During a newspaper interview in 1929, the great Albert Einstein said this: “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

I have recently been doing some background reading on child development in relation to education systems and attainment, and was troubled to find just how much young people are struggling to cope with the stress of expectation placed upon them not only to succeed but to be the best of the best.

A particularly harrowing report from National Public Radio in the United States last year described the “all-work, no-play” culture of South Korea – a country where suicide is “the leading cause of death among teens, and 11- to 15-year-olds report the highest amount of stress out of 30 developed nations”.

The report noted that “relentless focus on education and exams is often to blame. For a typical high school student, the official school day may end at 4pm, but can drag on for gruelling hours at private cram institutes or in-school study hall, often not wrapping up until 11pm.”

This got me thinking about Finland’s education system – a set-up that, according to conventional wisdom, should have failed miserably and yet is one of the world’s most respected systems.

Children don’t begin school there until the age of seven and their standards aren’t measured at all during the first six years; the national curriculum contains only broad guidelines; teachers spend around four hours per day in the classroom; and reports suggest Finland spends around 30% less on each student than the United States does on its students.

And yet, Finland sends more students to college than any other European country; and the learning gap between the strongest and weakest students is the smallest throughout the world.

“Play is the answer to how anything new comes about,” observed the renowned child developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Finland appears to have adopted this as its mantra, with learning based around exploration, regular breaks and free-play for its children.

The question of how education is best delivered is one for governments to decide, but I wonder if societies and cultures who place such a premium on grades and academic performance could help their young people by recognising that happiness and wellbeing have a significant part to play in the attainment of success.

For some time now, business and leadership gurus have been telling us that we should accept failure as part of the learning process, and that we mustn’t fixate on any one particular method or path in getting to where we want to go. And yet, many young people are left feeling like losers if they bring home a “B” or fall outside the top 5% of their class.

But imagine what students could achieve – imagine their love for creation and innovation – if only they were free from the ever-looming cloud of measurements expectation. Think of the scope they would have to explore and discover exciting new possibilities if only they didn’t feel the constant strain of pressure crushing their potential.

It’s only natural for parents, teachers and societies as a whole to want their young people to be successful, to offer the best of themselves, to enjoy the kind of status and financial freedom many before them could only dream of. But is insisting that a young person become a doctor, lawyer or accountant really the best approach if they secretly harbour the creativity and desire of, say, an artist, filmmaker or writer?

It might be the case that these professions won’t bring the same prestige or pay cheques – yet Paul McCartney, George Lucas and J.K. Rowling might beg to differ, given their humble beginnings and subsequent successes.

It’s a dreadful thing to see such relentless focus on attainment leading young people to such despair that they take their own lives. Surely, then, it’s in the best interests of young people to be able to explore their dreams and passions, and to have some leeway to develop their natural creativity.

Who knows what brilliant and inspiring changes they might bring about if only they are given time to encircle the world with their imaginations?


Sandy Clarke has been a keen practitioner of meditation and contemplation for the past 16 years, and believes that the better we understand ourselves and our emotions, the more likely we are to cultivate a positive outlook and sense of contentment.