Why Are Schools Still Killing Creativity?

While I was having an interesting discussing on education with a fellow language teacher, we somehow ended up talking about a TED talk on creativity that I had come across a while ago and that he turned out to know as well.

Remembering how much I liked it, I thought I’d re-watch it and share it with you guys. If you are interested in the topic of education, this is a definite must-see:

At the TED conference in February of 2006, Sir Ken Robinson spoke about “How Schools Kill Creativity.”

As I looked closer now, I found that since then he’s done two more TED speeches. They might not be as popular, but they are also very good and make vital points: “Bring on the learning revolution!” from 2010 and “How to escape education’s death valley” from 2013.

Before I discuss those speeches, I’d like to give you a concise summary of his main arguments from all three videos:

We make very poor usage of our real talents. Many people go through their entire life not sure what their talents are, or not even aware that they have any. There are people who love what they do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. But that is the minority. Most people don’t. They endure without getting any great pleasure and just wait for the weekend.

Education has a big part in this calamity for various reasons:

1) Schools are supposed to educate us for a future that they don’t know and cannot predict. We have no idea what the world will be like when the kids coming to school now graduate. So creativity is vital. It is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it accordingly.

2) Children are born with an innate capacity for innovation. They can be innovative because they aren’t scared of being wrong. If they don’t know, they just take a chance and have a go. As they grow up, they lose this capacity. They become scared of being wrong. Or rather, are taught by schools (and later by the companies they work for) that being wrong is the worst you can possibly do. But without daring to be wrong, there can be no innovation because no new paths are ever taken.

3) The education system we currently have dislocates people from their real talents. Education systems all over the world seem to have one sole purpose: to either prepare people for entering university and become overly intellectual professors or prepare them for entering a workplace akin to those during the age of industrialization. Subjects that supposedly foster talents useful for those goals are overindulged in (e.g. Mathematics and Languages), whereas creative subjects such as the Arts are at the very bottom of the education hierarchy.

4) The current system is thus built on standardization and equalization. Students are judged only by how well they do at school (i.e. in standardized testing) while the things they might be good at in other areas are not valued. If they don’t fit into the system or question what they have to learn, it is assumed that there is something wrong with them. But people are not all the same. We all have different aptitudes, talents, and passions, so a one-size-fits-all approach is not a sensible solution.

As a result of 3) and 4), many people opt out of education because they don’t enjoy it and don’t feel they are getting any benefits from it. And why is that? Because it does not feed their passions—even discourages them because schools and parents think that they’d never get a job doing that, where it is hard enough already without discouragement to find out what our true passions are because we are often good at things that we don’t really care for.

So if we are supposed to be satisfied with what we do, we need to do things we are passionate for, something we love. Why? If you do something you love, an hour feels like 5 minutes. If you do something you don’t care about, 5 minutes feel like an hour. Schools should create the circumstances to make people’s real talents surface.

Education can no longer afford to continue this course. The world has changed and degrees are now far from guaranteeing a good job because of a process of academic inflation. Human communities depend on diversity of talent while the school system is promoting a singular perception of ability and intelligence. This way will not serve us in a changing world that holds many challenges for humankind requiring original thoughts.

Reforms of the education system are everywhere, but they just play around with a broken system. A reform is not enough. The system has to be reinvented. But bringing about a fundamental change in education is difficult because we all have a number of fundamental believes that we take for granted and never question. And since we take them so much for granted it is very difficult to even identify them.

The answer is personalized education that caters to kid’s talents. A new education system is needed in which people develop their own solutions based on the external support of a personalizable curriculum.

So what are the basic assumptions that this new education system should be based on? There are 3 principles under which human life flourishes:

1) Humans are naturally different and diverse. A good education system puts equal importance to all subjects.

2) Children are natural learners, so if you cater to their curiosity, they won’t be forced to learn. People spend a lot of time talking about education without ever mentioning learning. But without learning there is no education taking place. The role of a teacher is to facilitate learning, no more. Instead of having to follow routine, standardized algorithms, they should be allowed to excite imagination and curiosity.

3) Human life is inherently creative. We create our lives and we can recreate them while we live them. Education should awaken this power of creativity.

