Creativity & Education

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately, especially in an educational context. Today, while I was sitting in my car waiting for Lillia to come out of ballet class, I happened to catch part of NPR’s TED Radio Hour. This week’s episode, called “Building a Better Classroom,” featured Sir Ken Robinson, a renowned author and speaker who focuses on education, creativity, and innovation. Although his talks are several years old, I had never heard them before, and I was profoundly moved by some of the things he said about our public education system and its relationship to individual creativity and intelligence.

Despite my overall confidence in the success of our homeschooling experience, I do occasionally question my decision to reject the current educational paradigm, in favor of something different and unknown. Hearing Ken Robinson’s criticisms of a system that I feel is more harmful than beneficial to my child was both reassuring and enlightening. I will not go into all of the details of his talks (there are links to both of them at the end of this post), but I will highlight some of the points that really struck me as important to remember.

In his first TED Talk, in 2006, Ken Robinson discussed our educational system’s obsession with always having the right answer. This is clearly visible in the high value we place on test scores, from the standardized tests our children take in elementary school, to the SAT’s they take to get into college. The focus on always being “right,” to the exclusion of all other possibilities, leaves no room for experimentation and innovation. By the time our children are teenagers the creativity has been thoroughly taught out of them. But, there is much to gain from being wrong, or at least from being willing to be wrong. Ken Robinson says,

What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original…And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said this — he said that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.

I see this in myself, as I am certainly a product of this broken educational system. And, it always becomes a matter of self-blame because our culture won’t admit that the formula is wrong. Maybe instead of failing miserably at Algebra, I could have been pursuing things that really interested me, like literature, history, music, and art. Our educational system is based on the assumption that everyone will go to college, and that we need to standardize everyone’s education to fit that ultimate goal. There is little to be gained by this method, and it mostly results in a lot of square pegs in round holes. Instead of creating an atmosphere where individuals can follow their own passions, desires, and talents — their own “paths” — we try to force everyone to travel the same road. It’s really no mystery why there are so many unhappy and unfulfilled adults. In order to change this, Ken Robinson says, we have to shift away from an educational model based on mechanization, and focus on educating our children as individual human beings. He says,

So I think we have to change metaphors. We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.

In closing, I want to share a poem by W.B. Yeats, which Ken Robinson quoted at the end of his second TED Talk:

HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Let us always remember, as educators and parents, to tread softly on the dreams that are spread out before us.

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1 Comment

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  • I, too, found Ken Robinson’s TEDtalks incredibly moving and meaningful.
    Thanks for the reminder!

    Looking forward to reading more of your blog…