TED and Reddit asked Sir Ken Robinson anything — and he answered

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For the first in a new series of community-driven Q&As, TED and Reddit joined forces to ask creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson any question. TED fans converged on this article on Reddit to post their questions, and to vote on questions posed by others. Today, we asked Sir Ken the 10 questions with the most votes. Here are his answers:

submitted by kn0thing
What specific actions do you recommend taking to overhaul, say, public education to maximize how we identify and nurture creativity? And what place do you think things like critical thinking and logic (also noticeably absent) have in basic education?

Sir Ken: The basis of my argument is: creativity isn’t a specific activity; it’s a quality of things we do. You can be creative in anything — in math, science, engineering, philosophy — as much as you can in music or in painting or in dance. And you can certainly be involved in the arts in ways that are especially creative. And so it’s important to emphasize that it’s not about creating some small space in schools where people can be creative, and particularly not if that means just tacking on some art programs on a Friday afternoon. It’s about the way we do things.

And that really has a couple of implications. One of them is, if you want to encourage creativity in education, there are a couple of ways to think about it. One is that there are skills of creative thinking that can be taught. I think of this as general creativity. You can help them think productively, generate ideas effectively, help them to think of alternative approaches to issues and questions. So there are very specific skills that can be taught, and in a metaphorical sense, it’s kind of like a grammar of creativity. It’s a series of processes, not an event. And helping people understand how that works is an important part of being creative. You wouldn’t expect people to become literate just by hoping it’d happen. There was a time when people argued seriously that it was difficult to teach working class people to read and write — that they didn’t have the capacity for it. This was before the beginning of public education. But now we know that most people — we take it as axiomatic and ethically important that most people can be taught to read or write. But they have to be taught. They have to be given tools and techniques for it.

And I think it’s true in many areas of creative thinking that people can be helped by learning techniques and processes. So there’s a sense in which you talk about creativity in a general way. But I also think of it as a personal process, too. That’s what this new book I’ve written, The Element, is all about. It’s about people finding their particular, individual creative strengths, because we all have very different strengths and capacities. There are different types of intellectual strengths. Some people are very visual. Some are very verbal. Some people are good physically. Some people are good at mathematics, kind of naturally.

So that’s the first thing: Creativity can be facilitated in any sort of activity. Secondly that we can think about personal and general forms of creativity. When it comes to education, it has implications in three big areas. One of them is the curriculum. A lot of what I argue for in schools is we need to re-think the school curriculum. It has major implications for what it is people are meant to learn and understand, which is what the curriculum is. The second big piece of education is teaching, or pedagogy. There’s a question later on about this, so I’ll come to it there. And thirdly, there’s assessment — what we reward and the form the reward takes when we come to judge the work.

I did a big report for the British government called All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education. It’s available online. The British government put together a national strategy to promote creativity in education. I also published a book a few years ago, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. The idea is you have to make the idea of creativity clear and operational. Like we have done with literacy. And when you’ve done that, then the practical tasks become clearer.

submitted by guru
As a kid, I spent all of my free time at a computer, soaking up as much as I could about how it worked on every level. All that exploration really made my career possible.

But I didn’t have great grades in school, because I had a hard time developing a curiosity about much beyond the computer. My dad always said, “You need to be more well-rounded,” and he encouraged me to take on a sport or a musical instrument. But like many of the subjects in school, those things never really stuck for me when I was growing up.

As an adult, my interests have expanded far beyond the computer screen. In college I minored in photography, and at first it was a technical interest in the gear and the magic of the darkroom, but that quickly gave way a deeper interest in visual aesthetics, design, and the whole world of art and art history. I’ve found over time that similar links exist between all of my interests, and learning a new subject is only a matter of finding the right bridge from my current interests.

I imagine this is how most people learn. So why do we make these distinctions between “math”, “biology”, “history”, and “art”, when they are all linked, and when the interconnections so often make them meaningful? Is it OK if children are not “well-rounded,” as long as they are following their curiosities, or does a lack of “well-roundedness” mean we are not exposing them to enough bridges to new interests?

Sir Ken: I think he’s completely right about this. One of the points I make in the TEDTalk, and that I make generally, is that the human mind is essentially created. We live in worlds that we have forged and composed. It’s much more true than any of the species that you see. I mean, it seems to me that one of the most distinctive features of human intelligence is the capacity to imagine, to project out of our own immediate circumstances and to bring to mind things that aren’t present here and now. You know, to conceive of the past, to anticipate the future, and not just a future but multiple possible futures and many different sorts of pasts.

