Creativity in Schools – A Decade on from Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk

Creativity in Schools – A Decade on from Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk

Creativity in Schools – Sir Ken Robinson

So, what has happened almost a decade on?

The first of a series of iconic TED talks about how education needs to ‘shift paradigms’ occurred almost a decade ago back in June 2006 (yes, that was ten years ago this year). Sir Ken Robinson set the ball rolling with his TED Talk about how ‘schools kill creatively’ – a talk that still tops the ‘all time viewed’ lists with 13 million views in 2012…and over 37 million views as I type this in February of 2016.Sir Ken

Sir Ken has his critics who say that it’s easy to be seduced by his words when there is no action plan to apply (read his books and there are plenty of sensible and useful words of wisdom as to how we can improve things….). Personally I totally agree with Ken (and in fact saw Ken give some similar insights earlier in his career when he was professor of education at Warwick University in the UK).

So, a decade on, where do we stand?

Sadly, given all the hype and constant gossip about how wonderful Sir Ken’s vision is, we (schools) seem to be achieving very little in terms of creating (no pun intended…) a genuine shift in approach to how education is responding to the needs of business and enterprise, cultural and social anthropology and a rapidly changing modern world.

We know that schools are notoriously slow on the take up of most things. Actually, that’s not quite true. They are often quick to buy in to an idea but then lack the strategy and vision (planning and money) to see it through. I remember on one of my first teacher training experiences at a school in Edmonton, North London (around 1983) seeing a white van back up to the Design department to unload fifty brand new BBC Master computers with screens. This was the age of change and technology…this would transform what we were to do. My Head of Department was grinning like a Cheshire cat…but quite quickly I discovered that not all was well. I was asked to give some INSET on their use to all teachers (two weeks in to my first teaching practice aged 19 or so…) and thereafter all but two machines ended up in a locked cupboard. I had one BBC Master to play with and one other was taken to the front of school for administration staff to play on.

And there is the rub.

Staff had no time to ‘play’ and many believed that these contraptions were the devils spawn (and to be honest many struggled with the Banda copy machine in the staff room let alone any other technology above a hole punch and stapler). Government gave high end kit to schools to help stimulate creativity and technological change without offering time and budget to allow it to happen. Things stalled and ground to a halt. I remember re-visiting the school for another training period about two years later and the BBC masters were still in the same cupboard….although a couple of Atari ST machines had entered the department now with their ‘colour GUI’ and a Meg of RAM if I remember correctly.

The desire for change

This may seem harsh but schools are not always great at adapting to change from a strategy and vision standpoint. They mean well, and those in seats of decision making will often embrace the idea of something new from a concept standpoint, but very few understand the need to support that vision with a hands on, practical and feasible plan of action. This is frequently not about money; it’s about the desire to want to change the way we do things so that they improve; to help children get prepared for a world of work that we don’t really fully understand ourselves (the frequently banded about quote ‘we are preparing kids for jobs that don’t yet exist’ springs to mind) and to fundamentally change the curriculum content and approach we have in place.

Subjects change but curriculum’s, on the whole are antiquated. Creativity is not a new thing in schools. Arguably primary and kindergarten staff have been doing ‘STEM’ and ‘STEAM’ activity in schools for decades – playing, building, failing and working in teams often in a sandpit or on the carpet with tons of Lego, Stickle bricks (remember them?) and other cool things – combining Art, Science, Design, Language, Maths…

What we need, as students move up to secondary or high school, is a rudimentary change to what is delivered at the curriculum chalk face. For this to happen we almost need to wipe the slate clean and start again.

The problem we have is that many who are at the decision making end of directing and developing curriculum’s at government or school level have frequently come up through that industrial age of education that Sir Ken refers to in his original TED talk (and so expertly captured in the RSA animation of that talk RSA Sir Ken Robinsons TED Talk). These folk have been button-holed as ‘bright’ or ‘academic’ (and many are…) and have seldom been through a creative area of study at school. Rote learnt knowledge has been seen as a better foundation than one where they have had to solve complex problems on paper through an iterative process or with their hands in Art, Design and Technology – or indeed on stage through performing arts. Arguably, the nearest many have come to creative thought or play has been on the rugby or hockey pitch (or other team sport where spontaneous flair and decision making is often required).

