How schools kill creativity: Forget standardized tests, here's how we really engage our kids

Test makers rake in bucks, students and teachers chafe under the strain. Here's a better way forward for everyone

Published April 26, 2015 2:30PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Marilyn Nieves</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(Marilyn Nieves via iStock)

From "Creative Schools" 

I’ve now worked in education for more than forty years as a teacher, researcher, trainer, examiner, and adviser. I’ve worked with all sorts of people, institutions, and systems in education and with businesses, governments, and cultural organizations. I’ve directed practical initiatives with schools, districts, and governments; taught in universities; and helped to set up new institutions.

In all of this, I’ve been pushing for more balanced and individualized and creative approaches to education. In the last ten years especially, I hear people everywhere saying how exasperated they are by the deadening effects of testing and standardization on them, their children, or their friends. Often they feel helpless and say there’s nothing they can do to change education. Some people tell me they enjoy my talks online but are frustrated that I don’t say what they can do to change the system. I have three responses. The first is, “It was an eighteen-minute talk; give me a break.” The second is, “If you’re really interested in what I think, I’ve published various other books, reports, and strategies on all of this, which you may find helpful.” The third response is this book.

I’m often asked the same questions: What’s going wrong in education and why? If you could reinvent education, what would it look like? Would you have schools? Would there be different types? What would go on in them? Would everyone have to go, and how old would they have to be? Would there be tests? And if you say I can make a difference in education, where do I begin?

The most fundamental question is, what is education for? People differ sharply on this question. Like “democracy” and “justice,” “education” is an example of what the philosopher Walter Bryce Gallie called an “essentially contested concept.” It means different things to different people according to their cultural values and how they view related issues like ethnicity, gender, poverty, and social class. That doesn’t mean we can’t discuss it or do anything about it. We just need to be clear on terms.2 So, before we go on, let me say a few words about the terms “learning,” “education,” “training,” and “school,” which are sometimes confused.

Learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills. Human beings are highly curious learning organisms. From the moment they’re born, young children have a voracious appetite for learning. For too many, that appetite starts to dull as they go through school. Keeping it alive is the key to transforming education. Education means organized programs of learning. The assumption of formal education is that young people need to know, understand, and be able to do things that they wouldn’t if left to their own devices. What those things are and how education should be organized to help students learn them are core issues here.

Training is a type of education that’s focused on learning specific skills. I remember earnest debates as a student about the difficulty of distinguishing between education and training. The difference was clear enough when we talked about sex education. Most parents would be happy to know their teenagers had sex education at school; they’d probably be less happy if they’d had sex training.

By schools, I don’t mean only the conventional facilities that we are used to for children and teenagers. I mean any community of people that comes together to learn with each other. School, as I use the term here, includes homeschooling, un-schooling, and informal gatherings both in person and online from kindergarten to college and beyond. Some features of conventional schools have little to do with learning and can actively get in the way of it. The revolution we need involves rethinking how schools work and what counts as a school. It’s also about trusting in a different story about education.

We all love stories, even if they’re not true. As we grow up, one of the ways we learn about the world is through the stories we hear.

Some are about particular events and personalities within our personal circles of family and friends. Some are part of the larger cultures we belong to— the myths, fables, and fairy tales about our own ways of life that have captivated people for generations. In stories that are told often, the line between fact and myth can become so blurred that we easily mistake one for the other. This is true of a story that many people believe about education, even though it’s not real and never really was. It goes like this: Young children go to elementary school mainly to learn the basic skills of reading, writing, and mathematics. These skills are essential so they can do well academically in high school. If they go on to higher education and graduate with a good degree, they’ll find a well-paid job and the country will prosper too.

In this story, real intelligence is what you use in academic studies: children are born with different amounts of this intelligence, and so naturally some do well at school and some don’t.

The ones who are really intelligent go on to good universities with other academically bright students. Those who graduate with a good university degree are guaranteed a well-paid
professional job with their own office. Students who are less intelligent naturally do less well at school. Some may fail or drop out. Some who finish high school may not go any further in education and look for a lower-income job instead. Some will go on to college but take less academic, vocational courses and get a decent service or manual job, with their own toolkit.

When it’s put so baldly, this story may seem too much of a caricature. But when you look at what goes on in many schools, when you listen to what many parents expect of and for their children, when you consider what so many policymakers around the world are actually doing, it seems that they really believe that the current systems of education are basically sound; they’re just not working as well as they should because standards have fallen. Consequently, most efforts are focused on raising standards through more competition and accountability. You may believe this story too and wonder what’s wrong with it.

This story is a dangerous myth. It is one of the main reasons why so many reform efforts do not work. On the contrary, they often compound the very problems they claim to be solving. The include the alarming rates of nongraduation from schools and colleges, the levels of stress and depression— even suicide— among students and their teachers, the falling value of a university degree, the rocketing costs of getting one, and the rising levels of unemployment among graduates and nongraduates alike.

Politicians often scratch their heads over these problems. Sometimes, they punish schools for not making the grade. Sometimes, they fund remedial programs to get them back on track.

