Is school bad for kids?
In this thought-provoking piece, Niamh Morrin examines what our children learn in school, and if there is a better way
Published 22/05/2011 | 08:00
Is school bad for kids? "Yes!" says creativity expert Ken Robinson in his highly entertaining and compelling talk, ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’
At first glance, killing creativity might not seem a big deal – so what if kids don’t waste time painting and singing? But, looking closer, creativity is defined as “the abil¬ity to transcend traditional ideas, rules and patterns and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods and interpre¬tations” it becomes harder to dismiss its importance. Could a lack of creativity underlie the current global disorder and how can we possibly find a way out of this mess without meaningful new ideas and methods?
So, who is this Ken Robinson? He has been a busy man: professor of education at Warwick University; government adviser; international speaker; author of two books and numerous reports; and a major collector of academic gongs, including a knighthood in 2003. He is described as an expert in creativity and innovation, but, first and foremost, he is a skilled, engaging educator whose pas¬sion is contagious.
Robinson believes all children are born with innate talents and abilities that are systematically educated out of them. Young children, with their endless questioning and insatiable curiosity, bear little resemblance to the passive, subdued students they quickly become. We tolerate movement and spontaneity from very young children but, as Robinson says: “We progressively educate them from the waist up, until eventually we are only interested in their heads and slightly to the left”. In some schools, ‘fidgeting’ is in breach of the code of behaviour, suggesting some teachers would prefer if children left their restless bodies at home.
Living in our heads
Robinson invites us to attend the disco at a senior academic conference and witness for ourselves those “who live in their heads, writhing uncontrollably off the beat, waiting for it to end so they can go home and write a paper about it”. He suggests academics view their bodies as an inconvenient means of transport¬ing their big brain’s from place to place. We cringe at this uncomfortable image and indulgently excuse their lack of rhythm, but the fact is these disem¬bodied people are designing the school system our full-bodied children have to attend. The sole purpose of education, Robinson proposes, is to produce uni¬versity professors, who then perpetuate the system in their own image.
Public education was first introduced in the 19th century to meet the demands of industrialisation, so the most useful subjects for work went straight to the top. Since then, this hierarchy of subjects has remained unchanged all over world. Maths and languages are valued more than the hu¬manities and straggling way behind are the arts, with music and painting ahead of drama and dance. Most of us would sleep (probably more soundly) if there were less accountants, economists or stockbrokers in the world; however, life without writers, musicians, actors, art¬ists or dancers would be grim. Yet these are the subjects given least importance, if they’re even available, in school.
Our archaic system is rigid; there are right and wrong answers, you pass or fail and only one kind of intelligence is honoured. Children without this specific left-brain skill learn that they cannot learn and may never discover their natural flair or talent. The key to cre¬ativity is a willingness to have a go, fail and try again, so it is time to question the damage repeated failure does to our creative instinct.
The problem is not confined to the kids who do not succeed in school, but also those who do. In the next 30 years there will be more people graduating from university then since the begin¬ning of history, and we are already expe¬riencing academic inflation. Historically a degree guaranteed you a job, unless, as Robinson admits, you did not want one. Today, a degree might not get you an interview, a master’s is the new degree and a doctorate the new mas¬ter’s. We could end up with a world full of scholars who have never had a job.
In his subsequent talk ‘Bring on the Learning Revolution’, Robinson ad¬dresses the current “crisis of human resources”. He believes that when we are educated away from our natural creativity we end up “enduring rather than enjoying” what we do. Our “linear system” of education is based on the faulty presumption that life works in a straight line, instead of the organic ever-changing system it actually is. This “linear” thinking leads to a fast-food philosophy of education, where every¬thing is standardised and passion and spirit are sacrificed for conformity, while diversity of talent is ignored.
Before despairing and rushing out to home school your kids, all is not lost, however; Robinson believes an edu¬cational revolution is on the way. As we witness institution after institu¬tion crumbling, it is clear we have to do things differently. He dreams of a system that values creativity as much as literacy, where children’s natural capaci¬ties are automatically nurtured and encouraged. It’s a very exciting prospect – just imagine children who need to move to learn no longer being diag¬nosed with ADD or ADHD and medi¬cated to sit still. These little activists could learn by doing, making, con¬structing while our bespectacled nerds, no longer forced through the tedium of mainstream subjects, spend all day playing chess while solving quadratic equations. Our dreamers would be writ¬ing, singing and performing while the hands-on kids make the props and sort the sound and lighting. The old system of craft guilds and apprenticeships flourish and are valued as much as aca¬demic qualifications; we have teachers who teach, just because they love kids and all of them can dance.
While we’re waiting for this utopia to emerge, we can help start the revolu¬tion now. Stop telling your kids to sit still, let them wriggle and fidget, chew and tap their pencils, sing and dance, whatever they need to do, to learn. We can see school as Robinson describes it as “a protracted process of university entrance that educates them away from their creative capacity” and relax about homework, exams, and their future. We can start seriously listening to their dreams and do everything we can to nurture them.
Last night, I sat down with our son who shares my dyscalculia (big word for a hatred of maths) to tackle his geometry homework. Immediately, I felt my anxiety rising. What if he can’t get the concepts? Fails all his exams? Before I knew it, I had him dropping out of school, taking drugs, and living as a down and out in a shop doorway! Then an image of Ken Robinson chuck¬ling away to himself floated into my mind and I let out the breath I hadn’t realised I was holding. I said a silent prayer of thanks to him, for teaching me that school concentrates enough on the left side of his head – the rest of him is my job.
To hear Ken Robinson go to: www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html
Niamh Morrin is a senior occupational therapist, a qualified life and business coach and an advanced EFT practitioner