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Good, but Leaves some questions unanswered
on 17 June 2011
If you want a good summary of this book, go to YouTube and find Ken Robinson's TED talk on creativity. It lasts about 20 minutes and is entertaining as well as informative.
The main argument in the book is that often we don't fulfil our potential because society hasn't learned to value creativity, and not only is this a bad thing for our personal development, but it is also bad for society and the planet.
Ken Robinson argues that when our modern education system was first developed in the nineteenth century it did two things. First in terms of content it was designed as a replacement to the classical education system because it wanted to meet the needs to industrial society, hence it taught primarily science, mathematics, communication (i.e. English, or whatever the native language was), then social sciences and then humanities and the arts. Secondly it needed to educate the mass of society, hence the school system turned into another instrument of mass production, just like any factory, except this time it was turning out "education" instead of steel or cotton.
Within this system, creativity was irrelevant and not encouraged. Anyone who wanted to be creative was discouraged, typically suggesting that such activities were not for the average person - why paint? you'll never be a painter, why write music? you'll never be a composer, and so on. Education was about filling you with knowledge and skills, not bringing out talent and potential.
Robinson argues that we are now at a stage in society when the educational requirements of our population have changed. More than ever before we are facing challenges in how we do things - how we live, how we work, how we manage our planet's resources - and therefore we all need creative, thoughtful people in society, not just people who do what they are told.
Robinson says that increasingly companies are discovering that their own staff rather than expensive consultants are the ones best able to make creative, innovative suggestions in how to improve productivity and efficiency, but they need to be able to teach their staff how to be creative and realise that their ideas will be listened to.
Nevertheless, Robinson argues that our current education system is out of step with teaching us how to be creative. It is still following the industrial, mass-produced model started in the nineteenth century, rather than meeting our current needs. This is a big problem, not just for the many individuals being failed by the education system, but for society and industry who don't need the type of individuals being produced by the education system.
One story Robinson tells gives a good example of how creativity is unvalued in education. He was part of a university panel deciding whether to promote one of the members of the English department. The person in question had written many best-selling books as well as being involved in other creative activities such as TV, drama, plays etc, but the panel decided not to give them the promotion because they hadn't written enough research papers. Robinson was astonished that the creative work was dismissed as irrelevant, it was the academic work that was deemed to have value. He asks if writing fiction books is such a worthless activity, how come writing about those same books is deemed so worthwhile? It is like so much academic work - the understanding and history of art is prized, but actually producing art is not, writing about literature is prized, producing literature is not.
Robinson says education seems to be about learning what other people have done, not creating things for yourself. Why do most adults draw like a twelve year old? Because schools typically decide that after primary school it is not worth teaching people to draw, hence our ability to draw stops at that point. Instead of discovering what someone is good at and encouraging and building on that talent, too often schools simply aim to fit children into a fixed pattern. If a child drops out of school, it is the child who is deemed at fault, but Robinson argues when children disengage from education, it is a judgement on the education system, that it has failed to engage with the child.
Robinson gives figures that it typically costs around £9,000 a year to educate a child, but £26,000 a year to keep someone in prison. Those who go to prison are typically those who were failed by the education system, the cost of failing those children is not just a personal cost to the child and later adult, but a real material cost to society.
Robinson tells another story of a child at school who couldn't sit still, they were always moving and fidgeting, so they were taken to a doctor. Fortunately the doctor diagnosed that the child was a dancer and suggested the parents send the child to dance school, where the child blossomed and became a very successful dancer. Robinson reflects that sadly most children in that situation will be given some drugs to make them keep still. Metaphorically - Robinson suggests - that is what schools are doing to our children all the time.
Robinson incidentally sees dance as being very important - he tells of an extraordinary program for young offenders in the UK where they are sent on a twelve week intensive dancing program, and it has one of the best records of stopping young people re-offending.
I said at the beginning of this review that Robinson seems to me to leave questions unanswered. The subtitle to this book is 'Learning to be Creative' and I finished this book still unsure of how we learn to be creative. This isn't a self-help book to show individuals how to release their creative potential (maybe Robinson's 'The Element: How Finding your passion changes everything' does that) but instead a book about how creativity is valued in our society and in particular within our education system. Therefore I would have liked Robinson to explain in more detail how he sees that happening. He gives examples of individualised learning - schools where the pupils drive their own education, often with the support of advanced IT education systems, but I'm not clear if he would like to see all schools adopt this model.
In the later 1990s Ken Robinson was asked by the British Government to produce a report on creativity in schools, he says they were expecting him to come up with a curriculum for an hour a week creativity training, but argues that creativity is about changing the whole school, not adding in an extra lesson. Nevertheless I'd like to see more specifics of what a creative education would look like - is it really just about more dance and personalised learning?
Robinson's arguments sound appealing, but we need to see more specifics on how we really can start to learn how to be creative.