Fashionable these days is thinking outside the box, which is another way of describing creative thinking. Many people are surprised when I say that there are always more than two ways to look at anything. Most people are conditioned to accept two-value logic or thinking only in terms of dualisms (such as black or white, right or wrong, male or female, true or false).
Take the classic illustration of the difference between pessimism and optimism: the pessimist sees a glass as half-empty, the optimist as half-full. A creative person, however, knows that there are more than two ways to describe such a glass of water.
I can say, for example, that the glass is in the process of being completely full, because I am pouring water into it. I can say that the glass is in the process of being completely empty, because the glass is tilted towards my thirsty mouth. I can say that the glass only appears to be half-filled because light hits the glass in such a way that I squint and make a mistake calculating the amount of liquid. I can say that the glass only appears to have water in it because the water is actually painted on the glass itself; in reality, there may not be water inside the glass. I can say that the glass is really completely full of liquid, except that half the liquid is invisible because the glass is painted in such a way that half of it matches the color of the liquid. And so on.
I can even start looking at the glass from the points of view of various specialists. A physicist or an engineer will not be satisfied with the adjectives “half-full” and “half-empty,” but will want to weigh the water and the glass, calculate the volumes involved, and formulate an equation that will make the relationship between liquid and glass applicable to similar situations. A chemist will want to see if that is really H2O in that glass. A medical doctor will check if the water is potable. A painter will tilt the glass this way and that way until the light hits it in an especially beautiful way. A poet will barely see the glass and will focus only on the symbolic aspects of the water. And a child will just simply drink the water.
The point is that creative thinking offers solutions even to problems that seem absolutely hopeless or insoluble.
Let us take a practical application of creative thinking.
The Philippine public educational system always baffles the minds of non-creative educators, legislators, and government officials. Creative people look at our education problems and realize that they can be solved.
The figures are well-known. (I take my data from the excellent state-of-the-art paper entitled “Beating the Odds: A Nation Responding to the Crisis in Education” prepared recently by the Department of Education.)
For the year 2006, we need 10,549 new classrooms, 1.22 million additional seats, 67.03 million new textbooks, and 12,131 more teachers. In terms of pesos, that means another P11.30 billion added to the education budget. Because the government does not have P11B to spare, the problem appears impossible to solve. That is the pessimistic view.
The optimistic way of looking at the problem makes us feel better, and this is how the DepEd paper puts it: things could have been worse had DepEd not done what it has done. Without the initiatives started by Brother Andrew Gonzalez, FSC, and continued by Raul Roco, Edilberto de Jesus, Florencio Abad, and OIC Fe Hidalgo, we would need even more money.
DepEd estimates that for 2006, without its creative intervention, we would have needed 45,775 classrooms, 3.17M seats, 67.03M textbooks, and 20,517 teachers, with a total cost of P28.74B. That means that government programs have saved the Filipino people P17.44B.
DepEd mentions such interventions as the new curriculum, education service contracting, multi-shift classroom policy, library hubs, early childhood education, madrasah education, inclusive education, alternative learning system, school feeding, Every Child a Reader Program (ECARP), competency-based teacher assessment standards, computerization, Schools First, Brigada Eskwela, Sagip Eskwela, Adopt-a-School, Oplan Balik Eskwela, and the Basic Education Sector Reform Agenda (BESRA).
The DepEd paper cannot, because of space limitations, mention all the programs undertaken by the government since Gonzalez’s time (actually, much earlier, at least as far back as Lourdes Quisumbing’s stint, from my own memory). A glance at the voluminous reports submitted every month by various regional directors during Management Committee meetings would show how innovative teachers and administrators have been in solving our educational problems.
One way of looking at the P11B, then, is to say that we should be thankful it is only P11B and not P28B. There are even other ways of looking at the P11B.
Creative thinking offers a way out of despair over the monstrous problems facing public education today.
Take the matter of classrooms. The government estimates that we need at least 10,549 new classrooms in 2006, mostly for public elementary schools.
Non-creative persons, who think only within two-value logic, say things like these: Either we get new classrooms or we don’t. Either the number needed is 10,549 or it is not. Either we build new classrooms or our schoolchildren will not have classrooms to use.