So this capacity for imagination, to me, is absolutely at the heart of this whole argument.Creativity to me is a step on. Creativity is putting your imagination to work and it’s produced the most extraordinary results in human culture. I mean, it is really the foundation of human culture, I believe. And it’s generated multiple ways of looking at the world, multiple ways of seeing it, multiple ways of thinking about it.

What happened over the course of the development of our public institutions is that these different ways of thinking tend to become formalized into subjects. Schools and universities are built upon different forms of knowledge, and the way we most commonly think about them is as subjects.

And I think subjects is a poor idea, really, for the kind of work I’m interested to promote, because it suggests that the world is definable into entirely different sorts of content or subject matter. And this really matters to me, because what happens then is that people are employed at institutions to teach these things, and to teach their own sort of specialism, so that math becomes separate from languages. It becomes separated from science, and you know it’s a different subject because it’s on a Thursday and it’s taught by different people. It’s less true in elementary school, and especially true in high schools. But what we also know about knowledge is that its constantly evolving and morphing and mutating, and the history of ideas, the history of leading edge thinking is of the constant reconfiguration of disciplines and of concepts.

So now, we live in an age where there are multiple variations of different disciplines — the merging of physics and chemistry and of engineering and genetics. And the problem is that schools and institutions are often slow to keep up with these changes. They often run far ahead of institutions’ capability to respond to them.

So, I think, firstly, I think this question pokes at an informed truth. I think it’s seeing connections rather than differences which is the heart, I believe, of human progress. And we spend a lot of time, in the West particularly I think, insisting on ways of thinking that are based on seeing differences rather than seeing relationships. You know, formal logic is a bit like that. It’s seeing clear distinctions. Well, distinctions are important, but relationships are equally important. You see it especially in areas like medicine, where you have people specializing in one organ or another organ without looking at the whole organism. So, schools, I think, tend to compound that.

I want, really, to get away from the idea of subjects and I think disciplines is a much better idea. A discipline suggests something which is a kind of an amalgam, a mixture of concepts, of practical skills, of techniques, of ideas, of data. I mean, mathematics isn’t really a subject. It’s a whole series of different sorts of disciplines. And I think that’s true of music. Music isn’t really a subject, but practicing music involves extraordinary levels — different levels — of ideas, of practical skills, of sensibility.

So, I think part of the problem that we make these distinctions is historical and I think our guy here, guru, is right, that the way that I might think about education is from a much dynamic and fluid set of relationships between different forms of knowledge, different ways of thinking.

But I also think the second part is true as well. That is, I agree with the second point which is that one of the results of this overspecialization is that people do lose a sense of balance. We spend too much time, very often, focused on our particular area and lose sight of the larger picture. So when he says “Is it OK if children are not well-rounded as long as they follow their curiosities?” I don’t think so, really. I mean, I think it’s important for us all to find our particular passions and our strengths, but I think it’s equally important that we can at least pull back and look into other fields and other disciplines to see connections.

submitted by kunjaan
What do you think is the correct way to grade/rank/assess an individual’s academic performance?

And what do you think should & should not be included in standardized entrance exams like SAT?

Sir Ken: Just two quick thought about this — one is to ask why we have these systems of assessment in the first place. I’m not against standardized testing in itself. Some things we can clearly submit to a standardized test. There are some things which we agree are true or not true. There are some skills we’ve either got or we haven’t got, some things we know or we don’t know, you know, in terms of propositional ideas, and we can test them. If I want to understand if somebody hasn’t got a proper grasp of French grammar and French vocabulary, then I don’t have any objection to figuring out a test which helps me to make a judgment about that. And it’s true in areas of the arts. In music, there are lots of standardized tests which grade competencies in dexterity with the instrument and knowledge of music instrumentation and ideas and skills.

It’s not that I am against standardized testing. What I’ve personally got a rant about is the extent to which standardized testing, firstly, has become a massive commercial industry which is detached, in most cases, from the real purpose of education. And secondly, the extent to which we’ve come to associate standardizing with raising standards. Now, everybody agrees we should raise standards in schools. Of course you should. But, the primary instrument that’s being used is standardized testing. And the problem with it is that it fails to do the one thing we know works if we want to improve standards in schools, which is to address personal development.

