/her a favour and therefore he/she should be prepared to be a slave to that employment and/or to that employer. That is one of the reasons why most cases of workplace-human rights violations, such as, under compensation and labour exploitation, mental and sexual harassments go unreported and sometimes even unnoticed. Politicians use this weakness to their advantage by promising people employment at government institutions and/or other such benefits, to secure their vote. Once in power, politicians instruct government institutions to recruit from the lists of their supporters sent directly from Ministries. Some countries use fancy words such as ‘lobbying’ or ‘corporate donations’ for bribing. When a person who has been trained and conditioned to be subservient and not have any self-confidence even to feel that he was hired for the job because of his qualifications and capability, is made to feel that the reason he is employed is the generosity of his politician, that person and his whole family will be voting for that politician and the particular party until they die. In countries such as Sri Lanka one might even see some government institutions being unfathomably overstaffed due to this reason.

What is even more concerning is the fact that young people in their twenties are happy and content with just an employment for which they are often under paid and over qualified. This is one of the easier ways of manipulating voters and a common phenomenon all over the world. As you can see, the continuation of this system depends mainly on making sure that the voter base consists of people who have no self-confidence, who cannot think for themselves and, therefore, don’t know how creative and innovative they can be. What better way to program the voter, to accept all that, than forcing every citizen to go through an education mill, through the ages 5 – 18, designed to achieve exactly that.

Primary and secondary education

Primary and secondary education systems the world over are designed keeping mathematics and natural sciences at the top of their priorities and social sciences and humanities followed by aesthetics all the way at the bottom. A parent of a fourth grader once told me that his son had written a poem as the teacher had asked the class to write a poem or a short essay on anything they liked. When the child showed the poem to the teacher the next day the latter had asked: What is a ‘lark’? a word that was in the poem.

The child had answered it is type of a bird. The teacher had then asked who wrote the poem and the child had said he did. The teacher had then thrown the book across the classroom and shouted: “Don’t lie to me. Your parents or someone else may have written this because there is no way that you knew what a lark is”. The parent said even though he was flattered that the teacher thought the poem may have been written by him it was through his son’s poem that he learned what a ‘lark’ is.

That was the last time the boy had tested his creativity on poetry. The usual reactions of teachers in schools and universities on new ideas presented by students are statements such as: “It won’t work”, “That is a dumb idea” and “We have tried that before” due to our nature of constant judging, censoring and criticising. In the name of maintaining uniformity and fairness knowledge is tested using standardised tests where only the answers given in the examiner’s guide are considered correct and anything different is marked wrong irrespective of how correct or creative it is.


Research has shown repeatedly, that we are born with the highest creative potentials that diminish gradually through the process of living. A research done in the USA in the 1960s following 1,600 chidren from the age of 5 to 25 has shown that 98% of the five-year olds scored in the ‘creative genius’ range. When the same chidren were tested through the years only 2% of them got to the category of ‘creative genius’ at the age of 25.

To maintain creativity at genius level one has to keep the five-year old alive within oneself. Researchers suggested that to achieve that kind of sustainability of creativity one has to maintain divergent thinking irrespective of one’s age. Divergent thinking helps create new possibilities using imagination while convergent thinking helps evaluating, criticising and making judgments and decisions. Divergent thinking is supported by happy and pleasant states of mind whereas unhappy and/or depressed states lead to more restrictive and limited thought patterns.

The school or the university should not be a place that robs us of our creativity and force students to cultivate non-creative thinking where experts in reproducing what has been memorised are generously rewarded.

Students as well as teachers should feel happy to be in that teaching-learning environment where, at the end of each day, everyone experiences a sense of fulfilment about the achievements of the day. Curricula and the evaluation methods should be designed to enhance divergent thinking. Teachers should not only understand the subjects they teach well but also understand the importance of facilitating divergent thinking through which students will be able to see a bigger and more general a picture.

There are certain aspects of creative thinking that can be developed through knowledge and practice if one is free to follow one’s imagination and ask the questions ‘WHY’ and ‘WHY NOT?’ Therefore, the answer to the question “Does formal education enhance creativity?, is a resounding “NO” in almost all the countries in the current context, except perhaps in Finland and in a couple of other Scandinavian countries. But there can be ways to change certain aspects of formal education, including an attitudinal change in all stakeholders, to enhance creative thinking of all the participants in the game, including teachers and parents.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]