As the world slowed down earlier this month to mourn the passing of 21st-century icon Apple CEO Steve Jobs, we were reminded of his powerful message: think different. We saw the countless headlines, tweets and tributes featuring quotes about not “wasting your time living someone else’s life” and having “the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
During all of this, I couldn’t help but think about the hypocrisy that exists in terms of creativity in our world today, and more specifically, in education. We are constantly told to be original and unique, yet we are educated in a system that is based on conformity and has little room for this uniqueness that we hear about.
This point was made painfully evident as I walked the halls of my former elementary school earlier this year. The progression from Kindergarten to sixth grade exemplifies how creativity is not valued as much as it should be.
Start at Kindergarten. The actual color of the walls will probably be a mystery, hidden by paintings that each vaguely resemble some type of animal, and landscapes with blue trees and pink grass, where the scribbles rarely manage to stay inside the lines.
Keep walking for a while until you hit third grade. Sixty nearly-identical Halloween graveyard scenes line the walls. They’re still colorful paintings, but now they’re all the same. And that’s as it should be, since the directions were given step-by-step in art class by the teacher. Sure there’s the occasional masterpiece, and the occasional “slackerpiece” where the artist couldn’t help but paint outside the lines. But there’s definitely no more blue trees.
Head down a few more hallways and you hit sixth grade. What’s on the wall, you might ask? Science experiments. A sea of black and white type interrupted only by the colors on the bar graphs. No lines to color outside of now, just lots of hypotheses and data tables.
In our country today, so much emphasis is put on test scores and academic success. As students advance in their education, schools are forced to spend more and more time on the things that lead to exemplary standardized test scores. Music classes get replaced with extra math practice, hands-on projects with textbook problems, art classes with practice assessments, the list goes on and on.
In Kindergarten, everyone had the “spark” to create something magnificent. We were all little Picassos in our own way. But as we grew up, many of us lost that spark, and not by accident. I believe that people don’t grow into creativity, but rather that they grow out of it, primarily because of the environment that they are educated in.
The purpose of the public school system is to prepare us for the “real world.” Because of this, the subjects are prioritized according to how “useful” they would be in work world. Math and science at the top, followed by English and history, and then at the bottom, almost without question, are the arts.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with math and science as subjects in general. The way we teach them is the problem. Instead of using real-world situations that require real-world solutions, students spend hours memorizing calculations and doing practice problems, which won’t be useful to them in the future.
With the emphasis that our world puts on math, science, and reading, many highly talented, creative people grow up thinking that they’re not, because they weren’t good at school. Schools do a pretty good job of squeezing the creativity out of us by the time we’re done.
We need to radically rethink our view of what it means to be intelligent. All A’s doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the smartest kid in the class.
I remember my Kindergarten open house, when all the parents came to see everything we’d been doing in school that year. Our music teacher had us sing a song called “Animals at the Zoo” and we all had to sing a line about one of the animals that we’d chosen.
One of my classmates walked up to the microphone, clad in a lion’s mane, ears and tail, which he was fiddling with in his hand. Instead of his verse, he roared and then ran around the cafeteria. As he returned to his place in line, he was smiling even though he had forgotten his lines completely.
That’s the thing with little kids. They aren’t afraid to try something and be wrong. As we progress through school, the belief that mistakes are bad is ingrained in our thinking, and by the time we graduate most of us are terrified of making them.
But, here’s the thing– if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. It seems that in our world today, where we have no idea what the future will look like in five years, innovation will get us much farther than good math and science scores.
The human imagination is truly a gift worth investing in. We need those people that are willing to color outside the lines once in awhile, and paint the trees blue. Those are the people who end up transforming the world. As Steve Jobs put it, “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”