creativity and teaching

Listened to Sir Ken Robinson (mp3) at RSA last week (speech was last week, listened last night). You could call it an extended dance mix of his TED talk, but I found the elaborations useful and interesting. Usually when I write about teaching, I’m talking about technology or networks, but this is something different. Not wholly unrelated, at least in my mind, but different.

Robinson’s point is that school systems are really headed in the wrong direction. If you think about it, that this is not shocking and disturbing ought to be disturbing in itself. Educational reform has generally meant trying to get better at doing the things we have always done. It has generally meant raising standards and pretty much more standardizing any way we can get it. The premise seems to be that schools require greater levels of centralized control and better quality control.

As everyone knows, it’s a factory model.

Robinson is quick to note that the initial premise is really amazing. The notion of a public education, free at the point of service, is one of the great innovations of industrialization. Many have benefited from public education. Socially we have certainly benefited from public education. But millions more have not benefited, and socially we can no longer afford to ignore the potential of our children. And this is really Robinson’s point, schools just drum out the creative potential in children and generally fail to see the value in the many, many kids who just don’t fit the mold.

I certainly think about this in terms of my kids. They are both excellent performers in school, and they are both totally unchallenged. In each of their classes there are two kids repeating the grade. That seems like an awfully high percentage. There’s no solution here except that we need to start thinking differently about education and addressing these problems on a more local level.

As such, it’s a matter of going back to square one. If you’re going to take my kids, and all the other kids in the neighborhood, for six hours a day and encourage them to learn and develop their interests, how would you do it?

Would you separate them by age, sit them at desks, and give them a series of formulaic assignments? Probably not.

If you tossed out all the learning goals and the standards that tell teachers what they have to do, what would they choose to do? Freed from institutional restrictions, how would they act? What kinds of teacherly communities would they form? What relationships would they build with parents and the local community?

I think first you’d have to let them go crazy for a while. You’d have to embrace chaos. You’d have to be incredibly patient. It would be like pedagogical detox for the whole community. Then I think you’d have to listen to the students and give them many ways to express themselves. You’d need to figure out who these kids were, what their interests and strengths might be. The grown-ups would need to have ongoing conversations as well.

Then the hard work would begin as you’d have to figure out plans for every student and map connections between them.

But my premise is simple here. How could we make elementary teacher into a creative and intellectually challenging job? B/c of course it should be that kind of job, teaching a community of children should demand such things. And that’s not to say that many current teachers wouldn’t be up to the challenge but only that the current system places little trust in them in terms of these things.

Sadly that’s where we are. Of course Robinson puts this all in a very compelling way.