Does the system unleash or suppress creative students?

Tradition. They’ve always done it that way. So it must work, right?

What am I talking about?


Our education system hasn’t changed much in 200 years, and people like Sir Ken Robinson talk about an impending revolution in what and how schools teach. What I’ve realized is that I harbor serious doubts that higher education is able to identify and reward one trait of successful people: creativity.


Today I reviewed 15 applications for a web developer, and the one that stood out was the only person who didn’t go to college, the one who chose to write his GPA on the CV when others with better grades didn’t. He proudly proclaimed he was a C- student in high school.

And strangely, though I am a professor and university lecturer, I was intrigued by this.

As I read further, I saw that his portfolio was more creative than all the rest. His websites were elegant, simple, artistic, and out-of-the-box. His chosen projects were things he seemed passionate about. I instantly called him up for an interview.

In person he was the same: Driven, creative, inquisitive, a natural debater, and best of all, a sponge for programming knowledge. He was an artist and aspiring architect before “life deprived him of opportunities” and he switched to IT skills to pay the bills. He taught himself what education didn’t provide, and that drive to learn makes him better. I’m looking forward to start working with him tomorrow.

Implicit in my excitement to hire him was a belief that a C- public school student might actually be a real genius. I’m harboring a latent belief that the education system stifles creative thinking so much that the real creatives must be earning mediocre grades. In this case I was right. But I hope I’m wrong about this in general.

You know who else was a C- student?

Jim Henson. And despite education not finding a way to use his talents, Sesame Street educates more young people than universities worldwide. There’s no contest. Creative learning has a future. Inflexible institutions of learning do not.

8 thoughts on “Does the system unleash or suppress creative students?

  1. It’s not necessarily that education stifles creativity, I would argue that certain types of educators and aspects of the system stifle creativity. The problem is, unless you are a fantastic teacher it is very difficult to deal with creativity in the classroom. If you are lucky enough to get only top-notch teachers, I wouldn’t say it stifles you. But generally one has to be a creative person to be able to truly appreciate different ways of thinking about issues, and through the course of school one learns that the majority of your teachers/professors are not going to be appreciative. Most people aren’t extremely creative, when it comes down to it, especially in a country where teachers are so undervalued. So you have to learn to play the game. At the same time, however, I would argue that an individual who is unwilling or unable to learn this game is suffering from a lack of creativity them self, unable to think through a lens different than the one they’ve created. I find myself in this position often, where I see things much differently, but have had to learn to operate within a system I find frustrating – but that’s life. That’s how the world works. Know the rules first, then you can figure out when and how to break them.

    Where I really become frustrated in regards to this issue, however, is when people necessarily correlate intelligence with these games. Some people, like the person you have mentioned, may not be so great at getting the world to see their potential (whether it be teachers or whoever), but have a set of other skills that a smart person would identify and use. I am not one to say that we all have gifts, frankly sometimes people are just not talented at anything, but just because someone can get into Harvard doesn’t mean that they’re good at anything other than signaling, either. That’s a skill, but arguably less important than being able to, say, program, paint, or discover a new way to do calculus. The people who are the most successful, in my observations, have been those people who are good at both. Sometimes it just takes a creative way of showing people your skills.

  2. I am having my 12, almost 13, year old son read this… because though he tests ‘brilliant’ on the standard scales (when he applies the tenacity needed to take a 3-day standardized test), he finds not much challange or usefulness in fitting in their box most days. Thanks for the article, both professionally and personally.

  3. Matt I agree that there is value in learning the rules you intend to break, challenge, undermine, or otherwise make obsolete. But I think it is counterproductive as a student to accept without question that the system rewards exactly those traits that will lead you to succeed in life. Great leaders work outside the system, often after having experienced working inside the system.

    That’s why it isn’t the D and F students that shine, but the C students who get what’s going on enough to be average but require a different set of challenges before they truly shine. The system isn’t build for them – it’s built for the average student (which is a mythical creature, an artifact of statistics and systems thinking itself).

  4. I’m not saying that the school system perfectly rewards the exact traits you need for success. More than anything else, I’m saying that learning to operate within a system that you might not particularly enjoy or think is perfect, but you know you can’t change, is a process that anyone who is *going* to succeed needs to learn. It’s about being malleable to the world around you, learning to find the ways in which you can work the system to make it work for you.

    I have personally known several people who were extraordinarily intelligent who never learned this ability and are currently doing next to nothing. They become frustrated with working within a system that they don’t like, so they shut down. In my mind, this is a lack of creativity. If one can’t find a way to adapt and achieve the big things that they always plan on achieving, but sadly never do, then I would argue that they’re exactly the opposite of creative.

    Besides, C’s are not average, they’re essentially failing these days. In order for me to make C’s in any of the schools I’ve ever gone I would have had to do it purposefully (or spitefully). C’s at my school require a retaking of the course if it’s in-major.

    I would say, however, that judging someone based on high school grades is pretty much next to worthless. Teenagers rarely are interested in working within ANYONE’S system. I think I’m talking more about people in their 20s and beyond. By that time it’s really necessary to grow up. There is a reason that the Occupy Wall Street movement has achieved next to nothing compared to the Tea Party. They’re really creative, but they’ve failed at actualizing anything. Just like the student who refuses to show his/her professors that they actually understand the material, the OWS protesters refuse to operate within a system to achieve change. And both fail in the end.

  5. I guess what I’m saying is that there is no way to completely remove yourself from a system bigger than yourself and what you are capable of changing. Unless you decide to go live in the woods and disregard society as a whole. So if you want to change a piece of that big picture, you are going to have to figure out first how you can do so within the constraints of what you can’t change. If you can’t do that, you won’t succeed.

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