So, if you didn’t watch the video above, the basic premise is that as we grow older we lose our ability for “divergent thinking” which is a prerequisite for creativity. Ken Robinson, the speaker in the video, relies on Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, by George Land and Beth Jarman, for a longitudinal study in which children are asked what they can do with a paperclip. As these children grew up, they recorded that students identify fewer and fewer things that could be done with a paperclip. Ken Robinson posits that it is our educational system that creates this loss.
First, let me be clear, I have not read the original study. I am responding to the video clip above. Second, let me state that I first saw this in a staff meeting at one of my schools. Third, I know that Ken Robinson is discussing the British system, but in the environment where I saw it, my school was generalizing it to the United States.
I’ve been waiting for years to respond to this, and with all due respect to George Land, Beth Jarman, Ken Robinson, and my head of school, I’m going to.
First, let me say that the original study (or at least the way it is being used) is flawed. One of the joys of becoming an adult, is that I can differentiate between tasks which waste my time and tasks that move my day forward. I do not find that it helps my daily life to sit around thinking about all the ways I could use a paperclip (outside of the pub). Clearly, these people have never heard of the “There I Fixed It” . One of my favorite websites to waste time on, it shows photos of different ways people have “fixed” a problem. Duct tape being the usual fixative. I’ve never seen such wonderful examples of “divergent thinking”. Not good enough? Ask me all the different ways I can fix a photocopier. Ask me how many ways I can get students to understand iambic pentameter. Ask me how many ways I can find to get to work more quickly. What this study misses is context.
Let me tell you a little story. A teacher was doing the job of lead teacher, director, travel agent, parent liaison, and counselor for a middle school at a moment when the middle school stopped everything and did their school play. It was three weeks of being insanely busy. The teacher, the three teachers she was working with, along with the head of school, sat down and tried to firm up what the three weeks would entail. The science teacher agreed to have the students build the set when they were in his class. The lead teacher also asked that they build theater boxes, which are 2 foot cubes and such, painted black, that can be used in practice, on the set, and as props. The head of school and the science teacher started to spitball all of the different ways they could change the boxes, effectively using up all of their 25 minute lunch period/meeting time. The lead teacher almost lost it. There wasn’t time for divergent thinking, and the end result was that the program was damaged because there was no time to get all of the teachers together again before the program started. Context, people, context!
Second, it’s a little pat to blame this perceived loss of divergent thinking facility on schools in general. Did the study use students from various learning environments? Did they test students from progressive schools? from the “no-school movement”? from the home school movement? I’m not convinced at all that a decline in divergent thinking doesn’t have more to do with the brain growing up than with some damage we are doing in the institutions of learning. If it is true that the brain starts to shut down its flexibility for language learning as the brain ages, should we nail that to the school’s door, as well?
I’m not going to argue whether or not schools could be done better. But I would like to remind Mr. Robinson that there comes a point when we do the best with what we’ve got. And any teacher who is not an expert in divergent thinking, simply due to the nature of what it is we do, probably has tenure.
So, let’s all get on board this new car on the Damage-Schools-Do Express. Let’s not think about all the different ways this study could be read. Mr. Robinson might believe that we can’t see all the possible interpretations precisely because we have all been trained to just take an authority’s word for it. I sincerely dislike being generalized in this way. More than that, I dislike being told that I am personally perpetuating this “damage” because I happen to work in a school. I’m not buying it, Mr. Robinson. And although I didn’t argue my point in staff meeting (feeling that keeping my mouth shut might get me home a little faster — see, context!), it still rankles.
So, what? I went through the public school system. Yet, I can come up with millions of things to do with a paperclip, and I’m no genius. Would you like to know what I would do with one if I had to sit through that staff meeting again?