F for creativity

"F for creativity" by Greg Alder

This is a blog about creativity. It is also a blog about education. The two should be linked. But they are not.

If you’ve seen any presentations or read any books by Sir Ken Robinson PhD you will know how persuasively he argues that schooling stifles creativity, that school curricula are too narrow and education systems encourage conformity. Basically, he expresses everything that I believe about common modern education practice and its detrimental impact on creativity.

The first time I checked out the Ken Robinson website, I wanted to hug the computer screen. I stopped myself. Only just.

I had a ‘good’ education. I went to a ‘good’ school. I learnt to speak properly. I learnt to (mostly) get my grammar and spelling right.

As good as my schooling was, here’s where it fell down – what I was being programmed to deliver was the single correct answer to any given question. The right answer being the one that the examiner had in mind when asking the question. What I wasn’t being encouraged to do was explore my creativity – to search for the second right answer, or to ask if the question had validity in the first place, or a point of reference.

Creativity, thy name be Peter Cornish

In my last 2 years of high school, I had a teacher by the name of Peter Cornish. He taught English. Today I hold him single-handedly responsible for my interest in the English language and for my career as a writer. (He might shudder to learn that much of it has been spent writing advertising campaigns.)

What made Peter Cornish such a good teacher of English? He made me think. And that’s something that most education fails to do.

He would set topics for essays that were challenging. I recall one subject was clay. Another was ‘a face in a crowd’. A third was umbrellas.

Each of these forced me to think. And think. And think some more. I got the feeling that what was expected of us was to make up stories. He was testing our creativity. His were the only classes to do this.

At the time, I didn’t understand what he was doing. I was 17. I wanted to get my homework out of the way to play cricket or tennis or go sailing or hang out with friends.

The killer was the subject he gave the class one day – widdershins. When he announced this as the topic for an essay, there was silence. Soon afterwards there was the inevitable question – “Sir, what’s widdershins?” His response? “You have dictionaries.”

So that night I looked up widdershins in the dictionary. It means contrary to the direction of the sun. Hmm, I thought. Interesting, I thought … no, that’s a lie. What I would have thought was “bloody hell”.

This was English, not Science. I clearly had to get the creative juices flowing. In a 17 year old, lots of other juices are flowing – but none of them has anything to do with creativity.

The essay I handed in was a story about a man who left Australia flying east. When he landed somewhere in Latin America, he found he had travelled back in time – back several centuries. I don’t recall other details from my story, but I do remember the excitement at having been challenged to exercise my brain.

Now, others haven’t been as lucky as me. If you are at school right now, I’d say you are, in most cases, receiving a shocking education.

What’s wrong with education today

Political correctness is out of control. Political correctness murders creative thought.

Grammar and spelling seems to be optional. “Yous”, “Them and her”, “pizza’s” … WTF? (To borrow from texting – something else destroying our language.)

Students (and schools) are being evaluated on literacy and numeracy alone. In Australia, schools are ranked on student scores in these two tests. (As Stephen Levitt proved, schools are tempted to cheat when school grants are linked to student performance.) Where’s the test for creativity?

Primary schools can’t attract male teachers for fear they’ll be branded paedophiles.

Hell, most schools can’t attract or keep ANY teachers because the pay is abysmal and many are subjected to constant abuse from students and their parents.

Bullying is rampant. I have witnessed a 13 year-old receiving death threats!

Parents have failed to teach their kids social skills and schools aren’t up to the task of doing it. As a consequence, schools are largely inhabited by dysfunctional half-breeds with sociopathic tendencies. At 6 years of age.

Many kids will never recover from the education (or lack of it) they receive today. They will be doomed to labouring jobs. They will be unable to communicate their feelings. They grunt. Only the pitch or tone of their grunt gives a clue to their intention. Because they can’t communicate with words, they will likely resort to violence, shrink into seclusion or sink into depression as a substitute. Because they don’t know how to be creative, they become destructive. Because it’s easier to destroy something than create it.

Some will be lucky. Their natural inquisitiveness will somehow survive and they will educate themselves as adults. They will travel, read a diverse cross-section of books, magazines and websites. They will listen and listen and listen, absorbing the knowledge of others. They will learn to ask questions and to re-assemble facts into different shapes. They will somehow discover their creativity. The vast majority, however, are irreparably scarred for life.

If the education system hadn’t so successfully eradicated creativity, I wouldn’t have a career conducting workshops to help executives be creative in business. My friend Dr Wayne Lotherington wouldn’t have written How Creative People Connect or Flicking Your Creative Switch. I ought to be thankful. I feel sad.

It was great to see so respected an educator (as I now know him to be) as Sir Ken talking about some of these issues and the need to radically overhaul the modern education system to ensure the survival of the creative individual.

Will anybody listen? Will education be reformed?

Check back in another 40 years.

For more on the subject of education’s impact on creativity, check out this video on CNN.

5 Comments

  • Mike Doyle says:

    Brilliant article Greg, I couldn’t agree more. I also owe a great debt of gratitude to ma number of teachers; the Dominican nuns who taught me at high school and who were, single-mindedly, devoted to educating a rough bunch of boys into thinking individuals and also people like the dear departed John Gillard at the London College of Printing who on our first day held up the D&AD advertising award annual and dumped it in the waste bin. His first lesson was that’s all in the past; it’s now down to you, the student, to come up with fresh creative solutions for the future.

  • Gen Humphreys says:

    Like you Greg, I owe such a lot to my English teacher. Margaret Bauldry was one of the teachers who I still hold in great regard. Not only did she instill creativity, she challenged conformist thought and encouraged you to put forward your opinion in a positive way. You didn’t have to put forward a popular opinion … but you did have to have one … and it just had to be your own, constructively worded. A good life lesson for me and one that I wish was still prevalent in the education system.

    Good luck with the blog … second article read so far and I’m loving it!

    Cheers … Gen

    • Greg Alder says:

      Gen, I hope you also enjoy the other posts. Thank you so much for your feedback. It seems a number of us have a teacher who made a difference

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