13 Oct Sir Ken Robinson: Companies, kids "get" innovation, but K-12 doesn't nurture it
Waukesha, Wis. – Sir Ken Robinson has many stories to tell, but perhaps nothing is more illustrative of his point about creativity than the story of a little girl drawing in the back of a classroom.
Robinson, a senior advisor to the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles and an internationally recognized expert in creativity and innovation, told the story during a keynote address at the annual Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association Conference.
Noting that young children seem to have more confidence in their creative potential than any other age group, Robinson said the girl had her face down in class as she was drawing a picture, and the fact that she never took her eyes off the page became a subject of fascination for the teacher. When he approached the girl and asked what she was doing, she replied: “I’m drawing a picture of God.”
“But nobody knows what God looks like,” replied the teacher.
“They will in a minute,” retorted the girl.
Not only was it an example of game, set, and match in the battle of the generations, Robinson said it speaks to the confidence children have in their creative ability. The problem is that this creative zeal tends to be drained out of people as they progress through K-12.
The hierarchy of school curriculums, he noted, starts appropriately enough with math, language, and science. Arts and the humanities are much lower in the pecking order, if they are offered at all, and it’s time to rethink that, Robinson said.
Part of the problem is the misconception that artistic people are “special” when they are not, and another challenge is the sense of utility. “We tend to steer people away from the arts,” he said. “We say, `Don’t do art. You won’t be an artist.'”
Robinson, a native of Liverpool, England, is a former professor of education at Warwick University in England, and the former director of The Arts in Schools Project, a UK initiative to improve teaching of the arts. He also served as an advisor for Sir Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts, and in talking to the former Beatle, he learned that McCartney, the son of a musician, went through school without anyone noticing that he had musical talent.
“I think the larger problem for America now, as it is for many countries, is to reframe education because, in a way, organizations are trying to promote creative thinking among people who are coming through an education system that, actually, almost actively discourages it,” he said. “So it’s an issue for companies, but it’s also an issue for local government and for state government.”
Getting the picture
Asked if western companies, given the new global threats from China and India, understand the need to drive innovation in their organizations, and devote a healthy portion of their annual budgets to creativity, Robinson had better news.
“I think some of the major companies are definitely getting it,” he said. “They are still struggling to find the right way of doing it, and I think that’s a real challenge for managers and leaders. You know, it’s easier to talk about innovation than it is to put it into practice, and it really does mean a big shift in the culture of an organization.
“But I know a number of companies that are certainly making determined efforts to do it, appointing people in key positions with the responsibility.”
He said there are “all sorts of companies” who are good models for developing a culture of innovation, including an animator in his new neck of the woods.
“I always quote Pixar, which is an interesting example, not just because they are in animation, which you may think of as being in an evidently creative field, but because they have a particular culture that encourages creative thinking through a number of devices,” Robinson said. “One is called the Pixar University.”
In fact, there are a number of examples, and they are not confined to one industry or sector, he said. “That’s the point, really,” he said. “Innovation isn’t about just one form of work, it’s about every sort of business.”
• TechnoJungle to highlight learning, innovation
• Innovation expert says Milwaukee has all the tools
• John P. Katsantonis: New book from former CDC CEO walks readers through innovation
• Manufacturers face challenges of innovation
• Innovation only edge left for American business, Tom Peters says