Friday, February 15, 2008

Ken Robinson: Educating for Creativity

If you haven't seen this TED presentation by creativity expert Ken Robinson, it is worth watching. Robinson contends not that we are educated into creativity, but that we are educated out of it. Frequently on this blog I will receive comments that reflect a very deep sense of anger at teachers. Very often, this is connected to something I have written that seems prescriptive or judgmental (who, me?). This tells me something, not only about how my own personal style is received (and I usually attempt to modulate how I say things when it is brought to my attention), but to what extent our educational system is built not on helping students develop the skills and ideas they need to develop their own unique and individual selves, but rather on molding students into a specific shape that mostly matches what the teacher values. If you look at my guest post at "Theatre Is Territory," for instance, you will see something that sounds as if I am trying to allow young people to develop their own thoughts and feelings, but that actually reflects what it is that I value. I say that I have no interest in developing acolytes, and I say that the DDSers were good examples of independent thinkers, but let's look at it from another direction: I am a contentious thinker who feels it is necessary to challenge whatever is considered conventional wisdom about a particular issue, and so were the DDSers. So did I create acolytes? Perhaps so.

At the same time, what is the alternative? To "profess" (the root of "professor") is to persuade, right? Yes, as a teacher I have information to impart, but here is a fact: most of what I teach is compiled from books. Books that I get from the library; books that you can check out yourself. There is no magic here. As a teacher, I am given enough time to check out a stack of books, cull through them for information, and construct the gathered information into a memorable form. I have been taught how to determine what the "best" books are to look through, so that I don't waste an enormous amount of time trying to read a mountain of material. But the fact is that, with a little help, anyone could do the same thing. I teach theatre history to undergraduates -- what level of knowledge about, say, the commedia dell arte do I need to acquire to be able to communicate the basic information that a young theatre major needs to know about that topic? Do I need to be an expert in every aspect of the topic? No, I need to know the broad outline -- enough to cover in a 50-minute period, and a little more to answer questions. What makes me a good teacher -- and I am a good teacher, at least according to student evals -- is an ability to turn information (facts) into an interesting story so that the facts have some sort of relevance and so they stick.

But what my value really is as a teacher is not in the delivery of information in an interesting facts, but in "professing" an approach to life. If I am doing my job, students will be inspired -- not necessarily by the information, but by my engagement, my excitement, my ability to drag the past into the present and project it into the future. In that way, I don't mind creating acolytes. If young people can graduate and I see they are engaged and excited, then I feel as if I have done my job.

Nevertheless, and Sir Ken Robinson points out, professors often "live in their head and slightly over to one side." His story about the choreographer is a cautionary tale for all of us who educate young people. We have a tendency, as teachers, to see struggling by a student in terms of their failure rather than our own. We insist that they buckle down, focus, acquire discipline, but at the same time it may be that we just haven't been teaching in a way that allows the student to think. The choreographer, as a child, needed to move in order to think, but in our classrooms we make everyone sit still, whether that helps them or not. It is a humbling thing to realize how the things that you do out of a desire to empower and inspire may be having the opposite effect.

Ultimately, it may be impossible to do otherwise entirely, but being aware of one's own orientations and trying, as often as possible, to empower those who aren't naturally oriented in the same direction as you are is, I think an important thing to keep in mind. It is certainly something I wrestle with regularly.

Anyway, I hope you will watch Ken Robinson's very entertaining and thought-provoking TED speech. And while you're there (, watch some of the others as well.


Ian Mackenzie said...

This willingness to question your own paradigm is so great to hear.

I LOVED my teachers at school. Adored them. And I continued to love them long after I graduated. But now, almost a decade since I left those ivory halls, I see the limitations of that system more than ever. I walked into university a passionate and productive artist. I walked out of there mired in critical theory and self-doubt. I'm not sure that is what anybody intended, but it's what happened.

It's so important to ask why. I'm glad you're doing it here.

Anonymous said...

It is important to understand how to study, how to think, and how to communicate (teach). I wrote a book, "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better".

I also wrote a paper in Gifted Education Press Quarterly.

-Dr. Sanford Aranoff