How schools kill creativity Part 1

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Sir Ken Robinson is an English author, speaker, and international adviser on education in the arts to government, non-profits, education, and arts bodies. He was knighted for his services to education in 2003. The  entertaining and humorous 20 minute video below is a TED talk given by him on the provocative subject of how schools kill creativity. It has been watched over 24 million times and is one of the most viewed TED talks of all time.

[ted id=66]

I find this a fascinating talk as Robinson powerfully articulates the frustrations I felt, but could not verbalise as a child growing up in the education system in England in the 1970s to 1980s and then on into medical school.

Robinson makes the point that education is meant to take us in to a future that we can’t yet imagine.  The world has changed enormously from the world I was brought up in 30-40 years ago and so much of what I learnt then (in terms of information) has proved irrelevant to later life. As the video illustrates, my experience was far from unique.

The public system of education came into existence around the world in the 19th century to meet the growing demands of industrialisation or, in other words, to provide labour for the factories and offices that were expanding and developing. With their focus on conformity, uniformity and meeting certain pre-defined standards this has led to a culture of not tolerating mistakes. (For more on this see What Do We Mean By Education?) Something happens to children as they grow up in the world that makes them afraid of making a mistake or trying something new or different. This is usually in the form of  a fear of failure or embarrassing themselves. But as Robinson says on the video:

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

Why is it that very young children are naturally creative and willing to make mistakes to grow, but that by the time they are in their first decade they are often so self-conscious that to make a mistake or look foolish in front of their peers is the worst thing possible?

“I believe this passionately: that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.”

“It’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp.”

“We are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

I certainly don’t want to paint a completely bleak picture and the video is positive and encouraging. We have enormous capacity to grow out of pre-defined scripts or expectations – for powerful, almost hilarious examples of that see Do You Still Believe Your Old School Report?

Maybe the key is that we have placed too much emphasis on other people  or organisations taking responsibility for us. The point is that each one of us is uniquely gifted and talented and placed in a specific time, place and context. That what makes comparison with others so unhelpful or as we previously quoted from Albert Einstein:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

Academic institutions tend to create a hierarchy whereby the most useful subjects for work are placed at the top that has led to the unintended consequence of downplaying those subjects that bring richness to human life like the arts and humanities.

The other issue as Robinson says, “The whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance.” That is how society tends to measure success and achievement. However, it has been consistently shown that good academic performance poorly correlates with achievement and ‘success’ (however one defines that) in the wider world. (For more on this see Wisdom and Emotional Intelligence Part 1 and Part 2 , along with Wisdom, Emotional Intelligence and an Appropriate Godly Fear).

Do you agree or disagree?

We will continue to look at this topic in the next post,but it would be good to have your thoughts and comments.


2 thoughts on “How schools kill creativity Part 1”

  1. I think responsible parents have always been concerned to guide their children in a direction that stands a good chance of landing them a job in the (predicted) market and thus giving them healthy independence. This has often meant subjugation of creativity in favour of utility. Should part of responsible parenting be the resolve to financially support children in pursuit of their strengths at all costs, irrespective of economics? Doesn’t this risk infantilising them? Anecdotes (as in the excellent TED talk) of individuals finding their perfect niche and ending up highly successful (professionally and financially) are inspirational, but risky when universally applied. Not every dancer’s a Darcy, not every painter’s a Pablo. Where’s the right balance between pragmatism and idealism?

    1. Thank you Julian for adding this important caveat. I suppose the video is a response to the tendency in society at large to undervalue an individual’s unique gifting and calling. Maybe it is also a sign of how far we have come that, in many circles, we no longer think in such terms – something that previous generations did not have and many cultures and places are still not in a position to access.

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