Are Schools Killing Creativity?

Xanadu Fractal Art

It was a miracle of rare device, A sunny dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer, In a vision I once saw:

It was an Abyssinian maid, And on her dulcimer she played,

Singing of Mount Abora.  Could I revive within me

Her symphony and song, To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,

That with music loud and long, I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!

And all who heard should see them there, And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan

One of the most known poems of the creative process was written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the nineteenth century.  He had described the poem as a metaphor for the turbulent processes that underlie creative activity.  The poem is based upon Xanadu, the centre of Kubla Khan’s Yuan Dynasty in China.  The creation of the palace, Xanadu, which is surrounded by a circular wall, begins with power, grace, and delight but also with infinity and darkness. Coleridge’s inspiration from the fascinating creation process of the palace brought him to write the poem.  The entire poem can be found at:

There is also Rush’s musical piece, Xanadu, which is based on the poem, using some of its prose, which you can listen to in the video embedded below:

Educational institutions have provided a conditioning and socializing factory where mistakes are stigmatized and change and uncertaintiy are feared instead of embraced.  The search for a methodology within education that harbours the imagination, and creativity that is naturally found within every child has yet to be developed, although the works of Kieran Egan, Larry Cuban, and Elliot W. Eisner have brought the need into the limelight.  As Egan has stated “there has not been much research on students’ imaginations, and yet they are clearly central to students’ learning.  But ignoring the imagination because our research methods have difficulty coming to grips with it is somewhat self-defeating.” (Egan, 2003).  The uniformity and efficiency that permeates the educational field causing this self defeat, which Eisner calls our “technically rationalized industrial culture” (Eisner, 2002) is not a recent development but rather one that “began with the Enlightenment” (Eisner, 2002).

The answer to these problems is the advent of neuroscience.   Researchers like Eisner have made it clear that psychologists have not researched creativity properly by using the example of Edward L. Thorndike’s ideals of psychology and their application within education.  Thorndike used psychology in the early 20th Century as a means to view students as a raw material that can easily be molded through a processes of schooling.  These issues are still alive today, even after prominent psychologists like J.P Guilford complained fifty years ago about psychology’s lack of attention to creativity and challenged his field to rectify the problem.

The current educational literature is lacking in one central area, educational researcher’s pressure upon neuroscientific researchers to aid in helping answer some of the most interesting questions ever asked by science about one of the most interesting organs in the most interesting creature on Earth.  The mind has allowed the cosmos to contemplate itself and understand itself.  Egan said it best when he stated that “there should be research showing conditions that constrain learning that are something other than logical truths” (Egan, 2003).  It is sad to say that most of the research that researchers like Eisner and Cuban offer is nothing more than logical truths.  We must understand how creativity functions within the brain to create a design framework within education that can take advantage of these natural learning processes best.

The video embedded below is a TED lecture by Sir Ken Robinson detailing human potential for creativity and education’s need to place creativity in the same league of importance as literacy or numeracy:

The human brain is one of the most complex devices on Earth, and perhaps even in the known and unknown universe.  Only in the past ten to twenty years has it begun to give up some of the secrets about its near-miraculous activities and abilities.  It is without a doubt that there is a neural basis for extraordinary creativity within every individual.  As human beings, all of us create new language every time we speak, using the multiple nodes in our language circuits.  We all make connections between various words and ideas using our association cortex.  We can perform tasks that require focused episodic memory, such as recounting personal experiences.  We all have brains that are self-organizing systems.  We are able to think in nonlinear dynamic ways.  But are these the same properties that produce extraordinary creativity as well? Does the extraordinary creative person simply have a mind/brain that differs only in the amount or extent of these properties? Or does that person think in a truly different way? And if different, how so?  With the current understandings and research within neuroscience we only have hypothesis, and hunches that are held up by modest evidence.  What we do know is that everyone is capable of a great level of creativity as Elizabeth Gilbert discusses in this embedded TED talk below:

To truly create an educational framework based upon creativity is a task that requires information that we have not developed concrete evidence for.  Neuroscience has only been at the frontiers of science for the past 20 years, and is still in its infancy.  Even the established framework of neuroscience is being shaken by the findings of neuroplasticity where With this it can be understood why these articles did not provide anything beyond the logical truths of orienting the values of education towards one invested in creativity and imagination rather than the industrial structure invested in efficiency.  However, the use of multiple intelligences, the creative process of “rightness of fit” and encompassing the whole child, bring about new ways of inspiration and motivation for students.  This process allows for the student to become an individual within the educational system rather than a resource.  It is those who let their imaginations and creativity run wild that have provided the world with the most long lasting and world changing ideas from Leonardo daVinci to Larry Page and Sergey Brin.  Imagine a world where our educational systems are able to harbour such creativity on a scale once unheard of, it would be a very different place indeed.

The Brain is Plastic to all External Influences

Creative and imaginative personalities are always helped by direct nurturance and support. Multiple intelligences are an educational practice that has allowed teachers to coherently cater to all types of individuals through each student’s independent and creative nature. I wholeheartedly agree that today’s societal norms suppress imagination within children. We can see how eager and even naive children can be due to their imaginations. Children will never doubt the existence of Santa Clause, for example, at an early age. That is evidence enough to show how positive socialization towards imagination and creativity is key in harbouring and nurturing those tools throughout an individual’s life.

I feel that teaching should lean towards a mentorship role, recognizing and rewarding students whose abilities are even greater than their own. Some even say that it is a “poor teacher who is not surpassed by their students“. However, it is very difficult to be a mentor with a changing class of 30 students each year or semester. Mentorships are a profession that have a great history, but have recently become disassociated from development and has orientated itself towards capital gain. One of the greatest mentors of all time, Lorenzo the Magnificent, found and embraced talent and creativity within individuals wherever he could, even bringing them into his household. He gave them psychological support as well as financial support. The emotional and intellectual support of a mentor is an important nurturing resource that counters other inhibitory forces within an individual.

Teachers are given 30 unique individuals to be a mentor to, and it becomes a very difficult task to provide the psychological and intellectual support that is required for them all. Some students will not get that support from school or at home, and it is without a doubt that all students can do something great if they are given the aid. However, I feel there is an even greater barrier for students to express their imagination and creativity, and that is freedom. Nations have been built upon the idea of freedom of religion, choice, speech, etc., yet it seems to be completely absent in most educational systems. Why we have restricted freedom within education is baffling. Does anyone think otherwise?

Going back to imagination, it can become somewhat of a paradox. Objectively, we can only be in one place at one time. I can only be Anthony Marrelli, sitting at my desk at my computer typing this post, on an evening in February 2009. But subjectively I can be anyone, anything, anywhere, and in any place. I can be DNA inside a neuron, sensing that my cell is being repeatedly stimulated. I can be an unmanned space capsule, hurtling through the universe, sensing and observing the sights and sounds that rush past me. I can ride on a photon from the Sun to Earth traveling at the speed of light. I can do all of this, and much more, by simply exercising the imagination that resides in my brain, all while sitting at my desk at my computer, on an evening in February 2009. Our ability to use our brains to get “outside” our relatively limited personal perspectives and circumstances and to see something other than the “objective” world is a powerful gift. Many people fail to realize that they even have this gift, and most who do rarely use it. Its potential is limitless, yet it underutilized within education. Spend some time imagining, you will be surprised at how fun and interesting it is. And even if you have, make a practise of doing it occasionally. The essence of the imagining is to expand your perspective on the world so that you are liberated from time and space. We must implement these ideas within education to allow students to become limitless in their ideas rather than suppressed.


~ by thecosmosreader on February 15, 2009.

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