The larger argument about this is that when I say public education arose in response to industrialism, it also developed in the image of industrialism. If you look at public education systems in their general shape, they are manufacturing processes. And a lot of it happens — we separate people by age, it’s a very linear process, very focused on certain types of outcome. And standardized testing is, in a way, the grand example of the industrial method of education. It’s not there to identify what individuals can do. It’s there to look at things to which they conform.

You’ve almost got to get the balance right here, but we’ve had now years and years and billions of dollars worth of investment in the expansion of standardized testing, in American schools for example (but this isn’t just America, it’s around the world), and for the most part they’ve not been successful in doing what they’re expected to, which is to raise standards. If anything, they seem to have contributed to a lowering of morale in schools. They seem to have contributed to an erosion of commitment. In America, for example, there’s something like a minimum of 30 percent dropout rates from high schools — it’s much higher among certain ethnic communities. Kids are being turned off from school, in part because of the whole culture, not just the tests themselves, but the educational culture they promote.

So, my argument is that instead of standardizing everything in schools we should be going in the opposite direction. I don’t think there’s a kid in America, or anywhere in the world, who gets out of bed in the morning wondering what they can do to raise their state’s reading standards. They get out of bed, if they’re motivated, by their own interests and their own development. So I think we should be doing the opposite. I think we should be personalizing everything in schools. We should be looking at ways of making education relevant to each individual child. And there’s no other way of improving standards. Actually, there’s no other way of doing it on the grand scale.

Now the problem with standardized tests is that it’s based on the mistake that we can simply scale up the education of children like you would scale up making carburetors. And we can’t, because human beings are very different from motorcars, and they have feelings about what they do and motivations in doing it, or not. And, all the schools I know that are great have something in common — they all have great teachers and they have a commitment to the personal development of each of the pupils in the school. And that’s easily lost in a culture of standardizing.

So, I’m not against standardized testing, in their place. I think they can have useful diagnostic roles. I don’t think they should be the dominant culture of our school system. And, I think it’s incumbent on individual schools and teachers to make sure that they’re not.

And the second bit of this is what do I think should be included or not. I just want to say a quick thing about this, which is that if you think about it, an assessment has two parts to it, one of which is a description and one of which is a comparison. For example, if you said of somebody that they had run a mile in four minutes, that’s not an assessment. That’s simply a statement of something they can do. But, if you said that they were the fastest athlete in Wisconsin, or the best miler in Wisconsin, that’s an assessment because what you’re then doing is comparing what they can do to what other people can do. There’s some implied external standard.

So, an assessment is always two things. It has a description implied and a comparison.

I think the problem with most standardized tests or graded tests or lettered sort of assessments is that they’re often very heavy on comparison and very light on description. So you get kids coming out of programs with an A- or a B or something, but it’s not clear to anybody else what that really means. What does that mean they can do? And it’s really what people can do, and what they’re interested in, and what they’re capable of that is of most importance in education.

As a good counter-case actually, my daughter just now is at community college here in Los Angeles. It’s a fantastic college. It’s Santa Monica College. It’s much better, I think, than most of the other institutions that are catering to the same age groups. But, she’s been doing a course these last couple of semesters in dressmaking and design. And it’s a really interesting thing, you know, in our culture, doing practical things is disparaged in education. It’s all about getting into a university and doing theoretical things. But the world turns on people being able to do things, not just think about doing things. And practical skills, like music and design, are intensely demanding.

So one thing she has to do is to make a dress. Well, it sounds easy, but try doing it. It’s extremely taxing to do it. But what was interesting was that the assessment that came back was very detailed. It referred to very specific things that she was doing about seams and cloth and pockets and buttonholes and the lay of the nap in the cloth. It was broken down into probably 30 very specific comments on the details of what she’d done. And it was a really helpful process of assessment. But if she’s had the thing and then just got a B for it, you’d think, “Well now, what do I do with that information?”

So, if assessment is textured and finely-grained, and is supportive and diagnostic, I’m all for it. If it’s coarse and simplistic and judgmental and uninformative, then it seems to me always to be negative and have the wrong sort of effects in education.

READ MORE: TED and Reddit’s Q&A with Sir Ken Robinson continues after the jump …(Continued)

submitted by MimiK
Sir Ken, you mentioned back in your TED Talk that university educated students are going home to play video games; that this is what young people feel engaged with. Indeed, whilst we’re all familar with the idiom that ‘children learn best when playing’, you have been known to state, however, that active play is what is important. In the case of your own son, I have read that you wanted to ensure he was playing outside and reading books before he got his PlayStation.

