What Children Can Teach Education Leaders about Creativity

In a world fueled by technology, an emphasis on creativity could help change today's education system and prepare students with skills they need.

by / October 17, 2013 0

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The current U.S. education system is stifling students' creativity.

That's a major problem that Ken Robinson highlighted in his keynote address at the EDUCAUSE 2013 conference for higher education IT leaders on Wednesday, Oct. 16. An Englishman who now lives in Los Angeles, Robinson has written several books on innovation in education, worked in the education field and has spoken around the world at conferences like this one.

Creativity, imagination and innovation-putting good ideas into practice-transforms human life, he said. And technology serves two big purposes that help transform human life:

1. It allows people to do things they couldn't do before
2. More importantly, it enables them to do things they couldn't previously conceive of.

But the current education system is so busy testing students and asking them to find the "right" answer that creativity gets pushed out of the way. 

He showed a short video to illustrate his point. In the video, students were shown a picture of a triangle and asked to draw the right painting with the triangle. Most of them used the triangle as a roof for a house, and many of their houses looked very similar, with little color and no intriguing designs.

In another scenario, students were asked to complete the picture that had a triangle. They came up with a variety of creative ideas, including a cat, a boat and an interesting looking creature. And they used more colors.

Now which would you rather have: a bunch of drab houses that look similar, or colorful creations of all kinds?

"Creativity — the idea of original thinking — most often comes when people ask a different question," Robinson said.

Instead of asking students to find the right answer, education leaders need to change the question so that it allows students' imaginations to take off, Robinson said.

But both students and faculty have pushed back on this concept, said Nikki Boots, an instructional designer from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Students want to know what their professors are looking for when they make an assignment and want to know how to get the right answer.  Instead of putting on a show with a lecture and teaching to an exam, faculty members have to put in more work to prepare for the questions that students might ask them during class discussion. And that scares them.

"The faculty, if they're older, that's how they were tested and measured and it's hard for them to think in this different way, especially when they're in STEM subjects," Boots said.

While many professors react to technology with fear, students want more technology. But they often don't like having to put more work into a class, especially when they're paying $60,000 a year for tuition and are expected to learn about something on their own so they can teach the rest of their classmates, Boots said.

Higher education is in a crisis right now because the general public says that colleges are not providing what they need anymore, while those inside education think they're doing a critical task that needs to be accomplished, said Associate Vice President Mike McPherson from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. But assumptions are not always right.

"We can't assume that we have the right answer, that we already know the right answer and everybody else is confused," McPherson said. "If we go in with that position that we have the right answer, we're more likely to end up in conflict with the people who are paying the bills."

On his campus, massively open online courses (MOOCs) are part of the answer to this education conundrum. But it's not the whole answer, McPherson said.

The university is experimenting with MOOCs because it's trying to figure out how to make the residential campus experience more effective and relevant with technology, McPherson said. Technology could make it possible for every undergraduate students to start creating knowledge from the moment they step on campus. The University of Virginia just doesn't have the capacity to do that now.

Ironically this conference is near Disneyland, where creativity and imagination reign, and everything seems possible. Just the other day, McPherson watched as young children walked through Downtown Disney with their Mickey and Minnie hats and princess dresses. These children are part of the next generation of students, and he wants to leave a better world for them and for his grandchildren. After this session, he'll be thinking about what he can do in his role at the University of Virginia to make the world a better place.

As his grandchildren have come along, they have inspired him to start asking different questions and think more in the mindset of a child who believes that anything is possible. And that's something everyone could use more of, he said.

"Living in this world in which anything is possible — animals talk, people fly, I go like this and I have my magic wand — you could say it's childish," McPherson said. "But it's also imagination without constraints, and many of us left that behind, and we need that."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.