Why A More Creative School System Might Be The Solution We've Been Looking For

"If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original."

American elementary school students spend an average of 943 hours in the classroom each year, memorizing grammar and spelling rules, practicing their penmanship, and working through basic math problems. As U.S. students lag behind their global peers on standardized tests, it might surprise most Americans to learn that those 943 hours actually position our school system as among the most time-consuming in the world. 

According to data collected by Pew Research Center, American students spend approximately 10 days longer in school than children in the U.K., and more than a month longer than children in high-performing South Korea. Some of the sizable gap, of course, can be explained by the prevalence of independent, after-school tutoring programs in other countries, but questions remain about how we can best give our kids the skills they need to succeed in an increasingly global (and constantly developing) economy.

Perhaps it's not just a matter of how much we're teaching our kids, but how we're designing their curricula.

As he outlined in a 2006 TED Talk that TED yesterday identified as its most-watched of all-time, British author and advocate for innovation in education Ken Robinson believes that creativity is as important to a good education as literacy is — and therefore it deserves equal support and focus.

"If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065," he tells an enrapt audience in a video captured at the Monterey, California event. "Nobody has a clue, despite all the expertise that's been on parade for the past four days, 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."

In his talk, Robinson describes the unpredictability of the market and the jobs it creates as an opportunity. But insofar as it is seen as a challenge, a problem, he says he's identified the solution: build an educational system that celebrates and encourages creative thinkers and out-of-the-box problem-solvers.

Making our job a little easier, he suggests, is that kids are ready-made to come up with weird and wonderful ideas. We're just currently teaching them not to.

Says Robinson:

"Kids will take a chance.  If they don't know, they'll have a go. Am I right? They're not frightened of being wrong. I don't mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original... And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we're now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities."

To properly prepare our kids for the future — a future filled with self-driving cars, global connectivity, and artificial intelligence, a future where their jobs could potentially be as easily done by someone half a world away or a robot that doesn't take coffee breaks — he suggests, we need to radically rethink our education system, as well as our view of intelligence. And that means accepting all forms of intelligence: intelligence that inspires creativity, intelligence that inspires movement, intelligence that might not test well but can transform the human experience into art.

During the video, as an example, he references Gillian Lynne, a famed choreographer whose work defined Cats and Phantom Of The Opera. As a child, she couldn't sit still and rarely handed in her homework, so her mother took her to a doctor. After speaking with Lynne, the doctor asked her mother to talk with him in private, pausing only to turn on the radio sitting on his desk before exiting the room. Lynne stood to dance after the doctor and her mother left the room, swaying to the music broadcast.

As the pair watched Lynne from outside the room, the doctor turned to her mother and said, "Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn't sick; she's a dancer. Take her to a dance school."

Lynne was lucky, Robinson says, that the doctor recognized her potential and didn't medicate her for it. Lynne was lucky to find someone who recognized that her intelligence was valuable, even if it wasn't typical.

The choreographer's story is one of many that tie a creative education to future success. Studies have shown that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds with significant education in the arts outperform their peers with little education in the arts academically... and achieve higher graduation rates.

In his talk, Robinson stresses the importance of "seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are and seeing our children for the hope that they are."

Our task, he says, is "to educate their whole being, so they can face this future. By the way — we may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it."

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