How Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Oct 7, 2014
Originally published on May 6, 2015 10:56 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Source of Creativity

About Ken Robinson's TED Talk

Sir Ken Robinson makes a case for creating an education system that nurtures — rather than stifles — creativity.

About Ken Robinson

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we educate our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence. Robinson argues that we're educated to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers. More than 28 million people have watched his TEDTalk on the web since its release in June 2006.

Robinson led the British government's 1998 advisory committee on creative and cultural education, an inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy, and was knighted in 2003 for his achievements. His latest book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, is a look at human creativity and education.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So if we can get closer to the source of creativity, is it something that we could nurture from a very early age? Well, the most popular TED Talk ever is about that very idea and it was given by this guy.

SIR KEN ROBINSON: I am Ken Robinson. I'm an educator, a writer.

RAZ: You are Sir Ken Robinson.

ROBINSON: Yes.

RAZ: Yeah. Who calls you that?

ROBINSON: Well, my children. I insist on it to them. It's a matter of respect.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Ken, as you can tell by his accent, grew up in the U.K., and a few years ago, he was knighted for his contributions to creativity and the arts.

Because school when you were growing up like especially British school, was I imagine, like, dreary and really austere and kind of a scary place. Like, what was school like for you?

ROBINSON: I'm not quite that old, Guy.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: This wasn't Gradgrind. I wasn't being decanted from the mines to be thrashed in the school. My schools - I went to three of them, you know, were - were pretty good, but a lot of people I know, because the structure of the system, came through it feeling they weren't very smart, very intelligent and didn't do well. A lot of people have got on to very interesting careers - look back at the time at school as periods where they felt isolated, alone, not really tuned in to what it is they later went on to do successfully.

RAZ: So Ken's idea isn't that our schools lack creativity. In fact, he believes there's plenty of creativity in the schools already. Here's Ken on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBINSON: I had a great story recently - I love telling it - of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was 6, and she was in the back, drawing. The teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention. In this drawing lesson, she did. And the teacher was fascinated. She went over to her, and she said, what are you drawing? And the girl said, I'm drawing a picture of God. And the teacher said that nobody knows what God looks like, and the girl said, they will in a minute.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: Kids will take a chance. If they don't know, they'll have a go. Am I right? They're not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don't mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is if you're not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original if you're not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost the 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 things 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 of it.

(MUSIC)

RAZ: When you think about that word - creativity, what does it mean you?

ROBINSON: So there are different ways of defining creativity. People have their own take on it. But I'll tell you what mine is. Creativity, as I see it, is the process of putting your imagination to work. It's been defined rather simply as applied imagination - that's not a bad way to think about it. With imagination, you can enter other people's worldviews. You can empathize. You can try and see the world as they do. You can try and adopt their point of view. So imagination to me is where this all comes from. What it gives rise to is a whole set of related powers.

The first thing is that human beings don't live in the world directly as other creatures seem to do. We have ideas about the world. We have theories about it. We speak in languages. We convert experiences into words. We write songs. We create poems. We create scientific theories, philosophies, and we're surrounded by the products of human imagination. I'm sitting in this studio talking to you. You're in Washington. I'm in LA. And we're acting as if we're in the same room, but we're surrounded by every type of digital device. Well, we don't have other creatures doing that, you know. We haven't got a building next to us full of cats and dogs, you know, conveying ideas over digital networks.

RAZ: But that would be very cool if we did.

ROBINSON: We do these things. It would be fantastic. It would be a fantastic way to do it. (Laughter) So creativity's that. It's putting your imagination to work. But the thing is, if you think of creativity as being a process not an event - a lot of the ideas around that it seems so intractable start to at least become available for proper thought and practice.

RAZ: Yeah. You know, a lot of like - at a very early age - right? - kids are encouraged to be creative, but then at some point, there's a break. And that doesn't happen anymore, it just stops.

ROBINSON: Well, it doesn't have to, and it doesn't always, but it often does. And - but part of my argument here, Guy, is that it's one thing to have creative capacities. It's a different thing to know how to develop them. For example, you've got one or two children?

RAZ: Two. Yeah.

ROBINSON: OK. Well, you know, how old are they? Can I ask you?

RAZ: Five and 3.

ROBINSON: Well, you know, I'm sure they're speaking. And, you know, in ordinary circumstances, that's a fair assumption. But you didn't teach them. You don't sit them down at the age of 1 and say listen, we need to talk - or rather you do - and here's how it works. (Laughter) That doesn't happen. They learn by a process of imitation, which draws on a natural capacity to speak. And I'm saying that children at a very young age demonstrate all kinds of creative capacities. But if you don't develop them, they may evolve through the child's own efforts, but they well may not.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBINSON: Our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there's a reason. The whole system was invented - around the world, there were no public systems of education, really, before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So their hierarchy is rooted on two ideas. Number one - that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid - things you liked - on the grounds you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don't do music. You're not going to be a musician. Don't do art. You're not going to be an artist - benign advice, now profoundly mistaken.

The whole world is engulfed in revolution, and the second is academic ability which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public 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 the thing they were good at in school wasn't valued or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can't afford to go on that way. In the next 30 years, according to UNESCO, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than since the beginning of history. Suddenly, degrees aren't worth anything. Isn't that true? When I was a student, if you had a degree, you had a job. If you didn't have a job, it's because you didn't want one. And I didn't want one, frankly so...

