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Virginia Journal of Education


Why We Must Stoke Creativity

Creativity will become just as important as literacy and numeracy, says the author.

by Ken Robinson

Around the world, systems of public education are being reformed to try to meet the challenges of the 21st century. These challenges are economic and cultural. In many cases, they focus especially on raising standards of literacy and numeracy and on what are perceived to be essential academic abilities. There is mounting evidence that these approaches are inadequate to the challenges education faces. For economic and cultural reasons, it is essential that reforms in education should give equal weight to promoting creativity as a set of core competencies. Creativity in the 21st century will be as important to young people as literacy and numeracy. There are three core questions to consider—Why is it essential to promote creativity? What is the problem? What are the necessary strategies?

Mass systems of public education appeared relatively recently. In most cases, they developed in the 19th century to address particular economic and cultural imperatives. Economically, the context was the growth of industrialism. The industrial economy required a workforce that was roughly 80 percent manual, and mass education was designed to provide basic capacities in reading, writing and arithmetic. The industrial economy also required a workforce that was about 20 percent professional and had a higher level of education than the larger group.

If the purposes of education were shaped by economic imperatives, its character was often shaped by the intellectual interests of the universities, which put an emphasis on particular forms of academic achievement. For both reasons, in most systems of public education there is an implicit hierarchy of subjects. At the top are literacy, numeracy and the sciences. Then come the humanities and physical education. At the bottom are the arts. In the arts, there is usually an internal hierarchy, with art and music ranked higher than drama and dance.

The constitution and character of public education have been sustained for well over a century by a compelling narrative—if students worked hard, did well, and gained formal academic qualifications they would find secure, lifelong employment. In the process, the national economy would thrive and all would be well. This narrative is no longer true, as illustrated by the growing number of college graduates unable to find relevant work in the field of their degree and the declining value of academic qualifications in general. The essential problem is not that academic standards are falling. The evidence varies on this from country to country. It is that the basic foundations on which our systems of education were constructed are dissolving.

In order to come to grips with the real issues facing education and the importance of promoting creativity and innovation as core competencies, we need to engage three essential propositions, as outlined below.

Worldwide, we are caught up in a cultural and economic revolution. This revolution is being driven by technology on the one hand and by demography—changes in patterns of population—on the other. These forces are combining to create a world of increasing diversity, complexity and uncertainty. As a consequence, it is almost impossible to predict with any confidence the patterns of the future—economic, cultural or political.

Education must promote new conceptions of human ability. Current approaches to education and training are based on narrow ideas of intelligence and creativity that, however relevant in a previous age, are wasting untold talent and ability in ours. We need to embrace a more diverse and dynamic conception of human intelligence and possibility.

To develop these resources, we need radically new strategies. Our major institutions—including schools, universities and many public and private corporations—are modeled on the image of industrialism. They are hierarchical, linear in process, and compartmentalized into specialized inter¬nal functions. For the future, we need to rethink some of the basic processes and categories on which our organizations are based, and especially our schools.

Defining Creativity
There are three common misconceptions about creativity—only special people are genuinely creative, creativity is about certain sorts of activities (like the arts), and creativity is a gift and can’t be developed. It’s also commonly assumed that there is an important difference between creativity and intelligence—it’s possible to be creative but not very intelligent, or intelligent but not very creative.

It is important to counter these misconceptions and to recognize that everyone has profound creative capacities, that it is possible to be creative in all areas of human activity, and that it is both possible and essential to develop natural creative capacities into usable, practical competencies. There are three key terms—imagination, creativ¬ity and innovation.

Imagination is the basic gift of human intelligence. It is the capacity to bring to mind ideas or experiences that are not present to the senses. From this, all distinctively human achievements have grown. From the capacity to bring to mind experiences not present to the senses grows the more profound ability to bring to mind possibilities that had never been present—that is, to hypothesize, speculate, invent and create.

Creativity is the application of imagination to solving existing problems or conceiving new ones. It is the process of developing original ideas that have value. It is possible to be creative in anything at all that involves human intelligence. Creativity is applied imagination.

Innovation is the process of putting new ideas into practice. It is applied creativity.

Creative Intelligence
Education is dominated by a narrow conception of intelligence. Too often, intelligence in general is confused with academic ability in particular. Academic ability is important, but it is generally focused on particular types of logico-deductive reasoning, especially through words and numbers. There is much more to human intelligence than these particular types of ability, which have become so celebrated in schools. We know three things about intelligence:

1. Intelligence is diverse. We think about the world in all the ways in which we experience it—kinesthetically, visually, aurally, in numbers, in words, and in a host of other ways.

