Are schools killing creativity?

by Craig McBreen · 38 comments · General

This is a post I originally wrote for Spin Sucks.

If you don’t know, Spin Sucks was the 2010 Readers Choice PR Blog of the Year, one of Social Media Examiner’s Top 10 Social Media Blogs for 2011 and is currently listed on the Ad Age Power 150, a ranking of the top media and marketing blogs. Whether you’re a PR professional or beginning blogger, you’ll benefit from reading the great content at the home of Gini Dietrich. Today I’m back at Spin Sucks guest posting about an entirely different topic, but please check out the original piece below …

Are schools killing creativity?

Years ago, there was a boy who spent much of his school day staring out the window, daydreaming.

To him school was like the clink. A penitentiary so void of inspiration that his imagination often left the room.

His creative spirit needed an outlet, but it was so damn stifling in there.

Kids dream big
Children are imaginative and not afraid to be wrong, but we often lose this as we grow up. Do we grow out of it or does the system drain it out of us? Innate abilities lost over time or never discovered. Passions lost.

That daydreaming boy
What was he thinking about? Ginger, Marianne, the third grade teacher I had a mad crush on. Seriously, I simply wanted out of that room. I felt confined, inhibited, and bored silly.

Factories can’t teach
Our current educational system is a product of nineteenth-century industrialism. A model with a limited focus on specific subjects, considered beneficial a long, long time ago. That place isn’t far, far away, but it sure feels like it. This tired setup works for some, but many are left to wither on the vine.

One size doesn’t fit all
Most students receive a one-size-fits-all solution, not the creative or critical thinking they need. Shouldn’t we strive to accommodate a wide range of shapes and sizes?

And boxing them in is even worse
Kids don’t learn the same way. There are different types of intelligence: Kinesthetic, musical, linguistic, spacial, etc. People excel in certain areas, but struggle in others, yet our system demands children fit into one box and learn the same subjects, the same way.

In a post on his new book, “We Are All Weird,” Seth Godin wrote, “During the age of mass (mass marketing, mass manufacturing, mass schooling, mass movements) the key was normal. Normal was important because you needed (were required) to fit into your slot.” Well, the new normal is a bit abnormal, and uncommon little shapes don’t fit into perfectly square holes. Weird is in.

But … Billy’s odd AND distracted.
Growing up in one of the most stimulating environments ever, kids have the ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere. All. The. Time. And we wonder why they’re preoccupied. If kids have difficulty we often decide there is something wrong with them, or seek to medicate. Are they ill-suited for learning or are there defects in a system that tries to box them in?

The fundamental principals of public education need to be razed and rebuilt.

Post-industrial economies rely on creativity and inventiveness. It’s imperative that The United States (and the world) have school systems designed for the twenty-first century. And with technology quickly replacing people, isn’t this more important than ever?

We often hear that jobs are going overseas, but America will always be strong because of its intellectual capital and creative spirit. Problem is, we rarely ask our students to think creatively. As Alanis Morissette would say, “Isn’t it ironic.

So, what about solutions?

1. Shut down the assembly line.
Toss the factory model to make way for more organic and dynamic development. Foster the differences in kids and create a curriculum that brings out these unique talents.

2. Standards must go.
Of course you need core standards, but not just in math, writing and humanities. What about fundamental skills in communication, arts, software, and trades? Nothing wrong with standards, just the obsession with them.

3. School shouldn’t be a snooze-fest.
Ditch rote learning in favor of engagement. Focus on creative and critical thinking in all subjects. And cultivate inventiveness through the technology kids are so immersed in anyway.

4. Nourish spirit and passion.
Create conditions where kids can flourish.

5. Invest in great teaching and teacher development.
Just think how creative teachers could be if they weren’t so focused on standardized tests, which inhibits the genius and passion of teachers.

6. And finally, back off Tiger Mom.
Parents often steer kids away from their true talents, for a more conventional route to success. We need to broaden that spectrum.

It’s time for change
With budget cuts, the pace of bureaucracies, and resistance to change, this might not happen anytime soon. Regardless, it is time to rethink the current system, or maybe that good old American ingenuity will be a thing of the past.

Maybe a good PR campaign is in order.

Do yourself a favor and check out Sir Ken Robinson’s speech on A brilliant and engaging speech which summarizes this topic oh so well.

Do you agree or disagree? Is this a pipe dream?

