A Conversation with Sir Ken Robinson
Sir Ken Robinson, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to the arts, has been pushing for more creativity in education and the workplace for several decades. His most recent book is Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, and due out in January '09 is The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. His work includes advising governments, international agencies and cultural organizations, and for 10 years he was a professor of education at the University of Warwick. Robinson gave one of his most circulated speeches in 2006 at TED, an invitation-only conference on "Technology, Entertainment, Design."
At TED, you said schools are killing creativity. The talk has become an online hit, with almost 300 people posting comments about it, and people continue to make comments two years later. Has that surprised you?
Yes it has, pleasantly. I've been involved in this work for a long time, but even so, it's great that particular talk has been so widely distributed. It's been downloaded 1.5 million times now. I'm very gratified. I'm very passionate about all these things.
Has the talk made a difference, leading to changes in the way schools work or educators think?
I think it may have. It's short. That doesn't hurt.
These are issues that people feel profoundly for their kids. People are in education because they feel strongly about it. And they feel, for the most part, that they are trapped in national policy frameworks. They feel in their gut that the framework of national initiatives runs counter to what they want to do. I'm not critical of educators — some, yes, taken one by one — but the system itself is becoming a big problem.
You contend that creativity is as important as literacy and that educators "should treat it with the same status." To raise literate children, parents are urged to read to their kids every night. What should parents be doing with their children every night to raise creative children?
There are a lot of misconceptions about creativity. One is that it's about special people, that it's rare. Everybody has real creative capacities. They are born with them. They just have to develop them. If someone were to say to you, I'm just not literate. They are not saying, I'm not capable of it. What they are saying is, I haven't learned how to do it. Most people have to be taught to read and write.
So that's the first thing: creativity is not just about special people.
The second thing is that people think creativity is about special activities -- the arts or design, things of that sort. And I'm keen to say, it's not just about the arts. I'm a proponent of the arts, but doing the arts itself is not inherently creative. Anyone who takes piano lessons can tell you that. You do a lot of hard work along the way. It's about creating conditions and building skills and techniques. It manifests itself differently in different people. I know wonderfully creative chefs and cooks and scientists and therapists.
I tell parents, it's not looking for a single thing in kids. It's looking for their tendencies and capacities. Look for the things they tend to enjoy most. Do what you can to help your children's imaginations to grow and flourish, encourage activities which feed their imaginations. And look for their natural talents and abilities. Then as time goes on, help to give them access to skills and techniques that help them develop their imaginations.
You've mentioned your children in your talks. For example, your son, how old is he now? A grown man?
He's 23. I'm hesitating on whether to call him a grown man.
Do you remember his toy of choice as a boy?
When he was younger he was big into action figures -- Thundercats. It was an American series, a big cartoon series. When he was 3 or 4, I spent a lot of my evenings playing "Battle Cat" and being hit on my head with a sword.
And he played a lot in the garden. This is interesting to me, because this was before computer games. When we got our first computer, we were excited about it like there was something alien that landed in the house.
Then he wanted PlayStation. I remember he had some exams coming up at school and he asked us, if he did well on the exams could he get a Sony Playstation? And we said, no. My wife Terry said, let's wait. We wanted him to enjoy books and the outdoors. We didn't want him strapped to a computer. We didn't disapprove; we just didn't want it to be the only thing he did.
But he said: "It will be like a reward for passing my exams." And we said, no. And he said, "Then what is my reward?" And we said, "We'll be really pleased. We're not going to bribe you to pass your exams."
I'll bet he wasn't exactly psyched about that answer.
But he did do well. And then he said to me, Can I get a Playstation? And I talked to Terry and said, yeah we'll get you one. Mostly because I wanted one. I was desperate to get my hands on the thing.
We went downstairs, and I helped him get this set up. And our daughter Kate was in the garden, and she came dashing in and said she'd found this rope in the garage. It was a 20-foot piece of rope and she asked if I'd make a swing for her. And I went and made a swing for her. And James came up and saw the swing. And he went out and played on the swing with her.
They spent the better part of the summer on that swing -- playing Cirque du Soleil, leaping off it, making holes under it. They had a fantastic time. A physical time. And it was really about their imaginations.
The Sony Playstation got forgotten.
I said to Terry, it's interesting; what if we'd said to James, "if you do well on your exams, that 20-foot piece of rope out there is yours, my boy." I don't think he'd be as excited.
It's about the power of active play. And our kids today are doing less of it. And that is worrying me. There is a degree to which it is becoming a disproportionate part of their lives.
Could media, technology and creativity be interconnected for children?
Oh absolutely. As soon as you recognize that creativity is a process, there are many things that can flow from that. I'm reading Eric Clapton's biography. He was given a guitar at roughly the same age I was given a guitar. He's done rather better than I have on it, to be honest.
Doing your best work is different for different people. It depends on the medium and the tools you've got. The tools are neutral in themselves.
So it seems to me that digital technologies, online tools, everything we've come to know — digital tools for music, Photoshop, file-sharing — all those things in themselves are neutral. But in the hands of people they can create amazing things. They neither inhibit or allow — except that they provide a democratic access. So I feel optimistic about this.
Yes, I know that in my house, my kids seem more compelled to play with GarageBand, the music-making software on the iMac, than the maracas in a box in their room.
But if they are encouraged to use both, they might make some music.
Does creativity come to you in bursts? Tell me about a recent brainstorm or rush.
Well I regret to say, I work best under pressure. It's one of the reasons, I suppose, that I like giving talks. For me, if I'm speaking to a room full of people, you zoom into the energy of the room. I'm trying to feel my way with that group and connect to that place.
I think the analogy with jazz is quite a good one. When I stand up to give a talk, I'm never sure how it's going to come out. At the TED talk, I wasn't sure what stories I was going to tell until I told them. Creativity is a lot like that.
You've got a new book coming out, The Element: A New View of Human Capacity, and you said in a recent talk at the London International Music Show that we have to think differently about talent. But do we have to think differently about childhood too — about what children should be doing with their time?
We do. It worries me a lot that education is becoming more and more pressurized and intense at younger and younger ages. And I know parents think they are acting in their child's best interests to cooperate in this, but they are not acting in their child's best interests.
People are rushing through these stages and saying, we have to keep an eye on what you're going to be at 18. I mean, kids are getting interviewed these days for kindergarten. What is that? I have this vision of them there in the classroom with teachers looking at their resumes. "This is it? This is all you've done in 36 months?" It's preposterous.
We should release some of the pressure on kids. There is a kind of madness now in our education. What kids want more than anything else is a relationship with their parents -- to get to know them and feel secure with them. And kids just need time to be, and hang out.
And the downside of the technology is that it's too easy to just plunk them in front of these things and treat them as digital babysitters. And that worries me because we don't know the effect of massive exposure to these things. I'm not being a technophobe. We just don't know. Kids need time to reflect and be and let their imaginations flow -- and do physical things as well as digital things.
It seems you have a way of saying what people think but can't always verbalize.
I've heard that. Many drunken people have told me that.
Lisa Guernsey is author of Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age 5 (Basic Books, Sept 2007).