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I believe that creativity is essential in education, and will become more important in the future, because many of the challenges and problems we face will not be solved by applying the same way of thinking and the same types of solutions that we have tried in the last few decades. Issues like environmental pollution, increasing tribalism in politics, and starvation (to name just a few) will only be solved if we come up with new ideas. And we need to support this creativity in schools, colleges, and universities rather than continuing to teach the kind of knowledge that was useful during the Industrial Revolution (when public education was “invented”) and has continued to feed companies with willing workers who do their jobs without asking too many questions or challenging the status quo.
My personal experience in school and high school was in Europe during the 1970s, and creativity was definitely limited to subjects like art and music (there was no drama offering at my school). “Serious” subjects like languages and science were all about “learning the rules” and being able to regurgitate facts rather than coming up with new ideas. That did change in high school though – we were definitely taught to think critically in the humanities (languages, religious studies, and art appreciation). For example, we had a minister or priest or rabbi from a different denomination teach religious studies each semester and all of them taught us to ask questions and think about how and why what they were teaching might be different from what their colleagues were saying. Sciences were still all about being able to apply the rules and do things the way the teachers wanted us to do them.
Watching my nieces and nephews going through school (between the early 2000s and today with my youngest niece in high school now) and seeing the kinds of teacher comments they have to deal with when they deviate from the “approved” path, I have to say that not much has changed. Many teachers say how important creativity is, but when they encounter it, they don’t really know how to deal with it.
According to Robinson, the main reason for this is that they are afraid of just making a go of it or trying something new, which means they might make a mistake. He says that making a mistake, which means being prepared to be wrong, is not something most people are comfortable with. Essentially, by the time they are adults, most people are no longer able to “risk” making mistakes.
I think that the predominant way to educate children in the Western world is to teach what is known, focus on the facts, make everyone aware of the rules, and penalize those who don’t know the correct answers with lower grades. Anyone who speaks up in the classroom or has different ideas how to do something gets punished as well – and a remark like “we don’t do it this way” can be very discouraging to a child with different ideas. At the same time, you make good grades the be all and end all of a “successful” education and link it to getting a good job – which means earning a lot of money and obtaining a high status or whatever else is the objective in any given country or culture. The focus is on conforming with what society has decided to be “right” and being different in any way is not a good thing. In this scenario, education is the first step toward inhibiting originality by making sure people know it is “wrong”, or at the very least risky.
Most children are happy to make mistakes – it is how they learn. They don’t know any better than learning by trial and error. If you look at how kids learn to talk, it is a series of trying different sounds to figure out which ones work. Sometimes children invent their own words, but are soon told that those words are “wrong” – and thus begins the road toward becoming less creative with language and most children eventually stop trying to play with sounds and words. Essentially, they are “taught” that creativity is not acceptable.
Poets, authors, and song writers retain some of that creativity later in life, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Some people have to remain creative later in life if they want to be independent, for purely practical reasons. What I am referring to is people with a handicap. Personally, I had to figure out how to do things differently; I was never able to just copy someone’s movements to learn how to use scissors, or how to eat with a fork, or how to ride a bicycle. And some people, those who have serious accidents of face a major change in their lives, have to learn how to be creative again just to deal with their new circumstances. But, thanks to a rather restrictive educational system, this is not an easy thing to do.
What I see as Robinson’s main point in the talk is that education in general, for many different reasons, does not teach creativity nor even support it. While he says that creativity is needed at least as much as literacy, and I personally agree, educational systems around the world suppresses creativity because making mistakes and doing things differently is not encouraged in schools, employers support the need for people who “play by the rules”, and the hierarchy of subjects in most educational systems means that academic subjects are seen as more important than the humanities or art.
The first barrier to creativity in educational systems is a set of societal values that reward status (mostly defined as financial success) above happiness and/or mental and physical health. Earning a lot of money is seen as positive in capitalist societies, and even in socialist countries, the “elite” has more money than the working majority (see the former Eastern block countries and China). Making money is easier and has more predictable results in the absence of taking risks, so mistakes are not seen as a good thing. Consequently, companies do not reward creativity and since schools see their task as ensuring their graduates are employable, they do not see creativity as an important skill to teach. Society would have to change, as well as company cultures, to remove those barriers.
The second barrier to creativity in educational systems that I see is that the politicians who decide the contents of curricula as well as all the teachers implementing those learning plans have grown up in an educational environment that does not reward creativity – so how are they supposed to foster it? Politicians would have to change their personal views to come up with plans that focus on interdisciplinary work, emphasize all subjects equally, and encourage “unusual” choices in students. Then teachers would have to be retrained so they have the ability to recognize and encourage creativity in the children they teach. This change is not just theoretical, but needs to become visible in the way they talk to children, what behaviors they reward, and how they grade the work kids do – from homework in the traditional sense to the pictures they draw or the dance performances they put on.
And the third barrier to creativity in educational systems that I see is parents. While they are not directly responsible for the way the whole system works, they are important participants in the way children deal with what they learn in school. If what children hear at home (because their parents have been raised with different educational values) is very different from what they hear at school, any kind of “educational revolution” will not be very effective.
In summary, there are so many barriers to changing the role of creativity in education, that it may seem like an insurmountable task to change anything at all. The only thing I can say in conclusion is that I believe we have no choice but to find a better way if we want to survive as a species and be prepared for future challenges – like climate change or the rise of artificial intelligence. All I can do as an individual is embrace creativity in my own life, support friends and family when they face choices between creativity and traditionalism, and vote for the politicians who seem more in tune with what is needed in the next few decades than those who are not.
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