How schools kill creativity

“Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. They’re not frightened of being wrong…If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

I watched this very entertaining and thought-provoking video on TED by Sir Ken Robinson, an expert in creative and cultural education. He talked about how children don’t need to be taught to be creative, because they already are — but schools are educating them out of their creative capacities.

On the subject of failure, he said: “Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. They’re not frightened of being wrong…If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies this way. We stigmatise mistakes.”

He went on to tell a story about Gillian Lynne, a dancer best known for her choreography of Cats and Phantom of the Opera. Lynne was apparently “really hopeless” in school. Her teachers told her parents she had a learning disorder — she couldn’t concentrate in class and couldn’t sit still. (She’d probably be diagnosed with ADHD today.)

Fortunately an enlightened therapist recognised that her weakness was actually a strength and recommended that her parents send her to dance school, which they did. In there she met a whole lot of other people who were just like her — they had to move to think. And the rest is history.

This is a perennial complaint too about the education system here. Our schools spend an inordinate amount of time teaching kids subjects that are supposedly going to make them good employees when they grow up, but spend too little time helping them to discover their God-given talents.

But I don’t just blame MOE for this sorry state of affairs. I think parents play a huge part in not just shaping the way the school system is, but the way our children approach learning as well. We all want what’s best for our children. But often times what we think is best is shaped by our societal indoctrination that academic excellence (mainly in maths and science) is the only route to success. I am convinced that you can’t be truly successful and satisfied in your career unless you’re doing something you really enjoy and are talented in.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

14 thoughts on “How schools kill creativity”

  1. This gives us artists some hope bro… and it’s not just us who are creative… Loved this talk! I’m posting this to encourage me from time to time!

  2. It’s not just artists bro, but scientists too. I remember being told by my chemistry teacher not to ask about some stuff I read in an encyclopaedia, because it was outside of the syllabus. We were expected to just study for the exam.

  3. Very interesting article and very entertaining video. An overhaul of our public school system may be in order. A book called “Lives of Passion, School of Hope” by author Rick Posner is a great example of what can happen when schools help students to find their bliss. This book changed my mind about what constitutes a good education. Now I realize that well-rounded approach is the best way to guide kids towards be lifelong learners.

  4. A society that puts the pursuit of “things” and money ahead of all else, including its people is one without a creative spirit. When a society in its rush to embrace and gather dollars puts the results of exams ahead of actual learning the subjects that promote creative and life-long passions are the first to be discarded.

    What is sad is that Western countries are seeing their own dip in Math and Science scores when compared with the East and are also discarding the creative subjects.

    Historically an artisan class, has always been present in affluent countries where prosperity has been achieved and leisure, relaxation and even hobbies are valued…maybe by this measure Singapore is not as “affluent” as the powers would like to report in the msm.

  5. I have little doubt that blaming parents is barking up the wrong tree! You have mistaken their anxiety for their children performing IN ACCORDANCE TO PERCEIVED MOE/SCHOOL’S REQUIREMENT AND STANDARDS. Parents are driven by the system’s demand. No way can they be the tail that wag the education dog. Most students got enroled in private tuition by their parents because they are experiencing difficulties keep up with school’s demand.

    Demands are constantly being raised by MOE. Parents who have schooling children who are a couple of years in age apart (eg like me) know only too well the constant raising of the bar by MOE – what my older child learnt in sec 3 or 4 for example become sec 1 work when my younger child starts secondary school. And the subjects concerned range from Chinese to Maths! Talk about teaching less and learning more by the PM once upon a time!

  6. Very interesting. It reminds me that we always have to memorize as if we were living in the stone age when there was not calculator either computers. When I think about school my rice stucks in my throat.

    I like the sentence: If you don’t want to make mistakes you will not be creative. But who let us be creative? we live in a society where they tell you “you could have done it better..”. It doesn’t help, at least to me.

  7. Hi George

    That’s called progress – we have to accept that our kids are getting smarter a lot faster due to the exposure that they getting…

    But I agree that the overall system needs a complete overhaul – the schools are becoming more like factories churning out educated workers one after another…

    And just like in any manufacturing process – adhering to the norm is the “key” to success i.e. lowest rejection rate…

    However, they missed the whole point that the schools should not become like a sterile manufacturing plant else the process will kill creativity and individualism…

  8. bottome line is, the assembling line education system will mostly produce Artificial Intelligence – obedient followers.

    occasionally, there maybe some burst of creative expression though one can never be certain of its attribution.

    but a city state that is run by convocation attires is akin to civil servants taking over the role of the mickey mouse and the donald ducks in disneyland.

    it just kills the soul and robs the magic from the kingdom.

  9. Betty – Thanks for sharing about Lives of Passion. I will try to go look for that book in the library. (Ok I just checked, NLB doesn’t stock it. You know where I can get it?)

    Anonymous – I agree. We are still very Third World in many aspects.

    Trev – Thanks for sharing that essay too.

    George – I’m not blaming ALL parents, just a small minority who seem to have a disproportionate influence over teachers by their insistence on more homework/assessments. I agree that an entire revamp of not only our education system, but our entire culture may be necessary.

  10. Reminds me of something I read yesterday in The Dilbert Principle:

    Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

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