I may not be at TED, but in the past few days I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two of the finest speakers to grace past events lecture in London. Following on from Clay Shirky at POLIS on Tuesday, Sir Ken Robinson spoke at the Royal Society yesterday on the subject of his new book – The Element. The event forms part of the RSA’s excellent series of debates on culture, politics and society that occur every Thursday lunchtime.
The core idea of the book is that most adults have no idea of their true talents, nor what they are capable of achieving. Some people go along in life with no sense of fulfilment, but people tend to do their best when they do something they love.
To be in one’s element, one needs to have a natural aptitude. Robinson provided one of his many great anecdotes to illustrate this – many of which are included in the book as interviews or case studies. Terence Tao, Professor of Maths at UCLA taught himself to read at age 2; passed a college entrance exam aged 8; finished his PhD aged 20 and was awarded the Field Medal (Nobel equivalent) aged 30. Safe to say he has a maths brain.
But being naturally good at something is not enough; someone also has to love it. If I’m good at maths but don’t like it, I shouldn’t continue just to meet people’s expectations. I should take part in what resonates with me most fully.
So rather than being about creativity, the book is about celebrating the diversity and multiplicity of talent. Sir Ken then reiterated the nebulous effect of the education system on encouraging this diversity. He believes – and I agree – that the distinction between academic and vocational education is a dreadful mistake. A story about a fireman who at school had been told he wouldn’t amount to anything then saving the life of that teacher proved this point quite nicely.
One of the arguments running through the book is that this “element” is necessary for human fulfilment as it is an essential part of knowing who we are. Bart Conner – the most decorated athlete in US gymnastic history – and his wife Nadia Comaneci now devote their lives to developing gymnasts in the Special Olympics, for instance. Conner’s mother encouraged his talents; and his talents then created opportunities. This is because our lives are not linear but organic. Education, on the other hand, is predicated on linearity. Robinson highlighted a recent LA policy paper “College begins at Kindergarten” to back up this point. Education should not be a mechanistic process but about creating a success that is synergistic with the environment.
He also pointed out several similarities in the “critical and severe” crises in both natural resources and human resources. Both line industry, serve massive commercial interests (e.g. the “false epidemic” of ADHD) and are often buried deep. Given that the old economic model has failed, now would appear an excellent time to instil community development based on diversity and not conformity.
The lecture closed with Sir Ken saying that at a basic level, education is about personal growth, it is part of the culture (and therefore needs cultural development) and is about economics. The book is a different conception of human possibility and an appeal to aim high.
After the speech (which was excellent), Matthew Taylor asked a couple of questions – one pertaining to the role that ethics and responsibility play in creativity. Robinson defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that create value”. He re-iterated that it is a process and not a random act of inspiration, and that it needs to prove its worth. The financial crisis was not due to creativity but because people were not being critical and evaluating the usefulness of their ideas. He also pointed out that creativity isn’t the opposite to formality – instead a mixture of discipline and space to innovate are required (e.g. you have to learn an instrument before you can become creative).
Another question went back to the academic and vocational divide. Unfortunately people default to the way that they were educated – it may have worked for them because they are now in a position to make decisions, but it didn’t necessarily work for others. It is not just enough to know the discipline (and some policymakers may not even get that far) but about understanding the environment – great education needs great teachers. A video promo for The Blue School – set up by the Blue Man Group – was then played to show how learning and creativity can be encouraged within school.
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