Whilst balance is of course important, there are also many proponents for the pedagogical value of video games, who believe that games are a potentially powerful medium. Indeed, beyond just ‘edutainment games’ (of which there are some good, but also many, many bad examples), playing video games intended for fun and entertainment has been shown to improve skills in a number of areas, including strategic thinking, communication, group decision making, application of numbers, information processing and inductive discovery. The list goes on and on. Games can even provide structures for moral and ethical decision making.

Therefore, some would advocate that video games are in fact best preparing kids for 21st century life. What’s your opinion on this, and of the place of video games in education?

Sir Ken: I meant that really in a more slighting way than he took it. What I mean is that they go home, not because that’s what they could engage with, but because they can’t find anything else to do. You know, an awful lot of kids with degrees these days are heading home because they can’t earn a living and can’t find a job. And this is really important to me because for years we worked on the premise that getting a college degree is the ultimate objective of going to school. And the premise is, if you got a college degree, you had a job for life. Well, we know that’s simply not true anymore.

And that was my point in the TEDTalk, you know, that when the basic currency of education has defaulted it means that we really have to think again about what we’re doing all this for. There’s a piece in one of the — New York Times or Washington Post recently, but it was about the problems that successful PhD students have in finding work. Well, that’s meant to be the ultimate accolade of an academic career, to get a PhD, but you still can’t get a job. That, to me, is probably the biggest fault line that we need to think about in education. That’s really just a clarification of what I was saying there.

I think the main about here is that I really do think that we have not yet properly begun to exploit the real benefits and potential of information technology in education. My big interest is in how you personalize education and how you customize it, rather than how you standardize it and make it irrelevant to local needs. And one of the ways we do it, I’m sure, is by making much more imaginative and creative use of information technology.

And there’s no doubt that kids are drawn to computer games because they excite their imaginations, they excite their attention and they demand rapid-fire responses. And I’ve seen some great examples of how these things can be applied in education. Mark Parentis* has written well about this — he’s the one who’s written about digital nations and digital immigrants. He’s written a book, a while ago, I think it’s called, “Don’t Bother Me Mum, I’m Learning.” I think that’s the title. But, it’s about kids using videogames to learn.

So, I think we’re only on the cusp of all this just now. There’s a great program called MIND which is Music in Neural Development I think that’s what it stands for, based at UC-Irvine. And they done really exacting work in using computer games to promote mathematical development. I’ll send you the link to that. So, I really do think there’s a currently unmapped potential here, so far, in most schools, for how we can make better use of these technologies to engage kids and really excite their interest and their attention.

The one down side to it though, I think, is that I think there’s a real risk that’s kind of implicit in that previous question from Gurub* about trying to get them away from the computer screen. There are just at the moment uncharted concerns about the effects that we don’t really know or understand of kids being exposed to screens for so many hours every day from such a young age. We just don’t know if that’s having a good, or a bad, or a neutral effect on their development, I mean, on their neural development, on their cognitive development. There are certainly some anxieties about that, that we don’t understand what the cumulative effects of exposure to that sort of light is, what the exposure to that sort of energy is over the long-term. And I share that. I think we need to know more about that before we too wholeheartedly into having kids spending more and more time in front of screens or depending on these technologies. I’m not against them. I just think there are some risks that we don’t understand yet.

But I also think that in any situation education should not only be IT-based. Clearly not. There are things that you can only really learn by being in the room with people. There are things you can only really learn by getting up and doing them. Not simulating them, but by being outdoors and doing it. By being in your body. By exercising your feelings and recognizing you are not just intellectual and chemalogical* animals. We are sentient, feeling beings who need social contact. And one of the great losses, I think, out of public education just now is the loss of arts programs, loss of sports programs and the loss of programs that get kids out of the room and on their feet. So, I would never want to see a form of education which was wholly preoccupied with IT. But, I do think that the element of IT that we use now should be really hugely enriched, that it has massive potential in the future for personalizing education and, in a way, also globalizing it.

submitted by erindowney
There are so many individual teachers and librarians out there who GET IT, who want to help their students stop “playing school” and start having authentic learning experiences. How do they build critical mass to change our bureaucratic, cookie-cutter approach to educating children?

