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Book review: Out of our Minds: Learning to Be Creative

This review originally ran in the Hamilton Spectator.

Out of our Minds: Learning to Be Creative

By Ken Robinson

John Wiley & Sons

$33.95

My daughter was a happy camper this summer.

She spent her days dancing, rehearsing and performing in plays, productions and talent shows.

My daughter was in her element. Dancing has long been her creative outlet. She’s at her happiest when she’s on stage. It’s where she shines the brightest. Dancing fills my daughter with grace and brings a real joy to both her and her parents.

Yet watching my daughter’s Friday performances this summer left me frustrated on two counts.

In a few weeks, my daughter returns to school. She won’t spend any part of her days dancing. She’ll have to leave an important part of who she is at home. My daughter doesn’t dance at school because dancing falls on the bottom rung on the hierarchy of academic disciplines. It’s not tested so it’s not taught. Dancing doesn’t factor into the standardized testing that’s used to sort, rate, rank and process students. Her natural abilities aren’t being engaged or valued. And I’m bracing for the day when a teacher or guidance counsellor unwisely questions and challenges my daughter’s ambition to be a ballet instructor.

Fortunately, my wife and I can afford to send our daughter to summer camps and to the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts where she adores her teachers and feels very much at home. But not every family is so lucky. There are too many kids who never get to discover, much less develop, their special talent. If they’re resilient, they’ll survive their education and find their true calling beyond the classroom. If not, they’ll drop out and, even worse, spend the rest of their lives believing that they’re not creative, that they’re not full of potential and that they can’t contribute, make a difference or add value to our community.

That represents a huge waste of our most valuable resource, says Sir Ken Robinson, author and professor emeritus of education at the University of Warwick, in his fully updated and revised edition of Out of Our Minds. “Our best resource is to cultivate our singular abilities of imagination, creativity and innovation. As the world spins faster and faster, organizations everywhere say they need people who can think creatively, communicate and work in teams: people who are flexible, and quick to adapt.”

These people are hard to find. It’s not that we grow out of creativity. Robinson says we’re educated out of it.

We continue to use a seriously outdated educational system that was created to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution. We don’t need educational reform, says Robinson. We need a wholesale transformation.

“In the interests of the industrial economies, we have subjected generations of people to narrow forms of education that have marginalized some of their most important talents and qualities,” says Robinson. “We have wasted much of what people have to offer because we have not seen the value of it. Along the way, we have jeopardized the balance of communities by not recognizing how our different talents and passions sustain and enrich each other.”

We need to move from an impersonal system built on the primacy of linearity, conformity and standardization to one where the focus and value is on entrepreneurship, innovative and creativity. The future belongs to those who can imagine, rethink and create it.

“Current approaches to education and training are hobbled by assumptions about intelligence and creativity that have squandered the talents and stifled the creative confidence of untold numbers of people,” says Robinson.

“The whole process of elementary and high school education is a protracted process of university entrance. Those who go to university rather than straight into work or vocational training programs are always seen as the real successes of the system. You might conclude that the primary purpose of compulsory education is to produce university professors.” We educate our kids from the neck up and to the left side of their brains.

South of the border, 30 per cent of students who enter Grade 9 don’t graduate. In some areas, the dropout rate hits 50 per cent. As we learned through this paper’s Code Red series, dropout rates are equally high in some Hamilton neighbourhoods.

“It’s wrong to blame the students for these numbers. Any other standardized process with a 30 per cent wastage rate would be condemned as a failure. In the case of education, it isn’t a waste of inert commodities; it’s a waste of living, breathing people. Those who don’t graduate from high school are offered few alternatives apart from low-income work if they can find it; or long-term unemployment if they cannot.”

Robinson sets out an agenda for creating an educational system that unlocks and develops creativity. “When students find something they enjoy and can excel in, they do better in education generally,” says Robinson. “Transforming education is not easy but the price of failure is more than we can afford, while the benefits of success are more than we can imagine.”

Education and training are the keys to the future. But as Robinson points out, a key can be turned in two directions. Turn it one way and we lock resources away. Turn it the other way and we release resources and give people back to themselves.

“To realize our true creative potential — in our organizations, in our schools and in our communities — we need to think differently about ourselves and to act differently towards each other,” says Robinson. “We must learn to be creative.”

My daughter is one of the lucky ones. She’s realizing her creative potential albeit beyond the classroom. And whether she follows through on her dream of becoming a ballet teacher or chooses a different path, she’ll always carry with her the creative spirit she’s developing when she slips on her ballet shoes at the conservatory. Here’s hoping your children have the same glorious opportunity to be fully in their element. The future health and prosperity of our community depends on it.

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