Jamaica, Africa, we need to teach creativity in schools

6 months ago Ricardo Hylton 0

Creativity: the process of having original ideas that have value.


Two of my classmates in secondary school are now medical doctors in Jamaica. Run of the mill stuff, fixing and treating injuries. Another one is a bank manager, counting money and keeping the balance sheet…well, balanced. I’m approaching the higher reaches of the education profession in the U.K. We were considered the crème de la crème in our school. We graduated with stacks of qualifications and our high school year book forecast great things for us. But now that I have young children and I reflect on my education, I would not want them to have the same education my ‘gifted’ classmates and I had. It lacked creativity. Or rather, it failed in teaching us how to think creatively. And creativity, I contend, is the most important thing a school can nurture and should be treated as such.

The invisible aliens like most people have a huge vested interest in education, partly because it is supposed to provide a roadmap for a future that we struggle to grasp. If you think of it, students graduating this year could be retiring in 2052. What kind of world will that be? Which skills will be prioritised? Which will be obsolete? No one seems to know. Not even the experts. And yet we have a school system, searching like a flashlight in a dark basement that should be educating them for it.

How we studied

I went to one of the best secondary schools in Jamaica so we can assume they understood best practice. Rote teaching was the order of the day. Get the text; write much of it on the board, we copied. Repeat. Repeat. Do it again. Then we’d do what is called ‘swatting.’ That is, read, read, and reread the material until it stuck. This was a very effective method because the test, sure to come, would ask us questions that would merely require us to be able to memorise, recall and recite.

We would ace the test and congratulate ourselves. This was easy. All it required was a little commitment to go home and study. How hard can it be? We were self-identified geniuses and our swagger around school showed it. The problem is we were learning nothing. Ok, maybe that is a little extreme. But we really wasn’t learning much and that is the reason why we are all working in jobs that has done nothing to move forward Jamaica’s productive capacities. None of us work in creative industries. None of us came up with Google or Facebook? None of us started a black company that made products for black women to soften their hair. (We know chemistry. Two of us are doctors!) We left that to the Asians. None of us designed black dolls for little black girls around the world to play with. Instead they are left with Elsa and Barbie. None of us applied science to agriculture to advance the inefficient retrograde processing of many of our local farmers. We are eminently replaceable. Factory floor, assembly line workers in fancy suits.

We were at the base of Bloom’s taxonomy. Yes we could remember facts but how much were we able to actually create? Not much. I remember practising for ‘School’s Challenge Quiz’ and repeating that Tony Blair was the Prime Minister of the U.K. but having no understanding whatsoever of who he was or what his policies were and their potential impact on, let’s say Jamaica and the commonwealth. How would our government tackle or engage his government? We had no idea. We could remember his name though.

Now I can hear the moans in the background:

‘you and your three friends do not represent Jamaica. Many people in Jamaica are effective at being creative.’

This is true but the argument remains that the education system does not teach or facilitate creativity.

And this is the same in Africa. Sierra Leone. Nigeria. Ghana. Are we creating the industries of the future? The industries of the future will chew up and eject anyone working in jobs that require repetition and routine. Our education system needs to engender creativity if we don’t want our economies to become reliant on serving mojitos in Negril and driving buses between Kingston and Ocho Rios.


Can You Teach Creativity?

Many of you are probably reading this and thinking, ‘you can’t teach creativity? It is something you are born with.’ Is it possible to be learn what it takes to be creative? If you look at great artists, musicians or entrepreneurs, it can seem that creativity is a gift possessed by the lucky few. It’s something the rest of us can only admire.’ This, of course, is nonsense.

In recent years, there have been growing calls to nurture and teach creativity from an early age in schools and universities. While the secret to unlocking creative genius remains elusive, research suggests that it’s possible to prime the mind for creative ideas to emerge. And creativity is even taught as an academic discipline in some places. So, what are the ways teachers are drawing out that creative spark? And should these techniques be taught more in schools?

The belief that schools are failing to nurture creative skills has grown in recent years. The educator and author Ken Robinson, for example, argued in an influential TED talk in 2006 that current education practices crush student’s innate creative talents. Robinson clearly touched a nerve – this became the most watched TED talk of all time



All Children Are Exceptional

 We have all heard the stories. Maybe it’s a pushy parent bragging on how little ‘Jeremy’ is truly talented at Math. Perhaps it’s the stories of him or her being lauded as exceptional. But the extraordinary capacities that some children demonstrate are far from unique. All children have tremendous capabilities for innovation. What you have with what we designate as creative children is often nurtured talent. So our contention is, all kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly.

In Ken Robinson’s talk he tells the following story:

I heard a great story recently — I love telling it — of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was six, and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson, she did. The teacher was fascinated. She went over to her, and she said, “What are you drawing?” And the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” And the teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like.” And the girl said, “They will, in a minute.”


