Monday, 18 June 2007

Are schools killing creativity? Or killing knowledge?

Check out the website for the Monterey Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference, the TED Conference, as it's called. This is a conference bristling with creativity, and the website itself fairly bristles with fascinating presentations from this year's conference that highlight especially the exciting new world opened up to us by creative technology.

One presentation looks at the issue of educating for creativity itself, specifically with how public education deals with creativity. Keith Robinson argues that public education deals with it bloody poorly (although he seems to think it deals better with literacy and numeracy, something most figures dispute), and he's right that what Lisa Van Damme calls "classical education" does deal with it poorly. [See it here: Ken Robinson - Do Schools Kill Creativity?]

Robinson's talk is humorous, insightful and well worth watching (it goes for a very enjoyable nineteen minutes), but at the end he's left saying very little beyond the truism that "education should value creativity." Well, so it should. But is that all it should do?

Writing at The Objective Standard, Lisa Van Damme argues there's a problem if creativity is stressed without the tools or the knowledge to be creative with.

In Dumbing Down Our Kids, Charles Sykes tells a chilling story about a straight-A student in the eighth grade named Andrea, who was very eager to learn science. Unfortunately for Andrea, her school, like most today, stressed the importance of “creativity” over “dreary” facts, and of “hands-on,” “active” learning over “dull,” didactic instruction. This bright young girl with a thirst for scientific knowledge spent her time in science class picking up cereal with a tongue depressor (to simulate the way birds feed), hunting for paper moths on a wall, and drawing pictures of scientists. When Andrea wrote a letter complaining that she had gotten nothing out of the class, she was expelled for being rude and disrespectful.3

You have probably read stories like these and been horrified both by how shamefully ignorant, inarticulate, and illiterate many American students are, and, even worse, by what schools do to students like Andrea. I wish I could dismiss such stories as rare incidents circulated among cynical critics of American schools to give poignancy to their arguments. Unfortunately, my experience interviewing and teaching students at my school has shown me otherwise.

Both Van Damme and Robinson are talking about the same schools. But they're seeing something different.

Van Damme it seems to me is exploding the dichotomy embraced by both classical educators (those wedded to the Three 'R's), and by those who argue as Robinson seems to that creativity is everything, and that if education supports creativity then all will be fine and dandy. For Van Damme, something far more fundamental is necessary in education, and also for the "take-off" of creativity.

Neither empty heads nor heads full of empty facts should be the aim of education: what's needed she argues is "reform more radical than harking back to a more traditional approach that mouths respect for facts, logic, and abstract thought," and too reform more radical than simply calling for more creativity.
The proper goal of education [she argues] is to foster the conceptual development of the child—to instill in him the knowledge and cognitive powers needed for mature life. It involves taking the whole of human knowledge, selecting that which is essential to the child’s conceptual development, presenting it in a way that allows the student to clearly grasp both the material itself and its value to his life, and thereby supplying him with both crucial knowledge and the rational thinking skills that will enable him to acquire real knowledge ever after. This is a truly progressive education—and parents and students should settle for nothing less
To see her full argument, see Lisa van Damme: The False Promise of Classical Education.

Just to reiterate, her argument is not that creativity should be shunned in the classroom; instead she maintains that creativity may only be expressed once one has the tools and the knowledge with which to be creative.

1 comment:

  1. Robert Winefield19 Jun 2007, 05:11:00

    Are schools killing creativity? Or killing knowledge?

    I'd say that they are killing both simultaneously. The good Prof argues that the schools are designed in the image of a university, designed to produce workers in an industrial society at the expense of the arts etc.

    That's a fair call. But from what I've seen, the bloody public school system can't even do that anymore.

    What you have is a cookie cutter system turning out kids who can't even read & write properly - let alone dance, sing, draw, paint, play music and think independently.

    Shit, I only got 5 hours of instruction in the finer points of grammar in my entire High School experience.

    All that I know today I taught myself. My education was a complete waste of tax payers money!


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