Kids can prosper when the curriculum incorporates their various talents, when it recognizes that they are the ones learning. They should develop education, not some school board in a senate room. School has to engage them, their curiosity, their individuality, and their creativity. If schools can create a climate of possibility, learning will be happening.


I love Robinson’s talks, not only because he is a charismatic and hilariously funny public speaker, but also because I think he is right in so many ways.

The world around us is changing so rapidly, who are we to decide which facts children will need to know in their future? We should not be teaching facts. We should be teaching skills; useful skills that will help them to accomplish their goals.

I think I’ve said it before, but on the top of the list for me are learning how to learn, how to communicate your ideas to others and listen critically but actively to theirs, and be able to adapt to new circumstances that might come your way. And, first and foremost: self-confidence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic motivation.

The jobs that the kids going to school now will do in the future might not even exist yet. Let’s be honest, 10-15 years ago, who’d have thought that today we’d have people writing blogs, producing YouTube videos or podcasts, or managing social media sites of companies for a living?

The one thing that education should really do is to inspire people to find their very own goals and to give them the basic skills and self-confidence to achieve them.

I find it sad but very true that so many people actually don’t enjoy their jobs but just wait for the weekend. In my opinion, it is not only the schools that cause this calamity, though. It is also the employers who don’t care what their employees are passionate about. It is not only we making too little use of our talents but also companies making too little use of the talents of the people in their employment.

It wouldn’t have to be that way. Employees could be given some hours in the week to pursue own ideas. Work environments could be nicer and could encourage creative thinking. Working hours could be more flexible and people could be given more free time so they come to work refreshed and relaxed.

As for education drop-outs, I think the dark figure is so much higher than we could ever imagine. The people who actually leave the building we can count. What we cannot count are the people who decide to stay physically but drop out mentally.

School has not managed to pique their curiosity or encouraged them to find their real talents, but still they stay because they are being told that they won’t get anywhere in life without graduating (which, sadly, is often true). So they endure and wait for the weekend. And the poor fellows are not even paid for the ordeal.

I’d personally count myself among those ranks. I’m a person naturally interested in many things and who loves learning new stuff. For some reason, though, my school never managed to awaken my interest. For some topics I’d even have to say that I remained interested DESPITE school.

Now that I start trying things out on my own initiative, I find that I have a lot of passions that I didn’t know of: DIY (I seriously sucked in Arts class), preparing food (we did that ONCE in my entire school life), writing (which I’m told I’m very good at, funny my teachers never thought to mention this), and computers (all self-taught, we never did anything useful with PCs in school).

What is so sad about the whole thing is that it really would not have to be that way. School subjects could let kids explore a field in their own way. Schools could allow kids to choose more what subjects they will need in their own future.

So, yes, we do need a fundamentally new school system. One that encourages difference and diversity, and one that caters to the natural curiosity and creativity of (young) learners instead of unteaching them. A system that allows learners to learn what they find important.

The only question that remains for me, however, is that since Robinson held this speech years ago—and it’s not like he’s the only person saying this—why are schools still killing creativity?

I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been tutoring children for years and time and again I find that they still suffer from the same shortcomings of the system that I suffered from years ago when I went to school. The “reforms” that have happened are just not helping. There certainly are good schools and a number of good teachers, but the system as a whole still sucks.

In my opinion, this problem runs much deeper than curriculums being made by school boards far removed from the actual school life. (Although it couldn’t hurt if they had to watch Robinson’s talks a few dozen times and learn them by heart before they get to decide anything.) This is also a problem of society as a whole.

Universities or job trainings are often no better than schools. Most employers want workers that just do their job and don’t look beyond the blinders so they stay cheap and compliant and always do what they are told. Most jobs that are interesting and creative are only done by freelancers because no-one is hiring. But laws and regulations for freelancers are so complicated (at least in Germany, I don’t know about other countries) that it is not that attractive to be one. At many universities, prospective school teachers learn much about the subject, but very little about teaching it. The whole system brings the wrong people into the wrong positions.

We should face it: These kids we are teaching today will shape their own—and also our—future. So firstly, we had better do a good job. And secondly, and this is the good part, if we change the school system now, it will change society in the long run…

Categories: Teaching and Learning | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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