Will high-tech companies and innovators simply force these changes without government mandates?

If changes come, what about that school in inner-city Detroit, Baltimore, LA? Will innovation and technology separate the haves and have-nots even more?

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Jack@TheJackB December 29, 2011 at 7:39 am

A new guest post- you are showing up in all the right places around the blogosphere.
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Craig McBreen December 29, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Hi Jack,

Hopefully Gini and Lisa invite me back. ;)


Ameena Falchetto December 29, 2011 at 10:39 am

This has to be one of my favourite posts of 2011 Craig! ROCK ON!
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Craig McBreen December 29, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Hi Ameena,

Thanks, I really appreciate that!

Here’s to a great 2012. You rock on too!


Robert Dempsey December 29, 2011 at 10:56 am

As a father of a young child and an entrepreneur who took the very long path through school I have these same concerns – will schooling dampen the creativity, openness and imagination of my daughter.

My background is in tech and I got a computer science degree before my MBA, both while running my own business. I can see good and bad sides of today’s education system from my point of view, however I know that in tech people are continuously told to dump a lot of what they learned so they can see what is really going on and act accordingly.

I also heard disturbing first hand accounts of management-level people in my MBA program about helicopter parents that accompanied their late-teen kids to job interviews and would call up the companies when their children weren’t hired.

Something is seriously wrong with that. I can understand a parent (me in particular) wanting to protect their child from harm, however that crosses the line. And those kids don’t get hired thanks to the insanity of their parents.

Having said that…

I am always cautious to not be over-protective of my daughter, which is no easy feat. I also try to give her resources that will help spread her imagination. Granted she’s only 4, but if you don’t start early and instill this stuff in kids while their personality is forming when will you do it?
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Craig McBreen December 29, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Hi Robert,

The way schools are setup now, yes it dampens the creativity, openness and imagination of many kids. Some simply don’t fit in and fall out of the system. Great, smart kids who don’t fit the cookie cutter mold.

There are good and bad sides and honestly we are lucky, as our particular public school district just north of Seattle is great. Kids will even have there own ipads to work with and they really focus on disciplines like writing and presentations at an early age. But there’s not enough of that going on in our public school system.

Man … that is disturbing, those helicopter parents never give up. I know a few tiger parents and sometimes that can be as disturbing as the parents who just don’t give a crap. But hitting up the companies that didn’t hire their kids. That’s an entirely different level, and how is a kid going to learn to be self sufficient like that. Crazy.

Sounds like you’re doing great with your daughter, Robert. It’s never too early.

Thanks for coming by. I really appreciate it!


Bill Dorman December 29, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Hey, don’t be dragging me into this; I’m not that odd, but certainly distracted at times.

The traditional school model is certainly not for everybody. The standardized test scores they try to use as one size fits all, can be very frustrating for many.

I see this changing slowly as more avenues become available for people of different abilities are allowed to work within their strengths to maximize their efforts; and this is a very good thing.

I wasn’t a dummy per se (no remarks please), but I was a definite daydreamer. It was very hard for me to stay on point with just about any topic. My saving grace was always having a love for reading; that was probably the only thing that kept me in the game.

If this was already posted at Gini’s, I was hoping I could just copy and paste whatever response I had before; I’m sure it was epic………

This was a great post indeed sir, look forward to your work tomorrow.
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Craig McBreen December 29, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Maybe I’ll just start calling you Billy :)

I hate the focus on standardized testing, because there are so many different types of intelligence, but the focus is on left-brained thinking. Hopefully things will be changing and to me, it’s one of the most important issues of our day.

I’m glad I wasn’t the only daydreamer and a love of reading might be what saved me too. Sometimes my teacher would catch me reading a novel in math class, because that was my “drift off” class ;)

Your response was indeed epic, but I like this one just as well!

Thanks, Bill!


Brian Driggs December 29, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Are schools killing creativity? Yes, but the more important questions to ask are:

+ Why has society deemed creativity nice-t0-have?
+ How do we shift the perspectives that got us here?
+ What can be done on an individual level to affect real change?

So much about the current state of education upsets me. Think about all the talk of education we’ve heard in the last year; how much of it revolves around money? Teacher pay and collective bargaining, spending cuts, tuition increases, financial aid, and, at the root of it all, we’re sold on the idea of education from the get-go as a means to a good job, where “good job” is described by little more than salary.