The trouble with such non-creative thinking is that it is futile. There is no way we can build that number of classrooms, even if we had the money (which we definitely don’t) nor the political will (which we probably don’t).
Do simple arithmetic. Divide the number by the number of days in the year. Assume, for the sake of argument, that people will work 24 hours every day, even Sundays and holidays. Assume that it takes only 10 days to construct one classroom (just to make the computations easy). How many classrooms should we finish per day? How many per hour? Add now factors found in the real world, such as the time it takes to find land, buy or beg for it, arrange for all sorts of permits, do all the paperwork in order to get the cash, take materials to the sites (remember that classrooms are needed not mainly in developed areas but precisely in hard-to-reach places), and hours when people do not work (nights, holidays, weekends, and so on). How many classrooms can we actually finish per day? For the whole year?
In short, there is no way we can build 10,549 classrooms. Non-creative persons will just give up when faced by such impossibility. But creative thinkers know better.
The first thing to be creative about is the nature of the classroom itself. Why, in this age of cellphones, computers, and television, do we need to have classrooms at all? Obviously, because being with a flesh-and-blood teacher and interacting with flesh-and-blood classmates is good for children. That is undeniable, but we can be creative about the length of time children have to be inside a classroom.
We are so used to the chalk-and-blackboard or speak-and-listen type of teaching, that we find it difficult to understand that students need not go to a school campus in order to learn. We have enough educational theories and even practical experience to know that it is entirely possible for children living in the 21st century to learn without being always inside a school building.
Already, in higher education, we have numerous examples of learning outside classrooms. The entire distance learning phenomenon (pioneered locally by De La Salle University and the UP Open University), the numerous experiments run by individual teachers in several schools (I taught an entire graduate course last term, for example, without ever meeting the students in a classroom), and the innovations done by DepEd in many schools (such as a fisheries high school I once visited where the students attended classes around fishponds) all point to the real possibility of minimizing the time students have to be inside classrooms.
What I am saying is that we do not need new classrooms at all, but need only to maximize the use of the ones we already have.
Take a look at a typical class. A lesson usually involves working with a textbook of some kind. Why does the student have to be in a classroom to read a textbook? Why can’t a textbook be written in such a way that the exercises in them can be done at home?
How much of class time is actually spent learning? There are so many things done within the classroom that simply waste time. For example, teachers check attendance, return papers, erase the blackboard, form lines, read aloud or write on the board what is already in the textbook, rearrange chairs for group work, and (in rare rich places) fiddle around with electric cords. Let us not even mention the parades, holiday preparations, and other non-essential activities public school children cannot seem to avoid.
Why not restrict classroom time to real learning time? That will cut down the time needed to be in school.
Let us assume that half of our actual classroom time now is useful for real learning. (This is a very generous estimate.) That means that students can spend the same number of hours a day in school, but need to come only half the number of school days. We immediately double the number of students that can use our existing classrooms.
If we factor in policies that DepEd is already implementing, such as multiple shifts and longer campus hours, we can see that there is no need for additional classrooms.
The problem of classrooms has disappeared. More precisely, we have shifted the problem from the building of classrooms to the rebuilding of the curriculum.
In order to maximize classroom time with minimal classrooms while still achieving the minimum learning competencies expected of students, we need to rethink our entire way of teaching.
We need, first of all, to start looking at home and community experiences as part of formal (not informal nor alternative) schooling. We need to get parents and community leaders to start becoming, in effect, teachers. DepEd’s Schools First program should then not be merely a way to raise funds for public schools. It should be a way to decrease the dependence of children on the school itself.
The Department of Education estimates that we need 67.03 million new textbooks for 2006. Creative thinking may bring that number down.
First, DepEd must finally implement an order it issued several years ago to remove the silly practice of having several different textbooks being used for the same subject in the same classroom.
If you visit a typical public elementary or high school, you will almost surely find that the students use not one, but several textbooks per subject. The teacher cannot say something as simple as “Open your textbooks to page 10,” because page 10 will not necessarily refer to the same page in textbooks held by students.
