Promoting Creativity

An Interview with Sir Ken Robinson, author of Out of Our Minds
By Vern Burkhardt and Graham Duncan
Being creative involves doing something. It is applied imagination, whether in art, music, mathematics, engineering, writing or business. The outcomes that are produced are original. And creative ideas are often ahead of their times.

Most children think they are creative; most adults do not. What happens to children as they grow up to be adults?

Ken RobinsonIn Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as "imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value." He addresses important questions related to creativity and innovation.

Question: What is the significance of the title of your book, Out of our Minds?

Sir Ken Robinson: We are a creative species in the most fundamental sense. Each day we create the world we live in. We create the context, and the paradigms within which we spend our lives. In order to reshape our world, to understand our potential to transform our experience, we have to cultivate these creative capacities in a very deliberate sense. Real creative thinking is a fundamental part of our potential.

Public education is a 19th century innovation. It was brought about in the interest of industrialism with the intellectual character of the enlightenment. It is a cultural process that served society well in those times but is now outmoded. If we continue to do what we have been doing in education, we are out of our minds. The ambiguity of the title suggests that this is something we all can do—we must learn to be creative.

Question: If you were speaking to a class of grade three students what would you tell them about creativity and what they should do to enhance their creative abilities?

Sir Ken Robinson: Children think they are naturally creative. If you ask a group of eight year olds if they think they are creative they are all likely to put their hands up. If you ask a group of eighteen year olds the same question, they would likely not raise their hands.

I am in favor of encouraging children to use their imaginations. We spend an awful lot of time battening down imagination in children. It’s important to encourage them to do the things they love to do. We need to encourage teachers and parents to give children room to use and exercise their imaginations.

Question: You talk about educational systems that favor academic over non-academic studies, a bias that doesn’t recognize the need for a balance between science, technology, mathematics and language, on the one hand, and arts, humanities and physical education on the other. Do you think this approach has done a disservice to many youth by limiting the development of their potential?

Sir Ken Robinson:
Yes, without question. One of the perilous ideas that most people have is that what matters above all else is academic achievement and academic ability. People often believe that academic subjects are more important than non-academic subjects. Academic work is not the opposite of creative work.

In truth, there are no such things as academic subjects. There are academic ways of thinking about things, by which I mean there are certain types of logical and deductive reasoning, certain types of processes, but they are not subjects. You can apply these techniques to anything. You can analyze a poem but this is a million miles away from the process of creating it.

The importance of academic discourse in public education has its foundations in the 18th and 19th centuries, the great age of enlightenment and the rise of the scientific method. It was there that the cultural schism evolved between enlightenment and romanticism. It is a chasm that has pretty much characterized pubic education to this day.

Academic work is not the opposite of creative work. It is to say the belief many people have that the important subjects are academic, as compared with non-academic subjects, is completely fallacious.

In education, people often compare good teaching of science with bad teaching of music. You have to compare the best with the best. If you look at great science teaching, it is wonderfully creative, exciting and imaginative. The best teachers engage students in the possibilities of science. I also know wonderful dance and music teachers who understand that in order to achieve anything creative in the arts you have to work hard. They understand there are disciplines in aesthetics and design. It is the arts as a physical production that makes these disciplines in their best form tremendously taxing intellectually, physically, and in every other way.

There is a need to step back and stop dividing education along academic and non-academic lines. Let’s think differently about the nature of human capacity and intelligence. It seems to me the arguments are economic. The world economy is changing. There are increasing demands and that means we can’t afford to squander talent in the way we have been doing for generations. The arguments are cultural and they are personal.

Education in the end is a personal act. Students want to be motivated, engaged and cherished.

Question: Public education is out of touch with the times?

Sir Ken Robinson: Education is still seen as a linear process. It is a process predicted on ideas of economic utility. Its emphasis is primarily on conformity and standardization. This is an industrial model that tries to standardize everything and every student—it attempts to ensure everything is the same.

What we are overlooking are the feelings of students and of teachers. Teachers aren’t motivated. Teachers are leaving the profession or are being demoralized if they remain within the profession. I can’t think of a single child who gets out of bed in the morning and is excited about the opportunity to improve the reading standard in their school. What we are seeing at the moment are dreadful conditions producing poor results. We need to go beyond the industrial model and get back to a cultural and organic model.

Question: You say that a distinctive feature of human intelligence is imagination and the power of symbolic thought. How does this relate to creativity?

Sir Ken Robinson: If I was to place a bet on what distinguishes human beings from other species I would bet on imagination. Imagination is the root of everything. Imagination is the capacity to bring to mind things that are not present, to form mental images of things that are not before us at this moment in time.

Being creative starts by challenging the things we take for granted. As soon as we do this a number of things are possible. We start to compose ideas. We can speculate, hypothesize, and imagine an infinite number of possible futures. This represents a different level of symbolic activity—we allow things to stand for other things. On this basis, we have the ability, for example, to form complex languages and mathematical equations.

Creativity is an active process. Putting your imagination to work involves applying this extraordinary capacity to achieve alternative possibilities, to solve problems, to think of new problems, or to change the environment in some way. To address issues of possibility.

