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Opinion: Schools Kill Creativity, but They Don't Have To

A popular TED talk describes ways in which schools inhibit creativity by training students to be grade-focused and risk-averse. Some educators say creativity, being essential for innovation, needs more encouragement.

creativity, child painting a window
The late Sir Kenneth Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” is the most popular TED Talk ever. His message is important, and one that should be revisited regularly. I recently came across a related article by Daniel Lattier, a former Senior Fellow at Intellectual Takeout, titled “10 Quotes from the Most Popular TED Talk EVER.” It inspired me to rewatch Sir Robinson’s talk, reflecting on the points raised by Lattier.

It has taken me a while to understand that creativity and innovation are vital to everyone’s future. As Robinson says, “Curiosity is the engine of achievement.” Earl Nightingale said, “Everything begins with an idea.” Same theme. Kill creativity and innovation and we stop forward progress and reduce survival.

And let’s be clear. Creativity is not limited to the arts — it simply means to create something new. Creativity is the engine of progress in all fields. The iPhone and the computer, Disneyland, Ford Motor and McDonalds — they all started with an idea. And we need our schools to be filled with ideas and original thinking.

Among the top 10 quotes Lattier chose from Robinson’s TED talk, here are six I found thought-provoking. I hope that as you read them, you will share your thoughts with others.

1. “If you think of it, children starting school this year [2006] will be retiring in 2065. 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.”

As I wrote in a column in June, we need to sit next to our students (not in front of them) and try to figure out what their world will be like and what they will need to know and be able to do. Robinson is right that our education system was designed for the industrial age, and now we need to create a new education system.

2. “My contention is, all kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly.”

Studies show creativity decreases the longer students stay in school. Artist Erik Wahl sometimes opens presentations by asking, “Who here can draw?” Typically, only a few raise their hands, to which he responds, “If I were to go down to your preschools, and ask the same question, what is the response I’d get? One hundred percent. Kids are dying to share with me their artistic mind.” Schools are often hotbeds of conformity, but we need creativity if we are going to progress as a culture.

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

Heads nod when this concept is discussed, and our teachings are filled with stories of creative and innovative pioneers in all fields. But do we inspire and support creativity within our schools’ DNA? Colleges demand that transcripts be filled with a rigid set of courses and high (but meaningless) letter grades. Nothing could do more to kill creativity than the conformity curriculum we find in almost all schools.

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

One way to encourage creativity is to encourage experimentation and celebrate mistakes. “Fail fast” is the new corporate motto when trying new things. Success is built on trial and error, from learning to walk to discovering a new medical cure. But our education system penalizes errors, mistakes and failure. We even grade students on homework where they should be making mistakes and learning from them. (But I’m opposed to the use of letter grades in any case.)

5. “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.”

Enough said!

6. “We don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.”

We all get it. The question is, how do we get there from here? We begin by looking at all the ways we kill creativity in our schools, both in our teachers and in our students. Then we can stop doing those things. It isn’t that hard. We can welcome the innovative essay that might represent a different way of thinking or looking at something. We can admire students' attempts at new ways of doing things.

What can we do to encourage creativity instead of killing it?

We can tell stories that inspire creativity and creative courage. We can encourage and reward it. For example, I have been lucky to take numerous school field trips to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One story my students and I heard was about the development of the larger Mars rovers. Engineers realized the payload was too large and heavy to be dropped and left to bounce around in a protective bubble-like package. When someone suggested lowering the module by cables from a floating platform, it was treated as a terrible idea but not ruled out. It turned out to be the best of the terrible ideas, and it worked successfully! That was creativity at its best, and creativity encouragement at its best.

COVID-19 has taught us that we can change much more quickly than we ever thought and that there were creative solutions to the problems we faced.

There are solutions all around us. There are schools that reject any attempt to cookie-cut and mold our children to conform, including inquiry-based schools where students work together to problem-solve, and more. There are project-based schools and entrepreneurship programs for students. There are schools of art, schools with maker spaces and schools that encourage creativity in all subjects. There are also many educational groups sharing student-centered learning models. We can encourage playfulness in school and at home, and create more learning activities in which the outcome is unknown.

Humans are inherently creative and driven to make things better, and schools might do well to just get out of the way when students’ creative juices are flowing. Schools where creativity flourishes are better places for students and, in turn, help them make a better world for everyone.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.