It’s terribly unfortunate.

This train left the station long ago. Today, there are millions of people on it. We can’t simply pick it all up and set it back down on another set of tracks without one hell of a Herculean effort and serious collateral damage.

We can re-evaluate where we are today relative where we want to be in 1, 5, 10 years, and start laying new track backward in the hopes of installing a smooth transition off this dead-end line before the engine gets there. We could also bring special new vehicles alongside the train and help people off while it’s moving (it’s not moving very fast), delivering them to new modes of educational transport.

This is important. Thanks for bringing it up, Craig.
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Craig McBreen December 30, 2011 at 1:13 am

Hi Brian,

Very nice points as usual, Sir!

Creativity is seen as a sideline pursuit almost. When creativity and true ingenuity is what we really need, now more than ever. In education, in government, in engineering, I could go on.

Shifting perspectives is the real battle isn’t it? I mean how do you convince people of this? I’m going to start speaking and my humble little talk will focus on creativity. I’m trying to get in front of college students as a start. Maybe it’ll make a small dent. It’s a blip, but a start.

About money. If our government invested just a tiny bit more into education instead of say, defense, that would be a start. But that IS a pipe dream I know. It might be private companies that foster the innovation, but hopefully this involves everyone (read public schools).

But you are right, this is terribly unfortunate.

Fixing things will require a Herculean effort no doubt. I guess guys like you and I can do our tiny little bit and maybe something like this will gain momentum. Who knows.

Thanks, Brian. Always love your commments!


Brian Driggs December 30, 2011 at 6:05 pm


Like you, I think one of the biggest problems facing the education system today is that kids just don’t care. Society has reduced education to a finite timeline which is to be endured in pursuit of more money. :puke

I propose borrowing from the Kahn Academy model, where students read/watch/listen to information the night before, then spend their time in class collaboratively working on solutions and engaged in conversations about how they might apply the lessons to whatever they feel they would like to do with their lives. How powerful would that be?

My friend who’s shaky on the subject can watch the video, re-playing the tricky stuff until he gets it. He doesn’t have to be embarrassed. And, if I can read the lesson in 15 minutes and understand it, then I have more free time, which incentivizes my personal performance in school. POW.

The next day in class, we spent 20 minutes discussing how we think we might apply what we learned to things that interest us. Because I was thinking about how I might apply simple algebra to calculate horsepower from torque, or determine ideal fuel injector size given increased airflow, I am further incentivized to pursue my education. Likewise, my friend, who wants to be a chef might apply the lesson to scaling recipes to serve more people, or the girl who wants to be an astronaut gets comfortable converting Fahrenheit to Celsius and Kelvin. POW.

And, once we’ve all enthusiastically discussed the information on our own terms and the teacher has had a chance to identify who might need additional help with the material, we spend the next 20 minutes working on practice exercises, with the expectation that we help each other where we can. What’s this? I am a valued member of my community? The more I learn, the more important I become to society? POW.

The more I think about such scenarios, the more excited I get, ya know?

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Craig McBreen December 31, 2011 at 1:21 am

Not to self to check out Thanks, Brian.

That would be powerful and would let kids use their imaginations. Maybe a free and open model like this is just the start.

“The more I think about such scenarios, the more excited I get, ya know?” I know, I get exciting reading about the great things going on out there. It will be fun researching and learning more about it all. Thanks, Brian.

And yes … POW!


Tom Pinit December 30, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Hiya Craig, this post totally speaks to me as a father of a first grader and toddler. The older one is enrolled in a Spanish immersion charter school with a focus on Singapore Math. The things they are teaching are very creative and engaging, and my son is loving it. Of course, they are measuring standards against other Oregon public schools, and they seem to be doing quite well. The toddler is in a Montessori program, which I also grew up in. He’s a self-starter and explorer by nature, so I think that suits him well.
Watching the whole Randy Pausch Last Lecture about what they’re doing in CS at CMU was pretty inspiring, in terms of invoking creativity in a formal university setting. I also recently read “That Used To Be Us” by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. They touch on several of these issues in our current antiquated school system and ways to be more creative and think outside the box. I recommend it.
In addition to the “formal” education, I am a big proponent of learning through exposure: to other countries, languages, cultures, and lifestyles. So we will all be learning as we accumulate passport stamps :)
I’d also add that the 40-hour assembly line work week sure ain’t cutting it for most of us these days and needs to be imploded.
Boy, that was a long-winded comment. Thanks Craig, and a happy New Year to you and yours!
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Craig McBreen December 31, 2011 at 1:26 am

Hey Tom,

“Spanish immersion charter school with a focus on Singapore Math” certainly sounds engaging and is certainly a well rounded route. My wife and I are going to learn Spanish with our 12-year-old-son. We figured it would be a great thing to do together and should be fun :)

Anyway, that is so cool and glad you son is loving it, and sounds like you’re set with your youngest. Great!

