c The TED talk calling for a revolution in education
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Apps for Good CEO: in support of a creative educational overhaul

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Danny Ryder

We need a more inspirational approach to teaching, one where creativity permeates throughout.

Back in 2006 when Sir Ken Robinson took to the TED stage in Monterey, California – I’m not quite sure he was prepared for what was to follow. His talk, ‘Do Schools kill creativity’, now with over 40 million views, remains the most watched TED talk of all time.

His thesis, compelling. Delivery, outstanding. And both combine to convey an important point around the current state of our outdated ‘factory model’ of education, one failing to meet the rigorous socio-economic demands of the digital age.

What he proposes is a revolution, and only you can help it come to fruition because without change, the risk of producing one-dimensional, linear pupils is grave. We need a more balanced and broad curriculum so children not just enjoy education, but can flexibly adapt to constant change with unrelenting creativity and resilience.

“My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

Let’s start with definitions for both terms: “Literacy is traditionally understood as the ability to read and write.

The term’s meaning has been expanded to include the ability to use language, numbers, images and other means to understand and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture.” (Wikipedia)

In other words literacy means an ability to absorb knowledge and insights previous generations have discovered and created.

Creativity can in the same vein then be understood as the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns or relationships and to create meaningful NEW ideas and artefacts, not just re-creating or using old ones.

As Ken Robinson points out we don’t yet know what problems and challenges our kids will face during the course of their lives.

If the aim of education is to prepare them to lead productive and happy lives, that are rooted in the past but lived in the present and future, just learning about past culture and traditions is a first step, but actually not enough.

Both things are indeed essential and as he demands, should be considered on the same level of importance.

“What these things have in common is that 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 — if you’re not prepared to be wrong.

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 the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

I very much agree.

As Ken Robinson points out education is actually a conversation or dialogue between different human beings.

When children take a risk and then either get it right or wrong, what matters is not just the act itself and what they have done, but crucially how their surroundings respond to their behaviour.

Is it acceptable/ good and therefore encouraged/rewarded? Is it unacceptable/ bad and therefore discouraged/ penalised? If you think about it, the process of growing up is effectively millions of small interactions between a child and its surroundings (parents, siblings, friends, family, teachers, neighbours) where he or she is either encouraged or discouraged to show and repeat certain types of behaviour.

If you look at how much time children actually spend in formal education it is easy to see why this system and the interactions taking place between children and teachers or classmates are influential for long-term behaviour.

So in my eyes, what Ken is saying is that you cannot expect children to be confident to try again, if when they have made a mistake and failed, you punish them for trying something new in the first place. If this happens again and again children will eventually stop trying.

“Picasso once said this, he said that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it. So why is this?”

I think there are actually two parts of being an artist and I’d hope Picasso would agree:

1. The ability to look at the world from a different angle, to discover it with a fresh pair of eyes, something which by definition young children are very good at – they are discovering the world for the first time and ask questions about anything and everything.

2. The ability to then represent this new view of the world in the way of drawing, sculpting, writing, welding, coding i.e. creating an artefact that can be shared, viewed, discussed, read, consumed by others.

This practical ability can be based on initial talent, but then children have to practice, again and again, in order to really achieve mastery in creating artefacts.

The missed opportunity in many interactions children experience in formal education is that they are discouraged from discovering their own view of the world, but that also in terms of what practical abilities they are encouraged to practice and perfect are not always driven by talent and passion, but the conventional ideas of what it takes to be successful.

“Truthfully, what happens is, as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.”

Yes, you can see this narrowing down of focus clearly in the way learning is defined away from play and trying new things as self-directed discovery in kindergarten/ nursery to much more streamlined behaviour in pre-school to then increasingly stricter systems moving from primary to secondary schools with a nearly exclusive focus on exam results at the end.

“Our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there’s a reason. Around the world, there were no public systems of education, really, before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas.”

He is certainly right to question why and for what purpose public education systems were created in the first place.

