A few weeks ago, to the delight of more than 1200 teachers, Sir Ken Robinson visited my town to espouse the virtues of creativity in our schools and speak on the need for our education system to change with the times. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Sir Robinson, he’s a rock star in the progressive education community. He’s a great speaker: charming, funny, inviting and personable. At $25 a ticket, you would have to be a pretty charismatic orator to make the subject of education reform so enamoring. In short, Robinson believes that our schools should focus more on nurturing creativity in students than teaching facts and subject-specific knowledge. In his view, our education system serves only to smother the innate, creative talents of its students.
Who would argue that cultivating creativity and nurturing a child’s talents isn’t of great importance to parents and teachers? The question, then, is how do we uncover and foster those talents and interests? For Robinson and other advocates of the creative curriculum, the answer is to allow young students to discover what is important and relevant to them and to give them room to take risks. Therefore actually teaching a determined set of skills and knowledge through direct instruction only kills creativity and innovation.
Robinson’s assertions, in reality, leave more questions than answers. How do we define creativity? Would we suggest that a world-class dancer is more creative than a mathematician? How do we assess or even determine if we’ve done enough to teach students “creativity”? While I believe that Robinson is sincere in his desire for effective change, his assertion that our schools should place a premium on creativity over subject specific knowledge rings hollow.
Yet parents and educators place a great deal of importance on the notion that our children’s education should not be about knowledge, information, facts or procedures – it should be about encouraging and nurturing their creativity. Let’s face it, we like how it sounds. “Creativity” hits all the right emotional buttons. Knowledge and facts sound so stifling. What well-meaning parents or educator wants to stifle the creative talents of their kids?
What seems to get lost in all this talk about creativity is the fact that knowledge – yes, even subject specific knowledge – is the foundation of creativity. Innovation – another word we often associate with creativity – comes from having a deep knowledge of what is being done in the present and improving on it. We can see this particularly in the area of technology. No software or computer hardware engineer simply created an innovative product without first having a deep well of knowledge and skills in math, coding and software engineering.
Maria Popova, creator of Brainpickings.org, sums it up well:
And that is the idea that creativity is combinatorial, that nothing is entirely original, that everything builds on what came before, and that we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and combining them into incredible new creations
So while inspiration may be the catalyst for creativity, it isn’t the engine. In fact, without the appropriate knowledge – whether that has been gained through formal schooling, mentoring, or experiences – an inspiring idea would never get off the ground. The problem is, speakers like Robinson would have us believe that creativity needs nothing more than the nourishment of our encouragement.
Few people realize, or they fail to consider, that the father of Amadeus Mozart was, in fact, a musician and teacher. It’s common for many of us, when we think of the musical genius of Mozart, to assume he was somehow born with the ability to fully compose remarkable concertos. Yet it was Mozart’s father who took the time to teach his son music from a very young age, starting him along his amazing path. I’m not suggesting that Mozart didn’t have musical talent—even exceptional talent—to begin with. However, his father didn’t merely sit back to see what would develop. He taught his son, directly, all of the basic skills needed to not only uncover prodigious ability but also excel with it. While our children may not demonstrate the giant talents of someone like Mozart, the message is clear: The mastery of basic, fundamental skills is the key to uncovering the interests and abilities of our kids.
Of course, those who decry the need for subject specific knowledge in our schools will also point out that subject specific knowledge is counter productive because, in the 21st century, information is constantly changing and, because of this, we have no idea what kinds of jobs there will be once our kids graduate. Yet, math doesn’t “change” with the times. It isn’t a relative truth. The way in which we use math may evolve with our technology but I would suggest that, in an age of new information and constantly advancing technology, there should be a greater emphasis on knowledge and skills – not less.
We should absolutely look to uncover, encourage, and nurture creativity in our kids. However, parents and teachers should be dubious about this romantic idea that creativity, without knowledge, is all that our students need in order to become innovative. If our system of education wishes to raise up students who are creative, innovative, and have the freedom to pursue their talents and interests, then we should be working toward ensuring they master foundational skills in math, writing, science, and so on. We do our children a disservice by not teaching them – directly and with expertise – the skills that will serve as the basis for understanding and creativity as they get older.
Also by Marc Lapointe