Launching The Creative Thinking Program
Well, my brief was very simple. My brief was to try and construct a new syllabus; which would bring out the creative self in all our students. As far as the details were concerned, the dean said, I've got no time for all the details, I am trusting you to do it and you just go do it. But I think that was a very important lesson for all of us at the start because trust was a very important factor, which meant that I could go and ask anyone I like.
So because of that empowerment, I was able to put together a team of adjuncts. I was the only person full-time from here that was doing creative thinking, initially, but I had this wonderful eight, nine people come to help me. And because they were diverse, they came from very different fields a visual artist; a theater person; an architect; Johnny Lau, the guy who created the Kiasu comics and all that; people like him came. So our students learnt a lot of things like an architect can also be a creator of comic books, he can also write poems, and all of these became very exciting platforms for them. They'd never had anything like this in their lives. And when the newspapers asked me, So how do you propose to teach this creative thinking? What's the pedagogy going to be? I said, the pedagogy will depend on each person who is going to come in. But, I said, I can tell you one thing that all of them are going to go through. And they said, What? I said, it's going to be the undoing of everything they have learnt in the last 12 years. Because the last 12 years they've learnt things by rote, they've learnt things by putting memory work. But now when they come in here, all this, out there, they're going to start anew, they're going to start afresh, they're going to start like little babies who're going to learn how to crawl, sit up and then slowly run. And that's why I took charge of the creative thinking program.
I had a class that went from 12 midnight to six in the morning to creatively try and see whether that would be okay. Students loved it. Their parents were not very happy about it, but they loved it. I had a class conducted in Changi Hotel, where one student came up to me and she said, Prof, my father really thinks this is rubbish. He thinks you're up to no good. And he's going to come round at some point to check on me. So I said, Wonderful! So we started the class at 9 pm, and it was residential to the next day. And true enough, Mr Ong turned up at around 11.30, and I was waiting for him. And he came and he sort of looked around and said, Excuse me. I said, Sir, are you Mr Ong? He said Yes. I said, I am Kirpal Singh. Oh, he said, You're the prof? I said, Yes. So I said, would you like to go in? They're doing a little bit of an exercise in the room. There are about nine of them in this room, ten of them in the other room. And this is going to go right through until about four in the morning, then I am going to let them sleep. And I said, this is to test resilience, to try a new way of educational pedagogy because most of these kids don't wake up till about ten, eleven. They sleep at about three, four. At this point, nine, ten in the evening, they are at their best, they're absorbing and all that. So he said no, no, no, that's fine. I just wanted to make sure that she was okay. So I said, fine. And he went off. So I told Pat, the student, I said, your dad came and left.
But I think it was.I think firstly, certainly in 2000 to about 2003, a lot of parents who, in a way allowed or were okay with their children coming to SMU, were also a different kind of, set of parents. I mean their thinking was to say, let's go with the new, let's see what the new is about. And many of them were graduates of the old universities and they probably didn't look back with great fondness on their education, they wanted to experiment. So they were risk-takers as well. I think we have to take them into consideration. So 50 percent of the time, I knew I was going to win anyway because who would send the person to a new school? The other 50 percent was a matter of communication, persuasion, a bit of fun, we had a lot of fun. We found that there is no incompatibility between real learning and having fun. So the old seriousness, which my professor had told me, no laughter and all that, was now out of the window. And the new idea was to have fun, to crack a few jokes, to get things going because in that way adrenaline began to flow. And young people are very creative if only you give them I always began by saying my students, I used to challenge them I said, you've got all these facilities. Some of them said, oh, you want us to be creative in this room? These are all blank things. So I said, Do something! And they said, oh, what do we do? And I said, I don't know. I said, if you go back to the time when you were five or six years old, and you are two little kids in this room, you come up with games, you make imaginary games, you construct things suddenly you're daddy, suddenly she's grandma, and all kind of things will happen. What happened to that creativity? That's when being provoked like that and challenged like that
So, of course, we had classrooms smeared with all kinds of paint and everything. Those days the facility manager came in and said, Kirpal, these are supposed to be clean walls. I said, which is the happier classroom? This one, absolutely boring or that one, with all these creative things? I think it was a lot of trial and experiment, and I think today we have a lot of rules. This is why creative thinking has become almost formulaic. And I still love my colleagues who are teaching this creative thinking, but I think the fundamental idea of making a young person confident and proud of his or her own innate ability to bring something new in the world, that is not really the fundamental aim of today's thing, today's program, and this is why I moved out. Today's programme seems to be more like so what do you know about creative thinking? There are textbooks and all that. But there cannot be any textbook about creative thinking.
The Chronicle of Higher Education was so impressed by our program that they did a whole centre spread on creative thinking program and it hit the world. I think it was in 2004 or something like that. And at that point, some of the better universities in America had already begun to sit up and take cognisance of the fact that in this remote part of the world called Singapore, and in this very new small university called SMU which is often mixed with their Southern Methodist University there was this new experiment taking place.