Sir Ken: The first thing is right. There are lots of teachers and librarians who get it. There’s no doubt about it. I mean, I’ve been hopping around the planet for about 30 years, literally working with groups all around the world, working with teachers groups, school principals, business leaders, cultural organizations in Asia, Europe and in America. I know that it’s true. Lots of people get this. That’s one of the reasons my TEDTalk has been so widely seen.

I don’t get many letters from people saying, “I’ve seen this TEDTalk. This is just ridiculous.” They say this is actually true. And it is true. I’m not making it up. I know. I work as much with teachers and principals as I do with those groups. On the whole, people in education get this as much as anyone else. And they don’t like it. They know there’s a big problem in the system, and they want to change it.

The real place to focus, initially, is on the work you do yourself. I’m always keen to say this: Education doesn’t happen in the committee rooms of Washington, or London, or Paris or Berlin. It doesn’t happen in government buildings. It happens in the minds of students and learners. It happens in the classroom.

If you’ve got a child, education then is not what’s happening in the Beltway; it’s what’s happening in their head and body, today, in their classroom, or wherever they’re being held to learn. So what I would say to teachers is: Change your own practice, today. The education your children are getting is a result of what you’re doing with them.

And sometimes schools, I think, pose unnecessary limitations on themselves based on assumptions which aren’t true about national requirements. No Child Left Behind, for example, does not say you should drop arts programs. But many schools have done that. Other schools are keeping them going; they’ve integrated the curriculum. There’s a great program in the Midwest called A+ Schools, which works with schools all across that region to enhance the curriculum to include creative approaches to teaching and learning.

A big part of my message to people is: Don’t wait for the government to change things; get on and do it yourself. But also, if you’re in a position to do it, you should try and influence policy. There’s an opportunity to do that in many countries. It depends on your position.

submitted by phynbarr
How do I get involved to make this change happen?

Sir Ken: It’s a difficult question to answer because I don’t know who phynbarr is. Is he a teacher? Is he a parent? Or is he neither? Is he working in education administration, or not? But aside from that, I think there are things we can all do, wherever we are, and whatever position we have, to influence opinion. For one, you can influence opinion by deciding who you’re going to vote for. Education systems are tremendously complex and convoluted. There are a million points of access to them. It depends on what you’re best suited to.

And I try to ask this question to myself, every day. “What can I do?” My role is to work on the ground with practitioners. But also, at the same time, to work in the realm of public policy. When I worked on the All Our Futures report in the UK, a lot of our recommendations for education and creativity there, of about 90 total, weren’t addressed to the government at all. They were addressed to parents, to teachers, to artists, to scientists, to business leaders. People often assume you have to get the government to do something else in order to make change, and I think that’s not a good theory.

Now, you do need a theory of change to get things done. And, certainly getting the government to change their mind is worth spending time on. But the truth is, governments come and go. Politicians come and go. They all have their own agendas, and they have very short attention spans. And, meanwhile, we’ve got millions of people in the system who are trying to get educated. So I think you have to pick your area of strengths, and get to work on it.

We had similar recommendations when I worked on the peace process in Northern Ireland. Our recommendations were finely tuned. This is who you are, and so this is what you can do. These recommendations go to these people.

It’s about breaking the problem down, and figuring out what your own interests and preoccupations are. And looking at what you can do in your sphere.

submitted by Glamdering
Distance learning (web based education) is currently the new rage in education. However, the quality of the experience is at best sub par. As a recent college graduate, I cannot help but feel the three major types of online education (static html pages, pre-recorded video, power point slides with audio overlays) are missing the point. What are your thoughts on the future of distance learning, and have you seen any signs of a breakthrough that will replace the status quo, while delivering interactive, powerful, social and visually simulating learning?

Sir Ken: I should just say: Distance learning isn’t the new rage in education. We’ve had it for years.

In the U.K., we’ve had the Open University, which was set up in the ’70s. I think it’s now the largest university on Earth. It’s a massive institution on a small campus. The purpose was to offer university-level education to people who were beyond conventional undergraduate aid. A lot of people in the Open University are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, right up to their 90s. It’s a brilliantly innovative organization, designed to give people a second chance — or a first chance, if they missed it. It’s based on distance learning, with some residential programs built in. But all the programs were initially put on late-night television by the BBC.

So, distance learning itself is not a new thing. It’s the web that’s new.

