Sunday, 17 August 2014

Creativity, Sir Ken Robinson and the Progressive Orthodoxy

Sir Ken Robinson has said pretty loudly that schools kill creativity and there´s been some push back against this idea from teachers. Tom Bennett, writer for TES, founder of ResearchED and English teacher says that to the extent Sir Ken´s vision can come true it already has. His argument, well worth reading, shows how professionals can be kind and sincerely dedicated to giving children opportunities and still fail to create a school system in which every child thrives.

Tom points out that no one is against creativity but he says it can´t be a goal of school to teach it because ´How do we measure it? No one has ever agreed on a method, or an assessment method, and many (me, for instance) say it can't even be taught in any way that resembles how we teach.´ That Education is inseperable from assessment goes without saying yet that´s exactly what Sir Ken is critizing. ´The way we teach´ is we decide what the children are going to learn, teach it to them and then test them to see if it stuck. The students´role in this process boils down to finding out what they have to say/write/draw to satisfy the teacher that the learning objective has been met. There´s nothing creative about repeating this process five times a day, a hundred and ninety days a year.

That Drama, Expressive Arts and Art are ´intrinsically and obviously creative´ is objectively and clearly less silly than saying they´re shy or forgetful. Does their inclusion in the curriculum represent job done for the forces of creativity? No. They are taught in the same way and are just as assessment driven. Take it from a man who´s invigilated a two-hour GCSE Dance exam.

In any case the creativity Sir Ken wants exists as ´group work, discovery learning and freethinking libertarianism´. Missing the point about the drawbacks of schools exclusively focussed on academic results, Tom says the fact that progressive strategies are the orthodoxy when it comes to maximising students´exam scores means Sir Ken ´isn´t Moses, he´s Pharoah´. He´s right there´s a lot of group work, but it´s purpose is to get individuals their results. Real teams have collective goals, they become more than the sum of their parts, motivating people because while few can aspire to be the most successful individual, all can aspire to be a member of the most successful team. Group work doesn´t tap this motivational well because the group´s achievement doesn´t count. Discovery learning may or may not be the most efficient way for students to find the answers you want, but that has no bearing on its efficacy when they are free to research what interests them and submit their work to debate with their peers not judgement by their superiors. As for downright libertarianism I´ve yet to see an example of it in school, I´d love to read a post of examples.

Of course Tom knows that schools aren´t libertarian, he says in his conclusion that they are ´boring and authoritarian´, yet he defies us to ´run one that isn´t that still teaches [students] something´. This is a fallacy similar to the defenders of slavery who said black people would starve if freed because they only worked under the threat of violence. It was an opinion based on lots of observation of the conditions under which black people would and wouldn´t work, but it failed to consider that people´s behaviour is influenced by the institutions to which they belong.

Schools are unequal societies. They mix high achievers destined for university and riches with those headed for insecure employment and welfare. Children do not take to inequality any better than adults and, unlike in grown-up society, they spend a lot of time with people from different backgrounds. Yes, you need to be boring and authoritarian to keep a lid on the friction this creates., but that doesn´t mean schools couldn´t be libertarian if all pupils were equal.

Tom, like Ken, is a nice guy but he has very rigid ideas about what schools do. His is the orthodoxy that needs to be challenged, for creativity and social justice.The fight for schools that are more than exam factories isn´t over, it´s just beginning.


  1. I don't recognise schools as being that obsessed with academic results. Most worry that poor results might bring trouble from OFSTED, but it is OFSTED not the results they fear. Many schools get far worse results than they would if they weren't trying to please OFSTED.

  2. Being taught well in specific things (knowledge, skills, techniques or strategies) are the best foundations for enabling, releasing and nurturing creativity. Being taught well and explicitly is aspirational and practical for greater equality and opportunity - not reliant on learners' socio-economic circumstances or pre-conceived ideas about potential - innate or otherwise.