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School Kills Intelligence

Posted by Bryan Wilks on Sunday, June 23, 2013
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Based on the ideas of creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson who challenges the way we’re educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.

My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.

I heard a great story recently of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was six and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, “What are you drawing?” And the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” And the teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like.” And the girl said, “They will in a minute.”

Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll try. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. We run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatize mistakes. We’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. The result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said “all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it. So why is this?

Every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Every one. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. In pretty much every system too, there’s a hierarchy within the arts. Art and music are normally given a higher status in schools than drama and dance. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance everyday to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not? I think this is rather important. I think math is very important, but so is dance. Children dance all the time if they’re allowed to, we all do. Truthfully, what happens is, as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up then we focus on their heads and slightly to one side.

If you were to visit education, as an alien, and say “What’s it for, public education?” I think you’d have to conclude, if you look at the output, who really succeeds by this, who does everything that they should, who gets all the brownie points, who are the winners. I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. They’re the people who come out the top. I like university professors (my dad was one), but you know, we shouldn’t hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement. They’re just a form of life, another form of life. They’re rather curious, and I say this out of affection for them. There’s something curious about professors in my experience, not all of them, but typically — they live in their heads. They live up there, and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied, you know, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads, don’t they? It’s a way of getting their head to meetings. If you want real evidence of out-of-body experiences, by the way, get yourself along to a residential conference of senior academics, and pop into the discotheque on the final night. There you will see it — grown men and women writhing uncontrollably, off the beat, waiting until it ends so they can go home and write a paper about it.

Our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there’s a reason. There were no public systems of education, really, before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas. Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist. Benign advice — now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution and the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. The consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized and I think we can’t afford to go on that way.

In the next 30 years, according to UNESCO, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than since the beginning of history. More people, and it’s the combination of technology and its transformation effect on work, and demography and the huge explosion in population. Suddenly, degrees aren’t worth anything. Isn’t that true? When I was a student, if you had a degree, you had a job. If you didn’t have a job it’s because you didn’t want one. Now kids with degrees are often heading home to carry on playing video games, because you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a PhD for the other. It’s a process of academic inflation. It indicates the whole structure of education is shifting beneath our feet. We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.

We know three things about intelligence. One, it’s diverse. We think about the world in all the ways that we experience it. We think visually, we think in sound, we think kinesthetically. We think in abstract terms, we think in movement. Secondly, intelligence is dynamic. If you look at the interactions of a human brain intelligence is wonderfully interactive. The brain isn’t divided into compartments. In fact, creativity — which I define as the process of having original ideas that have value — more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.

The brain is intentionally — by the way, there’s a shaft of nerves that joins the two halves of the brain called the corpus callosum. It’s thicker in women. I think this is probably why women are better at multi-tasking. There’s a raft of research, but I know it from my personal life. If she’s cooking she’s dealing with people on the phone, she’s talking to the kids, she’s painting the ceiling, she’s doing open-heart surgery lol! If I’m cooking, the door is shut, the kid is out, the phone’s on the hook, if she comes in I get annoyed. Actually, you know that old philosophical thing, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, did it happen? Remember that old chestnut? I saw a great t-shirt really recently which said, “If a man speaks his mind in a forest, and no woman hears him, is he still wrong?”

The third thing about intelligence is, it’s distinct. I’m fascinated by how people got to be there. Most people have never heard of Gillian Lynne. She did “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.” When she was at school, she was really hopeless. In the ’30s her school wrote to her parents and said, “We think Gillian has a learning disorder.” She couldn’t concentrate; she was fidgeting. I think now they’d say she had ADHD. 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. Anyway, she went to see this specialist. So, this oak-paneled room, and she was there with her mother, and she was led and sat on this chair at the end, and she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school. At the end of it because she was disturbing people; her homework was always late; and so on, little kid of eight — in the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said, “Gillian, I’ve listened to all these things that your mother’s told me, and I need to speak to her privately.” He said, “Wait here. We’ll be back; we won’t be very long,” and they went and left her but as they went out the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. When they got out the room, he said to her mother, “Just stand and watch her.” The minute they left the room she was on her feet, moving to the music. They watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.” They did she say’s and “I couldn’t tell you how wonderful it was. We walked in this room and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think. They did ballet; they did tap; they did jazz; they did modern; they did contemporary.” She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School; she became a soloist; she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School and founded her own company — the Gillian Lynne Dance Company — met Andrew Lloyd Weber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history; she’s given pleasure to millions; and she’s a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.

I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity and for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children. There was a wonderful quote by Jonas Salk, who said, “If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.” And he’s right.

We have to be careful now that we use this gift wisely 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 that they are. Our task is to educate their whole being, so they can face this future. By the way — we may not see this future, but they will. Our job is to help them make something of it.

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