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Does Formal Education Obstruct a Child’s Imagination?

“Sometimes education kills creativity, stifles imagination, and destroys curiosity…all in the name of learning.” Ken Robinson said this during his 2006 Ted Talk, in which he speaks about the crisis of schools limiting children’s imaginations. Today education has taken a drastic turn, making students into “test-taking machines”; students are forced to focus on memorization and are not learning to think for themselves. It seems that society is headed into even more memorization, with students taking more AP classes, state examinations, and SAT/ACTS. Frequently, students are being rushed through course material in order to prepare for examinations or achieve the highest grade possible, no matter the cost. This style of schooling fails to focus on the creative aspect of being able to really think and solve problems. The education system today fails to see that the most important things in life—“love, trust, and hope”—are all left out of the curriculum. Students are neglecting to see the bigger picture.

Ken Robinson works internationally with governments and educators in Europe, Asia, the United States, as well as several fortune five hundred companies. He stunned the world in his Ted Talk in 2006, which is the most viewed Ted Talk on the Internet to date; he addressed his personal concern with formal schooling, claiming: “My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” Schools tend to put Math and English at the top of their hierarchies, and then Sciences and Humanities to follow, with Arts on the bottom. The de-emphasis on arts and critical thinking in class is limiting children’s creativity.

Robinson tells a very interesting story about a girl who didn’t seem to pay attention in school, but found her vision in art class. One day in art class she was drawing a picture and the teacher asked what she was doing and she replied with “I’m drawing god.” The teacher seemed extremely surprised and replied, “But nobody knows what god looks like,” to which student responded: “Well now they do.” Robinson uses this as one of his many points as to why creativity is stunted in classrooms. He argues that today in the classroom children are afraid to not only be wrong, but also be different. Children, however, learn from their mistakes, through trial and error. If they (students) are so afraid to try because of the possibility of failure, how will they learn?

Robinson stresses that learning must have the following dimensions: it must be social, human, and artistic. He speaks about the education system in America as being test-centric and akin to a business or industrial process. This new process is depriving children of creative thinking. Therefore, he comes up with a theory comprised of three principles that allow the human mind to flourish. The first holds that humans are naturally different and diverse; the second maintains that curiosity makes us learn almost without assistance (teachers should not teach but facilitate learning); and the last posits that humans are naturally creative. The education system is focusing on conformity and test taking, which go against Robinson’s fundamental human learning characteristics. Robinson suggests three guidelines that teachers should teach by: they must individualize teaching and learning, even while a higher status should be accorded to their jobs and teacher development more broadly. Finally, schools must remain responsible for getting the job done.

Robinson also states that he is not opposed to standardized tests, but believes that they should be placement tests used to help learning instead of the only way students’ knowledge and success are measured. He supports the Finnish schools, which use very little standardized testing, and have a zero percent dropout rate. However, he also claims “No school is better than its teachers”. He reiterates that a teacher must spark curiosity in their students, provoking and engaging them in class.

Robinson also questions the idea that there is a rise in hyperactive children. This idea that hyperactive disorders are being over-diagnosed is further shown in Elizabeth Weils personal study with her own school district. In her article “Self Regulation: American Schools Failing Non-Conformist Kids,” she discusses her own personal experience with her son that led her to conduct a study at a local nearby school. Her son’s teacher was discussing some behavioral problems that he had in class, but her son’s grades were much higher than average. After conducting a study on local lower school students, who were almost entirely recommended for mental illness testing due to their dislike of sitting quiet and cross-legged for a long period of class-time, Weils discovered a lack of discipline from the authority figures (teachers). In her own interaction with a teacher, she asked if her child had been disciplined for speaking out of turn or being a distraction, and the teacher responded “No”. Instead, she was told that her child lacked self-regulation. Many other parents were being told the same: that their children had some type of behavioral problem because they did not fit the mold of what the teachers thought kids should be like. Weils describes this as “your child’s teacher tells you your child is not showing appropriate emotional regulation. You’re directed toward psychological evaluations and therapists. They have a hammer. Your kid becomes the nail.” Kids are over-diagnosed and forced to change from who they really are into something they’re not because they’re slightly more talkative or don’t sit still as well. Schools are also cutting back on their free-time activities like gym class, art, and recess. This lack of time to just relax and rejuvenate young and bright minds could be affecting students’ performances in the classroom.

Tim Elmore, best-selling author and founder and President of Growing Leaders, reflects on his own personal change from loving to “play” school with his sister to having a strong dislike for school. He developed this uneasiness over school when it switched to being an entirely left side of the brain activity (the left side of the brain is about facts, while the right side is about creativity). He describes the left side of the brain as calculated and definitive, and the right side as innovative and dynamic. The poor economy has resulted in art and music classes being cut across the country. When Elmore met with the best teachers of the year in Georgia he realized these teachers were so great because they combined the right and left side of brain in their teaching. These teachers confirmed that most teachers and schools teach:

  • test questions that aren’t relevant
  • drills for memory rather than critical thinking
  • curricula that doesn’t provide the big picture
  • a 20th-century curriculum for a 21st-century world.

One teacher said, “A child educated in the classroom is an uneducated child.”

Tim Elmore has since then changed his teaching methods, keeping the acronym ICE in mind, which stands for Images that lead to Conversations that lead to Experiences. Elmore is trying to teach timeless principles in a “right” side of the brain way including images, questions, stories, and exercises. The books his program uses are short and incorporate a lot of podcasts, videos streams, and PDF downloads. This style of teaching enforces the idea that “a picture is worth a thousand words”: instead of having children memorize information, the lessons have them forming their own ideas from the images in front of them. Then the conversations lead to an experience that the students will share with one another, with the goal of  hese experiences changing them.

In Alfie’s Kohn’s “Case Against Grades,” he interviews many students about their experience once they received letter grades. One student in 2006 named Claire said “I remember the first time that a grading rubric was attached to a piece of my writing….Suddenly all the joy was taken away.  I was writing for a grade — I was no longer exploring for me.  I want to get that back.  Will I ever get that back?” She raises the question that is heavily debated by educators. Kohn suggests that teachers gathering information and sharing it with students and parents do not require tests or grading. Kohn reviewed a study from the 90s where kids were studied from elementary through college; half received letter grades and the others didn’t. The students who received grades tended to have much less interest in what they were studying, reducing the quality of their ability to think, and leading them to prefer the easiest and least risky way to complete tasks. He argues that schools have shifted from a “learning orientation” to a “grading orientation” where students are so focused on getting good grades that they forget about the importance of learning how to think; students are less likely to take a risk in learning. In an independent reading essay, students are more likely to pick a short and easy to read book rather than one that challenges them intellectually because they are so focused on getting a good grade that they don’t take a risk. Students are receiving the message that getting good grades is much more important than actually learning. What kind of a message is this for future leaders of the world? How are they supposed to solve global problems like poverty or the energy crisis when they are not learning to think creatively?


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