But the problems persist and in many ways they’re getting worse. The reason is that many of these problems are being caused by the system itself. All systems behave in ways that are particular to them. When I was in my twenties in Liverpool, I made a visit to an abattoir.

(I don’t remember why now. I was probably on a date.) Abattoirs are designed to kill animals. And they work. Very few escape and form survivors clubs. As we came to the end, we passed a door that was marked “veterinarian.” I imagined this person was fairly depressed at the end of an average day, and I asked the guide why the abattoir had a veterinarian. Wasn’t it a bit late for that? He said that the veterinarian came in periodically to conduct random autopsies. I thought, he must’ve seen a pattern by now. If you design a system to do something specific, don’t be surprised if it does it. If you run an education system based on standardization and conformity that suppresses individuality, imagination, and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does.

There’s a difference between symptoms and causes. There are many symptoms of the current malaise in education, and they won’t be relieved unless we understand the deeper problems that underlie them. One is the industrial character of public education. The issue in a nutshell is this: most of the developed countries did not have mass systems of public education much before the middle of the nineteenth century. These systems were developed in large part to meet the labor needs of the Industrial Revolution and they are organized on the principles of mass production. The standards movement is allegedly focused on making these systems more efficient and accountable. The problem is that these systems are inherently unsuited to the wholly different circumstances of the twenty-first century.

In the last forty years, the population of the world has doubled from less than three billion to more than seven billion. We are the largest population of human beings ever to be on Earth at the same time, and the numbers are rising precipitously. At the same time, digital technologies are transforming how we all work, play, think, feel, and relate to each other. That revolution has barely begun. The old systems of education were not designed with this world in mind. Improving them by raising conventional standards will not meet the challenges we now face.

Don’t mistake me; I’m not suggesting that all schools are terrible or that the whole system is a mess. Of course not. Public education has benefited millions of people in all sorts of ways, including me. I could not have had the life I’ve had but for the free public education I received in England. Growing up in a large working-class family in 1950s Liverpool, my life could have gone in a completely different direction. Education opened my mind to the world around me and gave me the foundations on which I’ve created my life.

For countless others, public education has been the path to personal fulfillment or the route out of poverty and disadvantage. Numerous people have succeeded in the system and done well by it. It would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise. But far too many have not benefited as they should from the long years of public education. The success of those who do well in the system comes at a high price for the many who do not. As the standards movement gathers pace, even more students are paying the price of failure. Too often, those who are succeeding are doing so in spite of the dominant culture of education, not because of it. So what can you do? Whether you’re a student, an educator, a parent, an administrator, or a policymaker— if you’re involved in education in any way—you can be part of the change. To do that, you need three forms of understanding: a critique of the way things are, a vision of how they should be, and a theory of change for how to move from one to the other.

If you want to change education, it’s important to recognize what sort of system it is. It is neither monolithic nor unchanging, which is why you can do something about it. It has many faces, many intersecting interests, and many potential points of innovation. Knowing this helps to explain why and how you can change it. The revolution I’m advocating is based on different principles from those of the standards movement. It is based on a belief in the value of the individual, the right to self-determination, our potential to evolve and live a fulfilled life, and the importance of civic responsibility and respect for others. As we go on, I’ll elaborate on what I see as the four basic purposes of education: personal, cultural, social, and economic. As I see it, the aims of education are to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens.

This book is full of examples from many sorts of schools. It draws on the work of thousands of people and organizations working to transform education. It is also supported by the most current research available that is being put into effective practice. My aim here is to offer a coherent overview of the changes that are urgently needed in and to schools. It includes the transforming context of education, the dynamics of changing schools, and core issues of learning, teaching, curriculum, assessment, and policy. The inevitable price of a big picture is reduced detail in parts of it. For that reason, I refer you often to the work of others, which dwells more deeply than I can here on some of the issues I need to cover more quickly.

I’m fully aware of the intense political pressures bearing down on education. The policies through which these pressures exert themselves must be challenged and changed. Part of my appeal (as it were) is to policymakers themselves to embrace the need for radical change. But revolutions don’t wait for legislation. They emerge from what people do at the ground level. Education doesn’t happen in the committee rooms of the legislatures or in the rhetoric of politicians. It’s what goes on between learners and teachers in actual schools. If you’re a teacher, for your students you are the system. If you’re a school principal, for your community you are the system. If you’re a policymaker, for the schools you control you are the system.

If you’re involved in education in any way you have three options: you can make changes within the system, you can press for changes to the system, or you can take initiatives outside the system. A lot of the examples in this book are of innovations within the system as it is. Systems as a whole are capable of changing too, and in many ways they already are. The more innovation there is within them, the more likely they are to evolve as a whole.

From "Creative Schools" by Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica, published April 21, 2015, by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Ken Robinson, 2015.

By Dr. Ken Robinson

Ken Robinson is one of the world’s most influential educators. Listed by Fast Company as “one of the world’s elite thinkers on creativity and innovation” and ranked among the Thinkers50 of the world’s top business thought leaders, he advises governments, corporations, and leading cultural institutions.

MORE FROM Dr. Ken Robinson

By Lou Aronica

Lou Aronica is the author of four novels and coauthor of The Element and Finding Your Element. He lives in Connecticut.

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