Recently I was introduced to the work of Ken Robinson and to his thoughts about education. He points to the failure of current systems of education to meet the challenges we now face and the need to create alternatives. He believes that systems of mass education tend to suppress the natural capacity for creativity with which we are all born. In his view, it is urgent that we cultivate these capacities and he feels we must rethink the current dominant approaches to education to make sure that we do.
As I read his recent TED talk I thought about how his ideas apply to us as parents as we raise our children. What seems especially relevant is the emphasis on the extraordinary capacities that children have for creativity and innovation. I had just seen a picture of my nine year old granddaughter’s invention for dog owners of a “Pooper Scooper Extreme”. The direction reads: “Press the button and it scoops for you. Comes with a built in flower scent and weighs less than ten pounds. Low price of $14.99.”
This was a response to a class assignment to invent something. I was impressed with the creativity of the assignment itself, particularly in relation to Robinson’s criticism that our education system is based solely on the idea of academic ability. Even before the school years – which seem to begin earlier and earlier – the focus seems to be on learning letters, numbers and colors. Most of the toys for young children seem to suggest that there is a “right” way to play with them, rather than encouraging experimentation and imagination. It is easy to get caught up in the idea that we are supposed to teach our children to use them “correctly”.
Left to their own devices children create wonderful art work. We all have examples tacked to the wall or refrigerator. Yet here, too, coloring books (and sometimes parents) suggest that what really looks good is when you stay within the lines. Children too easily become more concerned about making a mess or about dirty hands than about their creations. Of course, we are not happy about using walls as a drawing board – often a favorite of children – so it takes creativity on our own part to find appropriate avenues of expression. Some parents have had success dedicating one wall and attaching a long sheet of paper at a child’s height. Children can then have one place that is both fun and safe.
The idea that there is a “right” way to do everything is something that often gets in our way as parents. But that idea can get in the way of our children, too. Robinson says that children will take a chance even if they don’t know something, because they are not afraid of being wrong. He makes the very important point that if you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never come up with anything original. And he thinks that by the time they are adults, most children have lost that capacity – they have become frightened of being wrong.
Unhappily, it seems that many children are already constrained by the fear of being wrong – of making a mistake – at young ages. So often children seem to feel they should know something before they have learned it. If you think you are already supposed to know something you don’t focus on trying to learn it. Learning involves making mistakes. If you are worried about being wrong, you can’t learn, and you also are not free to try out new ideas.
This is really important for us to think about as parents, because so much of our role involves teaching. We often forget that social behavior is also a product of learning and teaching. The idea of making mistakes while learning applies there, too. When it comes to things like sharing, controlling impulses, even eating with utensils or dressing oneself, these are tasks our children are learning to master. Sometimes our expectations exceed where children are in their learning, and we become impatient with their “mistakes”. Children’s estimate of their abilities, and readiness to try things, takes shape in all areas of learning.
Robinson makes the point that intelligence is distinct. He seems to be referring to the idea that there are different kinds of intelligence, and that individuals find and express their talents in many ways. He defines creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value, which he believes comes about through the interaction of different ways of seeing things. This seems to entail a respect for individuality.
As parents, our primary concern is with our children as individuals. As a culture we believe in individuality as the road to success, yet at the same time there is considerable pressure for conformity. This is a challenge in raising children: we want them to be individuals, but also to be like – or exceed – others in their performance. The pressure for a certain kind of success, reflected in our educational system, has made it difficult to nourish the creativity we need to value.
Robinson gives us a lot to think about.