Do schools kill creativity?

I have to say that I really enjoyed this presentation by Sir Ken Robinson. Well worth the twenty minutes. Curious about comments too from you educators out there.

Ben, do you think this guy is a contender for our advisory board?

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Perhaps we've learned nothing since 1964 when John Holt said in his bestselling book How Children Fail that the "fear of making a mistake" was the principle lesson of our education system.

I'm always curious when seeing presentations or publications like this where science is not mentioned. I wish I knew his stand on science education so I could respond to it.

Teaching in China, I've discovered an epidemic of "uncuriousness", a willingness and even preference to sit through class without thinking, without asking questions, or answering them, without ever risking being wrong. And in science class, I find this to be a particular challenge, because the only way I know to achieve and gauge a successful science class is by how many of the students are thinking, how many students are engaged in the questions we are trying to answer, and are wrestling with those problems. Science is nothing without creativity.

I suspect the curious lack of original scientific achievement in one of the world's largest population centres, despite a concerted effort by the government to promote industrial and technological growth, is a direct result of an education system that encourages learning by rote and discourages questions, both for reasons of discipline and saving face, not to mention a censoring government. Chinese school days are much longer than in the west, and they even take classes on Saturdays. Most Chinese students spent a lot more time "learning" science, or any other subject, but how many Nobel Prizes have native Chinese (non-emigre) won? I think this goes to show that engendering a curious and critical nature is far more important than any individual collection of facts or theoretical frameworks in any science.

That said, there is certainly room for improvement in western school systems as well, which others may post about.

Anecdotally at least, I would have to say yes, schools do kill creativity. They start by killing the creativity of the teachers, by giving out a packaged curriculum. In the large urban school district in which I am currently student teaching, teachers receive a book that tells them exactly what they are supposed to be teaching each day of the school year. The teacher's manual for each subject can be used as a script almost. At least some of the books suggest several activities that the teacher can pick and choose from based on the needs of the students. The rationale for this is that there are a large number of transient students in the district. So, we need to be sure that if a student goes to one school one day, and then moves to another the next, he or she can go right in and know what's going on.
Some teachers of course choose to ignore this, if not completely, at least in part. They may teach the concept that is specified, but not use the script, make changes, etc. Other teachers take creativity one step further. A certain teacher I was with told the students to make a drawing of something that was in their social studies textbooks. Some students asked me whether they had to draw exactly what was in the book. My understanding of it was that no, they were supposed to draw something in the style of that drawing in the book. If I wanted to have a copy of that drawing, I would take the book to a copy machine like any sane person and make a copy of it. I interpreted it wrong. She wanted the students to draw it exactly like it was in the book.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons for my preference for special education. We can be creative in coming up with ways to teach the students what is specified by their goals, and when the teacher is allowed to be creative, the teacher can allow the student to do the same.

I'm speaking both as someone who teaches (undergraduates, but mostly undergraduate who haven't fit well into the pre-college educational system) and as the mother of a four-year-old.

And I would say that nurturing creativity takes a lot of individual attention and a lot of energy. The beauty of genuine creativity is that it's different in every person - but that makes it hard for one person to encourage the creativity of eight four-year-olds (or 50 twenty-year-olds) simultaneously. It's hard to give feedback and encouragement for really creative work - it stretches the teacher as well as the student, and each student stretches the teacher in a different way.

So I don't think it's a matter of needing to teach different things. (Or not necessarily, at least, but I can imagine a dance class that's as limiting as any traditionally taught subject.) It's a matter of needing to be able to deal with students as individuals. But that's easy to say, and hard to do, in a world with limited time and resources.

Last week's convention of the National Association of Gifted Children, taking place in Minneapolis, recognized creativity great E. Paul Torrance for his leadership in developing and promoting creativity in education. Also last week, the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune profiles another creativity great -- Torrance's student and my mentor and colleague, Berenice Bleedorn. Columnist Syl Jones celebrates Berenice's nearly 50 years of tireless work to integrate creativity into education, both in Minnesota and throughout the world. Perhaps the tipping point is finally coming ....

Steve Dahlberg
International Center for Creativity and Imagination
Willimantic, Connecticut

Thanks for introducing me to Ken Robinson. A great argument, amusingly told!

Isn't there a touch of the naked emperor here? He's wonderfully entertaining and I don't think anyone would want to fundamentally disagree with him, but I really don't see the novelty. Folks have been saying the same thing for years. The catch is finding a way to nurture imagination and curiosity. How do you do that? No suggestions here...

Coming from a jaded and disillusioned 7th Grade Tutor/Mentor-

Perceptions of public education are skewed. The mass public only contacts the school while they attend, or once a year in a Parent-Teacher conference. Many people have negative views of school from memories formed through what I fondly call "the Hormonal Haze."

The Haze is a horrid and great part of existence where narcissism rules. The children's brains are still developing, the front cortex laying nearly dormant until puberty. It's very hard for a child to infer information, to think critically, or gradualize ideas. This al leads to a perception of educators and administrations that does not reflect reality.

Teachers are under and avalanche of regulations, in washington most stress comes from the WASL. That is the badly mad, badly executed, and ...well...just plain bad standardized test that starting with the class of 2012 all students have to pass to graduate. So teachers have to spend most of the class time teaching "to the WASL" instead of actually disseminating useful information.

Beyond that is the nature of fostering creativity. It is best done one-on-one, a situation that is nearly impossible in a school. One teacher vs thirty kids divided by one hour of classroom time a day, means that most kids have the chance of being glossed over. Add in the IEP(special ed) students that are added to the classroom by the new inclusion plan, and its fricken' hard. Support staff such a Para-educators and Americorps members like Me are hard to acquire. It's hard work.

I would love to say that teachers could just grab a new curriculum that stresses creativity, but it's just not practical without massive funding to incorporate it, or a total upheaval of the education system.


By Joewanderlust (not verified) on 16 Nov 2007 #permalink

Wow, sorry for the bad spelling, its been a long day.

By Joewanderlust (not verified) on 16 Nov 2007 #permalink

What I don't understand is the new inclusion program. I don't see how it helps in the long run. It might slightly raise the standard for "special" students, though I personally doubt it, and it is a definite disadvantage to average students. It's even worse for gifted students, since there is less money available for gifted programs.

At the risk of sounding cold-hearted, snobby, and elitist, who is more important, students who are mentally challenged or students who are gifted? Which ones are more likely to make important contributions to the world? For that matter, maybe the gifted children could come up with a new system that works best for all students, if they have enough time to hone their creative skills.

Perhaps it's me speaking as a gifted student who hasn't been helped by the gifted programs at all, as they've not been considered important, but I don't see the point for inclusion. Its few advantages do not, by any stretch of the imagination, outweigh its many disadvantages.

I've always had a slight distaste for "gifted programs", perhaps precisely because I am not gifted.

But consider this. We are all gifted in our own ways, and boxing students into "special", "average" or "gifted" categories is a very lazy and dangerous way of understanding the abilities of individuals. Because that's what we are, individuals. Not aggregates of "special", "average" or "gifted".

Sadly, the education I remember was mostly memorization and recall to put the ârightâ answer on the test. The more you could remember the higher your grade. Education is not about teaching students how to think critically, make decisions, or how to learn on your own. It makes them afraid to question and take academic risks. Somehow, I discovered the joy of teaching and decided to pursue that career path. After 15 years, Iâm still learning how to do it.