Reverse Engineer the way we do things

To achieve the change that Sir Ken spoke about needs a fundamental upturn in philosophy where the practical application of knowledge is seen to be on an equal footing (?) with the ability to simply rote learn facts for an exam. For this to happen we need to reverse engineer the whole structure of academic acceptance.

What do I mean?

The world of work needs a workforce who are creative, flexible and can apply previously harboured knowledge well (be that from school, university or work experience).  They need to be worldly, good communicators, gregarious, empathetic, skilled and confident.

Firstly, governments need to have ministers responsible for education in employ who have actually come from an educational background – folk who have delivered and managed in schools and who have a better (more realistic?) understanding of what students and teachers need to deliver.genius-quote-albert-einstein

Secondly, if a student chooses to go directly into the world of work from school, rather than attend University, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Parents and schools need to understand that in the same way that industry does. Getting hands on experience of a business may well put them in better stead than doing three years in further education with no guarantee of a job at the end of it. Accepting that is key and is normally a fight for parents who get caught up in the ‘league table’ nonsense where students often achieve artificially high grades centred on a factory process – the success of which is based on sitting a one and a half hour paper at the end of two years study. Not good. You also have the ‘when I was at school’ scenario when parents of a certain generation were educated in schools that led them to believe that some subjects were more academic than others. It’s a big rut to climb out of psychologically.

Thirdly, universities need to supply courses that are current, flexible in delivery (able to change content mid course to satisfy employment demands) and that allow students to apply what they have discovered at school rather than treating them all as ‘starting from scratch’. I have heard of universities that take students onto certain courses and simply tell them that they have to ‘unlearn’ what they did at school and do things differently; so your first year becomes, in effect, a foundation year. What a waste of schooling and finance. Schools and universities need to talk to each other more.

Schools need to de-construct and review current curriculum’s. They need to have the confidence to do it. Do we still need Latin? Do we still need to study Shakespeare (as opposed to other more contemporary writers…)? Should everyone study at least one foreign language? Do we continue to have the mainstay of ‘core’ subjects at the heart of what schools do – Maths, English and Science (with extra languages, Art, Geography, History, Design and Technology in tow)? I don’t know, but questioning and jiggling to take some risk would be healthy.

keep-calm-and-carry-on-designing-12For me I’d love to have Design at the core of the curriculum with science, business, humanities, languages, maths and the arts radiating off. The idea that working with your hands (manufacture, creation, enterprise) is the realm of ‘less able’ students is totally unfounded. Bright students can, and do, work with their hands. Art has long been considered the ‘accepted’ manual skill for bright students along with Music. Sadly Drama, Dance and Design have always struggled to gain the same acceptance along with physical education (a tough A-Level in reality).

In essence, anything that has not grown out of the land or ‘popped’ out of a human has been designed; someone, somewhere, has sketched the idea and developed it. That’s both academic and creative in my book.

As Sir Ken said, we need to ‘shift paradigms’.

We need to educate and nurture future wealth creators (not just financial – anthropic wealth too) who can develop innovative products and services. I reiterate, despite Sir Kens 37 million ‘likes’ on the need to have creativity in the curriculum there are still many within government and education who feel it’s not required a decade on. The current EBACC debacle in the UK is looking to throw out creative education from the curriculum and quite rightly there is uproar from many sides across business and education.

The biggest anxiety for me, in all of this, is that we will probably still be having the same conversation in several years’ time, recognising that creativity is important, that we drastically need curriculum change and so on. But will folk have listened? Will there have been change? I truly hope so.

By that time Sir Ken’s original talk will be up past the 100 million views mark. Probably.

 

SteamPunk Design – What is it exactly?