This anomaly arose because of bureaucratic shortsightedness that has lasted for decades. Every year or so, the government orders the cheapest textbook available for a particular subject, say, Grade 3 English. One year, the government orders copies of an English textbook. The next bidding time, the government orders copies of another English textbook, because the price of this second textbook turns out to be less than that of the first one. The next time, the government orders copies of yet another English textbook, because this third and cheapest textbook may just have come recently into the market.
The books are distributed more or less evenly among Grade 3 classrooms. Of course, there are never enough textbooks for all students in all schools, so a typical classroom gets, say, five textbooks of the first English textbook. The next year or so, the same classroom gets five textbooks of the second one, and so on. Eventually, there are enough textbooks (say, 50) for the whole class, but these are not the same textbook, but different ones.
DepEd, realizing that this was not an ideal situation for learning, ordered that textbooks should be the same for each classroom. This could have easily been done. A school would have simply gathered all its textbooks into one big pile and redistributed them to each classroom – one title per classroom. Then, each teacher would have the same textbook as each student in a classroom. In the next classroom, of course, the textbook would be different, but everyone in that classroom would have the same title.
Once this order is fully implemented, there will be less need for additional textbooks. Why? Because it is not necessary, nor even desirable, that each student should have his or her own textbook.
We can find many arguments in educational theories against what is known as one-to-one textbook per student ratio. DepEd now uses a revised Basic Education Curriculum that is based on an interactive theory of learning, precisely the theory that argues most loudly against one-to-one.
If students are to learn interactively or cooperatively, they should not be isolated within the classroom. They should not be sitting by themselves, reading their own textbooks, and working at their own pace. They should be working with others, reading at a pace dictated not just by themselves but by their peers.
The best proof of this type of collaborative learning is the Japanese system, where the whole class waits until every single student learns, for example, how to solve a mathematics problem. Japanese students tutor their slowest classmates, in order that the class can move faster through the lesson. The consistent high scores of Japanese students in international mathematics tests prove that this system is much better than the American or our old Philippine system of each student learning by himself or herself.
In the last century (the 20th, of course), textbooks were indispensable in classrooms. Rare was the teacher that came into a classroom without a textbook in hand and rarer was the teacher that never consulted a textbook. This was not always the case.
In most other fields of human endeavor, experts look at what they call Best Practices to see how things can be improved. If we look at the Best Practices of teaching across nations and over the centuries, we will come up with some insights that should be obvious.
The best teachers of all time are Jesus, Muhammad, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and other such outstanding individuals. Although some of these teachers wrote something to remember them by, none of them used a textbook when they taught their students.
The question is simple: if the best teachers of all time did not need textbooks, why do we use textbooks? The answer seems equally simple: we are not as good as these Great Teachers.
True, most teachers in the 21st century are not going to be founders of belief systems that will influence millions of people. It is also true, however, that teachers today need not influence millions of people; they need to influence only the few students that are in their classes. To be any good, teachers must learn from the best teachers of all time.
Being Christian, I am more familiar with the teaching style of Jesus than with that of the other great teachers. What can we learn from the way Jesus taught?
First of all, Jesus never carried a textbook around. He did refer constantly to what we now call the Old Testament, but he could quote from it at length from memory. Immediately, we see what great teachers in our own century should do, no matter what they are teaching: they should know their subject matter by heart.
I cannot stand literature teachers, for instance, that cannot recite poems from memory. I cannot imagine a doctor having to read a medical textbook every time some patient comes into the emergency room. I cannot trust a plumber that comes into our house, holding a wrench in one hand and a manual in the other. Although cooks do consult cookbooks, I do not think we will patronize a restaurant where we can see the chef constantly referring to a recipe book. We certainly will never ride a bus where the driver reads any kind of book while driving.
Experts are experts because they know what they know by heart. A teacher, even an elementary school teacher, is an expert. No teacher that is really good needs a textbook.
Secondly, Jesus always taught with the materials at hand. He would point at a fig tree, look up at sparrows, walk on water to prove a point, force his listeners to think by using parables rather than spoonfeeding them, focus on a few well-chosen lessons. He never pretended to know everything (even if, as most Christians believe, he knew everything because he was divine). He never lectured on blood chemistry, on computers, or even on the scientific names of the fishes in the market. He restricted himself to things his listeners knew.
