Notes on Schooling and Creativity

Thoughts after watching this tremedous TED talk (which I may have posted here years ago already):

Thoughts: My friend Sam was saying the other night that he wasn’t sure he’d leave Madrid with a child (for smaller towns/cities in Spain), due to the wonderful education opportunites available here, that you just don’t find elsewhere.

Madrid has international, private, and bilingual schools of every grade and pursuasion. If we move to Asturias, will we have the same choices? Probably not, but for me it is still worthwhile taking my child out of a huge metropolis, and into the (or much much nearer to) the countryside, because of the very unique education that one gets by being ‘closer-to-nature’. It is not an academic education, but a kind of nurturing that I value very much, having grown up in a semi-rural area near Oxford.

Granted, I went to good private schools close to my village, an education I value very highly, but as this video points out, they certainly weren’t solely responsible for developing my creativity. Any creativity I have was fostered through my father teaching me about photography, and my mother’s love of the arts. Oh, and I think I had to get pretty good at creative-writing to get through my philosophy degree!

So my question is, in a world of “academic inflation” where “degrees aren’t worth anything” (I largely agree…), and with schools killing real creativity, does it matter if one no longer lives near a fine range of upmarket private education?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. My hope is that we are wise enough to spot our children’s creative instincts in time, and do everything we can to encourage them through any appropriate educational experience we can find – our own, institutional, or otherwise.


More thoughts on this talk and issue from the speaker himself

– Interesting “What’s your favourite TED talk” thread that brought me back to this (a day too late! Ken Robinson spoke in Madrid last night, very close to my home, and I missed it, balls!)

20 thoughts on “Notes on Schooling and Creativity

  1. Freddy Rivers

    A subject close to my heart. Our kids, 3 and 6, are at a concertado in central Madrid, and I despair, and will continue to despair until they leave. The spirit of Ken Robinson is nowhere to be seen. Their real education will take place outside the classes, I hope. Surely parents can teach their kids wherever they live? I’ll be following this thread with interest. You may be interested in reading this:

  2. david villa

    You could spend 1 or 2 months in Asturias, that way the kid would have the experience of both places, nature and city

  3. Captain Dog

    @Freddy you are absolutely right. As long as the school is positively stimulating the child and the child is content in life it shouldn’t matter where they study.

  4. luke

    @Freddy. I’m moving to Madrid with my 10 year old and 4 year old soon. I was hoping the schools would be better than London. Why the despair? Any advice?

  5. simon

    Hi Ben, This is a subject very close to my heart as we run a creative retreat in the middle of nowhere, Andalucia, whilst trying to raise and educate 8 year old twins. We left London to pursue this dream with all that city’s educational potential far behind us. But the local school is brilliant so long as your child doesn’t have any minor learning difficulties. It has no facilities to speak of and the sports teacher doesn’t do sport with them, he just smokes.It’s old fashioned and formal and the kids learn by rote, but we like all the teachers because they like children. And I love the Spanish homework,’make a sentence with “he died” in it’. There can be only one answer ‘in the afternoon’.
    It is what we bring to the children’s education which is important. We have a succession of artists coming from all over the world to spend time here, make their work and really appreciate the environment. (Ben has been incredibly supportive of our activities as some people may have read on his blog) Every two weeks with each successive artist we have a talk and a presentation by them. Fantastic to an 8 year old.
    And we have wwoofers from all over the world too. Often they are not much past childhood themselves but they are here because already they share common values. We seem to have at least four languages spoken at any one time in our house which is brilliant. Next week we are putting up a map of the world with a red pin for the resident artists and a green pin for the wwoofers.
    And did I mention the music school. My boy does guitarra and my girl clarinete, four hours a week of which two are theory. And they love it!
    When if asked what I miss about England I realise my answer is more akin to nostalgia. That England is not there any more. It’s here, in a funny kind of way, in Spain. May it always remain.
    Sorry for the diatribe.

