Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Do Schools Kill Creativity? Sir Ken Robinson

This TED Talk has been watched a lot, and it has been around awhile.  I watched it a few years ago and I enjoyed it.  At the time I thought that his points were excellent.  Many years later I now realise it is basically meaningless but that some of its points have become prevalent among a certain group of speakers on education over the last decade.  Watching some of these ideas play out has been the only way for me to fully understand why these sort of ideas have a lot of fish hooks in them, and are often used to justify practices that are not good at all for teaching and learning.

Let’s start with the point that I will always start with: almost all of these speakers are white and they never refer to a diverse society.  Ken is the same.  I suspect that I will return to this particular point many times as I wade through these “thought leaders”.  My starting premise is always about race, gender and class.  If the speaker talks as if a school system is homogeneous then they make me suspicious straight away.  In Aoteaora the fundamental flaw of the education system is its failure to address the needs of Māori and Pasifika.  Of course, this is part of much wider societal issues stemming from historical crimes and the elimination of self-determination for Māori, but education remains one major part of the solution.

Ken begins his talk with the classic opening of a “thought-leader” in education: the future is unknowable now: how the flip do we educate people for it?

I never agree with this proposition.  My Gran was born in 1910.  By the time she was at retirement age it was 1975.  Please consider how much change in social attitudes and technology occurred in that time.  My mother was born in 1939 and retired in 2006.  Ditto.  This is not saying their education was great – it was a long way from great, especially around gender – but it prepared them for the future to the extent that any education can prepare you for anything.  No one knew that my Gran would live through WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s, and the technological revolutions that came decade after decade from the 40s.  And if they had?  What education system would they have designed?  The future is always unknown.

Ken then gives us his proposition for preparing people for the future:

“My contention is that creativity is as important as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.”

This contention is based on the following train of logic: in the future we will need to be creative;  the way to be creative is to make mistakes; schools punish people for making mistakes, therefore schools are failing students.

I am a creative person.  I think I could even go as far as to say that I am a very creative person.  I also don’t think I agree with this statement.  Literacy is the most important thing taught at school.  Nothing equals it.  But I suppose it doesn’t sound as cool if you say:

“My contention is that creativity is almost as important as literacy and we should treat it with almost the same status.”

I don’t even really agree with that though.  I think I might agree with this:

“My contention is that creativity is almost as important as literacy for some people, and we should treat it with almost the same status for those people.”

I would agree with that only in the sense that he is using the word creativity.  He clearly means creativity in the Arts.  He wonders: “Why don’t we teach Dance all the time like Maths?”  He talks about a famous dancer.  He talks about a school production and a kid drawing a picture.  I think that being creative is something you can be in any field really, but that being creative in Maths and Physics takes a lot of hard work right through to the end of post-grad first.

But he doesn’t really propose a developed theory of education here.  It’s just a TED Talk.  If he’s saying let kids muck about, be imaginative, and give what they love more weight then yeah, let’s do that.  Although I feel like we do.  Or we do a lot more than we used to.  The difficulty is time of course.  Running an intensive dance/maths programme will mean cutting back on other things.  What other things?  Wouldn’t it be a better bet to have a wider range of subject areas to draw on to explore different ways of thinking, and different parts of yourself, in order to prepare for that uncertain future?

People like Ken always have a story about a kid who was saved and went on to greatness.  Exceptions in other words.  Not useful when thinking about a general education system.

I am being hard on Ken because a dance/maths programme would have been the worst programme in the world for me personally at school as I hated both with a passion (dancing in my room was ok, but definitely not in front of my peers).

As he heads for the exit of the TED Talk Ken gives us two insights.  Women are better at multi-tasking and ADHD doesn’t really exist (he heavily implies).  I’m of the opinion that both of these things are untrue.  He has that knack though – the authoritative white man knack – of stating opinion with the confidence of fact.  These opinions sound exciting because they are freed miraculously from all the hum-drum demands of fact and reality.  Looking back on his presentation I realise that he said almost nothing.  What he said in essence is this:

Creativity needs to be valued more because the future needs it.

Other reasons the education system might be failing students are not raised.  What does this great insight tell us about Māori, Pasifika, the poor?  Nothing.  In fact the underlying impulse for the whole talk seems to be: business drives education and the business model has changed so let’s change education.  One thing education does is give people a pathway to a job, but it does a lot of other things too.  Also, who says that everyone needs to be creative, or that school is the best place or the time of life when you are most suited to creativity?


Ken’s speech is one of the most palatable and seemingly innocuous of the speeches by a whole host of “thought leaders” in education but the themes are the same.  One man who makes the themes a lot clearer in their implications is Tony Wagner.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō