The crucible of creativity

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The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

Sir Ken Robinson

Robinson has spent his career as an eloquent and innovative leader whose agenda, as he says, is not to reform education, but to transform it. With humor and thoughtful insight, he explains how traditional education fails individuals and society, stifling native curiosity and creativity. No one who has been a child or has a child is unaware of the inexorable shift in primary education to emphasize core-centric standards (English and math) and technological proficiencies at the expense of arts programs. Deprecated as frivolous perks for budget-strapped schools, music, drawing and painting, dance and theater have all but vanished from public school curricula. Robinson makes a compelling argument that a policy of economic austerity in the arts leads to social impoverishment.

Increasingly, access to arts education has become the prerogative of affluence. Some critics who eschew the premise that education should be an unalienable right, never mind arts education, regard arts programs as an indulgence that caters to impractical interests and artistic dilettantes. Robinson argues that arts education redounds to social good, pointing out the complementary synthesis in developing artistic skillsets and developing the capacity to think creatively.

In The Element, Robinson presents a selection of anecdotal experiences of some remarkable, highly successful and productive individuals whom he has interviewed during his long career. Thus, Robinson shows rather than explains the validity of his premise. And in making his case, he introduces readers to some fascinating and inspiring people. In the biographical sketches presented, the personalities and career choices could not be more different. The common thread is that they had some form of non-traditional educational experience that nurtured their unique creative temperaments and allowed them to “think different.”

Perhaps, the most well-known of Robinson’s inspiring subjects is Gillian Lynne, a dancer who grew up to become a successful choreographer, notably, for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. As a child, she was a “slow-learner” in the classroom and couldn’t sit still. Failing in school, her concerned parents sought help. Lynne was diagnosed as ADHD and hyperactive, but it turned out that she was neither. Eventually, a child psychiatrist got the diagnosis right: her “condition,” quite simply, was not being able to sit still, because she needed to move to be able to think – she was a dancer. Her parents enrolled her in a special school, and the rest of her life’s journey proved to be an affirmative self-fulfilling prophecy.

If social good and personal fulfillment are the product of heeding the voice of our creativity and helping it to find expression, its realization depends on a variety of factors, in addition to formal education or training. Herein lays the aspirational caveats of The Element. Human potential cannot flourish absent social structure alloyed with support from the community, or “tribe.” These factors provided the crucible of creativity from which Gillian Lynne and Robinson’s other interviewees emerged and thrived. Their stories provide useful reference for understanding how children learn and testing the mettle of how they are taught.

See Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Conference presentation online »

Sir Ken Robinson’s website.