Sir Ken Robinson – Do Schools Kill Creativity?

As soon as a friend or acquaintance becomes interested in education, it is not long before they send me Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk: Do Schools Kill Creativity? Accompanied with subject-lines like ‘Been kept up all night by this…’ or ‘SO TRUE!!’.

Once a fellow believer, my short time in education has convinced me of the utter falsehood of his position, and the troubles that result from this sort of thinking. As the talk is representative of much progressive thinking on education, I thought it would be helpful to point out what I believe to be the three most glaring errors:

1. The ‘Unpredictability’ Argument


“If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue…what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”

This statement is not so much wrong; it has simply been true of education forever. It was as true in 1911, in regard to 1965, as it is true today. It reveals a common mistaken belief that the pace of technological change is now so fast that knowledge is out-of-date almost as soon as it has been learned. It’s a popular stick with which to bash academic education – with such an uncertain future, why learn Latin etc?

It is the assumptions, rather than the point itself, that are troubling. Instead of boring, outdated knowledge, they argue, we should teach students ‘dispositions’,  ‘habits of mind’, and ‘aptitudes’ that will help them in the future. What are these dispositions? Dubious abstract nouns – creativity, innovativeness, team-work, problem-solving – that are as hard to define as they are to teach.

2. Anti-academia


“At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not? I think this is rather important. I think math is very important, but so is dance.”

You can’t be a respected educational progressive without beating up on Maths. Guy Claxton devoted a whole chapter to it. A moment’s thought should reveal the strangeness of this line of argument. There are many competing definitions for the ‘purpose of education’ (to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next; to help increase GNP; to have an educated democratic citizenry; to alleviate social inequality – to name a few). None would allow for Dance to have equal-footing with Maths.

But that is to miss the point. Because like most arguments put forward by education progressives, they are fighting a battle that they have already won. There is dance in schools – to the exclusion of academic education. And at the same time: there is less Maths. We have plummeted in the PISA league tables in Maths. And frankly who’s surprised when Maths, as conceived by the National Curriculum, is defined like this: “mathematics provides opportunities to promote spiritual development, through helping pupils obtain an insight into the infinite, and through explaining the underlying mathematical  principles behind some of the beautiful natural forms and patterns in the world around us.”

3. Educational Romanticism about Talent


“All kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them…ruthlessly.”

The first half of this statement is Robinson as the father in The Talented Mr. Ripley: “every man must have a talent, Mr. Ripley. What’s yours?” Except that: it’s not true. Most teachers you speak to will admit it – there are some children who do not have tremendous talents. The problem with the current system is not a pessimism about the potential of children, but the reverse: a crazed optimism, an “Educational Romanticism” in Charles Murray’s words, that refuses to discern between the varying abilities of children.

As a result, those who do have tremendous talents are not allowed – whether it is through grammar schools or other selective means – to realize that talent; and those who have less academic talent are not given opportunities to learn the sorts of valuable skills at secondary schools that will enable them to lead valued lives.

Matthew Parris vs. Clay Shirky

A great piece in Saturday’s Times from Matthew Parris on the speed and ease of communication – and its possible impact on liberty.

Discussing the publication of the list of BNP members – and what bloggers have done with it:

What has changed is not the principle of what may be done, but the effortlessness and speed with which it may be done.

He argues, seemingly perversely, that the sheer effort of digging up information in the pre-internet era gave it a sort of viability – and that our personal privacy was protected by precisely this amount of effort.

Now, in the information free-for-all we live in today, the construction and maintenance of a “good reputation” is much trickier, he says. I certainly know of more than one person at my university who trawled Facebook for debauched and shameful photos – all of which went in a special folder he assumed to be of tremendous value for journalists of the future.

It all goes to support something that Clay Shirky has been saying for the last five years or so: that the ease of group-formation (and other Web 2.0 community-building tools) may be remarkable – and a potential reason for optimism – but that no moral values should be ascribed to it. The web merely facilitates previous patterns of behaviour – or even encourages “worse” patterns (as the trends in cyber-bullying, blog-defamation etc. show). He uses ANNA (pro-anorexia) forums to make his point in an interview:

I used to be a cyber-utopian. That view broke for me. I was teaching a class at NYU on social software. One of my students was a community manager for a magazine for teenage girls. They were shutting down the health and beauty boards because we can’t get the pro-anorexia girls to shut up with tips about how to avoid eating. I was thinking this isn’t a side effect of the Net. It was an effect. Ridiculously easy group forming for anorexics. Now, we have to move to a publish-then-filter world. That pattern suggests we’re moving the media world from decision to reaction. We can’t stop the pro-anorexia groups from forming. All we can do is watch and act.

Re-living Memories

Below provides some interesting empirical evidence for the elegant words of Ed Cooke, whose talk on using one’s memory for great feats can be seen here.

For the Brain, Remembering Is Like Reliving
Excerpts from The New York Times September 4, 2008

Scientists have for the first time recorded individual brain cells in the act of summoning a spontaneous memory, …

The recordings, taken from the brains of epilepsy patients being prepared for surgery, demonstrate that these spontaneous memories reside in some of the same neurons that fired most furiously when the recalled event had been experienced. …

Experts said the study had all but closed the case: For the brain, remembering is a lot like doing (at least in the short term, as the research says nothing about more distant memories).

Read the rest of the article here.