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Firstly I must say that I absolutely love this genre of design. As a way of inspiring and influencing students to think creatively with their design work it is brilliant. They have to:

  • Explore design and product history fully to understand
  • Make creative decisions about the mix of aesthetics and technology
  • Look carefully at the amalgam of materials and manufacturing methods
  • Be aware of the need for combining form and function in their work
  • Provides for some really cool sketch, concept and graphics work

What more do you need?

I first became aware of SteamPunk as a consequence of watching some very entertaining (in my opinion) films – ‘Mad Max’, ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentleman‘, ‘The Wild, Wild West‘ and the ‘Fifth Element’ to name a few.

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But what is SteamPunk exactly?

The genre seems to have originated during the 1980s and includes key design elements and influence from the areas of sci-fi, fantasy and history.  My design students have taken a lot of influence from the genre, and have used that influence successfully in their A-Level design work, but trying to hang a summative phrase to sum up the movement is not easy.

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Having trawled ‘t’interweb’ and looked in some books the best single phrase that sums up SteamPunk design for me is this:

‘What the 21st century thinks that the Victorians thought the 21st century would be like’

There is no doubt that the opportunity to design products that embrace this genre facilitates that ‘creative juice’ flow. Kids get it; they run with it and, to a certain extent, are not constrained over and above the historical context.

cufflinks steam punksteampunk-usb

 

 

 

 

 

The opportunity to explore an eclectic range of traditional materials in their work (copper, brass, steel, wood….but remember NO plastics other than to create models that represent the genre 😉 ) means any manufacturing work that you do supports the theory with regard to design and making, using tools, machines and processes to fabricate their idea. Guys and girls are all motivated (jewellery, transport, fashion, tech products…) can all be tackled.

     Image  Image  steampunk laptop

If you are looking for a starting point to kick off a project then SteamPunk is a massively fun and creative way forward.

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No links to key sites on this blog entry – Google is your friend. Go and have a look.

You’ll be inspired.

What, exactly, is Design Education in Schools?

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I had a slightly heated, yet amicable, debate recently with a colleague I met at a conference who worked in a careers department within a school. It was over the labelling of my subject discipline (Design & Technology) as ‘soft’.  I argued that my subject has come a long way since it was ‘Craft Design Technology’ (CDT in the UK) and although it retains many of its core values there have been massive developments too over the past 25 years.

Anyway, this view, expressed above, was based on the apparent thoughts held by some of the UK universities in the ‘Russell Group’ (a group of perceived ‘top’ UK universities) that certain subjects at post 16 level of study were not as ‘hard’ as others.  Although my colleague and I parted on good terms (having finished off a bottle of Corbieres on the last evening of the conference if memory serves me correctly) the conversation had left me somewhat perplexed.  The careers colleague I originally had the debate with had suggested that I should write something about it.  So here I am. Bear with me.

Once back at my office, I discovered (sadly) that this opinion was actually upheld by a few Staff Room colleagues, parents and, to my dismay, some pupils.  So, the first thing I did was to arrange a talk with my colleagues (grabbing 15 minutes in a Head of Departments meeting to give a well prepared presentation), preparing flyers to give out to parents and also giving talks to the academic scholars on ‘Design’.  Their perception of the subject ‘pre-talk’ was crass and mind blowing (although not malicious…they had just not been educated about it). At least when they left they were talking about it.

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I had returned to the UK to teach having spent a decade in France, most of which was spent teaching at the International School of Toulouse – at the time the first fully lap-topped school in the Northern Hemisphere (back in 1998) where every child from 5 to 18 had a laptop (and all staff too).  Along the way, I had learnt my trade as a Design & Technology teacher via the likes of Taunton School, Whitgift School and Wellington College in the UK.  As an aside my enthusiasm for the subject was kindled in Hong Kong (Island School) where Design and Technology was well established and we did A-Level (it is worth noting that A-Level DT was an A-Level subject in the UK curriculum sometime before A-Level economics ever existed).

I digress. My time abroad in France was wonderful – involved with the design, build and resourcing of a brand new school using a new language, pioneering curriculum with new philosophies and teaching the IB Diploma and IGCSE qualifications with a like-minded group of pioneering teachers (neither of which I had taught before).

