Mindset shift needed for revolutionary ideas

Rote learning is indeed the poison that smothers a child's curiosity ("Rote learning can kill kids' curiosity" by Mr Lee Teck Chuan; Monday) and the antidote to it may be encapsulated in the life of a man whose name is synonymous with genius: Albert Einstein.

He was also a maverick, who dropped out of school when he clashed with its authorities over their regimented way of teaching.

He viewed rote learning as anathema to the spirit of learning and creativity, and held that "imagination is more important than knowledge".

Einstein had many revolutionary insights, among them the photoelectric effect, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

Though obviously brilliant, he would probably not have succeeded in his breakthroughs without the following characteristics, which are not only indispensable to scientists, but also to those in other creative fields.

• He was non-conformist and questioned accepted wisdom. He discovered that Isaac Newton's laws of gravitation - accepted for more than two centuries - contradicted his newly postulated theory of special relativity in 1905, and embarked on proving what would be his theory of general relativity.

• He let his imagination wander.

The theory of general relativity began with a thought experiment while he was still an examiner in a Swiss patent office.

• He persevered amid naysayers in the scientific community, and had an uncompromising tenacity to focus his efforts.

• He made many mistakes and was humble enough to admit he was wrong when presented with evidence to the contrary. But, even his mistakes would later prove illuminating in furthering the cause of science.

Our education system may be among the best in the world, but to produce people with revolutionary ideas will entail a hefty shift in mindset.

We need to go against the grain of our present exam-focused system, with its fear of failure and emphasis on rote learning ("Students turn to 'crash courses' to boost grades"; Monday), which undermines curiosity, imagination and exploration.

Maria Loh Mun Foong (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2015, with the headline 'Mindset shift needed for revolutionary ideas'. Print Edition | Subscribe