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: But now kids without - with degrees are often heading home to carry on playing video games because you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a Ph.D. for the other. It's a process of academic inflation, and it indicates the whole structure of education is shifting beneath our feet. We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.

RAZ: Sir Ken Robinson - he's back in a moment with the story of a friend, the story about how nurturing creativity is sometimes about spotting it in the first place.

DAME GILLIAN LYNNE: My mom, she said - I can hear her saying it to the doctor when we went into his lovely little study. Her attention span is very bad. She cannot stop wriggling. We call her Wrigglebottom.

RAZ: I'm Guy Raz - our show today, "The Source of Creativity." This is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. On the show today - ideas about creativity. It's the subject of the most popular TED Talk ever. It was delivered by Sir Ken Robinson. And in that talk, Sir Ken tells the story of another Brit with a fancy title.

LYNNE: Hello, Guy. (Laughter)

RAZ: Can you introduce yourself, please?

LYNNE: Yes. Do you want me to say I'm a Dame?

RAZ: Sure.

LYNNE: You sure? 'Cause I don't use it all the time. But the fact is I am.

RAZ: This is Dame Gillian Lynne.

LYNNE: Good evening, everybody.

RAZ: Gillian Lynne got her title from the Queen for her contributions to dance and theater. She choreographed some of the best-known musicals like "Cats" and "Phantom Of The Opera."

Today, she is 88. She's still working. She's still dancing. And she's still happily married.

LYNNE: And he is 27 years younger than I am. So don't let me ever hear that you shouldn't marry a man younger than yourself. That's a load of bollocks. Am I allowed to say bollocks?

RAZ: I think only you can say that.

LYNNE: (Laughter). Well, I think...

RAZ: Anyway, Gillian's life story is a pretty amazing one about creativity. Sir Ken Robinson told it on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBINSON: I used to be on the board of The Royal Ballet in England, as you can see.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: Anyway, Gillian and I had lunch one day. I said how'd you get to be a dancer? And she said it was interesting. When she was at the school, she was really hopeless.

LYNNE: I told Ken that my mom had taken me at the age - think I was 7 - take me to the doctor 'cause she was at the end of her tether.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBINSON: The school in the '30s wrote her parents - said, we think Gillian has a learning disorder.

LYNNE: Her attention span is very bad. She cannot stop moving. We call her wriggle bottom.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBINSON: I think now they'd say she had ADHD. Wouldn't you? But this was the 1930s and ADHD hadn't been invented, you know, at this point. So it wasn't an available condition, you know, people...

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: ...People weren't aware they could have that.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: Anyway, she went to see this specialist - said this oak-paneled room, and she was there with her mother. And she was led and sat on this chair at the end. And she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school.

LYNNE: Anyway, he was so astute, this man. He'd been noticing me and noticed that I was trying to take in 98 things when there were only 50 to take in and all of that. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBINSON: In the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said, Gillian, I've listened to all these things that your mother has told me. I need to speak to her privately. So he said wait here, we'll be back. We won't be very long. And they went and left her. But as they went out the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out the room, he said to her mother just stand and watch her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYNNE: And the minute they'd gone, I leapt up. I leapt on his desk. I leapt off his desk. I danced all around the room. I had the most fabulous time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBINSON: And they watch for a few minutes. And he turned to her mother.

LYNNE: And he said, the immortal lines - I really owe my whole career, in a way, I suppose my life to this man - he said, there is nothing wrong with your child. She needs to learn to dance. She is a born dancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBINSON: Dancer. Take her to a dance school. I said, what happened? - said she did. I can't tell you, sir, how wonderful it was. We walked in this room and it was full of people like me - people who couldn't sit still, people who had to move to think - who had to move to think.

She was eventually auditioned for The Royal Ballet School. She became a soloist. She had a wonderful career at The Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from The Royal Ballet School, found her own company, The Gillian Lynne Dance Company, met Andrew Lloyd Webber.

She's been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history. She's given pleasure to millions. And she's a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might've put her on medication and told her to calm down.

Now I think...

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: It's an amazing story. I mean, that doctor that day, he really understood.

LYNNE: He did.

RAZ: The you needed to tap into this creativity that was there that just wasn't being recognized.

LYNNE: No. And what a lovely thing for a - I mean, he saw an energy. And I happened to be possessed of one of the most unusual energies. And he saw it. Now how seldom is that?

RAZ: I mean, if you can teach creativity, like, where do you start?

ROBINSON: All the great teachers I've ever met and worked with are people who can inspire interest and passion and curiosity and light up people's imaginations with the interests they themselves have for a particular discipline or field of work.

I mean, if you think that teaching is always and only a process of giving people direct instructions and giving them information they have to memorize - but teaching is much more than that. It's about enabling. It's about facilitating. It's about mentoring. It's about creating curiosity. It's true in the work of every creative person I've ever met that what drives them is a passionate appetite for the work. But what facilitates it is an increasing control over materials and ideas. So there's a pedagogy, and you can do it. And my argument is it's essential that we do do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBINSON: I believe our only hope for the future is to rethink the fundament principles on which we are educating our children. And the only way we'll do it is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are and seeing our children for the hope that they are. And our task is to educate their whole being so they can face this future. By the way, we may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it. Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Sir Ken Robinson. His full talk as well as three amazing others are all at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.