An educational revolution

08 May

Yesterday I re-watched a visionary and inspiring talk by Sir Ken Robinson on the subject of education and creativity. I then watched two more of his talks on the same subject, given in 2006 and 2010 respectively, both at a TED conference. Once again, I was awed and inspired. Ken Robinson is a fantastic teacher and a visionary man.

What does he talk about? He argues that the current education paradigm is obsolete, and has been so for a very long time. It was designed to suit the needs of the age of industrialisation, and is built on a schismatic model of intelligence and achievement. It values Science at the expense of the Arts, and is engineered to produce university professors. He talks about creativity being a universal ability that we’re born with, but that the current system tends to smother out of us as we grow up.

Imagination is more important than Knowledge

Creativity requires taking the risk of being wrong

For example, he mentions a piece of research about divergent thinking, or the ability to find alternative solutions to a problem or look in diverse ways at a situation. This research asked its participants to name as many uses for a paper clip as they could. They were then rated on a scale from dunce to genius (or perhaps some slightly more technical terms) depending on how many uses they could give. The participants were initially kindergarten children, and 98% of them scored at the genius level. These same children were then tested a few years later, and a third time in their early teens. Each time, their score plunged dramatically to eventually level off to the average adult level.
Sir Ken Robinson explained that creativity depends in part on the willingness to be wrong. This willingness is inherent in children, as they are eager to “give it a go” without caring too much what people think of them. Making mistakes, when put into the larger context of learning, can even be fun, because it makes “getting it right” so much more enjoyable. However, being wrong is seen as the ultimate enemy of the education system. Making mistakes is punished and sometimes ridiculed. This teaches children to only try when they’re sure to be right, otherwise they might get penalised in some way. Robinson believes, and I agree with him, that this process stifles creativity, and that it’s impossible to be creative or to come up with original ideas without risking to be wrong.

In other words, no significant inventions or innovations were ever achieved by people who were absolutely sure they were right when they began talking about their ideas to others.

Robinson contends that the current worldwide reforms in education are misguided, that they are just trying to improve a system that is fundamentally unsuited for our era. He goes so far as to compare this issue with climate change, and to call this analogy “perfect”. He compares the human-engineered impoverishment of the world’s natural resources with the human-engineered impoverishment of human creativity.

What do I think about all this? Ken Robinson’s ideas resonate deeply within me, and they echo similar idea I’ve been having for the last decade or so, although I couldn’t express them as articulately and convincingly as he could. I see many children falling through the education system’s “cracks”, being labelled, ignored, outcast and discriminated against. I see an education system designed to fuel an economy that is itself a castle of cards built on a flawed model, instead of seeking to enrich people’s lives and help them reach their full potential.

Robinson says that artistic expression, whether through music, painting, dancing or other forms, should be as important as literacy. Right now, if you go to most schools and ask most teachers which is more important, they’ll probably answer directly that literacy and arithmetic are the foundation of education and that everything else depends on them. The most influential standardised tests like the WISC (measuring IQ) are all based on that same assumption, and if a child is not doing well in reading English it is assumed that he has a learning difficulty, no matter how well he/she is doing in music, dancing, cooking etc.

Why can’t we just help children discover what they love to do, and let them do lots and lots of it? How many parents tell their children: “Being a painter is not a good career, you’ll never get money that way. You’ll waste your time and abilities on that career. You should just forget about it and go do your English/Maths homework.”?

I hope that we are going to see an educational revolution in the coming decades, and I fully intend to be a part of it. Why? Because it’s one of my passions. Education is one of my creative outlets.


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2 responses to “An educational revolution

  1. Barry Houldsworth

    May 8, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    There’s a reason Sir Ken Robsinson’s video is one of the most played – I think that message resonates with many people. I have learned so many lessons from being wrong.
    I have made several posts on the education system (and a few more to come) but (as you stated) education needs to be radically re-thought for the new era.


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