With regard to Design education three significant points came out of this experience for me.

Firstly I discovered how important it was to understand how the subject of Design is seen around the globe. With the IB (International Baccalaureate www.ibo.org ) Diploma, Design Technology is classed as a ‘Science’ within what is known as the ‘Group 4 Sciences’. Although this seemingly offers significant academic kudos (after all, in the eyes of many, Sciences are up there with Maths and English) I do not believe this is right.  Design is not a Science anymore than it is ‘Art’. The subject of Design sits quite comfortably in-between the two and should be seen as a subject of application – an application of a range of subject skills from a variety of different disciplines (History, Languages, Art, Maths, Business Studies, Sciences…).

              Art___________________________DESIGN______________________________Science

Regarding the A-Level (UK) set-up, ‘Design & Technology’ is an umbrella title that covers a suite of syllabuses that include Product Design, Graphics, Textiles, System & Control, Resistant Materials and others. That too is going through slight change as the ‘Arts’ blend more with ‘Design’

Secondly, the modern Design department is not simply about manufacture – a very stereotypical view that still seems to exist in the minds of many especially within the independent sector of education in the UK. It is as mundane as saying that Geography is only about mountains, English is only about Shakespeare and Biology is only about flowers. Sure, manufacturing is an important component BUT it is simply the significant icing on a very big cake.

The embodiment of an idea, teaching our young to think creatively (not divergently necessarily) and enabling them to convey their ideas on paper with a pencil in sketched and noted form are absolute pre-requisites if we are to help nurture a better future – a future that embraces change, explores new ideas but also retains basic heritage and all that is good in the design of products that improve the lives of people on this planet.

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A quick sketch has no linguistic boundaries; it can convey a physical attribute, an aesthetic detail, a human resource structure or an instant solution to a problem (a map to direct someone using arrows for example). The pencil sketch is the single most important skill any student can have BUT it is not the only one. Students in Design have to write essays (yes, my careers colleague seemed oblivious to this…how else do you convey your thoughts and construct your arguments on design history, the use of smart materials, the values of sustainability etcetera in product design to the world…), sit lengthy exams, produce extensive portfolios, present to clients and peers, engineer function and aesthetics into their ideas (including ergonomics, sustainability etc.), use ICT including CAD and CAM (Computer aided design and manufacture) and video, evaluate and test their ideas, write conclusions, market and cost their proposals. The course of study is significant in terms of breadth and depth.

Thirdly, I have always struggled to understand why ‘Technology’ has been bolted onto the creative and academic subject of ‘Design’. It really grates with me and is one of the reasons, I believe, why the subject of Design has been misunderstood in recent years. Certainly, in the IB the subject is called ‘Design Technology’ (no ‘and’) whilst ‘Technology’ seems to be associated only with computers…whilst at A-level it is called ‘Design AND Technology’.   Go figure…no wonder there is confusion out there!

To me, all subjects in the modern curriculum use Technology (and we are not simply talking about computers or ‘ICT’ here – that is a gripe for another time) – Geography (Data loggers), Maths (Graphic calculators), Languages (podcasting), Theatre (Video) and so on…so, I reiterate, why add the word ‘Technology’ only to ‘Design’?

For those who feel that I am missing the point, and that I am not considering ‘Technology’ as an academic area of study then you just have to look at other subject content to see that technology is studied elsewhere within the modern curriculum. Physics (Mechanisms, electricity, motion, energy…) and Maths (Mechanisms, loci, energy…) are just two such examples. But we don’t call them ‘Physics and Technology’ or ‘Maths and Technology’ (although I happen to think that Science and Technology would be a far better suite of subjects in the same way that the common denominator between ‘Art and Design’ and ‘Design and Technology’ happens to be ‘Design’) so why, again, do we tag the creative and academic subject of ‘Design’ with the word ‘Technology’?

To add even more confusion into the mix the way that ‘Design’ as a discrete subject discipline is perceived around the globe only serves to add to the conundrum. In the United States there is ‘Workshop’ or ‘shop’ for manual skills (woodwork, car maintenance etc.), which is divorced from any real academic pursuit, through to ‘Technology’ in France, which from my experience tends to exist of a pillar drill on the end of a Physics bench or some electronics and soldering work.  Design history? Sketching? Forget it.

