In 2006, educator and author Ken Robinson gave a TED Talk called, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" At over 45 million views, it remains the most viewed talk in TED's history.
Robinson's premise is simple: our current education system strips young people of their natural creativity and curiosity by shaping them into a one-dimensional academic mold. This mold may work for some of us, particularly, as he states, if we want to become university professors; but for many of us, our innate abilities and sprouting passions are at best ignored and at worst destroyed by modern schooling.
In his TED Talk, Robinson concludes:
I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won't serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we're educating our children.
Education by Force
Robinson echoes the concerns of many educators who believe that our current forced schooling model erodes children's vibrant creativity and forces them to suppress their self-educative instincts. In his book, Free To Learn, Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray, writes:
In the name of education, we have increasingly deprived children of the time and freedom they need to educate themselves through their own means... We have created a world in which children must suppress their natural instincts to take charge of their own education and, instead, mindlessly follow paths to nowhere laid out for them by adults. We have created a world that is literally driving many young people crazy and leaving many others unable to develop the confidence and skills required for adult responsibility.
Compelling research shows that when children are allowed to learn naturally, without top-down instruction and coercion, the learning is deeper and much more creative than when children are passively taught. University of California at Berkeley professor Alison Gopnik finds in her studies with four-year-olds, as well as similar studies out of MIT, that self-directed learning – not forced instruction – elevates both learning outcomes and creativity.
Gopnik's research involved young children learning how to manipulate a specific toy that would make certain sounds or exhibit certain features in certain sequences. She found that when children were directly taught how to use the toy they were able to replicate the results and quickly get to the "right answer" on their own by loosely mimicking what the teacher demonstrated.
But when the children were instead allowed to learn without direct instruction – to play with the toy, explore its features, and discover its capabilities on their own – they were able to get to the "right answer" in fewer steps than the taught children. The self-directed children also revealed other parts of the toy that could do interesting things – which the taught children did not discover.
Gopnik summarizes this research in her Slate article, stating:
Perhaps direct instruction can help children learn specific facts and skills, but what about curiosity and creativity – abilities that are even more important for learning in the long run? ...While learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes them less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution.
Learning Not Schooling
Conformity may have been the social and economic goal of the 19th-century architects of the top-down, compulsory schooling model, but the 21st-century economy demands creativity. We now need a learning model of education, rather than a schooling one.
As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt stated, "every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003."
It is impossible to think that an archaic, industrial model of forced schooling can keep pace with a new, technologically-enabled, information-saturated economy that requires agility, inventiveness, collaboration, and continuous knowledge-sharing. A truly transformative 21st-century education model will cultivate, rather than crush, human creativity.