There are so many things within and just outside any school in the country that can be used to teach students. Take a very simple exercise recommended for elementary school students – constructing a genealogy. Everybody has parents or at least guardians, whether they are dead or alive, living at home or elsewhere. Instead of looking up the words father, mother, aunt, uncle, and so on in a textbook, all a teacher has to do is to ask students the words they use to refer to the people in their homes or communities. Vocabulary enhancement need not involve dictionaries or textbooks; all a teacher needs is imagination. (Okay, not every teacher has imagination, but that is another issue involving training.)
When teachers teach elementary science, they need not write on the blackboard some equation that only graduate students can understand anyway. Take the concept of being nonbiodegradable. If you were a teacher, ask elementary school students outside urban centers whether they should plant plastic and they will laugh at you; they know what nonbiodegradability means. In an urban center, make them throw a piece of plastic on the floor, then ask them to imagine where that piece of plastic will eventually end up. If the principal permits, walk with the students to the place where the janitor (or more likely, you yourself) will take the piece of plastic for disposal. Let them follow the piece as far as they can, and they can imagine the rest of the journey of that little weapon of mass destruction. We do not need a textbook to teach what is crucial to the survival of the human race.
I have watched an elementary school teacher use a glass of water to teach the water cycle (“where does the water go if we pour it on the floor?”). I have watched a kindergarten teacher read a storybook (not a textbook) in class with such dramatic effect that her pupils jumped up at the end of the reading to ask questions that would floor a literary critic.
Biography sections of libraries and bookstores are full of stories about successful individuals who never owned books when they were children. Instead, they walked to public libraries and learned the wisdom of the ages through borrowed books. F. Sionil Jose and Bienvenido N. Santos – my two literary fathers – come immediately to mind.
I myself never had the money to buy books until I went to graduate school in the
I built my own library of American books by going to every garage sale in the neighborhood, combing through the used books section of the university bookstore, and patronizing second-hand book stores every time I traveled out of
Before I went to
Avenida Rizal was crucial to my education. It was in the original National Book Store there that I read one or two books a day, standing up! This was long before Powerbooks and other bookstores realized that book lovers want to sit down while “browsing,” actually reading, their books. I would pretend to put back the book I was reading on the shelves when a sales attendant would come near, then pick up the book again to finish it.
Of course, when I grew up, just like Imelda Marcos who bought shoes galore to make up for her lack of shoes as a child, I bought books with a vengeance. I was able to collect several thousand volumes of books. I donated all the non-Philippine books to the De La Salle University Library. I can still say with pride, especially after the Thomas Jefferson Library American literature collection was dismantled, that my collection of American literature is the largest in the country.
I sold my Philippine books (more than six thousand volumes) for a token fee to the library of De La Salle University Dasmariñas. I originally wanted to sell the collection to a foreign buyer that would have paid me enough to last me my lifetime, but loyalty to the Brothers got the better of me.
The point of this autobiographical exercise is to point out that it is not necessary to own a book in order to learn from it. Why, then, I ask again, is it necessary for every single pupil in every single public elementary or high school to have his or her own textbook?
The arithmetic is simple: if the 50 pupils in a class (I take the number to make the arithmetic easy) each had a textbook, a school would spend 50 times the price of the textbook. If that same textbook had only, say, 10 copies in the school library, every student would have access to a copy at least once every 5 turns, a turn being defined as a chance for one student to take home one copy of the book.
If each student is given the chance to take home a copy once a week (which is 5 days or 5 turns), each student would be able to finish whatever exercises are in the textbook by the end of the week. All a teacher has to do is to schedule assignments properly, such that assignments are handed in only once a week, enough time for every student to have had a chance to take home a textbook.
In short, instead of buying 50 copies of a textbook, a school has to buy only 10. What a great way to save money for the government!
The key is to stop the practice of using a textbook inside the classroom. Textbooks should be sources of information or exercises for homework, not for seatwork. Once we realize that a teacher has a lot more to do inside a classroom than rehash information already printed in a textbook, we start looking at printed instructional materials as supplementary, rather than crucial aids to learning.
In this age of easy access to information through any corner internet café, there is no need for textbooks to include everything that is to know about any particular subject. All a textbook should really have are structured exercises aimed at helping a student learn more deeply what has already been taught inside the classroom.