The Case for Innate Creativity

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”  –Pablo Picasso

I’ve been fascinated over the past few years by the idea of creativity as a natural human endowment, a capacity we are born with, typically to have it subsequently beaten out of us on our way to adulthood.   

I was delighted today to watch a 20 minute talk given by Sir Ken Robinson entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?“, which was delivered at TED 2006.  Robinson explored the idea that our current education system, the world over, is structured to support anachronistic needs established in the Industrial Age, creating a hierarchical value system that places math and language ahead of the arts, and systematically diminishing our capacity for divergent thought by taking away our willingness to be wrong.

This experience is captured in raw and personal terms in John Lennon’s song, “Working Class Hero”:

When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty odd years,
and then they expect you to pick a career,
when you can’t really function you’re so full of fear,
a working class hero is something to be. 

My favorite story from Robinson’s talk is his retelling of how choreographer Gillian Lynne became a dancer.  Unable to sit still in her 1930s classroom, Lynne was thought by her educators to have a learning disorder; a doctor later told her mother, as they watched her move to music in the doctor’s office, she’s not sick, she’s a dancer.  Upon starting dance class, she was thrilled to be among others like her who “had to move to think.”

Robinson’s talk, informal and engaging, touches on some of the most important work going on in education psychology today, that of multiple intelligence theory.  Robinson’s story about Gillian Lynne serves as an example of kinesthetic learning

As I sit here writing, it occurs to me that the act of writing itself serves as my conduit to thinking.  I very much need to write out or talk through my thoughts.  Luckily for me, language skills are something valued by our education system.  As Robinson points out, though, if Lynne were a child today, her doctor would have prescribed some medication to allow her to sit still, rather than give her the opportunity to achieve her fullest potential.

I recall even recently, in a grad school course, a professor who simply couldn’t allow me to talk through my thoughts and ideas in class.   He would shut me down every time.   I’ve seen this behavior outside of education, too: parents who have so ridiculed and derided their child’s divergent behavior that the child is no longer willing to risk such behavior, and can no longer tolerate it in his peers.

We can lay this failing at the feet of educators, but the truth is, it is transformation we are seeking.  We must create the space in our culture–for ourselves and our children–to take risks, to discover our talents, and to find paths in life that allow us to make the most of those talents.

Thanks to Garr Reynolds at Presentation Zen for spreading the word about TED.

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