Yes, the Program at CMU was incredible wasn’t it? It was great seeing how he just brought out the best in those kids. Very cool!

“That Used To Be Us” is now on my reading list.

Agree on your points and thanks for the recommendations. I’m sure we’ll be talking, Sir! Good luck with your new endeavor too.


Tom Pinit January 1, 2012 at 12:38 am

I am hoping our 6-year-old will be able to teach us Spanish :) Or we’ll need to catch up with him. Take care Craig!
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Craig McBreen January 2, 2012 at 8:50 pm

You’ll need to catch up :) That’s why I thought we’d do it together. My son learns so much faster than us. He’ll put us on a good pace :)


Tim Adams January 2, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Good post! I was thinking about this topic during the last days and came to a similar conclusion about the educational system in Germany. A few years ago there was a huge shift in the system because Germany is trying to achieve a better ranking in the so called PISA ranking where students of different nations are compared to each other. Educational ministries in Germany now look slavishly at these annual reports and it turns out that the ‘factory approach’ has deepened. Kids today can do little more than study until 9 pm nearly every day of the school year, and are left with nothing but useless knowledge at the end of their school career. If there are signs of hope, it is only due to highly engaged teachers doing projects outside of the school curriculum, intended to develop abilities to ‘survive’ – and I also feel that creativity is a fundamental one.
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Craig McBreen January 2, 2012 at 9:12 pm

Hi Tim,

Thank you for stopping by and especially for letting us know about the educational system in Germany. I didn’t know this and assumed that a country like Germany would be on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Trying to achieve better rankings is not always in the best interest of the students. And rankings like PISA stifle creative thinking in education. Instead we should be going in the other direction with things that Ken Robinson advocates: A system that is flexible and innovative. In this modern economy, creativity should be flourishing. Sad to hear the factory approach has deepened because of systems like this.

Hopefully we won’t have to rely on highly engaged teachers doing things outside of school, but sure glad to hear about anyone focusing on creativity.

Thanks for the visit.


Michelle Manire January 3, 2012 at 12:36 am

Hi Craig,

Great piece. You are right on the mark. When I was growing up, I never and I mean never processed things they way everyone else did. Plus I am left-handed and dyslexic. I was screwed before I even had a chance.

No one talked about these things let alone knew what they were or how to deal with them. I was scolded in front of the class in kindergarten for coloring with my left hand and the teach grabbed the crayon out of my left hand and firmly placed it in my right. I switched it back, of course – never have been one to ‘follow the rules’. I was always told I was weird or wrong. In a way, this made me stronger because I would not go down easy or at all. I had to learn different ways to survive and I did just that.

As I got older, my confidence grew and I just thought other people were weird and I was actually normal. I learned how to embrace my creativity and learning challenges to help me succeed in life. I would not change anything about my life and I’m glad that these type of discussions are being brought to light and, hopefully, are embraced.

Thanks again for a great post.



Robert Dempsey January 3, 2012 at 1:56 am

I hired a life coach more than a year ago – Michelle Ward – and one of the first books she recommended was “The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One.” You’ve embraced your creativity however it might be a good read.

For those that haven’t gotten that far, it’s a must read. It’s always nice to know you aren’t crazy :)
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Craig McBreen January 3, 2012 at 8:12 pm

Thanks, Robert! Another book to add to my growing list :)


Craig McBreen January 3, 2012 at 8:10 pm

Hi Michelle,

Thank you! It sounds like you had a lot more to deal with than I did. It’s unbelievable that a teacher actually did that to you. That is so wrong on so many levels and I can think of a few similar stories. But like you, my confidence only grew as I got older.

I’ve never been a follower either and frankly had little interest in school. It really was like a prison to me. I imagine dealing with all this did make you a much stronger person. It sounds like both of us want to change the system, but it’s healthy to have your kind of perspective on your own life … the fact that you would not change anything about your life, but are all about bringing these discussions to light.