  6. Freddy Rivers

    Hi, Luke: Sorry about using the word ‘despair’! I think at this age, it’s probably more about the individual teachers rather than the school itself, and we just haven’t fallen lucky. But many here believe that the funcionario (i.e. jobs for life) system which operates in the state system means that many teachers lack motivation. (My wife’s a secondary school teacher, and that’s what she sees.) The ‘concertados’ are often religious schools offering (to a greater or lesser degree) a trad Catholic education, though many non-practising Catholics now take their kids there (one reason, sadly, is that there are more immigrants in the state schools, and they believe that – but I’m not going down that road here… Then there are the private schools, Spanish and international, pricey but perhaps providing the more “creative” education we’re talking about. Many Spanish parents seem to trust authority implicitly, i.e. if the schools says everything’s fine, that’s good enough for them. But the dropout rate in the secondary state schools is extremely high. As for the UK system, I really don’t know what it’s like any more – I’ve been here too long! But no despair – it’s just a question of getting the background info and going with it. Good luck!

  7. Anwar

    It’s all very interesting, and I might agree with some of it, but I’ve got just one question for you, Ben, just one question that I believe will show where the rubber meets the road on the idea that “degrees aren’t worth anything”.

    If, God forbid, Marina or Leo should need a life saving surgery or other medical intervention, will you put them in the hands of someone who does not have a degree in medicine?

  8. luke

    @Freddy. Thank you for your very helpful insight.
    @Ben. Just listened to the link and it mirrored the conversation I had with Miriam last night, discussing the merits of creative v. traditional education. The simple version is that Spanish education seems to be like the British education of the 50s, ie. learning by rote, grammar etc; whereas, British education is now about making creative decisions. For example, if you have to learn a series of events and dates for Spanish medieval history, you might be asked to imagine being a medieval farmer and to imagine what problems you would encounter for British history. I personally think a balance of the two methods would be best. My parents were artists and I have followed their path but I wish I had also had a realistic and vigorous attitude to learning facts in a disciplined environment. I don’t want my children to go through the insecurity of a creative career without the back up of the more run-of-the-mill education, which gives you more of a chance of a stable life.
    My wife’s view of Spanish education may be out of date (she left school a while ago), so if it isn’t like that any more please fill me in! However, the Spanish School in London still seems to operate in the way I have described. Incidentally, some of my Spanish friends in London prefer English schools because they have morning assemblies, good communication with the parents, more opportunities to learn music/art and less homework. My feeling is that whatever the schools are like, there seems to be a friendlier attitude between Spanish children whilst British youth culture can get very violent.

  9. Ben Curtis Post author

    Thanks for all the comments. I really am very ignorant about the Spanish schooling system, but Leo sooner or later will need to be slotted in somewhere, so all this discussion is most welcome! It’s easy for me to say “It doesn’t matter what style education they use as long as he’s happy” etc, as I had such a great education – I can’t speak from the point of view of a less-than-adequate one. Much to think about!

  10. Jason

    I think that living in a metroploitan area maybe more beneficial for alot of career paths, but living in the country may instill a different self- confidence and life experiences that is even more valuable than those of the city.
    I’ve seen that ‘Learning: The Human Brian and the School for Life’ by Manfred Spitzer maybe a good read for you Ben.

  11. bill (Legazpi)

    Ben – I’m not sure what you mean by “real creativity”. In terms of creative thought, I don’t think you can be more creative than carrying out academic research. The whole idea behind a PhD is that you come up with something new. Photography and writing are also creative of course, but I don’t think you can say that they involve “real creativity” and imply that more academic disciplines don’t.

    Having said that, I don’t think the development of a child’s academic skills are that important up until the age of 11 or so, not because they are not creative, but because during those years there is other more important development taking place (character, confidence, inter-social skills, etc).

  12. Londoner_at_heart

    Very interesting debate indeed.

