George Lucas Educational Foundation

Sir Ken Robinson on the Power of the Imaginative Mind (Part Two)

The creativity guru shares his vision for a new way of educating children. More to this story.
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Ken: You know, if somebody was to say to you, I can't read or write, you wouldn't understand them to be saying, I am incapable of this, I don't have the power for that. What you'd hear them saying is, I don't know how, I don't know what's involved, I haven't learned that. So when people say to me, I'm not creative, all I hear them saying is, I don't know how. I haven't discovered what's involved, I haven't learned it. And I believe our job as educators has to be to help them learn it.

There was a book published a few years ago, called, "Break Point, and Beyond," by a guy called George Land, and Beth Jarman. Now this book contained in it, the results of a study of divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is not the same thing as creativity, but it's a fundamental part of every creative process. It's the capacity to see connections, to see multiple answers to a problem, to think matrically, often to think in analogies or metaphors, to see many answers, not a single answer, and often, to reinterpret the question to generate more answers, to think-- to read the question differently. There are tests for divergent thinking, like there are for the sort of linear thinking that gets assessed in IQ tests. Paul Torrance and J. P. Guilford developed quite a few of these tests. So the study that George Land reported, and Beth Jarman, was of a series of tests that were given to 1,500 people, to assess their powers in divergent thinking. And on the protocol of the test, if you scored above a certain level, you'd be considered to be a genius at divergent thinking. So my question is, what percentage do you think, of the 1,500 people scored at genius level for divergent thinking? Now you need to know one more thing. These were kindergarten children, okay, three to five year olds. What do you think, what percentage? Ninety-five, okay. This is their result, 98. Now what was interesting was that this was a longitudinal study. So they retested the same children five years later, age of eight to ten, what do you think? Fifty, sixty? Yeah. Same children. They tested them again, five years later, the age of 13 to 15. What do you think?

Now there's a couple of things just, I want to quickly pull out of this. The first is that you might imagine it would be the other way around. That only a small group were capable, but people got better. What this indicates, and other studies come to similar conclusions, is that everybody, pretty much, is born with these extraordinary capacities to connect, to see patterns, possibilities, to ask questions, to reinterpret. So we all have it, but the second story is, it declines. Picasso said this about the arts. He said, all children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. So it's something that recedes rather than something that develops. Now a lot of things have happened to these children in the ten years of the study, a lot of things have happened to them, but one of the things that I believe that's happened to them that's most significant, is by now they have become educated. You know, they've spent ten years at school being told there's one answer, and it's at the back, and don't look, because that's cheating, and don't copy from anybody else, because that's cheating, too. I mean, outside of schools, that's called collaboration, but inside school, it's not.

Now what I, I suppose, want to suggest is that these capacities, which are nascent in all of us, could be maintained and could be developed in the right circumstances and in the right conditions, but these are particular conditions. But the current system of education is not designed to do that, and in many ways, the pressures in education are working, even more firmly in the opposite direction. I mean, particularly the effects of standardized testing, and also the effects of narrowing the curriculum on what are thought to be the most important subjects in school. In America, for example, there's a big drive now to focus on what are called the STEM disciplines, science, technology, engineering and math. Now, they are really important, really important. But they are not all important. Other disciplines are just as important for children's rounded growth and development, economically and culturally, as those, and actually, the evidence is that those disciplines benefit most from a broad based approach to education.

Now one of the most fertile periods in human history was the Italian Renaissance. That did not come about be the Medicis had a math strategy, you know, buttressed by some standardized tests. You know, it became that because there was a fluid interaction of the experts in different disciplines in a culture that valued innovation for economic and cultural purposes. And in a way, we need to think of creating a new Renaissance. Most innovation comes by making connections between different ways of thinking. Great scientists think visually, great dancers often think mathematically, the current curriculum is siloed to an extraordinary extent, which stills the connections between disciplines which are at the heartbeat of a proper-- properly conceived form of creative education.

The three bits of education are the curriculum, assessment and pedagogy. Most reform movements focus on the curriculum and on assessment, believing they're the levers of change. Now we need a good curriculum framework, which is broad based and interdisciplinary, we need forms of assessment which lend themselves to sensitive appraisal of kids' achievements and their capacities. But the heart of education, the only way we'll ever reform education properly, is the bit that many reform movements leave out, which is pedagogy. You only ever improve schools by improving teaching, or teaching and learning. But we need these forms of pedagogy, supported by an expansive and creative use of the technologies that you're here to discuss over the next couple of days.

I live not far from a place called, Death Valley. Death Valley is the hottest place on earth, certainly in America. Not much grows there, because it doesn't rain. But in the winter of 2004-2005, it rained, seven inches of rain. And in the spring of 2005, something remarkable happened. The whole of Death Valley was covered, the floor of the valley was covered in spring flowers, as far as they eye could see, and people came from all over America to see this extraordinary display. What it showed was that Death Valley wasn't dead. It was asleep. What it needed were the conditions for growth, and when the conditions came, the growth came. And I believe this is exactly what we have to model in our schools. Children have immense natural capacities of innovation, of creative thinking, of alternative ways of seeing. They are deeply personal capacities, and great teaching has always been there to model, and to bring them out. But we need now to systematize these across whole systems, and not to see them as eccentric capacities which are the preserve of a few gifted teachers. Now modeling that is a 21st Century challenge.

