Creativity is as important as literacy

Where’s the innovation in our education system?

I had a question posed by one of my readers yesterday about innovation in education. She contends that our public schools have become “test factories powered by child labour where there is only one correct answer for each question”. Many parents I know have expressed frustration at our public school system’s inability to inspire children to learn. The reader who posed this question is from the US but the same could also be said of Australia. How innovative are our schools and what are they doing to engage, inspire and re-imagine the idea of learning for our children?

I am a mother of three small people so I am also keenly interested in what inspires children.  I understand the concern about this idea of a “test factory” and I have also started to explore avenues outside of the traditional structures of education to find ways to engage and inspire them. When it comes to “education” surely some of the most important things we can do are >
a) help our children find things they’re passionate about so that they might to engage optimistically and passionately with the world
b) encourage in them a sense of curiousness to help them understand that life is about exploring – opportunities, relationships and experiences
c) instil in them a value of delayed gratification so that they will live beyond the moment as well as in the moment
d) appreciate and feel grateful for what they have, so that they will learn to be positive, content and in control of their own happiness

A great article by Steve Denning published in Forbes Magazine poses the question >  how do we inspire lifelong learning in students, so that they are able to have full and productive lives in a rapidly shifting economy?

I’m not sure how we achieve that in the traditional schooling system but I do know that we can try and model those behaviours ourselves. I also know that creativity and innovation are two things majorly lacking in most school systems, yet they are two of the most important traits a person can develop. There has been lots of talk about the need for innovation in our schooling system but much of the conversation appears to be focused around preparing children for a brave new world with the increasing reliance on technology and the changing business world. There is less conversation on innovation in order to re-engage and inspire. The two are not mutually exclusive but the second part of that point is as important as the first.

Given that the factory model of management doesn’t work very well, even in the few factories that still remain in this country, or anywhere else in the workplace for that matter, we should hardly be surprised that it doesn’t work well in education either. . .  So why should we expect anything different in the education sector? … Given this context, I believe that the single most important idea for reform in K-12 education concerns a change in goal. The goal needs to shift from one of making a system that teaches children a curriculum more efficiently to one of making the system more effective by inspiring lifelong learning in students, so that they are able to have full and productive lives in a rapidly shifting economy. . . This is a shift from running the system for the sake of the system (“You study what we tell you to study, when we tell you, and how we tell you, and at a pace that we determine”) to a focus on the ultimate goal of learning (“Our goal is to inspire our students to become life-long learners with a love of education, so that they will be able to learn whatever they have to.”) All parties—teachers, administrators, unions, parents and students—need to embrace the new goal.” Steve Denning

Denning argues that our education system has suffered from a top down factory management style for too long and that The system” grinds forward, at ever increasing cost and declining efficiency, dispiriting students, teachers and parents alike. Read the full article here

Further to Denning’s point on management style, I am reminded of a previous post I’d written after watching Dan Pink’s clip on TED  [for those of you who don’t watch TED it’s a cracking site for a bit of buzz uptop] and he talks about how to motivate people, namely staff. His theory is that traditional notions of management are great if you want compliance but if you want engagement, self direction is better. Pink’s proposition is that autonomy, mastery and purpose are the new building blocks of an entirely new way of thinking about staff for the 21st century.  It’s not about beating people with a bigger stick, it’s about tapping into our desire to do things because we like them, because they’re interesting, because they matter, because we’re part of something bigger. Pink contends that the 3 key things that drive people are:

Autonomy – because we all want to feel like we are in charge (to some extent) of our own destiny. The urge to direct our own lives.

Mastery – The desire to get better and better at something that matters.

Purpose – The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Sound familiar? check out the TED video here

Creativity is as important as literacy

Here’s another video worth watching by Ken Robinson taken from TED on why he thinks school kills creativity.

Everyone has an interest in education don’t they? It’s one of those things that goes deep with people. We all have a huge vested interested. It’s education that’s meant to take us into a future we can’t grasp. Nobody has a clue of what the world will look like then but yet we’re meant to be educating them for it. We are all in agreement about the extraordinary skills children have in creativity and innovation. Robinson’s contention is that all kids have talent and that we squander it ruthlessly. If you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never come up with any original. When children grow up to be adults they are no long prepared to be wrong. In fact, as we get older we stigmatise mistakes. It’s Robinson’s contention that we are educating people out of their creativity. We don’t grow up to become creative. We are all born creative and we actually grow out of it. Robinson’s contention is that creativity is as important as literacy. It’s definitely worth a watch.

The whole structure of education is shifting beneath our feet.

It used to be that if you had a degree you got a job. According to UNESCO in the next 30 years more people will be graduating through education than ever before. Suddenly degrees aren’t worth anything. Everyone has one. Where once you needed a BA for something, now you need an MA. Where once you neededan MA now you need a Phd.