    I don’t think there’s a perfect system anywhere in the world, simply because of the huge variety of kids’ personalities and talents and teachers’ styles and level of motivation. Looking back at my own childhood, i remember having very strong opinions about my teachers- those i liked and those i couldn’t stand or bored me to tears, as I’m sure we all do. I knew in some cases it didn’t mean they were bad teachers, but the wrong ones for me instead. If i didn’t trust the teacher i just ignored them and did the minimum to survive them. If i luked them, i listened -and i can still remember those teachers!

    Same can be said about the system. I was lucky enough to have very good short term memory and being able to (most of the times) pay attention to what was going on in class. So i got good marks without much effort on my side. Which maybe didn’t do much for my creatuvity but gave me great confidence. However my very smart, very hard working sister had to work harder to get the same results, just because she was restless (one of those that need to move or do something with their hands to think) and didn’t have a photograpic memory. So i think any system that doesn’t take into accoubt different personalities and learning styles is going to be an imperfect one. But maybe the perfect one is just too expensive and complicated to be feasible?

  13. Freddy Rivers

    Ultimately, perhaps, it’s all down to the teacher/pupil relationship, at least in the early years. But in Spain, the funcionario system (i.e. it’s well-nigh impossible to fire state system teachers) means that there are many who are simply information providers, doing little more than providing materials for short-term memorization (like Londoner A-H’s teachers) and for exams. There ain’t much happening in the way of new methodologies, as far as I can see. Some children feel comfortable with that and respond to it. Others don’t. Whether they actually *learn* much is open to debate. But then what is learning? Answers on a postcard to the Spanish Ministry of Education 🙂

  14. Pippa

    I agree wigh LAH. You cannot have the perfect education. I went to a school which I suppose is what they call it “colegio concertado”, had a traditional “learn things by heart”, but that did not stop me looking for other interests. I studied some music, sang in a choir, played the guitar a bit, my father introduced me to photography, studied English and German outside school, and later on, I have taken ceramics, bookbinding, basketry, patchwork, and anything I can get the hands on to be creative. So if you only do what you are tought at school, yes, you will not be very creative, but there are other ways. And I consider that I had a very good education, and it was not either in Madrid or Barcelona.

  15. Hollis

    I guess funcionario is similar to US teachers / professors who have tenure and something may be lost in translation here but funcionario sounds dire compared to tenure which connotes achievement. Fascinating post Ben … thanks for sharing!

  16. Colemar

    My daughter has been in schools in spain and in Britain and i think that there is no doubt that the spanish system is good on teaching basics and the British system, even with sats etc, is much more focussed on creativity. I would say that the creative industries are much stronger in the UK than spain and that conformity is not prized in the UK in the way it is in Spain.

  17. Chris

    The focus on “formacion del grupo” rather than creativity is a bit frustrating here. My guess is that places that have more international influence is likely to have more innovative educational options.

    Who knows though… eg I would never have guessed that A Coruna would be a center for Reggio Emilia.

    The Spanish system isn’t bad (there was a recent study that showed that when correcting for parental education levels, Spain actually does quite well compared to other European countries).

    The school day is very long here, so you really have to think about what your kids are doing for 8 hours a day.

    If you want your kids to live here, going to the right school to get the right “enchufe” is sadly critical as well.

  18. Emma

    So bizarre seeing this here .. I listened to this some time ago – just came to look at your site after a convo with Tom about Ivozi and found it beautifully coincidental to see this here. Anyway I love this TED talk, have recommeded it to others and am similiarly disillusioned with education in the UK .. thoughts are too long to type here. I simply maintain that I will be taking my children “out of the system” (think carefully about those words!)for a year minimum.. and I think the same applies to the media to which they are exposed to TV/ Ads/ Computer Games. Where and How do children learn to think? Education as we know it has become glorified Child Care.

  19. Ben Curtis Post author

    HI Emma, nice to see you here! I agree about the TV / Ads etc – just watched tv myself for the first time in 6 months, and after 5 mins switched off, so happy not to have those horrendous ads in my life these days!

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