The bin. That’s where I come from. Bear with me.
Like many, my first encounter with Sir Ken Robinson was through his magnificent Ted Talk. What he did in a few minutes was put into words what were so far impressions, intuitions that I had accumulated through my experience first as a learner, then in my career on the periphery of schools.
DO schools kill creativity? What a bold statement! And of course YES they do. They do, consistently, with the best intentions, out of care and love. But deeply derailed by the need for control, for measurement, for proven impact.
“We need to know what you do at every second to make sure it’s right, because we have all of the answers.“
Why is it that schools are measured for success and not for failure? 30 children in the UK every single day of the year are permanently excluded from school. Let that sink in. that’s 10,950 children a year out of the school system, in referral units or other.
What I really wanted to write about here is the importance of creativity as a tool for personal development, not just as an end in itself, as I have witnessed it time and time again in my professional life. But this will have to wait as I share recent experiences that more than ever exemplify why we so need the Creative Revolution platform now, more than ever, if we are to come together to change education for good.
For the past 20 years and more, I have developed education programmes, resources, written a few books and run quite a few projects in and out of schools. And what I have learned is that helping children flourish can be so simple, and something we can all do right now, in the current system. All it takes is opening our minds to their potential and allowing them to share it. I will write about this more, promise. At the core of it all is a simple principle: children are people.
Seems obvious? Then why are they not treated as such in most education systems around the world?
I went to visit a secondary school in Hackney North London, where I live yesterday, as a prospective parent. It was the first time that I have burst into tears during a school tour. Spoiler: they weren’t tears of joy. This school which went from failing to good, according to Ofsted, in a matter of two years, during covid. Quite a feat!
What I witnessed was chilling though. Imagine a classroom where every lesson starts by reminding you of the behaviour codes, where the teacher will talk AT you while you remain silent, then say “1, 2, 3 SLANT” to signify you have to drop your pen, make eye contact with your teacher, and cross your arms. Then counting down 10 seconds to allow you to confer with your partner. Then 5 seconds to participate, then 10 seconds to copy off the board. Then repeat the same process, over and over in every single lesson.
“We pride ourselves on routine!” I was told. Do they pride themselves on the dull stare of death in evidence in each and every pupil as any ounce of agency and thinking is meticulously removed from their day?
The moment I couldn’t hold my tears was when I spotted and 11 year old girl who used to be in my son’s class. I remember her performing in the Lion King in primary, and how much she sparkled. A few weeks in this school, and her eyes were already taking on the glaze of protective indifference displayed by all students we saw in the school.
I would love for anyone who thinks problems with the current education system are exaggerated to visit this school. Or one of the many like it. Because most schools where I live are now using equally coercive methods, restricting access to toilets for fear of truancy, limiting group sizes, movement around the school or even the classroom – and that’s just the pastoral care.
Most parents are not aware of this because their kids don’t know what’s supposed to be normal. We have teenagers who are infantilized and have less freedom than preschoolers. This is the incredible state of affairs we are in.
This is not education, this is pavlovian conditioning.
No wonder universities report the same issues: young people who only want to know what they need to learn in order to get the pass grade they need, with little initiative or appetite for critical thinking. Why should we expect anything different when this is what they have been taught throughout their school life?
And of course this translates to the same young people who arrive in the workforce, labelled snowflakes and wallflowers. What we are witnessing is not the failure of a generation, but the result of years of school trauma in action. They will overcome it, as we did before them. I did.
Remember the bin? That’s what my headteacher called us. Because out of 12 classes in his STEM oriented school, one of the best in France, we were the only ones not with maths as a major, favouring instead such pointless subjects such as Literature, Philosophy and Languages. I left school convinced I was deeply stupid. It took me 20 years to start thinking otherwise – when I finally embraced the creative force that was always in me.
I’ve been meaning to thank that headteacher for giving me the passion to fight people like him as I have been doing for years. To show him the books I wrote and had published, written in English, s‘il vous plait. The incredible work I have seen accomplished by children who wouldn’t have even been fit for his bin, like the billboard developed by children aged 8-14, seen by over 150,000 people this summer in the streets of Hackney.
He died last year. What a shame. He will never know what an incredible influence he had on me. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Let’s finish on a more positive story. A few years ago, I went to deliver an invention workshop to 8-9 year olds in a local primary school. “It will be interesting to see what comes out of this, they are rather low on imagination” – said their teacher. He was actually a great teacher who knew them well, had a real spark about him and had every minute planned out. Within 45 minutes of the workshop, he had changed his tune:”I have never seen them so engaged, and their ideas are fantastic!” I concurred.
What magic trick did I conjure up to create such results? I simply told them they could do what they wanted. That they were experts of imagination. Because children are. And it worked. Their perceived lack of imagination was in fact a lack of opportunity.
I am still in touch with this teacher. In fact, he’s now head of creativity in his school. A post that didn’t exist before. I’d like to think the children were not the only ones who were given a new lease of life that day.
It’s that simple.