Question: Creativity involves generating ideas?

Sir Ken Robinson: Yes, a more telling way is to describe creativity as the process of having original ideas. Being creative is not just having ideas—it is having ideas of value. If you are being creative when you are writing, or engaged in any other process, you are always trying to be fresh and original. There is also the complementary process of making critical judgments about whether what you are attempting to create is right—that it works. There comes a point where the process of creativity includes testing things out.

Question: Do most people have more creative abilities and aptitudes than they use?

Sir Ken Robinson: There is no doubt that everyone has far more creative capacities than they realize. Certain people realize what their creative strengths are but most people don’t. One of the reasons is people associate creativity with certain activities—the arts, for example. People often make the assumption that if they are not in the arts, they not creative. There is no question that the arts can be highly creative but it is not restricted to that type of endeavour.

The truth is though that anyone can be creative. There are creative software engineers, doctors, dentists—there are creative people in every type of human endeavour. Many people say they are not creative because they have not paid any attention to it.

Question: How can each of us find the medium for realizing and releasing our creative capacities?

Sir Ken Robinson: Creativity is not a single capacity—it is a range of competencies that can surface in virtually anything we do.

There was a time when it was taken for granted that working class people were never going to be able to read or write. Now we know that idea to be outdated. We know everybody has the ability. Future generations will look back and be astonished that in our times—when there was such a need for creativity—so many people didn’t believe we all possessed the competencies of creativity.

Question: Is creativity becoming the most important skill for the 21st century?

Sir Ken Robinson: No question, it is one of the most fundamental capacities that we should be developing and nurturing. We need creativity to meet the challenges we face as a global community including the growth of the population, the way we are eating away at natural resources, and our seeming inability to co-habit across cultures. It is therefore imperative that we develop the sorts of capacities associated with creativity and imagination.

The movement to find alternative energy sources shows what we can do when the imperative is strong enough. The last thing we can afford to do in the 21st century is pretend that it is business as usual and carry on. Our capacity for creativity has taken us from a primeval state to the sophisticated model where we can anticipate the consequences of our own actions. We need creativity now more than ever if we are to solve the critical issues we face.

Question: Is there a risk that people who are becoming specialists in knowledge and expertise, which is a consequence of the explosion of knowledge, will become less and less creative?

Sir Ken Robinson: It’s definitely a risk that as we become more specialized we’re losing the ability to recognize connections and possibilities.

There is a huge role to be played by collaborative ventures. I’ve had some experiences in the past with collaborations between artists and scientists. It’s fascinating how people can work in cross disciplines and gain new perspectives in fields of endeavor they may have taken for granted. Often new and good information arises from teams that are diverse in cultural background and professional expertise.

It is also a balancing act. An orchestra comes to mind. An orchestra depends on individuals skilled on different instruments but the great thing about it is that all members must play together and be creative in the interpretation and collective presentation of the music.

Specialization is not the opposite of creativity. We live with specialization every day. If I need a stent inserted into my chest, I’m rather keen to have someone specialized do it. I don’t want my dentist to say “well, let me have a go and see what I can do”. Equally, before I reach the point of having a stent inserted, I would like to have somebody look at me in the context of my biological systems.

Question: You say the pace of technological innovation is escalating at an ever increasing rate. Is it possible that the creativity of machines could soon exceed that of people?

Sir Ken Robinson: It would be foolish to say that it isn’t possible. Some predict we are approaching the age of thinking machines but whether they will be feeling machines is a different issue. Scientists are charting the exponential growth of computing power, and say that we are about to cross a line where computers will begin to match and exceed the computing power of the human brain. Some have confidently predicted that by 2020 for one thousand dollars it will be possible to buy a computer which has more processing power than all of the human race.

It is hard to anticipate how computers will approximate the abilities and feelings of a human being because so much of how we feel is affected by what we know, by our experiences, by how we are built, and by our affinities, philosophies, and associations. These influence the breadth of our feelings and our perceptions. We are not just inanimate processes—we are advanced and sophisticated, feeling beings.

It is not hard to see how computers would go beyond the rapid logical processing needed for judgment. But it is questionable whether they would approximate human beings in the sense that we understand human experiences. The cultural implications are even harder to project than the technical aspects. We’ve shown ourselves to be very bad at understanding cultural implications, partly because culture is so reflexive and refractory.

There are so many random factors at play which turn out to be unpredictable. For example, television was thought to be a dreary invention that would never replace the radio. And the gramophone was never thought to be of much use apart from recording telephone messages. What we miss out, what we do not anticipate, is how culture will be transformed by revolutionary technologies. With the automobile, America isn’t what it was in the 19th century. It isn’t simply that people are moving about more quickly. The automobile has changed the entire landscape and nature of the country and you see similar examples everywhere. Digital downloads have changed the entire nature of the music industry.

Question: Theories develop in response to questions. You point out that the most important characteristics of an intellectual age are the questions it asks, and the problems it identifies. What are the important questions that should be asked today?

