Who Killed Creativity? How Can We Get Creativity Back?

When Creativity Takes on the System (School: 3)

What are the chances of finding an elephant in your backyard?

  • o Never  o Sometimes  o Often o Always

When Matilda Downey, aged 7, answered this riddle ‘Always’, she was scored as wrong by her second-grade teacher and lost a mark. All the other kids in the class agreed with the teacher…until Matilda exclaimed: ‘Miss…if there was an elephant in my backyard I think I’d always find it, wouldn’t you? It’s so big how could anyone miss it?!’

TJ was chosen to join a selective academic program in a state high school because he was bright. Very bright. But he got a shock one day when he failed an assignment he had worked hard on. The assignment for his personal development class had asked him to plan the perfect party. The teacher had expected the students to describe such things as how they would deal with drug and alcohol issues, or how they would handle gate crashers. But TJ took the question at face value and described what he thought would be the perfect party. Thinking beyond the standard expectations (outside of the box) TJ envisaged a fabulous party on a space station, in which he and his closest mates would enjoy the novelty of dancing in zero gravity, being careful to state that issues like drugs and alcohol and gate crashers would simply not be a problem at his ideal party. You see, TJ wasn’t just intellectually astute; at the age of 16 he was socially and emotionally smart enough to understand the consequences of behaviours. And to choose not to engage in activities that would lead to negative consequences. In his free time he deliberately chose to not participate self-destructive behaviours and hang out at the wild parties that many of the other young people his age were engaging in. His aunt had been struck down and killed by a drink driver as a teenager, so he was only too aware of where potentially damaging risk taking behaviours could lead. A good night out for TJ and his like-minded socially intelligent friends  was to hang out together and watch movies or play music or participate in a sporting or leisure activity that was fun but not hazardous to himself or others. Or finish a PD assignment.

TJ had gone to a lot of trouble to answer all the questions in the assignment in meticulous detail, and he exhibited an inventive and creative approach. Something they are supposed to be fostering in schools, surely?! But the teacher told him the reason he failed the assignment was because she believed he hadn’t taken the assignment seriously. In a class session on the topic, TJ and his friends couldn’t contribute to a discussion about risky teenage behaviours they had engaged in and wild parties they had been at. The teacher exclaimed, “What’s wrong with you all, don’t you have a life?” TJ was so upset about the whole approach the school was taking that he wrote a confronting but considerate letter (another Friday night’s activity!):

“My perfect place for a party was the International Space Station and I admit it might not be realistic but this would interest me much more than a wild party. I have a great life full of friends and adventure but none of this relies on alcohol or wild parties. My parents were happy with my creative response and are thrilled that I don’t conform to society’s low expectations of teenagers. Perhaps it would be great if the syllabus encouraged teenagers to do great things rather than just avoid bad situations.”

The teacher told him he was just crawling to get more marks.

By mostly rewarding correct rather than creative answers, allowing Narrow Mindedness to take control, the education system may be inadvertently promoting conformity and stifling Creativity. While there has been a raging debate about such things as advertising in schools, other Creativity murderers have surreptitiously snuck in set up shop. When there is a singular correct answer (rather than a number of possibilities) people entering an education or training experience think that all they have to do to be rewarded is to absorb the accepted information and spit it back out. And once they have given the one correct answer and received their reward (not unlike the rats with the Skinner box) they dutifully move on to the next problem. But we are realising now that often there is more than one answer. Creative thinking can help to open up a number of different options and answers.

Becoming a true learning organisation is not a passive process. As company structures become more established, the drive to learn and grow will die unless there is an active initiative to ensure it continues. And if there is only a single loop learning approach, problems will continue to re-emerge in the future if they are not dealt with properly in the short term.

Unfortunately – perhaps shockingly – many participants in our survey indicated that HR kills creativity. Instead of supporting and promoting creative development, which you may expect to happen in the HR / Training arena, there can end up being a focus on jumping through the hoops to keep up rather than thinking and planning ahead for future growth opportunities.

The death of Creativity in an educational setting would go down as one of a serial killer’s greatest achievements. Every now and then a brave student like TJ will try to bring ensure the system is accountable, but there needs to be continued effort to push this through at all levels. And systems need to be established that not only support open learning for true creative development, but are also set up for development over the long term.

Does this mean companies after school can ditch education just because it killed kids creativity? Nothing could be farther for the truth – in fact companies must now work overtime to reteach both a love of learning and creativity thinking.. be warned – Those companies that think education is too expensive will need to see what happens if they try the path of ignorance.

Researcher: John Corrigan sums this argument up by saying, we are naturally creative as humans, our education systems currently suppress a major aspect of this creativity and so we are forced to develop tools, methods and approaches to rebuild this capacity.  An obvious response would be – let’s not suppress it in the first place!

By Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant


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