Narrator: For more information on, What Works in Public Education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Coordinating Producer:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Production Assistant:

  • Neil Tan

Camera Crew:

  • Brian Cardello
  • Michael Sullivan
  • Tony Jensen

Sir Ken Robinson's remarks were recorded on April 10, 2008, at the Apple Education Leadership Summit, a gathering in San Francisco of more than one hundred school superintendents from around the world. Robinson is the author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative.

This video is the second part of a two-part presentation. To learn more, view the first part.

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Howard B. Esbin, PhD's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for sharing Sir Ken Robinson's erudite and engaging presentation.

The faculty of imagination is largely associated with artistic expression. As a result, its cultivation is left primarily to arts education, which problematically is unavailable in most schools. Despite all constraints, students continue to ply their imaginations in myriad ways - directly and artistically through media such as poems, stories, graphic comics, music, painting, photography and video, and indirectly through activities like volunteering, special science or enterprise projects, and sports. A US study from the National School Boards Association shows that 96% of adolescents with online access create new content online, primarily outside school.

As recently as 2004, Harvard University's Project Zero noted: "There should be room in assessment to reward imagination and creativity and care taken not to inhibit it." Part of the challenge is that cultivating and assessing imagination requires a different frame of reference, language, and tools than those used for reason. As yet, there are no widely used protocols in place to include or value imagination in assessments, Consequently, the rich student effort, described above, goes largely unrecognized.

This failure is exacerbated further because school conditions students to think in terms of 'right' answers and 'wrong' ones. However, to be imaginative is to ask 'what if?' and 'why not?' It is to picture and express what doesn't fully exist. Students, afraid of being wrong or sounding foolish, become stifled. Most, therefore, graduate with a diminished faith in their own capacity and little understanding of its true worth. These attitudes reflect the West's historical bias against imagination, in favour of reason.

The zeitgeist is shifting. Imagination is seen increasingly as intrinsic to all endeavors. In 1964, the philosopher Henri Corbin wrote, "The most astounding information of modern science regarding the physical universe remains inferior to [the imagination]." It appears that the more we learn, the subtler the line becomes between what is real and what is imaginary. For example, the founder of Second Life, which has 1.7 million players, observes that the creation of an avatar is a 'gateway' experience between the "real" world and the world of imagination. Because the creative process is so intense, the players' online characters are strongly identified with. Not surprisingly, virtual economies are now generating significant financial profit in what gamers call the First World. The ability to imagine alternative selves in simulated virtual worlds, no matter how fantastical, ultimately helps stretch understanding of who we are and what reality is. There's also a growing interdisciplinary body of research and practice regarding the use of such imaginative activity in health science, sports psychology, social psychology, organizational management, community development, and the military.

Howard B. Esbin, PhD

catherine meyers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wonderful!!! As an artist now and art teacher in the past I have always believed these principles Sir Ken Robinson is expressing in this video. It is a confirmation for me and makes me feel hopeful about the public educational system that I have long been a critic of, as a student and as a teacher. Thankyou Sir Ken for this wonderful educational and such vital work. I will do everything to inform others about this video and have posted it onto my own website and Facebook, etc. - Catherine Meyers

Cameron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is pure genious. I am a senior at Apopka High School in Apopka Florida and I have been thinking this same theory for years. The modern eduactional system destroys creativity. The main focus is memory and recal and these are mental boundries that our limited by our biology. It is unfair to say I am more intelligent or less intelligent because I dont remember something. An ability to create something new and beautiful shows true creativity and genious. Thank you for showing the educational world how they have robbed me of individuality and inteligence.

Cristina Drews's picture

Waldorf Education teaches for this kind of to look for many possibilities, how to think in ways that use both synthesis and to remain an artist, how to continue to think creatively. The arts are the medium through which all subjects are taught. The heart of education, the pedagogy, is a living, innovative and unique part of Waldorf schools.

liza bercovici's picture

I loved watching both parts of this video. The diminution in children's creative thinking caused by our linear approach to education highlighted in both videos is very troubling. In Los Angeles, we operate a rigorous after-school dance program in the city's most underserved neighborhoods and are just concluding our fifth year operating a dance-themed charter school, Gabriella Charter School, where all students must take one hour of daily dance instruction. See We are big believers in the power of arts education to stimulate children's academic achievement but we still have much to learn and are constantly fine-tuning our approach. Thank you for posting this video.

aidan rainsford's picture

I'm not so sure how one can plausibly test an infant's divergent thinking he falsely comparing an infant's natural tendency to produce random unconnected utterences with actual divergent thinking??

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