The use of education as a tool to nurture creativity

How can education foster creativity? That was the question put to four educational experts at the latest in a series of panel talks held in Paris-Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi, by Thinkers & Doers, a network aimed at bringing together members of the community from different spheres, to discuss contemporary issues.

From left, Miguel Lobo moderated a panel talk featuring Mohamed Yousif Baniyas, Ann-Maree Reaney and Gilles Demone, held at Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National
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In the age of automation, ­creativity is seen as the tool that gives ­humans the edge over our ­robotic counterparts. Now, it’s more important than ever that creativity is nurtured in the younger generation.

But how can education ­foster creativity? That was the question put to four ­educational experts at the latest in a series of panel talks held in Paris-Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi, by Thinkers & Doers, a network aimed at bringing together members of the community from different spheres, to discuss contemporary issues.

The question itself raises a paradox, according to panel moderator Miguel Lobo, the director of business school INSEAD’s Middle East campus in Abu Dhabi.

“The impulse for control in education – telling students ‘you will be creative’ – is the quickest way to destroy creativity,” he argues.

“The development of creativity works by giving people freedom. There is on the one hand the pressure (for the students) to be employable, and on the other, there is a lot of research showing that to be more creative, you have to be willing to think outside of these perimeters.”

But there are steps that educational institutions can take to nurture creativity.

Ann-Maree Reaney, who is Dean of the College of Arts and Creative Industries at Zayed ­University in Abu Dhabi, believes creativity on her campus is bolstered by international diversity.

“They [the students] bring this amazing mix of ideas,” she says. “It becomes a robust discussion about what is design and what is art, because they’re coming from many different cultures.”

Despite INSEAD’s informal rule to never have more than 10 per cent of students from any given country in a specific programme, Lobo points out that diverse teams are not always more effective.

“If you have a task you need to accomplish that’s very well defined, that’s a clear and well-structured process, then you’re better off getting a team of five clones – people from exactly the same culture, gender, country and university – and they will do it well, because there’s no creativity involved,” he says. “But most work these days, which has significant economic value requires creativity and diversity, is absolutely essential in generating that creativity.”

Artificial intelligence is likely to present "enormous challenges" over the next 20 years in art circles, admits Lobo. After all, earlier last month, a machine built by Google's parent company, Alphabet Inc, defeated the world's top-ranked player of the ancient board-game Go.

"It's significant because Go was seen as being a game that required creativity," he explains. "The question now is what happens when the top novelist or artist in the world is a computer? The very notion of the arts is going to become stressed."

In light of global technological and economic changes, Reaney argues there is now a requirement for continuous learning. “This generation will all have to continuously learn ... and we have to teach them how to do that with new software and new technologies.”

As executive director of higher education at Adec, Mohamed Yousif Baniyas is responsible for supervising all institutions of higher learning in Abu Dhabi. Although he acknowledges the importance of art in fostering creativity, he admits to hating it as a kid.

“I used to ask one of my friends to draw for me [in class] and in return, I’d teach him mathematics,” he says, adding that as he grew older, he came to realise the importance of art in many fields.

“If you look at current changes in the world of science – 3-D and 4-D printing in the fields of medicine, among others – the need for the artistic touch is enormous. If you are designing a robot, if it has no sense of humour, or doesn’t smile at you, then you won’t like it.”

Recently, Adec added more elements of arts and design into the curriculum. Baniyas says rather than focusing on what happens in the classroom, schools are starting to focus more on the achievements of the students.

“When we feel better, we think better, and we think more quickly,” adds Lobo.

“Lots of research shows positive emotions are associated with more effective associative thinking, and connecting new ideas.”

Reaney’s students have taken part in collaborative projects with the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Dubai Design District, which she claims have helped to spark creative ideas.

“It’s a move away from the idea of the university as a ‘sandstone tower’ into a university that’s connected to its community,” she explains. “We also have a lot of industry people who come into the school to challenge the students on their critical thinking.”

With all this in mind, it shouldn’t be forgotten that something as simple as a change in the learning environment can be all it takes to get the creative neurons firing.