Sir Ken Robinson: When I was young, I remember loving a book called Philosophy in a New Key by Susan Langer, an author in the 1950’s. Langer made the point that epochs of human history are not characterized so much by the answers people give as by the questions they ask. The intellectuals of the 18th century asked different questions than their counterparts in the 15th century. Previously, people took the authority of God and the cosmos for granted. More recently, people want evidence and proof. It’s the questions asked that make the difference.

We need to be asking different questions, particularly when it comes to schools. The questions that politicians ask are questions like how can we improve science courses, how can we improve math, how can we compete with Singapore and China in these subjects? What those questions lead them to do is impose standardized tests that specify the curricula and place teachers in straight jackets.

The questions they should be asking are how do we motivate the tens of thousands of students that are dropping out of high school every year? What can we do to recover that lost talent? What can we do to ensure that more than forty percent of college students graduate every four years? What do we need to do to ensure they leave college with a sense of purpose, optimism and confidence? How do we create buoyant local communities which are based on the vital exchange of different types of talent? If we ask ourselves these types of questions, we will come up with a completely different set of answers and set new directions.

Question: What implications do you foresee of the rapid population growth in less developed countries, such as China, India, Africa and the Middle East?

Sir Ken Robinson: This is a complex problem. It is not just the growth in numbers, although that is very significant. The population of the earth has doubled in the past thirty years. Based on current trends we are headed toward nine billion people on this planet. Of course, these things are never linear—already birth rates have started to fall in some of those countries.

The projections to nine or ten billion people are very stark. Demands on natural resources expand exponentially as economies become more prosperous. The demands of people change. They want all the material goods those in the West have enjoyed for many years.

One of the problems is that these populations are becoming more urbanized. It is projected that when the world population reaches nine billion, ninety percent will be living in cities. These are not going to be well planned cities, like Chicago, New York or Paris. They are going to be massive, vernacular cities, like Mumbai and Caracas, where people are living in barrios, in mass housing with very little infrastructure, very few amenities and little control over their lives. This will create immense and ever increasing challenges for social systems like health care, education and social welfare.

If ever we needed to be respectful of our imaginations, of our capacity for ingenuity and innovation, it is now. Someone I have come to know since living in Los Angeles is Alvin Toffler. Toffler agrees that these issues are without precedent. If you look at the growth of industrialism in the 18th and 19th centuries it was a radical transition from the past. And yet, that transition affected relatively few people compared to now. There is no doubt that with the numbers of people in the world today, with the increasing levels of inter-dependence, with the strain on the natural environment, interfused with pervasive and rapidly growing technology, there is nothing in human history that is comparable to what we will face.

Question: Given the reluctance of many men to feel and express their emotions, is this an inhibiting factor for their creativity? Does this mean that generally one could expect women to be more creative?

Sir Ken Robinson: There is no doubt that in our history the role of women has been vastly underplayed. We know this to be the case in almost every art form in the West. We haven’t historically recognized women as artists or poets. We have acknowledged women authors to some degree, and certainly women have been more prominent in dance.

In our culture, which has been dominated by men, we have missed, overlooked and misunderstood female creativity. This was compounded by social conditions that denied women access to the means of creativity in many areas.

This discussion starts with the premise that from a creative point of view we are all born equal. I find it hard to make distinctions between men and women when it comes to creativity, apart from the cultural factors that I just mentioned. We must look beyond thinking of the two genders. There is such a wide spectrum of human possibility, the whole essence of creativity is fixed in the idea of diversity of all forms, mind sets, sensibilities, and our varying experiences and backgrounds.

Question: What advice do you have for business or other organizational leaders who would like to promote a culture of creativity?

Sir Ken Robinson: If you want to transform an organization you must recognize that ideas come from people who must be motivated, empowered and energized. When I talk to organizations I suggest they think about talent and how they develop it. I remind them that everyone in the organization has talent. I also remind them that creative thinking most often comes from teams. The ambient culture within the organization must be supportive. Organizations with rigid hierarchical structures are much less likely to be prone to a culture of creativity.

Question: Are you working on another book?

Sir Ken Robinson: In January, 2009 I am publishing my new book called The Element, the New View of Human Capacity. The book is full of examples that are based on the premise that people do their best when they do what they love. Most people who love what they do would continue whether they are paid or not. My book explores in detail how people excel in so many ways when they are in their element.

Sir Ken Robinson indicates that the promotion of creativity has common themes.
  • These include:

    • Creativity is not purely a personal process. Many creative solutions draw on the creative ideas of others.

    • Creativity is a dynamic process involving many areas of expertise. New ideas often come from the interaction between different disciplines.

    • Creativity is often incremental.

    • New ways of thinking do not simply erase the old; they often overlap.

    • Creativity and innovation exist in all areas of life. Our challenge is to promote processes and systemic creativity and innovation rather than isolated specialist achievements.

    Sir Ken Robinson has a Ph.D. from the University of London. He is an internationally recognized expert in creativity and innovation in business and education, and an acclaimed speaker on the creative challenges facing business and education in the new global economies. Sir Ken was knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for his outstanding achievements as a writer, speaker and leader in creativity, the arts and education.

    Share on