Thursday, March 19, 2020

Robinson – Creative with theory…

Do schools kill creativity? Sir Ken Robinson has achieved celebrity status through his three TED talks and RSA animation, on this very subject. For Robinson, ‘creativity’ has been sacrificed on the altar of traditional education and schooling. Robinson’s main thrust is that all children are born ‘creative’ and that school knocks it out of them. Robinson appeals for the re-injection of creativity in teaching and learning.

Not new

This naturalistic view of education is not new and goes back to Rousseau who wrote an entire novel on the subject, Emile (On Education), defining the concept of the essentially good child corrupted by civilisation and schooling. The Rousseau legacy is the idea that all of our educational ills come from the domineering effect of society and its institutional approach to educational development. If we are allowed to develop naturally, he and Robinson claim, all will be well. This is an over-optimistic view of human nature and development, and although not without truth, lacks psychological depth.

Elusive concept

‘Creativity’ has proven to be a remarkably elusive concept, used in a wide range of senses and contexts, sometimes to describe a process, product or person. Often confused with innovation, it is a chameleon term. It has become a key word in our 21st C form of romantic naturalism, often expressed in educational circles as the need for 21st skills.
Attempts have been made to pin ‘creativity’ down but even these tend to be ignored in favour of vague concepts of discovery learning or artistic creativity. The often used ‘Standard Definition for Creativity’ invokes both originality AND effectiveness (or usefulness). In other words, originality is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for creativity and innovation. Even this definition is open to doubt, as other factors such as judgments and decision-making come into play. 

Tests for creativity

Most people simply take the word ‘creativity’ at face value and see it as an intrinsic good, but it needs clarity. Robinson mentions the “alternative uses test”, which was developed by Guilford in 1967. It involves being asked to find as many uses as you can for say a brick or paperclip. However, it is clear that the famous ‘paperclip test’ is not as useful as it seems. Research shows the common confusion between quantity and quality that such tests assume. 'Productivity is not enough' by Rietzschel et al. (2006) found that quantity of ideas was negatively correlated with feasible ideas. In other words, this test of creativity may merely be a test of wild imagination and not effective, productive and sustainable innovation. Another study by Kudrowitz et al. (2012) shows that a test for ‘creativity’ was influenced by the quality of presentation rather than the quality of the ideas. In fact, idea generation, in itself, seems not to be the key to innovation, building on early ideas, with knowledgeable iterations, seems to work better.

Creativity not correlated with age

Robinson’s anecdotes (as his talks are largely anecdotal) do not match the reality of child development. As Sawyer notes in his key text, Explaining Creativity (2012), it is easy to get sucked into the romantic notion that young children, because they come out with odd verbal statements and do things that seem off-beam, display essential creativity. In fact, it may only reflect normal child development and attempts to keep children back and inhibit that developmental process may do more harm than good. There are also problems with Robinson’s assumption that we become less creative as we get older. Research suggests that we seem to become more creative as our brains develop and become more capable in terms of flexible options and better judgments. It is no use pushing for an educational system that produces lots of idiot savants, without the ‘savant’.

Education sometimes needs to be non-creative

In many cases in education, avoiding the ‘creative’ may be beneficial. In some contexts, the learner needs intense focus, being on task, patience and persistence. Divergent or creative thinking tends to lead to cul-de-sacs and repeated errors. In maths it is often the elimination of intuitive thought that leads to success, as this is the commonest cause of failure. In teaching physics you may also find that much of what the uninformed mind thinks is true, is in fact false, because physics can be counter-intuitive. For example, inertia is not a force, gravity pulls objects toward earth at the same constantly accelerating rate regardless of differing masses and so on. Even in subjects that are assumed to have ‘creativity’ at their heart, such as art, music and design, learning to draw, read music and have precise mathematical and technical skills may be the key to success at this stage, not the endless promotion of raw creativity.

Useless brainstorming

In adult, workplace learning, creativity, it seems, is also suspect. The commonest form of supposed creative thinking in the workplace is the ‘brainstorm’. Alex Osborne introduced brainstorming to the world in 1948, through his book ‘Your Creative Power’. De Bruyckere, Kirschner & Hulsof, in Urban Myths (Learning & Education) expose its subsequent popularity, despite the fact that the research tells us it doesn’t work. Again, Sawyer comes to our rescue in Explaining Creativity’ (2012); “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming in a group produces fewer ideas than if the same number of people had thought up their own ideas individually, before sharing them collectively.” The research shows that the quality of generated ideas in brainstorming is worse than by using other methods. Nemeth’s study ‘The liberating role of conflict in group creativity’ (2003) shows that vigorous debate and evaluation help with creativity and innovation, not avoiding evaluation and conflict. 


So often in education, shallow unsubstantiated TED talks replace the real work of researchers and those who take a more rigorous view of evidence. Sir Ken Robinson, is the perhaps the most famous example of this romantic theorising. The problem comes when it is claimed that creativity can be taught, as if it were something separate from domain knowledge. This is largely a myth.


Robinson, K., 2017. Out of our minds. London: Capstone.
Robinson, K., 2009. The element: How finding your passion changes everything. Penguin.
Robinson, K. and Aronica, L., 2016. Creative schools: The grassroots revolution that's transforming education. Penguin books.
Sawyer R.K. (2012) Explaining Creativity Oxford: Oxford University press.
De Bruyckere, Kirschner & Hulsof (2015) Urban Myths (Learning & Education) pp77-81

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