The TED talk with the most views—more than 70 million—is fascinating, inspiring and wrong. It features the late British educationalist, Ken Robinson, delivering a message that manages to be both grim and uplifting. Grim because he claims that schools are stultifying and kill children’s creativity; uplifting because Robinson expresses faith that all children could be brilliant, if adults would just get out of the way.
Although Robinson’s argument fails, examining it can help us better understand the conditions that foster creativity, so that parents can help their children flourish.
Let’s start with Robinson’s observations. He notes that young children seem insatiably curious about the world and are unafraid of making mistakes; even if they lack experience or knowledge, they are ready to give any task a try. Older children are wary of attempting new tasks for fear of failing and thus appearing stupid. Robinson suggests that schools, by emphasizing a single correct answer to every question, are to blame.
Why do people find mistakes threatening? Psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that it’s rooted in a belief that intelligence is fixed at birth. Smart people are just smart and don’t make mistakes. Thus, an error signifies stupidity, and because intelligence is unchangeable, there’s nothing you can do about it.
In contrast, people who view intelligence as changeable don’t fear mistakes. A mistake simply means you haven’t encountered this type of work before, or that you need more practice. Data from multiple countries shows that these beliefs about intelligence and attitudes toward mistakes tend to go together, as Dweck predicts.
Teachers are well aware of this association, and it informs how they handle children’s failures. In a 2016 survey of U.S. teachers, 90 percent agreed with this statement: “It’s important to student learning that they believe they can learn from failure and are willing to try new things in school.” Doubtlessly, some kids fear failing, but it’s probably not due to their schooling.
Robinson’s second point concerns the narrowness of the curriculum. Why the neglect of music, art, dance and so many other creative human pursuits? He suggests that the only way to view yourself as smart at school is to be good at English, math or one of the other standard subjects. “Brilliant people,” he says, “are stigmatized because the thing they’re good at isn’t valued in education.”
There’s something to this concern, but the curriculum aligns with parents’ goals. American parents think schools should prepare students for the workforce, and they know the job market is changing. Twentieth century jobs that required repetitive work are increasingly performed by robots or software, and the jobs that remain are more cognitively demanding. Over the last generation, high school students have taken more credit hours and more difficult courses. So, while the curriculum may have a narrow academic focus, most parents approve.
But Robinson’s central claim was about creativity, not the curriculum or fear of making mistakes. Does creativity decline as children spend more time in school?
Researchers study an aspect of creativity with the Alternative Uses Test, in which the subject is asked to think of as many uses as he or she can for a common object like a brick or a paperclip. A judge scores each idea for plausibility. A creative idea is typically defined as one that is novel and useful. The Alternate Uses Test captures novelty, and so is considered a measure of divergent thinking—one half of creativity.
A recent analysis summarizing data from 41 studies showed that the ability to think divergently increases as children advance in school.
Now, what about the other aspect of creativity—that novel ideas should be useful? You’ve no doubt heard about the 10,000 hour rule—the idea, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, that mastery of any skill requires 10,000 hours of practice. This time goes not only to burnishing skills, but also to acquiring knowledge—that’s what takes you from competent performer to creative artist. Generating novel ideas requires divergent thinking; evaluating those ideas for usefulness requires knowledge.
As institutions that impart knowledge, schools are supporting creativity, not killing it.
Still, that support may be an accidental byproduct of their emphasis on transmitting knowledge, rather than a priority. What more direct steps can you take at home to help your child’s creativity bloom?
First, you can promote intellectual bravery. Kids won’t think divergently if they fear being wrong, and you can be an important model. Share your decision-making process with your kids, in particular when you’re not sure you’re right, but you choose to move forward anyway. And when you do make a mistake, normalize it. Point out that every error is an opportunity to learn something new.
Second, creative people often seek inspiration through the unfamiliar. So, make a family value of experiencing new things. Try an exotic fruit at the grocery store or put on a broadcast of Nō theater. Be the sort of family that seeks new learning and new experiences.
Third, creativity requires knowledge, and that means it’s most likely to grow when a child pursues a subject that they are passionate about. Your child’s school is unlikely to support his or her personal passion—there’s just too much diversity among kids’ interests—so encouragement must come from you. Offer emotional support by showing interest and approval, and practical support by paying for classes or materials, offering transportation and so on. And don’t try to channel your child’s curiosity toward a subject you think appropriate. Such attempts at control usually end badly.
Schools are doing their part, but you still have a role to play. With a little imagination, you can help your kids grow to be more creative adults.