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Ken Robinson: How Schools Kill the Creativity We Need Now More Than Ever

“Creativity is as important as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.”

Ken Robinson, author of the insightful, Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Lifemakes an entertaining and profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures–rather than stigmatizes–creativity.

The whole system of education is radically changing beneath our feet. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution. Academic ability has really come to dominate our view of intelligence because the universities design the system in their image. If you think about it, the whole system of education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance.

And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not because what they were good at in school wasn’t valued or was actually stigmatized–and we can’t afford to go on that way. If you’re not prepared to be wrong you’re never going to do anything creative. Yet we’re now stigmatizing mistakes both in the workplace and at our schools.”

Robinson is right. It’s not only the method of education, it’s also the inflation of degrees that’s making them increasingly meaningless. Take me, when I began looking into MFA programs in creative writing fifteen years ago there were already stirrings that these “terminal” degrees had never caught on the way they were expected to in any of the fine arts fields. Some optimism still seemed to exist that eventually institutions would catch on. Nevertheless I strategized to get a PhD in the field at one of only six programs that even offered them at the time. It took only a year longer than the MFA at Georgia State anyway. I was perpetually aware that the scholarly approach to what I was learning was not pragmatic or “real world” enough to do me much good outside of academia. I cared, but not that much. I was, after all, going to be a poet and a professor. Now there are over 300 MFA programs in creative writing and the PhDs programs are multiplying exponentially. There are hundreds and even thousands of applicants for what are the generally most-desired tenured positions. The case has been well-documented for years, and this is only a small anecdote of one “creative” field still essentially run by the conservative ivory tower.

It’s not only our institutions, it’s also technology and population growth dramatically changing the terms of how we should think about intelligence. Creativity is about more than mere originality anyway. In general, Robinson says, we know three things about intelligence. It’s diverse, dynamic, and distinct. We think in the ways we experience the world. Intelligence is wonderfully interactive. The brain isn’t divided up into compartments. In fact, creativity, which he defines “as the process of having original ideas that have value” more often than not comes about from the interdisciplinary ways of seeing things.

We teach our minds like we’ve mined the earth, for a particular commodity, and for the future it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.”

Take the case of Jillian Lynn, a famous choreographer, who has produced Cats and Phantom of the Opera. As an eight-year-old in the 1930s she said at school she was really hopeless. Today they probably would have surmised that she had ADHD, but in those days “people weren’t aware they could have that.” She went to see a specialist. Fortunately for her, the specialist was special. He recognized there was nothing wrong with Jillian. He saw her dancing in his office to the radio when he she thought she wasn’t being observed. “She’s a dancer,” he told her mother, and suggested she go to dance school. And that’s when Jillian discovered “all these people just like her.”

She went on to become a soloist in a wide variety of musical genres,  and then on to a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She graduated, founded her own company, met Andrew Lloyd Webber, is now responsible for creating some of the most successful musical productions in history. She’s given pleasure to millions, and she’s a multi-millionaire.

Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.”

What more can we be doing for our children? Reading Ken Robinson’s provocative and insightful ideas and listening to his thoughts can be a starting point for putting ideas into action.

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