Enriching Experience—Engaging Students

March 10, 2011
Indira Samarasekera

Schools should be creative cauldrons where bubbling and fermenting ideas are fostered

The following excerpt is from an address by Indira Samarasekera, OC, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Alberta, to the Inspiring Education Fall Forum, October 20, 2009. The excerpt is reprinted with permission and has been edited to conform to ATA style. 

These are interesting and exciting times to be an educator and challenging times to be a student.

We are standing on the threshold of an emerging new world order that promises to have a profound effect upon education systems around the globe. The world is changing. The way we access and disseminate information is altered with every new development in communications technology. Information flows in countless directions simultaneously—moving quickly between people, across borders and in every language and format.

Every day our global perspective broadens. Events occurring thousands of miles away can sometimes seem more vivid and close than events happening next door. Economies are increasingly interconnected. We need think only of the global financial crisis and resulting recession to understand this. Corporations may be American, Canadian or Chinese, but their marketplace is the globe.

In this new global world, knowledge energy is the greatest currency in the workplace. Education has always been important—but perhaps never more than now, as we face the realities of the 21st century. The exponential dissemination of knowledge will increase its value in coming decades. And this makes the task of educators at all levels—kindergarten through graduate school—more important than ever.

All of us face a pressing question: What can we do to ensure that Alberta’s children and young people are ready, able and eager to be active participants in the global community of the future, and how can we engage them in learning and enrich their experiences as lifelong learners?

That’s the question that has brought us [to the Inspiring Education Fall Forum] and the question that motivates us as educators, administrators and parents.

The Challenge Ahead

All educators have the desire to create an enriched and effective learning environment—an environment that engages the curiosity, creativity and passion of our students and promotes their success as lifelong learners and discoverers of knowledge. But we also know that this is no small task.

By some measures, Alberta’s educational institutions are already meeting this challenge successfully. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) world rankings, 15-year-old Albertans are among the best in the world in math and reading scores. And students at the University of Alberta are winning top awards, ranging from Rhodes Scholarships to international prizes in entrepreneurship, bio-engineering and industrial design.

Yet, other measures indicate that important work remains to be done. An alarming number of students in Alberta choose to opt out—either by dropping out of high school or by choosing not to enter university, college or trade school.

Alberta has one of the highest high school dropout rates and lowest postsecondary participation rates in the country. This is extremely disturbing, as we look forward to the needs of 21st-century Alberta.

To maintain our current prosperity and quality of life, we will need highly skilled and innovative workers. We will need workers able to make and to lead the successful transition from a resource-based economy to a more diverse, knowledge-based economy. Alberta will need people with the ability and creativity to envision and enact that transition.

[…]

Opting out just can’t be an option.

Let me tell you one reason why not: young people around the world are opting in, and in large numbers.

As the flow of people, skills, talent and knowledge becomes increasingly global, we need to keep our global competitors firmly in mind. As Canada’s population ages, the number of young people in countries such as India and China is multiplying.

This fall, I travelled to China, where I met incredibly motivated high school students in Dalian, China. These kids are very much dialled into a globalized view of education. They attend a school that is part of Maple Leaf International Schools in China. This network of schools follows British Columbia’s K–12 curriculum, uses English as its language of instruction and promotes a Canadian philosophy of education—a philosophy that encourages critical thinking and creativity along with knowledge and skills development. Questioning the teacher is encouraged in these schools, while in the regular Chinese education system rote learning is still the norm.

Parents in China who choose these schools for their children are thinking ahead—they see a future in which their children will participate in a multicultural, global workplace. They are also preparing their children to go overseas for university or postgraduate work—they have their sights set on sending their children to top universities in Canada, the United States or the United Kingdom. And they know the competition is fierce. The Grade 12 students I met were engaged, curious and ambitious.

This fierce global competition is affecting how high school education is delivered, not only in China but in other nations that are on the rise, such as India. More students are flocking to elite  private schools where they receive high-quality, rigorous training across disciplines and are encouraged to think critically.

What’s their reward? Entrance not only to the top schools in their own countries, but to the world’s best universities. That’s the global academic market that Alberta’s students are competing in and that’s the same global employment market they will compete in when they graduate.

The important questions are: Do we recognize this reality? How are we responding to it? And are we willing to accept the consequences if we don’t?

Creating Enriched and Effective Learning

Clearly, it is vital that educators create enriched and effective learning environments to ensure that Alberta’s young people opt in rather than opt out. We need to go further; we need to engage their passion and their ambition. Alberta’s young people have enormous potential, but that potential can be squandered if they are not engaged by learning. How will we get our students engaged right from kindergarten and through to university or college?

I want to focus on two main strategies that I believe are essential. First, educators in the 21st century need to awaken and nurture creativity. Creativity sparks personal passion and commitment and spawns technical and social innovations throughout society, bringing prosperity. This is why schools like the Dalian Maple Leaf International School in China have adopted Canadian school curriculum—the school sees how important it is to turn on the creative and critical thinking skills of students.

Second, educators need to involve and engage students directly in discovery and in advancing knowledge for themselves and others.

The Importance of Creativity

Let me begin by talking about creativity.

Thinkers from every discipline and from all over the world are increasingly reminding us that creativity will be the essential element of every successful society in the 21st century. Daniel Pink, who opened this conference on Sunday night, is one of those thinkers [Pink is the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future].

