Colette Sheridan: What exactly is the point of education when it stifles creativity?

Don’t get into a lather over the points race, so says Colette Sheridan in her weekly column
Colette Sheridan: What exactly is the point of education when it stifles creativity?

Educationist Sir Ken Robinson argued that children’s creativity is being stifled by schools that prioritise academic achievement. Picture: Stock

THE points-guzzling Leaving Certificate badly needs to be revised — and not just because of disappointed students denied entry to university because of the increase in CAO points for third level education.

Grade inflation is the reason for spikes in points required for courses that are in demand. Does it have to be like this?

What would Sir Ken Robinson have said about our education system?

The British educationist, who died recently, argued convincingly — including in a TED talk that has reportedly been viewed by 380 million people in 160 countries — that children’s creativity is being stifled by schools that prioritise academic achievement.

In his witty and astute 2006 TED talk, Sir Ken told his audience: “I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new concept of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity.

“Our education system has mined our minds in the way we strip-mined the earth for a particular commodity. We have to rethink the fundamental principles in which we are educating our children.”

That applies here as much as it does in the UK and much of the wider world.

Sir Ken, who died at the age of seventy, was for the most part ignored by politicians of the two main parties in the UK when he said that the prioritising of literacy and numeracy was a false priority.

Seven years ago, on Desert Island Discs, he argued that schools should have discretion to develop creativity. “Don’t treat children as the same or over-programme them, they find their talents by trying things out,” he said.

However, Sir Ken has himself been the beneficiary of an academic education system. He has stressed that he’s not opposed to a national curriculum. He just wants one with different priorities; a system that would take artistic subjects such as dance or drama as seriously as core subjects.

In his TED talk, Sir Ken knew how to engage an audience — by making people laugh. He told a story about his then four-year-old son’s nativity play at school.

Three children played the wise men bearing gifts. The first boy said he was bringing gold, the second lad presented myrrh and the third fellow said: ‘Frank sent this.’

As Sir Ken pointed out, kids will take a chance. They’re not afraid of being wrong. If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you won’t come up with anything of value or innovation.

The education system — and this applies to Ireland as well — is geared towards producing university professors, said Sir Ken. These days, with academic inflation, you need a masters degree before you can even tentatively put a foot on the job ladder.

But this is to ignore the different types of intelligence which are diverse, dynamic and distinct.

Sir Ken cited the example of the ballerina, choreographer, actress and director, Gillian Lynne, who died in 2018 at the age of 92.

She was a multi-millionaire who told the story of how she was brought, with her mother, to her school principal’s office over complaints of under-achievement. Before the adults left the room to talk in private, the principal turned on the radio. Spying on Gillian, he noted that she stood up and danced to the music being played. He spotted her talent.

Had she been scrutinised in more recent times, she may have been put on medication for a disorder. Luckily for Gillian, she pursued her passion, which had nothing to do with the three Rs.

The fifth of seven children, Sir Ken was born into an impoverished household in Liverpool. He spent eight months in hospital after being diagnosed with polio at the age of four. It left him with a limp and put paid to his putative soccer career — his father was convinced he’d make a great football player.

He was initially educated at a special school for children with disabilities. But he didn’t think of himself as having polio. Nor did he see the other kids as having conditions such as cerebral palsy. Instead, it was a question of, who was interesting?

Sir Ken did well at this school and went on to grammar school. He studied for a bachelor of education degree at Bretton Hall College, West Yorkshire, which specialised in the arts.

It had a formative effect on his career and he went on to complete a doctorate in drama and theatre in education at London University.

His career focused on the arts in education. He wrote several books including Learning Through Drama and he ran courses for teachers.

The lesson here is simple. Don’t get into a lather over the points race. Remember that girl dancing in her principal’s office...

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