One of the most innovative—and some might say controversial—educators in recent Canadian history will share his thoughts on pedagogy this evening at the Vancouver Public Library's central branch.
Former McGill University religious studies professor Norman Cornett's lecture is entitled "Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?"
It will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Montalbano Family Theatre with a screening of Professor Norman Cornett. It's a 2009 National Film Board documentary directed by Indigenous filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, which quotes students speaking glowingly about his unconventional teaching methods.
Cornett lost his university position in 2007 but he has continued lecturing at postsecondary institutions around the world promoting what he calls "dialogic education".
"What has always struck me as an educator is creativity, creative thinking, creative expression constitutes the epicentre of learning," Cornett told the Straight by phone from Montreal last week. "In fact, creativity is what distinguishes us from all other species on the planet."
He elaborated on this point by emphasizing that the real task for teachers is "to encourage, promote, develop, nurture, foster, and incite" people from pre-kindergarten to post-doctorate to embrace creativity.
Cornett said it's also imperative to encourage seniors to think and express themselves creatively.
"That keeps the neurological synapses alive and well so that we have that plasticity and can continue to learn and grow in life," he noted.
One way he fosters creativity is by incorporating music into his seminars.
In fact, Obomsawin's film opens with a classroom of McGill students singing Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1" in unison. Then they are asked to write a line about what that meant to them.
He explained to the Straight that music engages both hemispheres of the brain.
That's because it's based on mathematics, which requires logic and reasoning. But it also entails creativity, which engages the imagination.
Cornett pointed out that in the early years of the Renaissance, the empirical and imagination were integrated. This was apparent, for instance, in the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who was both a mathematician-scientist and an artist.
But in the centuries since then, the disengagement between arts and sciences has disturbed Cornett.
"Since the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, there was a tendency in western civilization to dichotomize it, if not to polarize the arts and the science when in reality, we need to return...to the origins of the Renaissance, in which there is a synergy between the rational and the imagination," he said.
Cornett speaks rapidly, often citing examples to illustrate his points. He declared that the students who have the most difficulty with rote-based or memorization-based education are the smartest ones.
He also said that video games can appeal to children, adolescents, and adults because these games require the exercise of reason and imagination.
"What we want to do is create space in the classroom for creativity, for imagination, as well as for reason and discipline," Cornett said.
And in his classes, not all students received an "A". Those who were late lost five percent. Those who missed a class lost five percent. And those who brought cellphones to class lost five percent.
In his classes, every student's work had to be written in longhand.
"You know why? Because the head-to-hand connection actually opens up other areas of the human brain," he said. "It's like marrying theory to practice."
He also emphasizes this in his extensive work with artists to encourage them to gain access to their creativity.
"It's the mental and the manual at the same time," he said. "Education requires discipline."