From my point of view there are actually three dimensions that influenced why the education system as we know it today exists since the 19th century: (a) to prepare you for the world of work and thanks to industrialisation that was increasingly in factories, (b) to prepare you to be a citizen and for most countries in the 19th century that meant being a loyal subject of the nation state you live in and (c), as a more recent addition I guess, to be looked after when your mother and other members of the family work outside the home.

I think you need to take into account all three dimensions to understand why a public education system exists and why in most countries the state today has such a strong influence via curricula etc. on what is actually happening in schools.

“Our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there’s a reason. Around the world, there were no public systems of education, really, before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas.”

He is certainly right to question why and for what purpose public education systems were created in the first place.

From my point of view there are actually three dimensions that influenced why the education system as we know it today exists since the 19th century: (a) to prepare you for the world of work and thanks to industrialisation that was increasingly in factories, (b) to prepare you to be a citizen and for most countries in the 19th century that meant being a loyal subject of the nation state you live in and (c), as a more recent addition I guess, to be looked after when your mother and other members of the family work outside the home.

I think you need to take into account all three dimensions to understand why a public education system exists and why in most countries the state today has such a strong influence via curricula etc. on what is actually happening in schools.

“Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top.

So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist. Benign advice — now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution.”

As outlined above I think that from the start, formal public education has always had the dual dimension of employability as well as citizenship. Since without this political dimension, for example, the hierarchy recently strongly re-introduced into English schools, via the English Baccalaurate is incomprehensible from a work point of view:

– English
– Mathematics
– History or Geography
– the sciences
– Languages

If you look at this list and the actual content behind it, you could also rename mathematics into “calculus and the history of mathematics” and sciences into “the history of science”, since most students end school with knowledge in these subjects that take them to maybe the beginning of the 20th century.

Also if you look at the way foreign languages are often taught in England, you might want to rename the subject to “grammar and some cultural history of [French,German, Spanish]” since few English students actually leave schooling able to speak in that foreign language.

Thus, when you look at these subjects in this way, what’s obvious is that they are are indeed focussing on literacy as defined before: “the ability to use language, numbers, images and other means to understand and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture”.

The only problem is: the world is rapidly changing both in terms of the world of work, which is indeed revolutionized as Ken Robinson points out, but also in terms of systems of governments and the role of responsible citizens in a free and democratic society, as not only the revolutions in the Middle East but also for example in Burkina Faso are testifying.

And the big question is indeed how can young people be prepared and empowered for these changes?

“And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image.

If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance.

And the consequence is that many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can’t afford to go on that way.”

What Ken is describing here is that traditionally the ultimate end point of formal school success is to enter university.

However, he is also pointing out that this view has started to shift quite significantly since the job prospects of university graduates have been in constant decline (just look at graduate unemployment rates in Spain or Portugal) while in particular in the UK and the US the costs of university tuition have exploded and thus the return on pure academic education is increasingly doubted – at least by some.

I therefore think that a significant adjustment is already taking place re-calibrating the focus on both academic as well as practical abilities of students. Some people still call this area vocational education, but the truth is every professional equally needs not only academic knowledge but also the practical ability and experience to do their job, something that is still undervalued in most higher education systems. And it’s at that intersection of practical abilities and the creativity to transcend current practice and ideas into new solutions.

“What I think it comes to is this: Al Gore spoke the other night about ecology and the revolution that was triggered by Rachel Carson.

I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity.

Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.”

I think the comparison he is drawing is a very interesting and good one since the exploitation of the earth for specific commodities is an economic endeavour, however, if you look at the prospect of wars over water or food, the political dimension matters as well.

He obviously gives a very passionate pledge for respecting and nurturing the capacities of children and I fully agree with him that is is our responsibility and sole hope if we want them to lead good lives free from poverty, but also also free from political suppression.

If you do look at shifts and changes in history and the scale of the shift we are looking at, I think that change will be patchy, sometimes progress, sometimes revert back, sometimes be unpredicted and driven by a vast range of different players: the human eco-system where individual lives in different continents are more connected than ever before thanks to information technology.

An interesting time for anyone involved in the intersection between education and information technology.