Our eduction system is unfit for purpose

Hands up if you can’t sing. Now hands up if you’re no good at drawing. What about creative writing? I suspect most of you are sitting with one hand holding the Irish News and the other in the air.

Picasso, admittedly not the most savoury of characters, but a genius in the studio, once said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

But that is not the real problem at all.

The real problem is that pretty well each and every one of us has our creativity humiliated out of us by the careless words of teachers, parents, and siblings. And not only do we connive in their abuse of our creativity – we embrace it.

“I haven’t a note in my head”, “Sure I’m tone deaf”, “Me write? You must be joking”.

We have been focusing a lot in recent weeks on the problems of the education system; but perhaps the bigger failure is the way it takes creative young people, children bubbling with ideas, and knocks it out of them.

Uniform is the word we use for how we dress our children, and uniformity is society’s expectation of what our schools should produce.

Our current education system is not there for the benefit of our young people – it abhors individuality.

It is designed to cream off the academically gifted for the professions, the middle rankers for jobs as supervisors, and the rest (ejected without qualifications) to jobs deemed valueless by society, but without which it could not function: shop assistants, carers, waiting staff, receptionists… you know the drill.

OK. I’m exaggerating for effect. There are some great schools, and inspiring teachers.

But, in the main, they are not let teach.

They are forced to stick to a narrow curriculum, with useless exams designed to feed universities and satisfy the number crunchers in the Department of Education.

Their education bears little relation to the development of skills needed to help us navigate this uncertain world.

The exams fiasco is a case in point – every year young people are put through hell in exam halls for assessments that tell us little about their creativity, their emotional intelligence, their ability to work as part of a team, of their sense of good citizenship.

That point was crystalised for me last week, when the death was announced of Sir Ken Robinson (pictured above). Ken was a working class Liverpudlian who caught polio when he was a child. He took his chances in life and became one of the leading figures in education. 

He came to world attention with a TED talk called “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” It’s been watched 66 million times. “My contention is that all kids have tremendous talents and we squander them, pretty ruthlessly,” he said.

He believed that creativity should have the same importance in education as literacy. And he has advised governments to that effect – including the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure here during Michael McGimpsey’s time as minister.

None have listened. Indeed, in England they have gone into reverse designing an education system fit for the 1920s not the 2020s. It’s not much better here.

The relentless pursuit of ‘the right answer’, the desire for perfection, the paranoia about making mistakes – drives out creativity, risk taking and the pursuit of the unknown. Yet these are the very skills we need today.

By the time we reach adulthood, most of us are so afraid of the embarrassment of getting things wrong that we slide into mediocrity. It is no wonder our society is the way it is today.

“Ever failed? Try again, Fail again. Fail better,” said Samuel Beckett.

There’s a lot of talk right now about failure, but it’s the wrong sort of failure: useless algorithms, a dying planet, incompetent governments. It’s the failure of mediocrity – and at the root of that is an education system that is not fit for purpose. 

Ken Robinson was a prophet. It’s time we listened.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on August 28 2020