But I think Glamdering is right. It’s not very good. There’s been a tendency in universities to try and cash in on the interest in web-based learning. A lot of them have been dumping programs online: lecture notes, videos of talks, and so on. They’re of variable quality. Some of them are great, and some aren’t. In a way, TED is a great example of how distance learning can work well. TED doesn’t have a formal curriculum. But it has new ideas about getting ideas across in a powerful, condensed way, with high-quality visuals, and then syndicating that. TED has shown us a dramatic appetite for new ideas presented in an interesting way.

Just dumping stuff online isn’t the answer to it. But there’s a massive thirst for ideas, for this sort of content, as illustrated by the mushrooming of social networking and user-generated content. There’s another interesting commercial organization called Blackboard which is growing very quickly and has been doing work that’s really worth looking at. I mean, I don’t think they would say they’ve got this whole thing sorted at all, but they’ve started to think differently about the best way to use web-based materials and distance learning both in institutions and outside of them.

Microsoft and Apple both have interesting educational programs. They both work with schools. They have educational leadership programs. They, I think, are looking hard at how the technology that they are developing and selling can really be used for distance education. And I think the work that both are doing is really worth looking at, althought they’re approaching it in different ways.

As with what I was saying before about video games: I think there’s a massive potential that we haven’t yet fully tapped into. Most schools don’t really have contact with stuff. People who are at the leading edge of thinking about it are coming in with great ideas and possibilities, but the penetration of this stuff into education is still pretty limited. But I’m sure it’s the way we have to go in the future. And for a very good reason. Because we now have the ability to put the best thinking, materials, pedagogy, resources in front of everybody. This should be seen by schools as a massive opportunity to — not to replace what they do, not to replace their own teachers and curriculum, but to enrich and enhance it. And the really good schools know that that’s the way to go. And there are some great schools that are doing it. High Tech High is an interesting one in the U.S.

submitted by waslike
What is your opinion of the Summerhill School?

Sir Ken: Summerhill is great. It was founded by a visionary educator called A.S. Neill in the U.K. in the early part of the 20th century. And it’s still going. It’s now run by his granddaughter. It’s a very unusual school by most standards. It’s relatively small compared to most public schools. It’s a school where the divisions between teachers and students have been blurred.

There’s no regular, compulsory daily curriculum for the kids. The student go to things that they want to go to for as long as they want to go to them. The decisions about the governance of the school are taken jointly, involving the teachers and students. Disciplinary decisions are taken by meetings of students and teachers. All issues to do with programming and quality are jointly considered. The students, effectively, develop their own programs in consult with the teachers. And if they don’t want to go for a while, then they don’t go.

Within that are strict protocols about how decisions are taken and ratified. It’s not anarchy. But it is co-managed, or directed, by the students and the teachers. It’s had a huge influence, actually, on generations of teachers and theorists in education in Europe. It’s right in the heart of what people consider to be progressive education.

I’m not too comfortable with the terms “traditional” and “progressive.” I know what these terms are getting at. The difference between schools which are totally organized by teachers and organized by methods and a set curriculum, based on a conventional view of subjects, of assessment, versus those which are more dynamic and more fluid. Summerhill would be at one end of that spectrum — more fluid, dynamic and self-organizing. A lot of people who go to see Summerhill are surprised at the apparent freedom that the students and teachers have given themselves.

There’s a lot to learn from Summerhill. It’s one of those schools like Black Mountain in America. Schools like this come around from time to time. They set about a new way of thinking. They give a different sense of what’s possible if they are given the right conditions. They’re based on the principle that students, if they’re given freedom and responsibility, will rise to it. It won’t dissolve into anarchy. It will resolve into something much more productive than people think. The kids have much more moral judgment, much more self-determination, much more responsibility than people would believe, when they’re given the opportunity to exercise them.

The things I’m talking about are not, it seems to me, eccentric or new. It’s not whimsy and its not a fad. From the beginning of public education, there have been people looking for alternative ways of doing things, better ways of thinking about organizing our institutions. More responsible ways of engaging children in their own learning. Kids are not widgets. Students are living, breathing people who will only learn if they are engaged properly. We have a responsibility to the development of all the students in the system. It’s important for them, the health of our communities and the strength of our economies.

