Teaching what’s unteachable


“All children are born artists. The problem is how
to remain an artist once they grow up”   Pablo Picasso

Our understanding of how we learn and think may have become deeper – and the conditions in which we live and learn have changed enormously – yet, fundamentally, public education has changed little since the last half of the 19th century: “The education systems that emerged were not only designed in the interest of industrialism, they were created in its image in terms of both structure and culture.” (Ken Robinson) Today, public education systems, designed to teach en-masse and in an industrialised way, are struggling to adapt.

Generally, public education worldwide reveals a distinct hierarchy, with mathematics, science and languages given prominence over ‘less valued’ subjects such art, music and drama. This hierarchy can distort people’s view of creativity and ‘creative’ subjects. It leads easily to a disconnected way of thinking. Students of different subjects respond to the same topic narrowly along the lines of what they are expecting to learn. Show them a lump of coal and students in a history class will expect to learn about its social and economic impact on communities; in a business or economics class about its industrial prominence and in a science class, its make-up. Disciplinary distinctions limit the extent to which someone might learn about a topic. An interdisciplinary approach to learning widens expectations and in doing so, deepens knowledge.

Creativity is, of course, about much more than an ability to draw, or write, or compose music. It is about forming connections, and the interaction of different ways of understanding things. As Ken Robinson highlights in his TED talk “We think about the world in all the ways that we experience it. We think visually, we think in sound, we think kinesthetically, we think in abstract terms”. When we realise that not everybody thinks in the same way, the standardised disciplinary way children are taught begins to look narrow and wasteful of potential. Because we all think in a connected, interdisciplinary way, disciplinary distinctions are nothing more than an artificial means of managing and iterating knowledge.

Tony Wagner discusses this topic in his book ‘Creating Innovators’. “Most young people today frequently find the internet a far more compelling teacher than the ones who stand in front of them during the day.” (Tony Wagner) This appears to be an unavoidable truth and yields a discussion on whether traditional methods of educating can be inspired by the nature of the internet, which draws attention to our innate desire to act on curiosity, learn about the world contextually and think free of disciplinary limitations. Recognising this opportunity may lead to a means of educating a generation of radical new thinkers who see the world in a way that it has never been seen before.

Public education’s artificial hierarchy of subjects does more than distorting our understanding of ‘creativity’. With its culture of enforced examinations, regular assessment and even the simple act of ticking or crossing in marking work; most education systems lead children to assume that making a mistake is the worst thing they can do.  Albert Einstein said “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” Stigmatising mistakes and encouraging a culture of ‘right or wrong’ stifles children’s ability to take risks. If education institutions remain focused solely on assessing whether an individual is ‘correct’ in their approach, or that they must pass an exam at a certain score, a student’s creative capacities can be repressed.

This misconception of creativity limits the potential of those who believe that ‘being creative’ is a special talent only given to a select few. As society recognises a generation of young people that see the world in a very different way, it is crucial we challenge this misconception. Many young people feel unfulfilled by the current state of public education. They see “School [as] a game… they have to play to get ‘credentialed’” We must recognise that they “have dreams and ambitions that demand time, space and active nurturing.” This is important because, “Many of the Innovation Generation are deeply worried about the future of the planet, seek healthier lifestyles, and want to make a difference more than they want to make money. But they are swimming against the tides of tradition.” (Tony Wagner).


Ken Robinson ‘Out of Our Minds – Learning to be Creative’

Ken Robinson ‘How Schools Kill Creativity’

Tony Wagner ‘Creating Innovators’

The Educators – BBC Radio 4


  • Philip Browning

    Giving young people in education the impression that the worst thing they can be is ‘wrong’ will certainly stifle creativity. But let’s not go too crazy with the ‘whatever you think is cool, kid’ approach. There’s still a place for the tick (yes, 4 + 4 does equal 8) and the cross (no, Hamlet is not a happy chap who gets on great with his step father). I’m also Old School enough to believe that regular assessment (and, god help us, exams!) are good for kids. When the best of them finish their education and come to work at Moving Brands, they find that everyone every day is assessed by everyone else – and jolly good too!