It’s called academic inflation.  If you haven’t read much of Robinson’s work, get onto it. He’s a cracker thinker.


A curious design-focused human with an insatiable appetite for learning driven by the endless desire to make things.

9 thoughts on “Creativity is as important as literacy

  1. Dear Malachite,

    Thanks so much for your comment. Your approach sounds like it worked fantastically well for your son. I agree that Montessori and Steiner schools aren’t necessarily the answer but what we can learn from them, is their approach to learning. They see themselves as facilitating learning, which is essentially what you did with your son. You facilitated and encouraged an interest in learning and reading, rather than teaching to spec.

    I think as parents, we need to be more involved in our children’s learning so that we can see ourselves as necessary parts of that process also.

    thanks for stopping by

  2. My son at 7 was a lousy reader, yet loved stories. Complicated, interesting, engaging stories. He could (and still can) tell great stories straight from his imagination, he loved and loves listening to people tell great stories, and even read great stories to him, but reading was a huge chore to him.

    Why? Because stories like “We went to to the park. We saw a duck. ‘Hello Duck.” “Quack,” said the duck.” bored him senseless compared to the great and epic adventures he *wanted* to read, the great and epic stories already in his imagination.

    So we sat together and he read the easy words of Lord of the Rings, and I read the hard words for him.

    The teacher entirely failed to believe he had read Lord of the Rings, given his lousy skills and lack of interest in the class. She continued to give him low level, boring kid’s “early readers” and he continued to fail at reading *at school*. But at home, he was reading the sci-fi and fantasy books I was reading. With my help, of course, but he*wanted* to read them.

    Over the summer, with my help, and with a subject that engaged his imagination, he got much better at reading – because we weren’t “practicing reading” to meet some particular grade requirement, we were enjoying stories. Reading was just how we did it.

    Thankfully, his reading skills had improved enough he could move on from ‘early readers’ and can now read books that have decent stories in them in the class.

    But had we not engaged his imagination and got him focusing on the joy of the story, rather than whether he could read all of the words in the ‘Grade 11 word list’ so he could move on to ‘Grade 12 readers’, we’d still have a kid who was “very behind in reading and therefore behind in everything.”

    I don’t blame the teacher – thats what she had been told to do, what she *had* to do, and in a class of 33 she didn’t have the time to be innovative for one “slow” kid when most of the others were passing the departmental requirements. But it tells me that /teaching to the test/ is not “teaching” as such, it is a factory – one that is simply producing “goods” that meet “specification”. Any “goods” that fail to meet “specification” are simply discarded because there is no room for examining and overcoming the reasons for non-compliance. Discarding the “failures” is a more efficient, delivers more “share holder value than re-working the “failures.” And who cares what happens to the “failures” anyway, as long as the targets and quotas are met and the share holders are happy with their returns?

    Montessori and Steiner schools, and other independent, schools, might be better, but alas, I can’t afford them. I am just so very glad we had the desire and the resources to be able to be innovative with his education at home, and now with that “rework” hopefully he will continue to be a student product that is within the educational specification.

  3. Thank you for all of the resources and thoughtful comments!

    I have an amazing professor who is passionate about language and wondering. She started me on the road to listening…I mean really listening to my students – not talking at them. As Steve Denning noted, this is an integral part of changing the educational system. It sounds easy, but it takes practice if you have been immersed in “teaching to the test”.
    It is disheartening how little we actually listen to our children. I am constantly battling to do so. It is exciting not to mention respectful and humane.

    I have also viewed the TED presentation by Ken Robinson and have since read his book, The Element.

    That is when I started wondering about what inspires my elementary age students and how I would go about hearing their stories of inspiration. Do they even know what this word means? What words do I use to ask them to share their experiences? How would I “catch” them in the “act”? How do I set up an environment that supports and nurtures them to become inspired? How could I document their voices and choices qualitatively for my dissertation? These are questions I am grappling with. Any thoughts or ideas are more than welcome.

    Has anyone out their read or written any research on children and what inspires them…documenting their experiences and their stories?

    What if I read them picture books with characters that are inspired? Perhaps then, we could start a discussion and develop a language that explains what inspiration means to them. Any titles come to mind? I may even write one or better yet, my students can write their own once we have a shared understanding of what it means.

    This may all sound a bit sappy, but I believe our world will become a better place if we embrace and support this… nurture our children and their thinking!

    Thank you again for the links and recommendations. Nancy

  4. There is a huge problem with our education system and it starts in primary school when we start “teaching” our children how to think, what to say and how to behave. Robinson is right, we “teach” the creativity out of children. Great post.

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