The problem is to get these ideas into the mainstream. As soon as governments get to thinking, “How can we do this for everybody,” they immediately default to an industrial model. They think it must be standardized. What Summerhill and all the great progressive schools have shown us is that the only way you get schools to improve is by personalizing to these children, these parents, this community, this place.

submitted by Milner1980
I’m a maths teacher, in England, in a forward-thinking school (the head showed your TED talk to the whole school a couple of years ago at a staff meeting) and I believe in what you say about creativity passionately.

So what three things should I do in September to foster creativity? I’m talking about definite, in-the-one-hour-lesson things I can do to my classes to change their experience.

Sir Ken: To me, the heart and soul of education is pedagogy. There are three components to education, as I was saying earlier. There is curriculum: what students are supposed to be learning. There is pedagogy: the actual teaching. And assessment: the process by which we form judgments about how well they’re done, where we make comments about student’s progress. But the heart of it is pedagogy.

I don’t know any school, anywhere, that’s better than the teachers in it. You can have the most brilliantly conceived curriculum on the planet, the most sophisticated, sensitive and responsive systems of assessment, but if the teaching is bad in the middle of it, you’re going to have a bad school. And equally, if you have brilliant teachers, you can get away with very little formal assessment yet still have brilliant results.

When people think back to their own time at school, it’s always the teachers they remember. They might not remember what the gymnasium looked like, but they’ll remember what the gym teacher looked like. They might not remember the lab, but will certainly remember the physics teacher. It’s the people who inspired them or turned them off that will always come to mind.

This is an important question. But I don’t know the teacher, so I don’t know what he or she does. But there are some characteristics of good teaching which are concerned with promoting creativity. One of them is to engage children’s curiosity to get their imaginations fired up. I was saying earlier that the fundamental capacity is imagination. Well, what I mean by that is you can’t be creative if your imagination is not engaged. Otherwise, it’d be like someone saying, “I want to be a world-class athlete, but I can’t be bothered with exercising.” It won’t work.

If you want to promote creativity, you need, firstly, to stimulate kids minds with puzzles and questions which will intrigue them. Often that’s best done by giving them problems, rather than just solutions. What often happens in classrooms is, kids sit there trying to learn in a drone-like way things of not much interest that have already been figured out.

The best math teachers I know, like the best English teachers, are always giving kids puzzles. They’re given things to work on where math skills are required but may not be the focus of the activity. There giving them problems to solve. Or they’re made to engage with age-old mathematical problems. For example, I’m thinking about the problem of latitude. How do you go about measuring the planet? I mean, somebody had to do that. How do you do it? Professional mathematicians have such a cornucopia of fascinating puzzles, questions, proposals and conundrums. A great math teacher really has endless opportunities to stimulate kids minds and get them engaged with things they’d probably never thought about before. Rather than just giving them techniques.

It’s like what’s too often done with music lessons; kids spend too much time learning scales rather than doing anything interesting. But if you get them right away learning the joy of making music, they’ll want to learn how to do it properly after that.

I talked about, in the All Our Futures report, two things, one of which was “teaching creatively”: teachers finding interesting ways into material. Presenting unusual points of entry or interesting angles or perspectives, and enjoying the process of finding them. So, that’s important. Teachers themselves should try to evolve their own creative capacities and enjoy what they do, creatively. Standardized testing has taken the joy of teaching away from them.

But there’s also “teaching for creativity”: creating conditions in classrooms where kids are encouraged to think creatively and imaginatively. Giving them stimulating things to work on. Ideas that will open their mind up. Information they’ve never encountered. Puzzles that will intrigue them. So you might think of that as stimulating the imagination, setting problems.

The second big part of this is asking open questions as much as we ask closed questions. Giving people questions they can explore, rather than ones to which they have to find answers that have already been given. That, to me, is the fundamental piece of all creative processes. Giving area for exploration.

One thing I didn’t touch on earlier is, the creative process is a bit like a DNA strand. There are a lot of things weaving through it. One task being creative is to hypothesize and think of possibilities and look at alternatives ideas — to speculate. To be imaginative. But an equally important part for every creative process is to act critically on the ideas you’re coming up with. To evaluate them. That’s why I define creativity, in the TEDTalk, as the process of having original ideas that have value. You have to figure out which ideas are good and bad. Which work and which don’t. Which are worthwhile and which ones are not. Then, of course, it raises the old question of whose criteria you’re using and whose values you’re operating, and that’s a part of the conversation. Being creative isn’t just about blowing off new ideas. It’s about critical judgment, as well. Because in the end, in mathematics, some questions will be right and some may not be right.

