The case for restoring creativity in our schools

If education is failing kids, do you think the solution is:

A. Higher standards, achieved by more competition and testing; or

B. A wholesale redefinition of education

Sir Ken Robinson believes it’s the latter. He said as much in this 2006 Ted talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” which has been viewed 30 million times. The British author and educational advisor has a new book called Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Schools from the Ground Up, which identifies what schools need to do to unleash every kid’s innate and abundant creativity.

Robinson defines creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value.

If every kid starts with lots of it, he believes schools and policymakers are doing plenty to stamp it out. “It’s all lost in the mad culture of standardized testing,” he told Quartz.

The spike in national high-stakes testing, in the US and the UK, and the rise of international tests like PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) means schools narrow their focus. Since kids are inherently different—not everyone is a math genius or budding Edith Wharton—schools often fail to help kids to figure who they are, and what they can be. Robinson says this is contributing to high levels of disengagement and increased levels of depression and suicide.

Sir Ken Robinson. (Flickr/Sebastiaan ter Burg)

“What I am arguing for is more personalized education,” he told Quartz. “Kids have all sorts of unfulfilled promise. It’s about the opportunities you provide for them.”

While his views may sound appealing, they are not universally welcomed. Some teachers say his formulas are vague and prescriptions generic. A veteran UK teacher reviewed Robinson’s book on his popular blog with the headline: “Man who doesn’t teach kids or run schools tells us how to teach kids and run schools.”

Robinson says creativity isn’t an abstraction, but a practice that can be taught and measured. “To be creative you have to do something. For the most part it’s about making things happen, bringing things into being. Creative work has outcomes and, yes, you can assess it. You can make judgments about its originality and its value.”

Robinson spoke to Quartz about how to foster creativity. The following is edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: You say that schools are failing to properly foster creativity. Do you have a workable formula to change that?

Robinson: It’s not that schools inevitably kill creativity. But it is the case that schools do much less than they could to actively promote creativity, and I think it withers on the vine very often. My argument is they don’t have to. It’s not the fault of the teachers. It’s in the culture of schools, especially in this pressurized world of standardized tests.

There isn’t a set formula. That’s the whole point. There isn’t a formula for a great song. There are ways of innovating in education, ways of innovating in the classroom, and in the curriculum, which create better conditions for growth and development.

What can teachers and schools do to create these conditions?

The first thing to emphasize is the need to agree on what education is for. There are many different views as to why we are educating them [kids] in the first place. It is one of those “essentially contested concepts.” [To me], it is to help kids understand the world around them and the world within them. That is the starting point.

Second, the role of a teacher is not only to teach content, but to teach students. It’s not just about passing on information. It’s about engaging and empowering them as well.

Third, consistent with all of that, is to recognize what we are hoping our students will get from the process of getting educated. One way is an understanding of key domains—arts, humanities, sciences. But the reason we want education is so that kids are culturally literate, economically productive, and that they become socially engaged and personally fulfilled.

We can’t guarantee any of those things, but we can improve the chances of those things happening. The idea that the current system of giving them ideas and then testing them, that we are meeting the needs of children with that, is wrong.

So should countries have national curriculums? Should there be a Common Core and an English National Curriculum?

My objection is its not to a national curriculum, it’s to this national curriculum [UK]. It follows the old default lines. I am arguing for more customization, not less. There’s this concept that arts—dance and drama and music—are not academically rigorous, that they are not hard. That is misconceived. There is a systematic marginalization of the arts. I am an advocate of balance and a holistic approach.

Customized instruction is great in theory, but not when you have 30 kids in a classroom speaking five languages.

What I am arguing for is not a theory, and it’s not utopian. It’s a solution to a problem. Of course there are major challenges. These are the toughest jobs in the world. The way it works is by building relationships, having support from the schools, and building the kids’ competence over time.

You hold up Finland as an example of a country that does things right. What’s Finland’s secret?

One of the reasons it has been so successful is the high bar they set for teachers and the resources they put into compensating them properly and the professional development they receive. You can’t expect an education system to be better than the quality of its teaching force.

You can have the best curriculum in the world and the most comprehensive approach to testing but if you neglect the expertise teachers bring to engaging children and developing their own curiosities—if you over look the importance of teaching—you have misunderstood how education works and how it can improved and sustained. Finland gets that.

But can the US or UK—countries that are far larger and more diverse—realistically borrow any lessons from the Finns?

Finland has not always enjoyed this kind of respect and success for its education system. The Finnish system is one based on building up the skills of its teachers and its head teachers and giving them the discretion to do their jobs.

The first thing that has to happen is that we need politicians and policy makers to understand the problem they are trying to solve. To some degree, they are contributing to the problem.

People have to accept this is a long haul, like climate change. We spent 300 years destroying the planet. There are people still in denial about it. It’s a complex Gordian knot we’ve tied around ourselves. It won’t get better by tightening the knot.

Cropped image of Sir Ken Robinson by Sebastiaan ter Burg on Flickr under license CC BY-SA 2.0.

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