Killing our imaginations
Whilst researching for the Hartfield Community Play, A.A. Milne’s home village, I read his autobiography; in it he writes about a time when he was a guest at a dinner of Preparatory School Headmasters:
They all, so it seemed, made speeches; and the burden of all their speeches was the obstructiveness of the parents to their beneficent labours. I had disclaimed any desire to make a speech, but by this time I wanted to. I told them that on this very evening, I had offered the alternatives of a proposition of Euclid’s or a chapter of Treasure Island as a bedtime story, and my own boy had chosen Euclid: "it was so much more fun". "All children”, I said (perhaps rashly) “are like that. There is nothing they are not eager to learn. And then we send them to your schools, and in two years, three years, four years, you have killed all their enthusiasm. At fifteen their own eagerness is to escape learning anything." It was not a popular speech.
But he’s right. I think I would have liked Alan Milne. I blame some teachers; I certainly don’t blame all of them. In fact one headmaster approached Milne after his speech and said he thought it absolutely true what he was saying…“ but why is it? What do we do? I’ve often wondered”.
As human beings we are bestowed with this astonishing gift of imagination. We have the capacity to bring to mind things that are not present, to hypothesize about things that have never been but could be. Every feature of human culture is the consequence of this facility. Our imagination has produced an astounding diversity of culture, of enterprise and innovation. As a species we speak 6,000 languages, we have produced Hamlet, Mozart, great symphonies, jazz, air travel, quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity; everything that exemplifies the rise of human culture. We can be extraordinary.
But I believe we systematically strangle this in-born ability of imagination in our children and in ourselves. I’m sure we don’t do it deliberately but we do it habitually and unthinkingly. I can’t imagine there’s a teacher anywhere who gets up in the morning thinking “Great now whose life shall I screw up today?” Nevertheless I think by assuming certain ideas about what it is to be educated we do screw up lives. I, among millions, have grown up with a system of public education that is dominated by a concept of economic usefulness. It’s inherent in the hierarchy of subjects in the school curriculum. Maths, Science and English are always deemed to be the most important, then the humanities and then the Arts, way down at the bottom. And with in the Arts there’s another hierarchy. Music and Art are always thought to be more important than dance and drama. There isn’t a school system anywhere that advocates systematically teaching dance everyday to every child in the way we require them to learn mathematics. Why? I’m not against mathematics, on the contrary but why is dance so underrated, children love to dance. The reason, quite simply, is that the government, and those who determine the curriculum, see no economic point in it. There’s an economic judgement made in constructing the school curriculum. I’m sure like me you were steered away from things you were good at; towards things that other people advised would be of more value to you. So in effect our school curriculum is based on the assertion that there are two kinds of subjects useful ones, and useless ones and the useless ones fall away especially when money is tight.
There was survey carried out on 1,500 people that tested individual’s ability for divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the ability to develop original and unique ideas and to envision multiple solutions to a problem; psychologist J.P. Guilford developed the concept in the 1950s and he saw it as a major component of creativity. Typical ‘test’ paper would be:
Below are five everyday objects. Think of as many different uses as you can for each
There’s no time limit but people usually completed it within fifteen minutes.
A ‘dull’ person might come up with three answers; an average with ten, a brilliant divergent thinker might come up with twenty five, a genius with a fifty or more. Genius divergent thinkers are even prone to challenge the precepts of the question by asking – “Can the paper clip be twenty feet high?” “Can the brick be made of foam rubber?”
What percentage of people do you think scored at genius level? I should tell you one more thing about the group tested; they were all aged between 3 and 5 years old.
The most revealing aspect was that this was a longitudinal test; the same children were tested every five years, between 8 and 10, then 13 to 15. They finally tested 2,000 adults 25years and older as a control. How do you think the different groups performed?
Here are the results:
3 to 5 year olds 98%
They retested again 5 years later
8 to 10 year olds 32%
You can possibly already see a trend here can’t you?
13 to 15 year olds 10%
They finally tested 20,000 adults, just once as a control.
25 year olds and over 2%
One would expect, or at least have some hope that we’d start not being very good and you get better as we get older. So it appears we are all born with the ability to think divergently and it mostly deteriorates. A lot has happened to these children as they’ve grown up; and one of the most important things that have happened to them is they have become educated.
To a large extent, this decline in divergent thinking has to be because children spend and great proportion of their schooling being told that there’s only one answer. The answer may well be at the back of the book, but you can’t look, that’s cheating; paradoxically in the real world it’s called research and ‘copying’ is called collaboration.