Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Changing Paradigms

I just finished watching Sir Ken Robinson's talk Changing Paradigms at the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts (via Will Richardson). Robinson is an engaging speaker and I highly recommend viewing his talk (it runs 55 mins). If you're more pressed for time, he did a TED talk 2 years ago which covers some of the same ground (and comes in at around 20 minutes).

Divergent Thinking

Robinson discusses divergent thinking, which he feels is a prerequisite for creative thinking. He refers to a longitudinal study where children were given a test on divergent thinking at ages 3 - 5 and then every 5 years for a number of years. Using the predetermined benchmark for "genius" in terms of divergent thinking, the results are startling, perhaps not in their trend, but in their magnitude. At ages 3 - 5 years 98% of the children scored at a genius level (I believe the sample size was 1500). It then rapidly dropped off (I can't locate the exact figures) until at adulthood those scoring at the genius level represent only 3% of the population.

Schools Kill the Creativity in Children

Robinson argues that schools kill the creativity in children, not on purpose, but they do it none-the-less and they do it systematically. He argues that our current school system, based on the industrial revolution no longer works. The industrial revolution needed a large number of workers with basic literacy and numeracy to work in the factories, a smaller number of more literate and numerate people were needed to manage the workers, and the top level of the hierarchy were those who would attend universities and become the doctors, lawyers, and leaders of industry. Today's societies and economies have different needs. We need creative thinkers to tackle the issues of increased urbanization, global warming, the incredible growth of the Earth's human population...

We should be encouraging creative thinking, we should be nurturing the talents that children have, we should not be aiming for conformity.

So How Do We Do That?

I think that Robinson makes some very compelling points, but I'm struggling with the practical aspects. I would love to see a school where they are free to abandon standardized testing, teach to the talents of the students, and group students based upon pedagogically sound reasons (not merely based upon birth dates). Then there is the on-going debate of what information is necessary for all our citizens to learn. If a student's talent is in visual arts, is there anything from the other subject areas that can be omitted so that they can fully pursue their talent? I do not want to come off as a naysayer--I really like Sir Robinson's ideas, I'm just having difficulty visualizing the system he proposes. Does project based learning address some of the issues he discusses? Perhaps I'll just have to read his books to get a better idea.

What Do You Think?

Do schools systematically kill creativity? Is there a way to revolutionize schools and education to promote creative thinking? How do you work toward it in your own sphere of influence?

As always, thanks for reading!

Image: Which one... ? by carf. Licensed under a Creative Commons, attribution non-commercial no derivatives license.


  1. Sadly, we experienced this firsthand last year with our oldest daughter. She's a gifted kid (early reader, part of SD67's gifted program), very creative and bright. I know it's impossible to quantify, but as her Grade 1 year progressed, she changed in ways that we (our family, her grandparents and close friends) all noticed: less self-motivated, less interest/excitement in pursuing things she's curious about, less energy and spark, and more likely be bored. School seemed to be killing her creativity and motivation.

    Obviously there could be lots of reasons for these changes, but it was also very noticeable over the holidays that she snapped back to her old self fairly quickly. She had a good teacher, but most of the activities were focused on conformity, making sure that everyone was doing the same thing the same way. Very little room for creativity from what we saw.

    "I would love to see a school where they are..." Well, there are plenty of examples of these: hundreds of alternative schools, Waldorf, Sudbury Schools...not hard to find them. In my experience, teachers seem to be threatened by the very existence of these other models of learning, saying they're interested, but really not wanting to find out. My first thought when I read this was that we probably shouldn't even be looking for examples of authentic learning in *schools*.

    Many of the families you're working with in the home learners program are already creating rich, creative learning environments for their kids, giving them lots of time and support to pursue their interests and talent -- it's too bad they keep such a low profile, hidden beneath layers of old stereotypes about homeschooling. I would *love* to hear more about innovative learning being done by students and families you're encountering in your work. All the better that most of them have nothing to do with traditional schooling.

  2. Jeremy, thanks for commenting. I'm sorry to hear about your daughter's grade one experience. I agree, to an extent, that we shouldn't just be looking for examples of authentic learning in schools. I think the stifling of creativity abounds in society, not just schools. We have so many rules; procedural, social, etc and it seems like as a society that we can't wait to teach these rules to the children.

    You mentioned the gifted program; I spoke the the teacher of gifted students in Penticton in June and she was talking about the class size. I believe she said that twelve students was what she considered the maximum for her program (I have a notoriously bad memory so the number may have been as high as 14). She said that having more than that many gifted children posed unique challenges. I think that raises a relevant point when considering fostering creativity in all students.

  3. Ivy's in the gifted program in Summerland, and I've spent some time in her class and that limit makes sense to me -- more than a dozen or so gifted kids would be a serious handful. When you hear "gifted" you think smarty-pants-all-star sorts of kids, and there are those, but many have social and behavioral challenges in a classroom setting. I think they've got about 10 students in her class, and that seems about right. Good point about fostering creativity for all students...the other cool think in the gifted program is that all of the students get an IEP. Really, why shouldn't every student get an IEP? It sounded like maybe in the HLP, kids do get a sort of learning plan as well, which is great.

  4. I agree, it would be great if every child got an IEP (individualized education plan). And even if there is not an official IEP for each child, ideally the classroom teacher would try to individualize instruction for the students in their class. The reality is that that is very difficult to do when you consider the constraints that many teachers are working under (the student to teacher ratios, amount of prep time, etc). Having said that, I think that a lot of teachers do look at delivering their instruction in a variety of ways. For example, teaching a concept using visuals as well as text. Providing opportunities for students to model concepts using role playing or manipulatives. Many teachers are using inclusive strategies where accommodations made for students with special needs actually benefit the entire class much like wheelchair ramps for people in wheelchairs also benefit parents pushing strollers and the elderly.

    Thanks for commenting Jeremy and getting me to think about these issues. It's a good way for me to gear up mentally for the school year ahead!

  5. Schools do kill creativity but one has to ask if in the past when the present school was not here, did everyone have more creativity or does life itself kill it for most people? It is true, that for those that could keep creativity throughout, schools do a great job of stifling. One has to ask, why some seem to maintain it anyway despite the obvious influences. I am not denouncing, just questioning.

    We definitely need to do more to create critical thinkers. After all, most of the mess we are currently in is a result of people unable to be critical and creative thinkers. It is one thing to say we need it, but I agree asking how we are going to do that.

    As they get older and we question, most topics are so charged and polarizing to the point they are not allowed. How can we make these changes when the public at large do not value or have these skills themselves? It has to start somewhere, but the environment is not in place to even nurture it (when we talk reform, is that possible, or must we just start all over with something new?)

  6. @Louise, I think you're right in concluding that it is not just school that kills creativity. I wonder if evolution in humans has favoured the ability to learn and stick with the rules of society at the cost of nurturing creativity. If everyone was a creative genius I wonder if we wouldn't be living in anarchy? I'm not articulating this very well, but this is what's shaking around in my head ;)

  7. BTW, I did not intend my last comment to suggest that I am against nurturing creativity, I'm not. Just trying to think about why it usually gets stifled as children grow up.


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