Schools that kill creativity

Fantastic TED talk about how the school system kills creativity:
“If you are not prepared to do anything wrong, you will never do anything original” Ken Robinson,
it is more about primary school, but still, very applicable to what some of us go through in college as well!

I saw this guy speak at the IDSA conference in San Fran a couple years back and I have to say that he is one of the most inspirational speaker I have ever seen not to mention that he is hilarious. He has some good points bout how we start school with crayons and construction paper and then told to put them away because they will not earn us a living. It kind of reminds me on my Algebra teacher in high school taking my sketchbook away from me and saying, “How are you going to make something of you life drawing these stupid pictures.” I ran into him not to long ago and happened to tell him how I made something of my life drawing those stupid pictures. Like mentioned in the talk, creativity does more that teach you how to create things it also teaches key problem solving skills, enhances the way you think, much much more.

Exactly, this vid found me right at a good moment. My wife and I happened to be talking about how many people just don’t have the problem solving skills to be nimble in the current economic situation… many creative people, while not as “smart” often do figure out how to hack through, a lot of times by making a diagonal connection that seems unrelated to everyone else, and then good old trial and error.

That is one of my favorite TED talks. I completely agree with it.

I’m currently finishing up an engineering degree (and soon moving onto some ID education) and I’m amazed at the lack of creativity that exists among so many of the students in my department. It seems like creativity is tucked away as something for the “artsy” types and doesn’t have a place in engineering. However, creativity is something that can be applied to engineering and in fact MUST be applied for any great applications to come about. Its just not something that’s cultivated in school.

Sorry, I haven’t had a chance to listen to this talk yet but I will today. I just thought I’d chime in to some of the responses. In regard to a lack of creativity in engineering departments: I think you’ll find that many industries are doing that as well to help turn a profit. You’ve all heard of Six Sigma, and Lean (think Toyota). Well, I found this article a while back about Six Sigma at 3M and how it nearly killed the company. I think that some schools are starting to teach these principles and “schedule” creativity, which obviously can’t happen. It’s worth a read if you have time.


Excellent video. Solid point, and great presentation.

This could not have come at a better time for me. Here I am, currently in Mexico at a Design School, teaching a course on Innovation. The course covers a lot of the theory and components of innovation (creativity, inspiration, time-space, problem solving, users, brainstorming, iterative design, testing, etc.), but the way the course it set up, (a first year course), there is supposed to be a lecture, followed by short activities (innovation games, mind maps, etc.)…

I came down here with a complete course plan, lots of TED videos, activities, theory, etc… (original course plan here : )

After two classes, despite the fact I’m supposed to be teaching creativity, I get the feeling I’m not doing all I can to enable it. I’m getting the feeling it’s more like kindergarden than anything else (and not in the good way). The students are great, but with them being so young and inexperienced, I feel it’s hard to show them the process of innovation via these broken out kind of activities, and linear lesson plan.

I watched this video last night and had my own “Eureka” inspiration moment. It ties back to the video and the process in which we educate students about design and most things in general. Proscribed courses, activities from the perspective that we as educators know what they need to know 5 years or more down the line when they are designers (the do this now, trust me it will be useful later mentality)…makes no sense. Esp. for a general design education (as opposed to a more specific course on say graphic design, CAD, etc.) this “learn” by example process is kinda backwards.

We create projects that we know will be useful in principle, and have students follow a course plan in the hopes the will pick up the tools and root of the objectives so that they can be applied to different problems in different situations later. Do the “egg drop” project now, so that later in life you can take the experience of thinking outside the box and within constraints and apply the thinking to something else. Sure, some students appreciate this type of learning and can get engaged in any type of problem solving, but others could care less about dropping eggs or have the foresight to even see why they should care or what they are supposed to learn. Remember at this point in the starting education for a young designer, most have no idea what design is or what they are doing, at best some inkling that “design” is something they are interested in, or at least over the other options presented.

My new plan (my own little innovation) is to flip the entire course on it’s head. I’ll still teach the lectures and the content I’m supposed to but instead of the small activities, I’m proposing that everything is applied to a real problem the students care about…

First day in, in the line up to the school cafe, one of the professors mentioned how long the wait always is to get a coffee or snack, and how she’s been trying to fix it forever. Students in one of the first activities (a mind map of the building in an observation exercise) mentioned how the cafe is one of their favorite and most central places in the school, but again, the lines are always a problem.

Here’s my thought. Toss “creativity” activities and instead apply all the course goals to improving the cafe. Make the lineup shorter or more tolerable, make the cafe function better, give the students a real problem and help them find real solutions.

Am I crazy? I haven’t checked any of this with the school, but figure that if I can engage the students, get them interested and involved, and at the same time teach them all they need to know about innovation through actual practice, it’s a win-win.

Fitting with the course outlines, here’s what I got so far in terms of an outline (the goals “problem solving”, “Time-space”, etc. are fixed so kinda gotta work around those and fit the process with the lectures I have.)-

  1. Problem solving/definition - define the problem areas, observe the cafe, determine what the issues might be (time, $, boredom, layout, service, flow, etc)
  2. Time/Space - measure the service rates, investigate acceptable rates and flow, etc.
  3. Research/Users - on site observation, check out other stores/banks/cafes and wait times, line formats, interview students, workers in the cafe, other people in line at the bank, etc. see what people do when they are waiting, etc.
  4. Concept Development - brainstorm solutions, ideas, alternate proposals
  5. Communication - present proposals, implement
  6. Iterative Design - Implement and test proposals, refine,
  7. Testing - investigate results, conclusions? next steps?