ImageOnly time will tell how the curriculum providers take this forward. There was some rebellion recently when in the UK the government tried to make some truly vacuous and infantile changes to the core ‘Design and Technology’ curriculum. Thankfully, common sensed prevailed and we, the professionals, were listened too and many problems were averted.

The ‘new curriculum orders’ for the UK are certainly a far better proposition but:

  1. Are they any better than what was already in place?
  2. Would a global approach at finding some common denominators across curriculums to help define what  ‘Design’ is help the situation?

That is a blog entry for another time.

What subjects to include in a modern curriculum?

I recently replied to another blog regarding subject development and inclusion for a possible home schooling curriculum i.e what subjects should be included in the provision?

The blog is an interesting read, focusing on homeschooling, with many good points and comments added to help fuel the debate. Core subject areas such as Science, Maths, History, Geography, English and others were included but others were not. This did raise alarm bells and highlighted some issues close to my heart, notably suggesting a curriculum that seemed to have an absence of any core activity relating to learning another Modern Language or anything to do with Design (and Technology) or manufacture.

Design as an academic (yes, academic…) and creative discipline spread across all areas of manufacture (not simply ‘woodwork’ for less able kids as it is was 25 years ago in the UK) has to be included if you are to nurture and develop youngsters who can deal with a world that is changing quicker than anyone can really understand.

Design education at its core is about problem solving, prototyping, discovering, sketching, innovating, making mistakes, taking risks and communicating on paper, on a computer and/or in a range of materials. Teaching youngsters how to think creatively, divergently and appropriately to help solve a problem is key. Manufacture using smart materials, composites, textiles, metals, woods and so on with a mix of current technologies (3D printing, cnc machining…) and basic hands-on manual skills related manufacture is crucial.

Some of these skills, notably the thinking and problem solving skills, are a pre-requisite if you are to maintain a curriculum that can support wealth creation and provide genuine capability that will serve your future bankers, doctors, lawyers, politicians etcetera. Nurturing creativity is a basic subtext of education. Any proposed curriculum must not stifle it.

I also strongly feel that mastering at least one additional modern (and maybe other?) language is vital in todays world. Both my daughters (aged 9 and 17) are almost tri-lingual (English, French, Spanish) and the eldest is looking to start studying Mandarin. I am English, my wife is French – and you can probably argue that we have a slight head start here.

I am still amazed that many kids are still only taught to ‘Google’ in English – throwing in a French or Spanish word/phrase during your search will open up another third of the Internet for you allowing greater breadth and depth to your study, allowing access across different cultures and ideals. If you can really show off then throw Mandarin into the mix – the world is definitely your oyster in a few years time irrespective of academic discipline! Modern Languages are crucial to a youngsters development in this world which is becoming quite a small place to live in.

We are very naive if we think that our kids are not going to grow up and move into professions that will at least require them to communicate via email, talk on the phone or Skype to folk in another country at some point, let alone travel to another country with work (and quite possibly work abroad at some juncture in their careers). In 27 years I have either taught in a school, or worked as a consultant, in England, France, Hong Kong, Australia and Portugal. There will be more places to go as my work, or that of my wife’s, takes me there – of that I am sure. I reiterate; the world is a small place.

Of course there are a myriad of other subjects that need to be looked at, considered and either discarded or new ones thrown in to the mix but at this late hour I think I’ll stop there.

For now 😉

 

What most schools don’t teach….sadly.

Although American based, this video highlights a real black hole that exists throughout education around the globe. The basic fundamentals of communication technologies that have been with us for 30 years are not being addressed within curriculums worldwide. We all use computers. But the massive deficit of skilled workforce to feed our demands is simply mind blowing. Governments, schools and Curriculum Providers…WAKE UP! Schools need to embed coding and other basic ICT skills into regular routine educational provision from an early age. See my blog for more on this.