Thanks for the comments, Michelle. Really appreciate you stopping by.


Michelle Manire January 4, 2012 at 5:56 am

My pleasure. I agree with you and if there is anything I can do to help those who need inspiration, let me know. Thanks so much for you response.


Craig McBreen January 4, 2012 at 11:30 pm

And thank you for the offer! I’ll be writing about this stuff more often.


Michelle Manire January 3, 2012 at 3:38 am

Cool thx


Steven January 3, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Everything you said is completely true. Today’s schools are killing way more than just creativity, they are also killing self-esteem, individuality, confidence, self-discipline, and much more.
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Craig McBreen January 4, 2012 at 4:13 am

School sure didn’t do much for my self-esteem and confidence. Took years to get that back. I’m focusing on creativity, but there are certainly a whole range of other issues due to the rigidity of the system. I’m trying to do my little part to get the word out.

Thanks, Steven


The Anecdotal Baby January 14, 2012 at 7:37 pm

Craig, as a former science teacher I think you’ve hit so many incredibly true points in this post. I couldn’t agree with you more on the issue of “If kids have difficulty we often decide there is something wrong with them, or seek to medicate.” Not to say that I’m sure some may need medication, but sometimes it seems pushing pills is the easiest answer. I digress.

Fortunately, I was lucky to work within the private school system, and I have to hand it to my former principle for pushing many of the same ideas you point out here. It takes a lot of work, though. Having never worked in the public sector, I can only assume that the resources are limited to step outside the box. Countless hours were spent curtailing my lesson plans to a variety of children in one room, and as one teacher it takes a lot of effort, and when you break it down if you’re dedicated enough to be that kind of teacher, the pay is pennies. I think that’s also part of the problem.

Your solutions are right on point. You’re also correct about “budget cuts, the pace of bureaucracies, and resistance to change” and though it’s not a pipe dream, there are a lot of hoops to jump through. I think this may be why many parents are leaning towards homeschooling if private school cannot be afforded.

Love this post! Glad I found you!
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Craig McBreen January 15, 2012 at 11:01 pm

It’s good to have a former science teacher in the house!

Yes, some do really need medication, but most often I don’t think that is the case.

I’ve never been a teacher, so I can’t begin to imagine all the work that would go into structuring your lesson plans to work with a variety of kids. I’m sure that was an amazing amount of work. But you are so right on teacher’s salaries. Yet another problem with very few solutions.

Our public school district is great, but I think there are so many inequities in the system, I don’t blame anyone for choosing private schools or any other options.

Great comments and thanks so much for stopping by!


Jacko January 16, 2012 at 9:07 pm

Does a bear go in the woods and use a rabbit for tpaper?

The schools unfortunately are destroying creativity in exchange for garbage.
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Craig McBreen January 17, 2012 at 4:09 am


Thanks for the visual. :) That poor rabbit. ;)

Schools have been doing this so well for a long time. We need a creative revolution right about now, in every sector, don’t you think?


Stephen Carmichael January 20, 2012 at 1:31 pm

on my blog I wrote about a post very similar to this. would love to know your thoughts…



Craig McBreen January 20, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Hi Stephen,

Love Ken Robinson, obviously and you’re line in the post sums it up, “Creativity I feel is key to the success of our future.” I completely agree.

Thanks for stopping by.


Stephen Carmichael January 21, 2012 at 2:43 am

HI thanks Craig for responding!

I think the worst part of the reality to this discusion is that still the next generation of children in schools are still governed and taught under the old model…

I have a little brother who’s in grade 4 this year and despite a new emphasis placed on learning and integrating technology into learning, the methods of teaching haven’t changed since I was in school (im 21 haha)

I think somehow drastic changes need to be made to our education system but Im not sure how… or what to do…

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Craig McBreen January 21, 2012 at 8:43 pm


Thank you for commenting. You are right, but I will say it’s getting better, although that improvement is spotty.

Some systems are placing more of an emphasis on creativity and technology, but still using old methods.

I think all we can do is to keep spreading the word. Keep the discussion open. Staying on top of what Ken Robinson is doing is also a plus.

Thanks again for stopping by.


Stephen Carmichael January 22, 2012 at 4:23 am

Very true and some wise words there!

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Craig McBreen January 22, 2012 at 11:59 pm

Thank you kindly, Sir.


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