The Genius in Everyone

A few days ago I listened to a TED talk given by Sir Ken Robinson. It was called, “Do Schools Kill Creativity.” What struck me first, was how consummately gifted Ken is as a comedian; authentic and self-effacing by contrast to many of the current crop of overinflated, self-indulgent and self-promoting stand-ups.

What really struck me, though, is how profoundly important Ken’s talk is in the context of our modern world, not just from an economic standpoint but from philosophical and moral perspectives too. As Ken says we all have a view on education, and those views often run very deep. In my opinion, Ken’s view is one that needs to be heard.

With eloquently understated passion, Ken argues that contemporary education, across the globe, prioritises the wrong things. In doing so it limits our potential and stifles our creativity. He describes that most, if not all, education systems are predicated on two interacting forces. First, the pragmatic, perhaps utilitarian, requirement to meet the demands of servicing industrial economies, a focus that was established during 19th Century industrialisation and continues to shape the primary educational agendas of today. The second, is the self-perpetuating, self-referencing and ‘disembodied’ system of matriculation, a process that reinforces the primacy of logical and linguistic conceptions of intelligence, at the relative expense of, for example, social, emotional and kinesthetic talents.

What materialises then, are education systems that are based on narrow definitions of attainment, that reinforce intellectual elitism, that anachronistically underprepare our children and students for the expanded and dynamic needs of post-industrial economies.

By way of illustration, Ken tells the story of Gillian Lynne. As a child, Gillian was suspected of having a learning disorder and sent to a specialist. She couldn’t sit still, disturbed others in class, failed to complete her homework ~ a familiar story of anticipated academic failure. On leaving the room to converse privately with Gillian’s mother the doctor noticed the young girl dancing to music playing on the radio he had switched on for her entertainment whilst they were outside. His prescription? Dance rather than medication. Gillian was sent to ballet school. Eventually, she became one of the most successful choreographers of all time (Cats, Phantom of the Opera). Ken speculates that a different, less enlightened (and modern?) consultant may well have diagnosed ADHD, prescribed Ritalin and that, as a consequence, Gillian’s talent would have been lost from the world for ever.

I think about my own three children and their education. I vividly remember a parents’ evening, fourteen years ago, when my eldest was six. “Huw needs to work on his descenders” (the letters, such as f, that descend below the line) were the very first words the class teacher uttered as my wife and I sat down. Was this the most important thing to say about my child? Did this reflect him, his talent, his spirit, his individuality, dare I say it, his creativity? Or was this the reflection of an educational culture that increasingly strived to define, prescribe, label, constrain, measure, target and, I believe, stultify?

What saddens me, in particular, about that parents’ evening, is that this was the norm. Every single one of the 50 or so ‘parent consultations’ I have experienced across 9 schools over 16 years has fundamentally been the same. The teacher sits before her laptop, a physical and conceptual barrier between us, and reels of the this years “attainment” against measures inspired by narrow and misplaced educational aspirations, to the point where I simply stare in dejected silence in full knowledge that an ideological gulf precludes meaningful dialogue.

For me and, I believe, Ken Robinson, this orientation is wrong on two fronts. First it is seriously misaligned with the requirements of an increasingly sophisticated, connected, global economy. Innovation. Diversity. Agility. Entrepreneurialism. These words have become the shibboleths for post-modern, post-economic societies. How do content dominated, logical-linguistically oriented educational systems help to produce graduates that have the rich and diverse capabilities required for success in this new and continually evolving context?

Second, and I believe the most essential, is that this orientation is an ethical travesty. It is simply wrong that human creativity, spirit and endeavour, are curtailed in this way; that the lid remains on the box in so many instances, that individual potential is suppressed, that so many Gillian Lynnes who aren’t lucky enough to be saved by an enlightened specialist are, countless times each day, told to sit still, conform, be quiet, do their work, jump through the hoops, concentrate, be sensible, be compliant.

In small ways, perhaps, in the development work I do now with adult learners there are opportunities to ameliorate. Through recognising strengths, encouraging self-belief, celebration of individual talent and lifting the veil of self-doubt imposed by educational fundamentalism there are chances to liberate creativity and to unlock potential.

Ken talks about the challenge specifically in terms of stifled creativity and the implications this has for innovation in the general sense.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong,” he says, “you’ll never come up with anything original. By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost this capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.”

I think it may be more fundamental than this. I think what is at stake here is the right that each of us to fulfil our potential, whatever our talent, whatever our gift.

Too long we have been told that genius resides in a few. It is our job, I believe, to unearth the genius in everyone.

‘Steve’s Corner’ is a regular editorial written by Steve Harvey, Director, Impromptu

Steve has many years experience in the application of interactive learning methodologies. He is the company’s Finance Director and Team Manager and has a background in teaching, marketing, sales, outdoor sports education and management development. He has a degree in Creative Arts, an MA in Education (research) and a Diploma in Performance Coaching.