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October 6, 2021

Originality: Why this important skill is overlooked at school

Originality results in an idea, something that no one else will ever be able to replicate, as they cannot look at it through your eyes. To everyone, originality means something else. Rather than a word originality can be viewed as a concept. It combines our creativity and individual perspective on a topic or situation.

What originality means to us and how we perceive it can change throughout our lifetime. Nevertheless, one thing is most likely to remain the same: Originality and authenticity go hand in hand. And both have more to do with self-discovery and a deeper understanding ourselves, than with how others define being original.

One ideal that is promoted in the current times of information and technology is the ideal of standing out and being unique. Social media, articles on blogs … we are confronted with the terms  originality or authenticity everywhere. Along with examples how we should strive to embody it.

But where would you even begin? It is so easy to be swayed into focusing on instant gratification rather than the long-term benefits and growth. Originality does mean that you put a spin on a perspective or idea. But doing things your way and expressing yourself freely can be challenging if it doesn’t line up with common standards. Despite that, sharing your ideas with the world can lead to places and people where you will be met with support.

The challenges of being original and authentic in the age of social media

The vast amount of knowledge and information available nowadays can fuel pressure and worry, even in the most confident individuals. The pressure to be social, the pressure to keep up with trends, the pressure to keep up with the constant change of technology. Your worries range from your popularity on social media, to how great your content actually is.

Standing out and subverting the expectations that the world – other people – have formed about who you are, is uncomfortable. It’s a gamble: To steer your steps to roads none has walked on before, might result in both praise and sneering.

We are confronted with the terms  originality or authenticity everywhere. Along with examples how we should strive to embody it.

No matter how liberating it might be to take the leap, not everybody feels capable handling the risk of getting rejected or cast out. It can feel like a high price to pay if you get scorn, rather than encouragement. Especially, if you are rejected by family and friends.

That witty comment. That heart-felt and profound quote about life. You think of it all as something original – only to realise that someone has said it before sometime and somewhere. Does that mean you have nothing worthwhile to say that could be considered original? Even if something has been said before, as humans we build on the ideas that came before us. Through that we come up with our own unique answers and perspectives. So yes, it is worth sharing our take on things, even if somebody else has done that already!

In school originality gets buried beneath standardisation and time pressure

Originality draws the short end of the stick in school. Even if educators are passionate about fostering creativity in their students, lack of time and resources can limit the capacities of teachers.

Students often are expected to behave in certain ways to achieve a particular grade. Reading an article and analysing it according to instructions given. Writing down the answer to a math question they solved. To get higher grades they are expected to be nuanced, and as detailed and comprehensive, as they can be in their answers.

At a first glance it may look like students are allowed to express their ideas – being free-spirited and original in the way they present arguments, reasons or solutions. Instead, most of the way students analyse, learn, and get assignments done is standardised for various reasons.

In public education as it exists around the world having a regulated grading system, requirements, and exams to measure performance and skills is crucial. Taking a different route and alternative way to solve tasks or learn can, depending on the approach of your teacher and the school system, result in difficulties.

Schools impart valuable information and knowledge, but through “by heart” learning. Students are given questions and are learning the answer. Developing solution-oriented, original, and critical thinking gets cut short often. Even if educators do see the importance of these skills, different factors can make it hard to apply them in their daily work.

Originality: Dare to discuss it

Originality is a word bound to many assumptions and expectations. Teachers and students might not have the same understanding about the concept of originality. When I went to high school – or gymnasium as we say in Sweden – we never had a dialogue about originality itself. To me the word has not always been easy to grasp. To be original means to create something new, that was the meaning that my mind immediately associated with the word. It took me a while, however, to not see this “creating something new” as coming up with something that does not exist in some shape or form. It’s fine to put your own unique perspective to the table, and it’s ok that that is enough.

The dialogue that needs to happen goes both ways, teachers and students need to understand the expectations on both sides. But what teachers need to be mindful of, first and foremost, is to create an environment where students feel safe enough to ask their questions and reveal their concerns. Especially in classes where students might be more reserved.

It might help if teachers bear in mind that students are the same as they once were: Uncertain, a bit apprehensive perhaps, but also curious and eager to understand and learn. In a safe, understanding environment this curiosity and will to learn can bloom into original ideas and confident self-expression.

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