Sir Ken Robinson posed this question at the TED conference back in 2006, and it’s been bothering me ever since. As a teacher, I have a natural inclination to be defensive when people attack the education system. Of course, Robinson makes his living criticising education systems, and people always seem to be receptive to criticisms of institutions. There is always a need for healthy reflection of any institutional practices, including education. But something struck me just the other day that provided the occasion for this post. In his talk, Robinson tells the story of a very successful dancer who, when she was in the school system, could not seem to focus and was thought to have had a learning disability. The parents were given the advice to put her in a school of dance, and there, miracle of miracles, she thrived and went on to an illustrious career in ballet. But here’s the thing: my five year-old daughter didn’t want to go to her dance class the other night, and I said, “but you love to dance!” she replied, “but daddy, they make me do their steps.” I immediately remembered Robinson’s talk, and thought, “A-Ha! so, dance schools aren’t that different!” Hence the occasion for this post. Do schools kill creativity? Yes. There are rules to learn and direct instruction even in the performing arts, never mind in the hard sciences.
There should always be room for healthy skepticism, exploration and discovery even in the hard sciences. And we try to allow for that skepticism and questioning, of course, but with four classes of 30 students, getting across the ‘knowledge’ part of the discipline is hard enough, and sometimes allowing for skepticism and questioning gets pushed aside for the sake of efficiency. Parents want to know how their child is doing, principals demand that teachers have frequent assessments, ergo assessments are necessary. The easiest thing to assess is a student’s grasp of the ‘knowledge’ of the discipline. Over time, the system has allowed for a bit more creativity, exploration, and discovery learning. It remains, however, that even in ballet, students need to learn the rules first.