    Kinda going out on a limb here, but like Robinson said in the video, if you aren’t willing to make mistakes, you can never be creative. I figure if I can’t be innovative in designing an Innovation course…


I like it Richard. I think this is going to work a lot better than the little exercises. It is a problem they are all versed in, and it is big enough to allow the individual contributors (the student’s) to use their individual skills (ie some might be better at mapping use, others might be better at story boarding solution scenarios, others at designing better way-finding signage and systems…)

Thanks. Indeed given that it is a foundation year course with students from various disciplines (ID, arch, graphics, fashion, etc.) I agree the individuality of the students’ different perspective will help. Just feeling a bit out on a limb since I’m going completely outside the course structure all the meanwhile there are 2 other sections of students doing the same course outline, little activities and all, and it’s not really “my” course to mess with, per se, given I’m just a visiting professor. Oh well, I suppose if it works it works, if it doesn’t then… ?


Back from the dead - this was an interesting thread back in '05 that has something to say about today. So with the bump I’d like to ask follow up questions:

First - I’d like to ask Rkuchinsky how his revisions to teaching worked out?

Second - after the Toyota gas pedal debacle has anyone seen further backlashes against Six-Sigma?
(the autopsy of the problem showed that the culture of continuous improvement (kaizen) became one of cost reduction. So, the question of “how do we make this better” changed to “how do we make this cheaper” a dramatic move away from innovation.)

Third - what are the opinions of anyone who lives in a Lean/Six Sigma/ QFD world. Is Creativity really killed there?

Not only that… the culture breeds a “How can we find a way to blame someone else for this problem we created” attitude by nearly all high-ranking personnel. It’s disgusting really.

To your third question: I’m in a “Lean” world, and yes creativity is hampered. I wouldn’t say killed, but we certainly are expected to be creative at certain times.

We’re about to impliment Lean here, I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts…
how is it different, what are the problems?

What industry do you work in? I assume you’re associated in some way with a manufacturing component?

I’m an in-house appliances designer. We work within product categories but Lean will commit us to programs exclusivly.
So there’s a workload issue right off the bat. How have you worked around the constraints of Lean?

I see.

In the most basic sense, there will be a set way (standard operation) for every thing you do. Everything. The idea in Lean is that you don’t have to train anyone, they can simply pick up the work manual for your position and follow the steps required to complete each task. Now, in the creative environment this probably isn’t possible. But, to some extent it will likely be mandated to be done so. Documentation-wise, etc.

There’s some gray areas with respect to creativity, and not everything I do is “regulated by standards” per se. But, depending on management, its one of those “You’re either with us, or you’re gone” types of situations. These days, I’m glad I have a job, so I’ve dealt with it.

Please bare with me, this is my first time commenting on a blog.

After I had been given an assignment requiring me to participate in a design discussion board I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find something that interested me enough for me to comment on, however the subject on this really interested me. Although I’ve never seen or heard a speech given by Ken Robinson before, nor have I had any previous experience with the TED videos, I instantly found a way to connect his speech to my own schooling.
My high school experience was like any other. I didn’t really get involved with anything other than what I was required to do; i.e. math, science, english, etc. I took one art class because it was required for me to graduate, but other than that I never really had the opportunity to sign up for additional or other music or art classes. This was mostly due to the fact that my school didn’t have the funds or the interest from students to offer these classes, but also because I never really had the desire or talent to even think about it.

Looking back on that, it’s funny to think that as a senior at an excellent university, I am going to graduate with an art degree, or more specifically graphic design. I think it’s true what Ken Robinson was saying about children being born with the talent and creativity of an artist and as they grow they lose that creativity. You’re always seeing kids with crayons and coloring books showing what they can do, and just like the rest of them I to was a very artistic child. But, for a while I lost that creativity, and although I was interested and always wished I could draw, paint, sculpt, etc. like others, I never thought that I could actually do it if I tried.

His story of the three boys that acted as the three wise men in the nativity play really stood out to me. Children are fearless and most of them have no problem saying whatever comes to their mind. Their innocence is so evident, and although they don’t know it, they have no problem saying things, even if they’re wrong. But, as usual, as they grow, that fearlessness and ability to say what’s on their mind, slowly disappears and they eventually become like everyone else. I’ve had first hand experience with this when it comes to my projects. I know that I hold back my ideas for fear that it’s not right and doesn’t fit the description of the assigned project and it really limits what I’m able to do.

I completely agree that educators and schools need to implement more creative art and music classes. I think they don’t realize how helpful and useful it can be to other majors. I struggled at first deciding what I really wanted to do with the rest of my live and before I chose to pursue graphic design I took several different classes. Looking back, I can definitely see how these creative classes could have helped. Although people may not realize, having the knowledge of art and the ability to think creatively like an artist can really be useful when dealing with problem solving, critical thinking and developing ideas for whatever job you have. Even writing a blog or leaving a comment is creativity in itself. It takes a lot to put into words what your mind is thinking and coming up with a interesting and creative way of putting it together. And schools teach students how to read and write. So, why not creative writing?

I apologize for my long rant about my own schooling experience. This post really made me think about how schools work and the things they are teaching. Before I’ve never really thought about it, but I think if I had been more involved in art classes when I was younger, I wouldn’t have had so much trouble deciding what I wanted to do when I got to college, and maybe even had more confidence and taken more risks when it comes to my own art assignments.

funny, I just read through this thread again (and watched the talk again) the other day then today a co-worker sent me this awesome animated version of the speech!

So good!