The Purpose of Education: A Critical Creativity

In a previous blog, Nicki posed the question: what is school for?  In a famous TED talk titled, How schools kill creativity, Sir Ken Robinson suggested that the purpose of schooling should be to foster creativity. Since 2006, Robinson’s lecture has become the most-viewed on TED, generating over 28 million views in over 150 countries worldwide. Needless to say, there must be something universal and timeless about the call for greater creativity in schools.

If you haven’t yet viewed the talk, Robinson’s argument can be summarized in two succinct points.  First, humans have an innate capacity for being creative, which, unfortunately, public education tends to destroy; and second, fostering the creative capacities of our students and reforming traditional models of schooling is a profound but necessary challenge for all educational stakeholders.

I agree with Robinson that humans are innately creative and that this type of thinking must be nurtured and advocated for if students are to become active, engaged citizens of the world and contributing members of society. I’m less convinced that all schools kill creativity and that outliers don’t exist to challenge Robinson’s thesis. Painting all schools and teachers with the same brush stroke is just as negligent and superficial as the standardized testing regimes and narrow indicators of intelligence of which Robinson is most critical. More troubling, Robinson’s call to reform the traditional models of schooling seems like somewhat of a logistically impossible panacea. Is a total revolution or reformation of public education likely? No. Is it even necessary, possible, or ideal? The jury is still out. Where does that leave us then?

In my opinion, it leaves us with the option of making incremental changes and exploring pockets of innovations where schools, teachers, and students are experimenting with alternative ways of teaching and learning. On the creativity front, it means coupling creativity with being critical. What I mean by this, is recognizing the dangerous unintended consequences of unfettered creativity. I use the example of Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed, a non-profit organization that publishes open source gun design suitable for 3D printing. Clearly, Wilson is immensely creative. I had never heard of, or thought about, creating plans that make it possible for anyone to make a homemade gun. But is this the type of creativity that Robinson advocates has the potential to change the world for the better?

I argue for an education system that simultaneously fosters student creativity and the ability to think critically.  We need a system that urges and supports students in developing unique viewpoints, ideas, and models that are built upon the questioning of others’ ideas. In concluding her last blog, Nicki wrote that the purpose of school is to prepare students for the real world. I would argue that the real world demands a more critical form of creativity.


2 thoughts on “The Purpose of Education: A Critical Creativity”

  1. Allison, I agree with your balanced assessment of the situation. Doomsday descriptions of public schools as “creativity killers” are inaccurate. There is a lot of good work being done by a lot of good people in public education. Furthermore, (and this is an unpopular view) creativity should not be the ultimate or only goal of education. Over-emphasizing creativity de-emphasizes and often demonizes other skills which students come to us with. Creativity is part of a suite of skills and abilities that all people have in varying degrees. I like your balanced approach.

  2. Interesting take on Sir Ken’s talk. What would your ideal school system look like? I suggest first considering what is happening in other parts of the world, like, say, Germany. Germany’s system is entirely student-centered, focusing on who that student is and what future is best suited for them. Once a student enters what we would consider intermediate/middle school, they have the choice of entering into an academic secondary school or a technological secondary school. Many European nations are far more advanced in these terms than we are in NA, yet they’ve been doing it that way for hundreds of years.

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