Education is mankind’s most significant investment in its future. However, the current school systems in most developed nations are built around an old economic and social model that predates today’s massive technological and societal changes. They were created in the context of the Industrial Revolution and are now hopelessly out of date.
Firstly, given the scale and the rate of change in the size of our populations and the consequent strains we are putting on the planet, the future doesn’t lie in increased competition for resources but in collaboration between nations and individuals. Our educational structures have yet to reflect this fundamental requirement that we all learn to work together to collaborate rather than compete.
Secondly, our children are being subjected to an increasing process of standardisation and testing. The result is narrowing the curriculum and it hasn’t worked. We have made education, for a lot of people, a stressful and exhausting process.
What we should be doing above all is cultivating the great diversity of people’s talents, especially investing more and more in developing innovation, creativity and collaboration.
Creativity is common, but often also latent. People are born with immense natural talents but you have to discover them and then cultivate them.
One example is that most children, by the time they’re eighteen months old, are speaking fairly competently. It’s interesting how nobody teaches them how to do it. You don’t take your child out at eighteen months and say, “We have to talk.” We are deeply curious creatures and we have a fantastic appetite for knowledge. We like to learn.
The problems tend to occur, curiously, when we try to educate children. They go off learning when we try to school them. Not always, but often. By the time they get to be about eight, nine, or ten and they get to high school, learning may have become a bit of a drag.
There is a wonderful example in Venezuela of a national music programme called El Sistema. The program takes kids from slums, supplies them with instruments and puts on music classes. They have produced a whole generation of classical musicians including the star Gustavo Dudamel, who is now the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and one of the world’s most distinguished musicians.
Time and again, if people are given the opportunity, they discover that they are capable of all kinds of things they hadn’t considered. When you make education impersonal and focus on a certain type of academic work, it becomes very linear and limits rather than expands the horizons of those who are subjected to it.
These ideas don’t only apply to children and teenagers. They also apply to people in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. The current attitude to teaching is based on the idea that you get educated once in your life, but there have always been small programs of adult education.
One of the great pioneers of that model was the Open University in the UK, which represents a radically important shift in the way we think about education. It started in the 1970s and made university-level education available to anybody, at any age, irrespective of their background and qualifications.
I once had the great privilege of receiving an honorary degree from the Open University, and I gave the commencement address. It is a wonderful thing to watch people of all ages, even in their 90s, sit at the front in gowns, while their children and grandchildren cheered them on in the back. It is absolutely the case that we are all capable of carrying on learning, growing and developing our whole lives. As we live longer, returning to learning during our lives will become even more important.
It’s why the shift from the old industrial model to a more organic model is important, because in the industrial model you make something once and off it goes. You may have to do a bit of maintenance on it from time to time but it’s not expected to last forever.
But we need to see education through an organic lens. Farmers know that you have to keep planting every year – you keep growing and developing, and natural systems go through cycles which keep refreshing, and they carry on indefinitely if you create the right conditions for them. One of the big shifts we have to see is that education is not just about young people; it’s a lifetime opportunity.
We also need to encourage students to find their passion. Some time ago I met an inspirational individual in Oklahoma named Bart Connor. When Bart was about seven, he discovered that he could walk on his hands as easily as he could walk on his feet. Nobody thought much about it except his mother, who took Bart to the local gymnastics centre. For Bart the gym was like Santa’s Grotto and Disneyland all in one.
Ten years later, he walked on to the mat at the Montreal Olympics representing the US gymnastics squad. He went on to become the most decorated male gymnast in American history. He is married to Nadia Comaneci, who was the first female gymnast to get a perfect ten from Romania. Together they have a gymnastics centre, a TV program and they also work as ambassadors for the Special Olympics movement. Between them they helped to liberate the gymnastic capabilities of hundreds of athletes with special needs.
So, how do you facilitate creativity in education? I believe there are four key elements: the curriculum, teaching techniques, assessment, and the physical environment.
Firstly, the curriculum must be broad and dynamic. Most current curricula are narrow, and focused on particular subjects like maths and science. I am not saying that those subjects are not creative; they absolutely are. But the problem is the humanities, the arts and physical disciplines are pushed further and further down the priority list. But music, art, dance and theatre are every bit as rigorous in their own way.
Secondly, we must rethink most teaching methods. The job of a teacher is to help children to learn. Having them sit in front of you at desks and talk at them for an hour is one of the worst techniques, because it turns people off. Kids learn a lot from each other as well as from the teacher. So active group work is a big part of having a creative curriculum. When learning becomes a process of inquiry, you kindle the appetite for it.
Thirdly, our current standardised approach to assessment has to change to recognise that in many creative processes there isn’t one answer. There may be many answers. You can look at a child’s artwork, or musical composition, and criticise the composition, but it wouldn’t make sense to look at a child’s poem and say “that’s wrong.” One of the ways of encouraging creativity is moving away from the idea that there is only one answer.
Lastly, physical environment is really significant. A lot of what goes on in school is not required by law, it is just a function of habit, because we have just always done it that way. So we need to be flexible with physical spaces and school timetables, structuring our learning environments around students’ needs, rather than conforming to tradition for the sake of it.
Children – and adults – have tremendously sharp minds and the appetite and ability to absorb vast amounts. We need education systems that help them to fulfil themselves, and systems that accept that there is no one good way to write a song; there is no one way to write a novel; and that there is no one way to run a school. Only then will we move from being constrained by conformity to being cured by creativity.