Friday, December 12, 2008

The Creativity Don - Sir Ken Robinson

Image: Sir Ken Robinson (left) with Dr. Warwick Carter, President of Columbia College Chicago

Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, in innovation, education, and human resources. He has worked with national governments in Europe and Asia, with international agencies, Fortune 500 companies, not-for-profit corporations, and some of the world’s leading cultural organizations. For 10 years he was Professor of Education at the University of Warwick in England and is now Professor Emeritus.

Sir Robinson was invited to Columbia College to speak for their Founders Lectures on Tuesday, December 2, 2008. Here is my interview with him shortly before going on stage.

Elizabeth: Please talk about the traditional definition of success in higher education and how creativity is often overlooked in pursuit of traditional educational values.

Sir Ken Robinson: If you look at the dominant culture of education and had to ask what does one have to be good at in that culture in order to succeed you’d have to conclude that the whole process of public education is intended to produce university professors. I don’t think it is intentionally that way. The intellectual culture of education is predicated on a certain type of academic ability of the sort that people who teach in universities especially enjoy. If you ask the typical student what they do in school they say that they spend a lot of time writing essays and doing critiques and doing certain sorts of mathematics. There is a greater emphasis on a certain type of critical thinking. People talk about the ‘core’ academics. The whole thing is about academic ability and my point is that academic ability has become a synonym for intelligence and educational achievement. It’s a typical type of intellectual process.

E: Is this success model accidental by virtue of the fact that professors look for the same kind of intellectual process that they themselves possess?

SKR: I don’t think it’s accidental. I think it’s a story. It’s rooted in the formation of the educational system of the 18th and 19th centuries and is shaped much by the culture of the Enlightenment. Quite early on in the process, the universities sought to exert influence on the culture of education. I think of it as more ideological than accidental.

E: One of the examples you use to illustrate the creative mind is a young girl who had been a disruptive force in the classroom. The young girl went on to become a very famous choreographer as an adult. The parents and the school sought the expertise of a psychologist because the girl was not progressing in the classroom environment. During a meeting with the family, the psychologist asked the parents to leave the office with him while the little girl stayed behind in the office. Before the psychologist left with the parents, he turned on the radio to a music station. Outside the office door, the psychologist asked the parents to look through the small window on his door and tell him what the little girl was doing.
“She’s dancing,” they said.
“Do you know why she’s dancing?” he asked.
“She’s always dancing,” they replied.
“She’s dancing because she is a dancer,” the psychologist returned.

SKR: The school thought she had a learning disability because she couldn’t sit still or pay attention. The psychologist that the mother took her to see was fantastically insightful. It was he who said, she isn’t sick, she’s a dancer. Take her to dance school. He was exemplifying that there are other ways of being intelligent. Julian Lyne (the now famous choreographer) said to me that she has to move to think. My wife is like that. She hates going to the theater because she has to sit there for two hours. It drives her mad. Education for the most part is designed for people who like to sit still.

E: In business, I think there is an increasing respect for creative people, but I still see that these people are siloed by upper management. The people who make the big bucks, the corner office crowd, are not the out-of-the-box thinkers. Do you think there is an impenetrable wall between creative people and those who have the bigger jobs and make more money?

SKR: Firstly, it’s difficult to talk about business in general. You look at companies like Pixar or Google or Apple or you look at some of the leading design and architectural companies. They have extraordinary cultures, but so do Proctor & Gamble and GE. Some of their CEOs are fantastically creative people. It takes a lot to run a multi-billion dollar company and to keep it moving upwards. I think that part of the problem is that we tend to caricature creativity and associate it with certain types of activity. Companies do that all the time. They think that creativity is primarily about advertising, marketing or design. What much of my work has been about is to redefine and recalibrate the idea of creativity and the creative mind. People think creativity is about special things or special people, which they are, but there are so many ways in which one can be creative. If you look at some of the great companies like Apple or Google, they’ve been very creative in producing products. Walmart is a much bigger company and they haven’t produced any products at all. Their real creative skill has been in systems in supply chain management. Then you have other companies like Starbucks who didn’t invent coffee, but invented a kind of culture to go with it. They are all examples of very different creative approaches and innovation. But I think that there are some companies who tend to ghettoize the people who are thought of as the ‘creatives’. Sometimes these people make their way to top management, but I think it has to do with them very often. It often happens that people who are in the creative sector, the arts, design, etc.; they don’t all want to be running organizations. The don’t have the mind or the facility for that. That’s part of my argument; in order to run any great organization whether it’s a business, a school or a family there has to be diversity. One of my objections to education is the tendency to want to homogenize everything. It’s why kids who may well be brilliant are being anesthetized with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) drugs. It’s all about conformity and some children don’t fit the mold. I’m very skeptical about the prevalence of ADHD. I don’t mean that there is no such thing. Clearly there are some children who have real problems, but I’m not a doctor and therefore not qualified to say that there is or isn’t such a thing. I do think it’s out of control. I think all kinds of people are being medicated because they just think differently. I’m publishing a book in January entitled, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. The whole book is filled with stories of people who have achieved enormous things creatively. Not all are well-known, but most of them are. I think a number of these people we would never have heard of if they had taken Aderol or Ritalin in the 70s and 80s. Many of them were bucking the system. It really outrages me. I will say that some children have real clinical issues, but from all the people whom I have talked to about this, even doctors, have said that the tendency to medicate children because they’re being mildly disruptive or not paying attention or are bored or distracted or generally are not getting with the program is spreading like wildfire. In the 80s there were half a million kids with ADHD, but right now in 2008 the numbers have reach 8 million. It’s a three billion dollar drug industry. It’s like depression. The drug companies are not trying to cure depression. Once this condition is out there, you see it everywhere. I don’t believe it. I think an awful lot of kids are expressing a kind of vibrant creative energy that is not being channeled. I do know many people who would not be achieving now if they had been medicated as children.

One of these people is Mick Fleetwood. He would have undoubtedly been put on Aderol because he was constantly beating out rhythms on everything. He hated school. Later on in his life it turned out that he was dyslexic. He was angry and frustrated and he begged his parents to let him leave school at the age of sixteen and they let him. The only thing he ever wanted to do was to play the drums. His father had the common sense to buy him a set of drums and at sixteen he set off to London to live with his sister and set his drum kit up in a garage. His father, who was a poet, wrote a poem about him. The last line of the poem was: “He set off to conquer the world with two sticks and a drum.” He’s twice been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fleetwood Mac has sold millions of albums. They are one of the most successful bands in history. At sixteen he had his first gig with a blues band. What I’m trying to say is that if those drugs had been available, doctors would have given them to him

E: I think Columbia has a lot of kids that also fit this category. They want to pursue creative careers, but they may not have done well in the hard academic core subjects.

SKR: We subject kids to all kinds of academic disciplines regardless of whether they have any interest or aptitude for them. It doesn’t mean that they should not be exposed to these disciplines, but I resist the idea that there are ‘hard’ subjects and ‘soft’ ones. People achieve at the highest levels whether it’s in the arts or the sciences. I don’t think there is such a thing as an academic subject. There are just academic processes.