Knowledge and information are constantly changing and at breakneck speed. Today, while it is important to know things, it is equally important to creatively adapt and transform knowledge and information into something new.

Economist Richard Florida argues that cities with the greatest creative capital are and will increasingly be the world’s most successful. “You cannot get a technologically innovative place,” he says, “unless it’s open to weirdness, eccentricity and difference.” People cannot be open to weirdness, eccentricity and difference unless they value creativity in themselves and in others.

Sir Ken Robinson, an expert in education and creativity, agrees. He argues that creativity is vital to our personal well-being and to the future well-being of a global society. In his view, we need to maximize the creative potential of every person on the planet if we are to find solutions to the major challenges we face in the 21st century. Yet, in spite of the world’s need for creativity, encouraging creativity and building a creative society is not easy.

Why not? Because society doesn’t always welcome new ideas or the people who have them. Instead, creative thinking is often perceived as risky and impractical—even a sign of laziness. 

There is a wonderful story about Bill Gates—perhaps one of the most important innovators of the 20th century. When he was in Grade 6, he was at war with his mother, Mary, who believed (like all parents) that he should do what she told him. He often spent time in his room, apparently doing nothing. Mary called out to him, hoping to get a response—maybe even get him to clean his room while he was in there.

“What are you doing?” she called out to him.

“I’m thinking,” Bill answered.

“You’re thinking?”

“Yes, Mom, I’m thinking,” he said aggressively. “Have you tried thinking?”

This story reminds me of Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk—two former U of A medical students who spent every free moment playing video games. You can imagine how frustrated their mothers must have been. But from those hours of playing emerged BioWare Corporation—Edmonton’s video-game design company that has become a multi-million-dollar success story.

Too often, creativity is considered a waste of time. Or when thought of positively, it is often reserved as a term to describe only the arts and artists, but, as Florida, Robinson and Gates note, every one of us has the capacity to be creative wherever we are and in whatever career we choose.

According to Nancy Andreasen, author of The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius, creativity flourishes when there is intellectual freedom, a community of creative people who can mentor and teach others, and enough economic prosperity to allow for the “bubbling and fermenting” of new ideas. She points to periods like the Renaissance, with the rise of great artists and thinkers, as examples of a great flowering of creativity.

To promote that kind of flowering of innovation in Alberta in the 21st century, we, as educators, should think of our classrooms, schools or universities as creative cauldrons where we foster the bubbling and fermenting of ideas.

Our role as teachers and mentors will be multifaceted. As experts in our subject areas and as mentors, we will impart knowledge, teach skills and exemplify the value of disciplined hard work. But, at the same time, we must model creativity in the very act of teaching itself, transforming and adapting our craft to the broad changes in society—new information technologies, globalization, multiculturalism and interconnectedness.

We must also learn from our students and recognize their creative ability to shift the direction of our thinking. In a sense, we will teach them to teach us—or to turn that around—the classroom will be a place with lifelong learning at its core.

In my experience—and I’m sure many of you here have similar experiences in the classroom—the line between teaching and learning is blurry. It’s in the give-and-take between teacher and student that learning comes alive and, through constant and creative evolution, grows into a habit of a lifetime.

Creative engagement

This brings me to the second element that I believe is critical to education in the 21st century: engagement—creative engagement between people and creative engagement with learning and discovery.

The faculty and staff of the U of A are in the process of thinking about and promoting exactly this kind of creative and engaged learning environment. We recognize that our students need to become lifelong learners if they are going to negotiate the pace of change promised throughout this century.

We also recognize that the “millennials”—as they are called—see themselves as highly connected through social media. They can sometimes be impatient, demanding to know how something learned in school is immediately applicable to how they live their lives. They are keen to be directly engaged.

At the U of A, we are devising programs that enable students to link classroom theory with hands-on experience. We are developing opportunities that challenge them to directly apply and shape their knowledge, talents, creativity and skills to all kinds of projects that involve learning and discovery, whether in the research lab or in a community organization.

Our goal is to foster and feed their need for creative engagement—engagement in discovery, engagement in community, engagement in technical and social innovation. We want students to opt in, rather than opt out.

As Robinson and Florida argue, if we can unleash the creative passion of people, we will maximize their capacity as active, contributing, productive and personally satisfied citizens. However it is expressed, engaged creative learning has an enormous social benefit, and societies able to cultivate that kind of enriched learning experience in the 21st century will be the world’s most successful.

Why? Because from creativity comes scientific, technical, social, cultural and artistic innovation and productivity, and those, in turn, create prosperity and enriched quality of life.

However, there are two things that we can be sure of—first, that the scale and speed of change will have vastly increased our need to be creative, adaptable and flexible knowledge workers, able to learn and use knowledge effectively and productively. Second, the globalization of knowledge and education will mean that Albertans and Canadians will be working with and competing against equally knowledgeable, skilled, creative and productive thinkers from nations much more populous than ours.

Canada, and Alberta in particular, has a strong and proven foundation of educational excellence from kindergarten to graduate school. To strengthen and preserve that excellence and the economic prosperity that follows, we need to engage our students in the learning process. We need to ensure that more Alberta students opt in.

How will we do it? By awakening and nurturing their creativity and engaging them in learning and discovery experiences that enable them to put new ideas, learned skills and personal passion to work in the broader community for the public good.

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Dr. Indira Samarasekera, OC, is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Alberta.