In 2006 Sir Ken Robinson gave a talk at TED called, Do Schools Kill Creativity? His contention was that creativity was as important in education as literacy, and that children are, before attending school, not afraid of taking risks. They are not afraid of being wrong. After entering school for a bit, however, children learn that mistakes are bad and failure is to be avoided at all costs. Instead of nurturing this extremely important skill, our education system is doing the exact opposite – educating the creativity out of our children.

Robinson’s talk is the most watched TEDTalk of all time, with over 70 million views in 15 years. That is, to put it in perspective, almost a third of the US population. I would argue, however, that not much has changed in our educational system since Robinson gave his talk. Audiences cheered as he outlined the error of the design of our public school system, which was to meet the needs of industrialism. Viewers despaired as he shared that the hierarchy of subjects – math and literacy on the top – was developed to promote those fields that would lead directly to jobs. Listeners rooted for the change he advocated.

With all of this clear support of change, what does education look like now? My son, currently in 5th grade, has Math and English Language Arts for an hour each on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Science & Social Studies on alternating Fridays, and Social Emotional Learning, Art, PE, Health, Mo’olelo and Hawaiiana for 30 minutes every other week. This is the hierarchy alive and well.

Robinson tells the story of Gillian Lynne, who was taken to a specialist in the 1930s because she was so hopeless at school and they believed she might have a learning disorder. The specialist chose to leave the room for a bit and turn on the radio, then observed her get up and begin moving to the music. He counseled her mother that Gillian didn’t have a learning disorder, but was a dancer. Gillian reflects on entering a dance school for the first time,

I can’t tell you how wonderful it was. We walked into this room, and it was full of people like me – people who couldn’t sit still, people who had to move to think.

Gillian went on to join the Royal Ballet, then choreographed such works as Phantom of the Opera and Cats. We can all be grateful that she wasn’t put on medication to calm her down and mask her gift.

None of this is to say that learning disabilities aren’t real or that there aren’t children who benefit tremendously from medication. But it is to question what we do in education and what those choices communicate to our children about the importance of creativity, risk-taking and failure.

Dr. Sarah Lewis, professor of Art History at Harvard and author of the beautiful book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, tells incredible stories about aesthetic force, the ability of creativity to create change, when logic cannot. She shares the story of Charles Black Jr., a sixteen-year old boy who goes to a dance and listens transfixed to trumpeter Louis Armstrong, struck by his musical genius. Years later Black would join the legal team on the case that changed segregation in education forever, Brown vs. Board of Education. It was this moment, listening to the music of Armstrong, he reflects, that shifted his perspective on the segregation of black Americans.

Dr. Lewis also writes about the Friday Night Experiments, which Nobel Prize-winning physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov use with their colleagues to play. It is a place in which the ridiculous can be explored, the new can be delved into, and the least likely experiments can be tried. Just for fun. This conscience recognition of the value of play, the importance of being in a place of curiosity and not knowing as opposed to being the expert… this is what we need to bring to education to create the shift that Robinson so eloquently advocated for.

Creativity, not compliance, has the ability to create positive change in our world. For students like Gillian to discover what their purpose truly is, for students like Louis Armstrong, whose music had the power to shift perceptions of black excellence, and for students like Andre Geim, who continues to prioritize play in his field of science, all 70 million viewers of Robinson’s TEDTalk, including myself, need to actively work toward, support and contribute toward prioritizing creativity in our schools.

References:

Brown, B. (Host). (2021, January 25). Brené with Dr. Sarah Lewis on Creativity, Surrender and Aesthetic Force. [Audio podcast episode]. In Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. Parcast Network. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-dr-sarah-lewis-on-creativity-surrender-and-aesthetic-force/

Lewis, S. (2014). The rise: Creativity, the gift of failure, and the search for mastery. Simon & Schuster.

Robinson, K. (2006, February). Do schools kill creativity? [Video]. TED Conferences. https://ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity/