Do Schools Kill Creativity – A Response to Ken Robinson

By BRENT SILBY

Robinson argues that schools are primarily concerned with conformity and that this has a negative impact on creativity. He suggests that by grouping students by age, delivering a standard curriculum, and testing them against standardized criteria, schools are essentially diminishing the individuality and creativity of students. In his Do Schools Kill Creativity TED Talk, Robinson states that:

“…all kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly.” He goes on to suggest that “creativity is now as important as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status”. (Robinson 2006).

Robinson seems to be implying that schools currently place little value on creativity. He is also creating a distinction between literacy and creativity, suggesting that somehow schools value one but not the other. But literacy and creativity go hand-in-hand. A highly literate person can become hugely creative in the production of written works. It is not the case that schools favor literacy over creativity. Schools encourage both. Furthermore, in other areas of creativity, schools excel. During their life in school, students are exposed to an immense array of creative endeavors from music to visual art; from fiction to game design. It is simply false that schools place little value on creativity. Robinson, himself, is a product of what he might call “traditional schooling”, and he is clearly creative. Arguably the most creative people on the planet are the products of traditional schooling. Given the fact that there is so much creativity in society, it seems to be misleading to make the bold claim that “schools educate the creativity out of kids”.

Nevertheless, Robinson has made this claim. To support his claim, he refers to an experiment in which people were asked to come up with as many different uses of a paperclip as possible. Robinson tells us that most people can think of 10 to 15. He goes on to suggest that people who are very good at the task can come up with around 200 and people who pass a certain threshold can be categorized as displaying “genius level divergent thinking”. He doesn’t state what that threshold is. He also doesn’t supply any firm reason to believe that the ability to think of different uses of a paper clip constitutes “genius level divergent thinking”. Still, he continues to suggest that when presented with the paper clip test, 98% of kindergarten children are at genius level.

So, what is going on here? For a start, this notion of “genius level divergent thinking” is not defined, so his claim doesn’t tell us anything useful. Secondly, it is possible that his analysis is overly simplistic. Robinson doesn’t provide an analysis of the types of answers that children come up with. Are they any good? What is his criteria for good answers to the task “come up with as many uses of a paperclip possible”? He suggests that some of the most creative answers involve imagining a paperclip that is 30 feet high. But is this really a good approach? A 30 feet high paperclip is not really a paperclip anymore. If I answer the question by suggesting that a paperclip stretching from here to the moon could be used as a road, would I be categorized a “genius”? It is possible that adults think of fewer answers to the question because they have the ability to filter out nonsense answers. This is a strength of education, not a weakness.

It is interesting to note Robinson’s use of the term “divergent thinking”. He states that this is not the same thing as creativity, but that it is an essential element. He then tends to speak as if they are the same thing. What Robinson is talking about is not “creativity” as in the composition of music or the production of a work of art; rather, he is talking about innovation. He is essentially arguing that our modern economic situation needs schools to produce innovative, entrepreneurial thinkers, who can design and sell new products. He is moving from one factory model to another. The type of person the old style of school churned out doesn’t work for this economy, so we need school production lines to produce a different type of person.

Robinson suggests that schools need to focus on the individual student rather than treating them as identical products. He makes this suggestion as if it were something new. But schools already do this. For centuries schools have focused on individual students with teachers tailoring their support to the needs of each member of the class. As Torn Halves points out, Friedrich Froebel (1782 – 1852) considered schools as a type of “garden” in which children would be able to grow in their own unique ways. This is the origin of the world “kindergarten”, or children’s garden. In the nineteenth century, Emerson (1803-82) wrote that we should “…respect the child, respect him to the end, but also respect yourself…. The two points in a boy’s training are, to keep his nature and arm it with knowledge in the very direction in which it points”. And in 1693, John Locke suggested that  education should be tailored to the character of the individual children. So, despite the implication Robinson make to the contrary, focusing on the needs of individual learners has been a common goal of education for centuries.

In his bold assertion that schools educate the creativity out of students, Robinson is creating a caricature of modern schools that does not reflect the reality of education. Furthermore, in identifying levels of creative genius in terms of innovation, or divergent thinking, he is not really talking about creativity in the true sense of the word. Ultimately, what Robinson forgets is that education provides students with the ability to filter through noise. Educated people can make intelligent decisions about what to include, and what to leave out of creative decision making processes. This is why adults think of 20 different uses of paperclips while young children think of a hundred. Education enables us to assess whether or not answers to the question are realistic or just plain stupid, such as a paperclip that reaches from here to the moon.

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