Creativity and Education (Robinson)

Robinson, Ken. Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. 2nd ed. Oxford: Capstone, 2011. Print.

I was happy to take advice to put this book on my doctoral reading list, because my previous experience with Sir Ken Robinson was this (now fairly-well known) animated video,“Changing Education Paradigms” (go ahead and take the time to watch it if you haven’t seen it already; it’s quite good):

I’m also familiar with his thoughful and provoking TED talks on the same subjects. These are important arguments that must continue to be made in the interest of educational reform. I also know that Robinson is a leading thinker in creativity and education, and has done some well-respected work, so I was looking forward to seeing his thinking play out in long form rather than ten- and twenty-minute talks. However, this book was definitely geared toward a different audience than myself. It is definitely written more for a public or commercial audience, something to get people who may not be familiar with his arguments persuaded and charged up about engaging creative energy in training and workplaces, but not a text that provides careful, systematic analysis of a problem and how to solve it. An academic argument, this book is not.

I should reiterate–I agree with his argument, and think it’s important to engage creativity and imagination in education rather than settling on particular media and technologies that won’t be around in five, ten, twenty years. But I did have some problems with Out of Our Minds. Mostly, the book jauntily offers compelling (but sometimes superficial) examples for Robinson’s thinking about intelligence, creativity, and education. The copy I read (this is the revised 2011 edition) was annoyingly ill-edited, which didn’t help my attitude. However, the major problem I had with the text was not its method or tone (it doesn’t spend much time elaborating on or analyzing complex ideas and it throws around “most” and “some” and “many” with panache), but with its fairly staccato style. It seemed that there was a new subheading every two to five paragraphs, and so ideas never really felt as if they were dealt with in depth. One could almost read the pull quotes and feel relatively secure in getting the point. The first two and last two chapters prove to be where the major work of the text is completed, and the rest is example upon example of people and situations where the ideas he writes about in chapter 1 are played out. For good or ill, in this book he hits on everything from nanotechnology and neuroplasticity to No Child Left Behind and MENSA, to the Elvis Chapel and the Blue Man Group.

On to the notes:

Robinson argues that the rapid changes in technology and many other cultural fronts have clearly problematized our traditional (i.e. nineteenth-century or Enlightenment) notions of intelligence and creativity, and that education systems in the US and England no longer teach or reward creativity and ingenuity–yet it is these qualities that are most deeply needed in the world. The major conceptual triumvirate of the novel–he reiterates and exemplifies these at length–are his imagination, creativity, and innovation, which he defines as follows:

  • imagination: “the process of bringing to mind things that are not present to our senses” (2)
  • creativity: “the process of developing original ideas that have value” (2-3)
  • innovation: “the process of putting new ideas into practice” (3)

The thesis of his book is that all people are creative–or can be–and that this runs counter to intellectual training as it exists today in its industrial, Taylorist iteration. Robinson wants an expanded notion of intelligence that includes but is not limited to rational and analytic academic intelligence (123). The separation of creative art and academic learning, of reason and emotion, and ‘creatives’ and ‘suits’ in the workplace are all reinforced by the notion that “creativity is a rare talent” (3)

“My premise is that we are all born with immense natural talents but that too few people discover what they are and even fewer develop them properly. Ironically one of the main reasons for this massive waste of talent is the very process that is meant to develop it: education” (7).

Our education system, he writes, is based on two pillars: economic (shaped by assumptions about labor from industrial standpoints) and intellectual (shaped by assumptions about IQ and academic performance that separate them from other abilities). These pillars work to influence the kinds of questions we ask and thus the kinds of education we design to have those questions answered:

“In any intellectual age there will be some fundamental assumptions that advocates of all the different ways of thinking unconsciously take for granted. These deep-seated attitudes constitute our ideology and they set the boundaries of theory, by inclining us to this or that set of issues and explanations. If our explanations are theoretical, our questions are ideological” (88).

One line that I thought was particularly good: “Cultures are essentially systems of permission” (207)

Robinson describes at length how our (the UK’s and the US’s) education system  is based on industrial and mass-education models that follow some static and fallacious assumptions: about careers (you’ll work in one for most of your life, and you can choose one from the time you’re in school), intelligence (it’s a factor of fixed intellectual capacity, and emotion or feeling plays little role in it), the arts and sciences (they’re essentially distinct and thus should be divided and heirarchized), academic and productive knowledge (again, they’re essentially distinct, with academic knowledge being of greater value), individuality (knowledge is created by individual geniuses alone in their ivory towers), and creativity (it’s great for artists, but most people just don’t *have* it). Robinson brings up prolific examples–reflecting recent research in cognition, language, culture, and education–that argue very much to the contrary.

His final chapters are geared toward “leaders,” who are urged to facilitate development in creative and imaginative powers. According to Robinson, innovation (a “culture of innovation”) is led from the top down (though even in the text of his argument it’s likely more accurate to claim that innovation is halted from the top down) (220). He closes his book by briefly describing (in problematically generic terms) nine principles for creative leadership.

  1. Everyone has creative potential (225)
  2. Innovation is the child of imagination (228)
  3. We can all learn to be more creative (230)
  4. Creativity thrives on diversity (233)
  5. Creativity loves collaboration (235)
  6. Creativity takes time (237)
  7. Creative cultures are supple (237)
  8. Creative cultures are inquiring (240)
  9. Creative cultures need creative spaces (243)

The ideal, for Robinson, is a balanced curriculum:

“a balanced curriculum should give equal status and resources to literacy and numeracy, the sciences, the humanities, the arts, and to physical education. High standards in literacy and numeracy are essential in themselves and they are also the gateways to learning in many disciplines. Languages and mathematics offer much more than basic literacy and numeracy. The study of languages should include literature, and the skills of speaking and listening. Once the fundamentals have been grasped, mathematics can also lead into rich fields of abstraction and the conceptual languages of science and technology.” (273)

The argument’s right on. The presentation here just wasn’t for me. (Oh, how narcissistic!)


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