October 21, 2013

Ken Robinson to Educators: You *can* teach creativity, and you must

{This is the first in a series on EDUCAUSE 2013}

There are 620 million youths aged 15-24; and 15% are unemployed. Many of these unemployed have college degrees. Long gone are the days when hard work and a college education guaranteed a lifetime of employment. Educators need to adjust to this new reality and quickly. That is the message of Sir Ken Robinson, who opened Educause 2013 with the keynote address, Leading a Culture of Innovation.

Sir Ken Robinson delivers keynote address at EDUCAUSE 2013

Sir Ken Robinson delivers keynote at EDUCAUSE 2013: Leading a Culture of Innovation

Robinson, whose 2006 TED talk is still the most-watched TED video at almost 20,000,000 views, describes “creativity” as the ability to generate original ideas that have value; as well as having the power to do something with the ideas. Value depends on perspective or context, which can dramatically vary with culture. Innovation is putting ideas into practice. Technology gives us the tools to do this.

A number of historical examples illustrate the often-unforeseen benefits that can come from creative ideas. Often ideas that may not seem new, or may have questionable value out of context, or in a different culture, develop in dramatic, unforeseen ways.

When Thomas Edison began working on the phonograph, he was specifically looking for a way to record and play back voice. Someone suggested recording music, but at the time Edison saw little value to that. There was skepticism even about recording voice, after all, if you miss something that someone says, just have them say it again. The concept of voicemail was over a century away

The full story of Edison’s motivation for the phonograph, which Ken did not have time to go into, is fascinating. In Edison’s time, the telegraph and telegram were the important methods of long distance communication. Incoming telegraph messages were automatically recorded as telegrams and then delivered to the end recipients. This process did not work well with the new telephone. The incoming telephone message had to be listened to and then written down in a form that could be delivered to the recipient. This dramatically limited the telephone’s value. Edison theorized that a device capable of recording voice from the telephone and then playing it back later would be the ultimate answer to widespread usage of the telephone. Enter the Edison Phonograph. At the time, the telephone was simply envisioned as a replacement for the telegraph, rather than a revolutionary new person-to-person communication medium, and the phonograph cylinder was the replacement for the telegram, rather than a personal entertainment medium.

The television faced strong doubters when it was first introduced. After Franklin Roosevelt’s kick-off of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City was televised to demonstration TV sets, the New York Times ran a scathing op ed review. Television would never displace radio, they predicted. American families did not have time to stop and stare immobilized at a box. Radio would continue to thrive because people could stay active while they listened.

Google Glass at EDUCAUSE 2013

Google Glass at EDUCAUSE 2013: Opportunity for creativity and innovation

Similarly, it’s hard to believe that the designers of the iPhone understood the full range of uses and apps that would develop for the device. Robinson pointed out that there is now an app for playing blues harmonica. Imagine Steve Jobs and Jony Ive in 2006 pondering the required features for the iPhone. “It must store and play music, take and view photographs, run apps, have some telephone features; but as you know, people can become depressed at times, so it positively has to have a blues harmonica capability.” Nonetheless, the harmonica app is now one of over 800,000 apps available for the iPhone.

Proudly Serving Santa Monica For Almost Half A Decade

The concept that time and the meaning of old differ among cultures, including between Robinson’s native England and America, is well known. Ken remarked that he moved to the US from a “new” home near Stratford that had been built in the 1850s. The difference between new and old is even more extreme in Asia. During a trip to China, Ken noticed an interesting egg dish on the menu. The server described it, but pointed out that it was not actually a Chinese preparation. It had come from Mongolia 800 years ago (so they’ve probably gotten the recipe right by now). Contrast this with the radio ad by a Los Angeles Saab dealer heard by Ken soon after he landed here, touting their four years of continuous service. Of course, Saab went defunct shortly thereafter.

Culture invades every aspect of our being. In others, culture can appear quirky, while our own culture is completely natural and simply common sense. In preparation for his trip to America, Robinson was given a thin book entitled, “How to Behave in America”. Since it said Americans don’t like to be hugged, he kept his distance, thereby perpetuating the notion of the chilly Brit to his American acquaintances

Through these examples, Robinson shows how creative value dynamically changes across cultures and over time, and even among individuals of the same culture. Creativity builds on creativity, with completely unpredictable, but very important results.

Should Robots be granted the same rights as humans? 

Humans are quite similar to all other forms of life on earth, but very different in this regard: We live in the realm of ideas. We see through filters of ideology. We have the power of imagination and can bring into our minds things that are not present. We can visit the future, if not accurately predict it. The hardest thing to foresee is how people will behave in the future. As John Kenneth Galbraith said, economic forecasting makes astrology look respectable.

If a short while ago you had predicted that almost every child would now have a computer in school, you would have been thought crazy. What if you had described the iPhone to someone 50 years ago? Again, you’d be thought to have a screw loose; people might have started calling you Captain Kirk.

In the near future, robots may be granted the same rights as humans. In light of this, Robinson pondered whether people of the future might describe his talk as being delivered to a room full of quaint, fleshy beings.

Population Growth from undeveloped countries

The challenge of dramatic population growth from undeveloped countries  taxing earth resources.

Growing unemployment of the college-educated and increased competition from robots and computers are two important reasons that higher education needs to undergo a revolution. To this Robinson adds the danger that the earth cannot sustain our current rate of consumption. We’re facing a crisis in earth resources as well as crisis in human resources. Not that the earth is going anywhere. It may just say, “I tried humanity; wasn’t so good. Time to go back to bacteria.” As HG Wells put it, civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.

In making his charge to the audience, Robinson quoted James Baldwin, “We must lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers”, a quote that became a recurring theme of the conference. Too often a preconceived notion of the correct answer kills creativity, as dramatically shown in this short video by Elad Segev.

Anaïs Nin framed the issue as, “there came a point where the risk of remaining tight in a bud was greater than the risk to blossom.” The challenge to educators is how quickly can they change a system designed for the industrial age into an education process imparting creativity and innovation.

{Next…  The View from EDUCAUSE: MOOCs Are Here To Stay}

Follow Bob Nilsson on Twitter:  twitter.com/RHNilsson

About The Contributor:
Bob NilssonDirector of Vertical Solutions Marketing

Bob Nilsson is the director of vertical solutions marketing at Extreme Networks. In this role, Mr. Nilsson leads the Extreme Networks strategy and programs for vertical markets including Healthcare, Higher Education, K-12 Education, Federal Government, and Hospitality. He has over 30 years of experience in marketing IT systems to Global 1000 companies worldwide. Before joining Extreme Networks Bob was VP Marketing at Clear Methods. Prior to that Bob held senior marketing positions at Digital Equipment and HP. Bob holds an SB degree in EE from MIT and MBA from Columbia Business School.

See My Other Posts