Children will take chances. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. I see it with mine every day. Leo rides that scooter up and the down the hill fearlessly, time and again, giving me heart palpitations every time. Who knows, maybe, he has a bit of the Lewis Hamiltons about him. So I let him carry on. Selena does the same, doing countless cartwheels, handsprings and pike jumps, I figured gymnastic classes were in order. They’re not frightened of being wrong. Now being wrong is not the same thing as being creative. Nonetheless, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

But by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. This is because we stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.


You are smart because…

Across the world we emphasize math and English and the sciences and relegate the arts to the bottom of the learning chart. Why is that so? Who decided that being smart or clever or creative meant excelling at algebra? And mathematicians and scientists are great, but why hold them up as the epitome and apex of human achievement?

What about the song writer or the dancer? Or the chef? Have you seen a chef whip together a meal that really shouldn’t work but like some abstract mathematical formula, they foresee how the flavours would interact and when you taste it you’re just blown away. Who first foresaw that ackee and saltfish would work? Isn’t that creativity? Why doesn’t our school system recognise that in children, foster, and facilitate it?


It’s All Money. Isn’t Everything?

Who is going to make money dancing? Very few, that’s who. Our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. Academic ability, that is, that translates to being able to financially profit from work. And there’s a reason. Around the world, public systems of education took off in the 19th century. It has been written that they came about from the altruism of the state. The truth is they all came into being to meet the needs of a rapidly industrialising world.

So the hierarchy of subjects is found in the idea that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. You, like I (I loved football but Mummy couldn’t foresee the rise of the Premier League. See mummy, I could be on Wayne Rooney money if it wasn’t for you), were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Isn’t that right? Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist. It seemed benign advice but it was profoundly mistaken.


My Intelligence

 The idea of academic ability has come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can’t afford to go on that way.

Intelligence is diverse. We think about the world in all the ways that we experience it. We think visually, we think in sound, we think kinesthetically. We think in abstract terms, we think in movement. Intelligence is also dynamic. If you look at the interactions of a human brain, intelligence is wonderfully interactive. The brain isn’t compartmentalised. Picasso once said that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. It seems that with the current school system we don’t get the chance to grow into our creativity, we are shoved out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.


The ADHD Epidemic

Ken Robinson also told the story of Gillian Lynne, a wonderfully gifted choreographer. She did “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.” He asked her how she became a dancer. When she was at school, she was really hopeless, she said. And the school, in the ‘30s, wrote to her parents and said, “We think Gillian has a learning disorder.” She couldn’t concentrate; she was fidgeting. Today they’d say she had ADHD. But this was the 1930s, and ADHD hadn’t been invented at this point.

She went to see a specialist in an oak-panelled room, and she was there with her mother, and she was led and sat on this chair at the end, and she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about the problems Gillian was having at school. Because she was disturbing people; her homework was always late; and so on, little kid of eight. In the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian, and said, “I’ve listened to all these things your mother’s told me, I need to speak to her privately. Wait here. We’ll be back; we won’t be very long,” and they went and left her.

But as they went out of the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out, he said to her mother, “Just stand and watch her.” And the minute they left the room, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, “Mrs Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”


The World Is Yours

Her mother did and the rest, as they, is history. Gillian walked into a room at the dance school and it was full of people who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think. They did ballet, they did tap, jazz; they did modern; they did contemporary. She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School; she became a soloist; she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School, founded the Gillian Lynne Dance Company. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theatre productions in history, she’s given pleasure to millions, and she’s a multi-millionaire. Today I have no doubt they would have put her on medication and told her to calm down.

What our education system needs to celebrate is the human imagination. And the only way we’ll do it is by educating the whole child, so they broaden their vision, seeing all skills as valuable for the inevitable harshness of the future to come. Our task is enabling them to face this future. And we may never see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them grasp and make something of it.


Outside The Box

So what does all this mean for schools? Should we throw out the textbooks and rote learning that are used to prepare students for standardised tests? Encourage children to let their minds wander rather than concentrate in the classroom? We are not arguing to give children free rein to their imagination at the cost of understanding a subject. After all, you can’t think outside the box until you fully understand what’s inside the box (why is there even a box?). But with 21st Century world emphasising the value of creativity in employees and in our everyday existence, it’s important that teachers are allowed to value the trait in their students too – which is something that today’s curricula often discourage.

It’s also important to note that implementing creativity techniques in the classroom is not going to turn an average kid into a young Einstein or Picasso – everyone accepts that you can’t teach genius. It’s more about encouraging the day-to-day creative thinking that can make students and an adult workforce more productive. We are all wired to be creative.