I’ll give you an example. I was at a university a while ago. They have a problem in their school of engineering of creative thinking. We sent them math puzzles. One of groups of students, one of the questions was to work out how many gas stations there are in the state of Illinois. Now, nobody actually knows this because nobody’s gone to count them. There are so many companies there. You’d literally have to go over the whole of Illinois with a helicopter to find all the gas stations. So the students have to work out how to work that out. And they come from all kinds of interesting directions. Some will say, What do we know about the population of Illinois? What do we know about the age profile, therefore how many motorcars there are likely to be. What is the median wage, so what sort of cars are these people likely to own? What’s the distance between the main towns, so what’s the average journey? You know what I mean? With that kind of puzzle, there isn’t an obvious, direct answer. They’ve got to figure out some way to get to it. So that’s the second part. Asking open questions.

The third bit to this is group work. An awful lot of creative work doesn’t happen individually. It happens with people interacting with other people. The most powerful engines of creative thinking are groups. And the reason that’s true is because a great group models the human mind: it’s diverse, it’s dynamic, it’s distinctive. So, knowing how to form groups, how to get groups to work, how long to leave them doing it is a core skill of good teachers.

So I think its three things: it’s stimulating imagination, it’s telling them problems with open questions, and knowing how to organize groups. And I think in there are the answers to things we can all start doing tomorrow.

submitted by balunstormhands
My question is how do I find my element? I have 42 years on this earth and I have tried doing many things (trumpet, missionary work, electronics engineer, truck driver, computer programmer, and much more) but so far I have found nothing that I can say thrilled me like any of the stories found in your great book The Element. There have been a few things that I’ve liked but not so much that I went back to after they ended.

We all know you can find your element at any time in life but what more can I do to find out what MY element is?

I just finished The Element and we are changing the focus of our daughters homeschooling to help her find her element, and her passions.

Sir Ken: The Element is based on this core idea that when people find the thing that resonates most with them, their lives can get transformed by it. I’ve always been struck by how many adults do work that they’re not very interested in. They take no great pleasure from it, but they do it because it pays the bills and they can’t think of an alternative. And yet I also meet people who actually love what they do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. People who are, so to speak, in their element. They might be teachers, mathematicians, carpenters, designers, parents …

Being in your element is two things: One is you’re doing something for which you have a natural aptitude. You get it. You’re Julia Childs, you kind of get cooking.

But it’s not enough to be good at something. Many people I know are good at things they don’t like doing. You also have to love it. And if you love the thing you do, then that’s the point I call the element. And, as they say, when you find it, you never work again. People will say to me, “I can’t believe they pay me to do this.”

My premise is that we all have enormous natural talents. Some find them and some don’t. One of the reasons many people don’t find them is because of the way we’re educated. It’s not only about aptitude and passion; it’s also about attitude and opportunity. Feeling that you deserved it. Feeling that you should have it. That you have talents. Having confidence about that. Being willing to work to get it. A lot of people I worked with had to overcome serious obstacles to get to do what they want to do. Social obstacles, or their own fear, or circumstances.

I have great sympathy for balunstormhands, who’s tried many different things. I encourage him to keep trying new things. Part of it is to spend time with yourself introspectively, to meditate even, to be inward-looking, and to think of the times and experience you had where you really did feel an affinity with something you were doing. And the element may be something you did back in your childhood. It may be something you used to do that you stopped doing. Writing, reading, model-making, sports. Maybe you encountered an obstacle. Or maybe you were discouraged from doing it. Or reached a different point in your life.

One of the way to find it, by the way, is not by just kind of jotting it down, words on a page — although that’s often a good way to do it — is to do a storyboard. Take magazines and cut out pictures of things that interest you. Compose a visual collage of things that have always drawn your interest.

The second is to look outwardly. To try things you may not have tried for a long time, or have never tried but wanted to. Put yourself in the way of things. If you’ve never been to a science museum, go to one. If you’ve never been to an opera, go to one. If you’ve never read certain kinds of books, try them. If you always drive a certain way to work, try another way. If there’s some place you haven’t been yet, go there. Expose yourself to possibilities. See what begins to chime with you. My point about being in the element is some people make a living doing it, and others don’t. Some don’t want to. But it’s about finding your own personal element. And the more people are able to do that, the more enriched their lives become, and the more enriched the lives are of those people who are in contact with them.

It’s something that we all should do, and something that we all can do.