In our discussion of the importance of creative and divergent thinking in teaching and learning we were pointed to Ken Robinson’s critque of mainstream education practice and asked, in particular, to consider the visual presentation of an section of his speech, Changing Education Paradigms, delivered at the RSA in 2008. The full lecture and unedited transcript are available online. My immediate response was positive but, on reflection, I’ve reservations about the elements in both the argument and the animated film, which I share below.
In his 2006 TED talk How schools kill creativity, Ken Robinson gives the example of the little girl finally allowed to dance and going on to achieve Broadway and West End success with Andrew Loyd Weber. Rightly, to my mind, Robinson has little time for the maginalisation of dance in the liberal art heirachy of disciplines. However, my suspicion is, as the accomplished speaker he is, Robinson knows and plays to his audience. I’m no doubt betraying my own prejudicies, but as a defense of the pursuit of creativity, a narrrative involving ‘multimillionare’ showbiz/choreographer is, for me, all too American, too market orientated. Contemporary dance is an art practice; at its best it’s an in-depth and open-ended inquiry that involves reflection, reflexivity and criticality. In the words of Gillian Lynne herself:
You have to understand that movement and thought are wedded together. You can’t just go and dance without a thought in your head. You need to know why you are doing the movements, what they mean to you and what they may mean to others.
I wouldn’t argue about the imperative to teach the whole child (only point out that the idea has a long history from the Enlightenment and its Romantic critique: Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Johann Pestalozzi and Friedrich Froebel). If a change of educational culture is needed, it’s one that should attend to art processes, for their own sake, as part of a broad and balanced curriculum. There are many (historical) definitions of creativity, but I understand it as a series of related conceptual and physical skills that can be taught through art. Rebranding creativity as something measurable and quantifiable, as ‘divergent thinking’ (which is the rhetorical move in the RSA Animate talk -‘isn’t the same thing as creativity…is the essential capacity for creativity’) won’t make up for schools increasing class sizes and pupil teacher ratios and underfunding learning supports. Ultimately, for all his talk praising the arts, Robinson doesn’t address the question tacitly raised by the animated film: how is it that he can enjoy a performance of Shakespeare whereas as for a child, he would have us presume, Shakespeare is in the category of the ‘boring stuff’ of a subject-specific curriculum? Robinson’s cartoon avatar is shown seated in the theatre, glowing with aesthetic experience, linked by a dashed red sight line to Hamlet on the stage. This image of the rational subject fully realised in a bourgeois public sphere (6:11) is in contrast to that of the screen addled (and, we are asked to think, drug addled) teenager struggling to distinguish his bedroom from his classroom (4:53).
The move may be on to reconceive creativity as a new form of productivity, ever ‘more social, practical, and mercantile’, but I’d argue that to think critically about education one would also need to consider the transmission of cultural capital and the formation of habitus within the home (something Robinson brings up in his 2006 talk only to skip over as a joke scenario with Shakespeare’s father telling William to ‘put the pencil down. And stop speaking like that. It’s confusing everybody.’). More Pierre Bourdieu, less TED gurus.