"Imagination is more important than knowledge"

I’ve been writing stories with children in my son’s classes at various times in the last seven years and the thing that continues to delight me is how inherently creative children are. Not only will they have a go, using whatever is at their disposal – at pre-writing age, their extensive knowledge of monsters and bears and grandmothers, together with intricate illustrations, in later years more nuanced notions of spies and wizards and fast cars in snazzy handwriting – their stories also follow instinctively what in creative writing degree courses are taught as the rules of narrative. They have beginnings, middles and ends, more or less. They employ wonderful imagery, a bit of dialogue, action and description, and they produce something that might not sell right now but that is always innovative, the very definition of creativity.

I think this is one of the reasons I give so much credence to Sir Ken Robinson, the former UK University of Warwick academic who now lives in Los Angeles and travels the world talking about the importance of creativity, and more recently, of finding what he’s called our “Element,” the place within each of us where ability meets passion. Robinson has been criticised for being superficial about complicated issues, but the emeritus professor knighted for his service to arts education in the UK has done the hard yards. Robinson reviewed creative and cultural school education under the Blair Government, chairing a committee that included comedian Dawn French and distinguished UK brain scientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, as well as leading educators and arts managers. The 1999 All Our Futures report set out a detailed strategy to embed creativity and creative thinking in school education across the board.  

True, Robinson has gone on to become a “creativity expert” and his latest book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, is written for a wide audience. It’s full of stories of people whose school education failed them but who found their passion and fulfilment in life, including Dame Gillian Lynne, UK choreographer for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, who at 8 was in trouble at school for jumping about during classes and referred to a psychologist, and Sir Paul McCartney who didn’t do well in music at school.

It’s easy to listen to Robinson’s TED talks – which have been viewed by 250 million people in 150 countries – and read The Element and think he only has one idea – and it’s an idea someone probably also had in the sixties – but still I am fond of his thinking. For one thing, he brings Las Vegas together with the Sistine Chapel as fruits of human endeavour which I rather like. For another, his own journey gives him a unique world view. Growing up in Liverpool with one sister and six brothers, the 4-year-old Robinson looked as if he might be the son to fulfil their father’s dream of playing soccer for the home team until he contracted polio and his life took a different course. He moved to a special school, where, serendipitously, his academic abilities were recognised. From there to a grammar school, university and now sharing his ideas about the key role of creativity in our lives. 

Robinson has said that our education system needs revolution not evolution. He criticises the one-size-fits-all approach, the failure to recognise individual talents, and the stifling of creativity – a key human capacity for the 21st century – across all subjects. He reminds us that education is a relationship between a teacher and a learner and everything else is just noise.

In Australia, we are journeying away from rather than toward ideas like Robinson’s. We’ve recently finished those annual NAPLAN tests that give schools, teachers and students a clear message that what matters most are literacy and numeracy skills, and we’re about to see the fruits of a politicised review of the brand new national curriculum in which creativity in all its glorious forms – across science, mathematics, the arts and languages – may not figure at all.

It was Albert Einstein – whose teachers saw him as mentally slow, unsociable and adrift forever in his foolish dreams –  who said that imagination is more important than knowledge. That really was rocket science.