2. Intelligence is dynamic. The human brain is intensely interactive and dynamic. Mathematicians often think visually, dancers often think mathematically, and poets think spatially, as well as in all the other ways that their intelligence makes available to them.

3. Intelligence is distinct. Every one of us has a distinct profile of unique intellectual capacities, which is the result of our genetic inheritance and our biographical experiences.

Forms of Action
We urgently need to reconceive the character of education in terms of these features of intelligence and the chang¬ing purposes of education. This means making genuine reforms in our approaches to the following.

Curriculum. For the future, we have to give equal weight to disciplines that develop the many different aspects of individual ability and ways of learning. These include languages, mathematics, physical education and the arts and sciences. There are no grounds, cultural, economic or otherwise, for distinguishing between the importance of these disciplines, either in the minds of individuals or in the future success of nations and communities.

Teaching and learning. Good teaching is at the heart of good education. If education is to succeed in meeting the complex and diverse challenges of the future, it will only do so through a highly qualified and motivated force of teachers. The processes of teacher education must deepen understanding of the nature and necessity of creative thinking and teaching in all disciplines and at all levels of education.

Assessment and accountability. In all countries, there are proper attempts to raise education standards through public accountability. But raising standards is often con¬fused with standardization. The net effect is to flatten out individual differences between students and to demoral¬ize the teachers who work with them. Raising standards through creative achievement is both feasible and illus¬trated in various schools throughout the world.

The challenge is to make these processes systemic and publicly accountable through forms of assessment that engender, rather than suppress, creative education.

Partnership. In keeping with the industrial model, schools have developed in separate facilities often shaped as factories both in their design and forms of operation. For the future, we have to see education as a partnership between schools, the wider community, business and cultural organizations. In this sense, schools should not be seen as sole agencies of education but as hubs in a col¬laborative enterprise in which engaging with the wider world is normal practice.

The architects of education in the 19th century set about their task with a commanding vision. It is essential that those reforming education in the 21st century have a comparable vision and clarity about the challenges we now face. Children starting their education in 2005 will be retiring in 2065. We have no way of predicting what their lives will be like. The best we can do is prepare them for the complexities they may face by developing the prin¬cipal characteristics of human intelligence that will carry them through—the capacities for imagination, creativity and innovation. Developing these in all of our students should not be seen as peripheral to reforming education, but at its very core.

Robinson is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity and innovation. He is the author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative and The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. For more information, go to This article is drawn from a presentation he made at NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C. as part of NEA’s Visiting Scholars program.


Some Are Just Born to Dance

I met a wonderful woman named Gillian Lynne. She's a choreographer, and everybody knows her work. She did Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.

Gillian and I had lunch one day, and I said, "How did you get to be a dancer?" She told me that when she was at school, she couldn't concentrate, she was always fidgeting. The school wrote to her parents and said, "We think Gillian has a learning disorder." I think now they'd say she had ADHD. But this was the 1930s, and ADHD hadn't been invented at this point. It wasn't an available condition. People weren't aware they could have that.

So Gillian's mother took her to see this specialist. She sat on her hands for 20 minutes while her mother talked to this man about all the problems Gillian was having at school: She was disturbing people, and her homework was always late, and so on. In the end, the doctor sat next to Gillian and said, "Gillian, I've listened to all these things that your mother's told me. I need now to speak to her privately. Wait here -- we'll be back. We won't be very long."

As they went out of the room, he turned on the radio sitting on his desk. When they got out of the room, he said to her mother, "Just stand and watch her." The minute they left, she was on her feet, moving to the music. They watched for a few minutes, and he turned to her mother and said, "You know, Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn't sick. She's a dancer. Take her to a dance school."

I asked, "What happened?" and Gillian said, "She did. I can't tell you how wonderful it was. We walked into this room, and it was full of people like me. People who had to move to think." Who had to move to think.

She eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School and had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet and became a soloist. She later moved on, founded her own company, and met Andrew Lloyd Webber. She's been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history, she's given pleasure to millions, and she's probably a multimillionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.

I don't mean to say we are all dancers. But in a way, we are all Gillians. There are millions of Gillians. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we're educating our children. And the only way we'll do it is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are, and seeing our children for the hope they are. Our task is to educate our whole being so they can face this future. We may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it.

 --Ken Robinson, excerpted from a 2006 article he wrote in Edutopia magazine called “Take a Chance. . .Let Them Dance.”



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