Ideas & Debate

Education system must take blame for stifling innovation

 A teacher with her pupils at a Nairobi school. Our education system must prepare our young ones for a future that we cannot grasp, bringing out their creativity as much as developing their literacy. FILE
A teacher with her pupils at a Nairobi school. Our education system must prepare our young ones for a future that we cannot grasp, bringing out their creativity as much as developing their literacy. FILE 

I recently watched one of Sir Kenneth Robinson’s classic TED talks, Do Schools Kill Creativity? And it wasn’t for the first time. For it contains the kind of messages we need to hear repeatedly.

No wonder they’ve been downloaded over 13 million times. I urge you to watch them too, but meanwhile let me tell you something about what he said, together with some reflections on his views for Kenya.

Robinson’s thesis is provided through answering the question posed in the title of his talk with a big fat “yes”, and for 20 minutes he explains why. The whole of public school education, he has concluded, is really designed to make us all university professors.

It’s actually nothing more than a “protracted system of university entrance”. There’s nothing wrong with professors, he adds swiftly, but they’re just one form of life among many others.

Professors, he has observed (while confessing he is one himself), “live entirely in their heads, considering the rest of their body just a vehicle for transporting those heads around”.

In the process, schools have evolved a universal and immutable hierarchy of subjects: mathematics and languages are at the top, followed by the humanities, and then below them the arts (where drama and dance feature below art and music).

How foolish, more so in these times when great careers can be forged by those talented in the arts rather than elsewhere.

Formal education, he reminds us, was evolved to take care of the needs of the industrial revolution. It stressed academic ability as the dominant criterion in qualifying for university entry, and so it is until today.

But intelligence is diverse and it is dynamic, not to mention that a comprehensively intelligent person knows how to link other components of their brain to the purely academic one — not least the creative element.

Public education has been operating like strip mining, Robinson scoffs, excavating for a particular commodity… rather than developing the whole being.

He complains that university education is over-rated, exacerbated by the fact that now a first degree is considered inadequate and that in more and more situations a full PhD is specified. How inadequate a measure of a person’s performance that is, he groans, when so many other aspects need to be considered.

In today’s fast changing world of knowledge workers, where even predicting what will be happening in five years’ time is quite impossible, our education system must above all prepare our young ones for a future that we cannot grasp, bringing out their creativity as much as developing their literacy.

For it is only if tomorrow’s workers are able to keep coming up with original and useful ideas that our planet will keep evolving.

But “bringing out” creativity in our students doesn’t capture the process as it should. Robinson tells us that children are born creative, and it is the school system that wilfully insists on beating that creativity out of them, on “ruthlessly squandering their talents”.

What, he asks, if the seven-year old Shakespeare would have been told to stop scribbling away and go to bed? What if he had been ridiculed for expressing those rich thoughts that swarmed around in his head? What if he would have been told to speak normally, more straightforwardly?

Robinson also notes that children are prepared to take chances, and are not frightened to be wrong… until the school system educates them out of the willingness to make mistakes.

Educators do this oblivious of the unintended consequence that if you aren’t prepared to be wrong, to fail, you’ll never think of anything original.

So, far from creativity being something we grow into, it’s actually there… and then we’re educated out of it.

Little wonder that the same mistake-avoidance strategy is employed so widely in the workplace. In reaction to this phenomenon, more enlightened organisations are now reacting to risk-averse conformism by including innovation among their core values.

But their leaders tell me sadly that it is the one they are least successful at shifting from the aspirational to the actual. And we know that much of the blame must lie with how their workers were educated into timidity and conformism.

Blossoming arts

If we look upon the Kenyan scene we can relate to each and every element of Robinson’s description of the world’s education systems and to their crippling effect on creativity.

Yet so many Kenyans have either been privileged to enjoy a different, more enabling kind of schooling or they have been strong enough to defy much of what they have been taught. Just look at the blossoming local arts scene, or the explosion of innovation among our young IT folk.

I am also greatly encouraged by the new Education Act, which recognises everything that has been wrong with our school and university systems and offers absolutely on-target solutions in a most impressive way.

I only hope we can transform the teaching community to deliver on the expectations set out in the legislation, conscious of the fact that we must not simply leave it up to them to do so. Rather, leaders at all levels must launch a national blitz on the stimulation, utilisation and reward of creativity.

As Kenya continues to work on finalising and rolling out its National Values System (whatever happened to that long and heavy process by the way?) let those involved make sure that creativity forms part of it.

So that in every class of every school, in each constituency and county, and up to the national level too we encourage our people to acknowledge and express their creativity.

A creative society is one where its people are assumed to be able and enthusiastic, and where they are encouraged to offer their full potential.

When they do so, and see the fruits of their creativity, they will be motivated to contribute at even higher levels. This is the opportunity our country faces today. Big time.