I wrote this in 2007 after hearing Ken Robinson’s TED TALK on creativity. Worth revisiting I suppose. —TBH
You probably have never heard of Sir Ken Robinson. But if you have kids in school, or if you’re going to have kids in school, or if you have grandkids in school, you need to know about Sir Ken.
Robinson became famous in the United States, at least in education circles, through an 18-minute speech he gave at the Technology, Education and Design (TED) Conference a few years ago in Monterrey, California. (The TED Conference is an annual gathering of hundreds of people and a select few are asked to talk for 20 minutes on whatever they want to. These presentations are recorded and posted on the web. Presentations from political, industrial, artistic, and education leaders from around the world make up each yearly conference. If you want to stimulate your neurons, watch the TED Talks at www.ted.com) Anyway, Robinson gave his talk and it threw the world of education for a loop. In it, he spoke about how young kids who are naturally curious, naturally creative, and inquisitive are taught through the course of their education career to not be curious, not be creative and not be inquisitive.
Robinson makes the compelling argument that creativity is just as important as literacy. But in our current education model, we emphasize the four literacies of writing, reading, mathematics and science. Of course, he doesn’t dismiss these, and even says that they are important, but he says we emphasize these too much. What are the standardized tests all about? It isn’t painting, that is for sure! Because so much importance is placed on these four (which are residuals of the industrial-revolution model of education from the late 1800s) little time or room is left for anything else.
Creativity, if taught at all, is a byproduct, not a conscious product of the current education system, not just in the US but also around the world. Consider this: If your child came to you and said that they wanted to be a dancer, or an artist, or a tuba player as a career choice, wouldn’t your initial reaction be something like “Well, that is nice, but how about if you do those as a hobby while you work at a “real job?” Of course, then you would say something like “Of course we support you dear” but then you would secretly plot to have them become a doctor or lawyer after they get through their “wild experiment” with the arts.
The idea of creative literacy is finally beginning to take hold in the business world. Daniels Pink’s seminal work “A Whole New Mind” explained how the only way to survive as a nation is to be able to innovate better than the rest of the world. All other things being equal, most countries can do whatever we are doing for cheaper, more quickly, and without the regulatory limitations that often squeeze businesses in the US. China has as many honor students as we have students, but China does not teach problem solving. The US needs to teach problem solving, creativity if you will, according to Pink, in order to have any chance to survive as an economic power in the future. But therein lay the rub: We simply do not teach problem solving. We do not teach children to be creative. As a matter of fact, according to Robinson, we purposely teach children to NOT be creative. Robinson seems to think that as a nation, we have designed our education system to produce, ultimately, university professors. If you think about it, that is true: If you take the entire, and I mean ENTIRE course of study for whatever discipline you can think of, what is it you end up being? You end up being a university professor. Yes, most people drop off somewhere along the way and get other jobs, but the ultimate job in our education system is as a professor. Why is that? Education is predicated on academic capability only. Why is that we place such an emphasis on academic literacy and not artistic ones? Could it be because university professors designed the system of education? Perhaps. Imagine what would have happened if the system had been designed by artists or actors or dancers?
As it is, our system stigmatizes mistakes, and teaches that it is wrong to be wrong. Small children have not had that beaten out of them yet, and they are unafraid to take chances and be creative. Robinson tells the story of a little girl that is drawing a picture in class and the teacher asks her what she is drawing:
“God,” the little girl says.
“But no one knows what God looks like,” the teacher replies.
“They will in a few minutes,” the little girl says.
Young children are not afraid to be wrong, but adults are. How many times have you sat in a meeting and you know the person talking is completely full of it, but you refrain from saying anything for fear of looking stupid? If we are not prepared to be wrong, we will not come up with anything original. There may be a reason that a good majority of the great discoveries in history were made be people that were younger than middle age. Newton was 19 when he developed calculus. Einstein made most of his major discoveries before he was 30. Even today, how many people are beaten up in the media or ridiculed just for proposing something unusual or being a little different? By 40, you have given up arguing, the fire is out of your belly, and you are just trying to survive. We have developed a culture that prides itself in tearing apart ideas even before one can put them into place. So children learn, through the course of their formal and informal education, that questioning is bad, speaking up is wrong, and having weird out-of-the-box ideas only causes trouble. It is no small wonder then, that creative types tend to gravitate towards other creative types, and congregate in cities where creativity is revered, because they know how they are treated in cities that do not celebrate creativity. Think of creativity and think of cities where creative people are welcomed. Paris, San Francisco, New York, Santa Fe. Some cities pride themselves in being creative: “Keep Austin Weird” is the unofficial slogan of our state capitol, and is seen all over the city from t-shirts to bumper stickers, to tattoos. Sadly, I don’t think El Paso will ever make that list. We as a community do not value creativity. Sure, there are pockets of creativity here and there, but for the most part, we are trying to educate our kids to go to college alone. A local school district used to have a slogan that stated something like “We will prepare all of our students for college.” A lofty goal yes, but one that was set up for failure since not all students should go to college nor want to go.
Of course Robinson and Pink are not the only ones that are beating the creativity drum. Thomas Friedman in “The World is Flat” warns that there is very little in the United States economically that other countries cannot reproduce. That is why that call center in India is taking your late-night drive through order at McDonald’s on Yandell. How do we compete in a flattened world? There is only one way, and that way is to innovate. And you can only innovate when you know how to be creative. And you can only be creative if you know how to be creative. It is better to let creativity be a lifelong journey, than try to teach it in a three-day workshop to a bunch of 50 year olds that have told all of their adult lives that they need to toe the company line. Tony Wagner, in his work “The Global Achievement Gap” lists “Curiosity and Imagination” and “Problem Solving” as two of the seven skills teens need to know in order to survive in the 21st Century.
In the next few years, you will be hearing a lot about transforming education, overhauling the No Child Left Behind Act, along with enormous spending on technology and infrastructures for school districts throughout the nation. When you hear this talk, ask yourself if anyone is mentioning creativity as a long-term goal for education. Is anyone demanding that “thinking outside of the box” isn’t just a corporate slogan but a way of learning at a school.
Ask yourself: Is anyone listening to Ken Robinson?