Out of Our Minds by Sir Ken Robinson

Book Review

Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative with Sir Ken Robinson

When you research creativity in education, it is impossible not to come across Ken Robinson’s provocative work. His book, Out of Our Minds, published in 2001, revised in 2011, is still fresh and powerful. In part a scathing critique of the factory model of education, Robinson supports individual educators, and acknowledges that many of us are working within the system to support student creativity.

Part of his work is a well-researched attack on academic hierarchy. While he champions literacy, Robinson asks why mathematics and Language should be considered supremely important, while drama and dance are treated like expendable extras. Unless the goal of all students is to become university professors, he argues, this approach is wrongheaded.

Threatened by global and ecological crises as never before, he says humanity is going to need creative thinking if we are to thrive and survive as a species. Globally, the rate of change of technology means children we teach today will work in industries that haven’t been invented, use tools we’ve never seen, and interact in ways we can’t imagine. The outsourcing of well-paid high tech work is only one reason I agree with Robinson’s arguments. As adults, today’s children will compete globally to earn a living.

‘Back-to-basics’ teaching focussed on rankings and standardized testing is not preparing students for employment. According to Robinson, business leaders want “thoughtful, creative, self-confident people… who are literate, numerate, who can analyze information and ideas; who can generate new ideas of their own and help to implement them; who can communicate clearly and work well with other people.”

Before you ask how writing poems is going to help with that, consider Robinson’s definition of creativity. He suggests we should recognize more forms of human intelligence than those measured by I.Q. testing or the SATs. For Robinson, these outdated tests only reinforce modern society’s harmfully narrow view of intelligence. He claims the unemployed high school dropout and the underemployed college graduate were both let down by the education system, because neither discovered their creative potential.

Human beings think and exert intelligence in diverse ways depending on the medium of our creative work.

When people find their medium, they discover their real creative strengths and come into their own. Helping people connect with their personal creative capacities is the surest way to release the best they have to offer.

Robinson calls for a celebration of diversity in human thinking which will alter societal attitudes to ability and disability; and also help humanity adapt to exponential population growth, unpredictable technological change and growing environmental concerns.

He calls creativity “applied imagination,” and “a process of having original ideas that have value.” This value cuts across all domains from pure science research to filmmaking.

Robinson’s chapter, “Being Creative,” provides practical tips on how to boost innovation through technique. All people are born imaginative, but this ability can be enhanced or squelched by one’s environment. Unlocking the “constant promise of alternative ways of seeing, of thinking and of doing,” is essential. Educators, parents and community leaders can do a lot to foster diverse talents, instead of feeding the myth that creativity is just for ‘special people.’

There is a saying among teachers in my school that ‘gifted teaching is just good teaching.’ Robinson’s book reinforces this idea. We must interact with all our students in ways that bring out their gifts and talents, and be open to exploring domains that allow them to think, whether they think best through drama, dance or mathematical equations. It’s a tall order and no educator can do it on his or her own, but informing our teaching practice with a philosophy that nurtures creativity is an excellent place to start.

@ontent by Cory Doctorow

If you like SF or issues of fair use for intellectual property, it’s likely you have read some of Doctorow’s opinion pieces online. If you haven’t, he has collected many of his previously published essays into book form, which is free to download. I bought an autographed, paper copy of @ontent at WorldCon. I’m old-fashioned and I love paper books.

This book of essays is such compelling reading, I found myself devouring it like a thriller fan, losing sleep to find out what he would say next. It’s so cleverly written and so well-argued, I’m not sure how to review it. Let’s just say his are some of the sanest and most reasonable opinions you can find on peer-to-peer file sharing and ebooks.

His views are radical, in that he does not support the big recording labels and book publishers in efforts to prevent piracy, but his opinions are practical. Encryption technology doesn’t work and treating even the most naive and law-abiding citizen like a pirate for wanting to copy a song onto several computers (such as the case with DRM-protected music from iTunes) is wrong. It should be easy to back up our hard drives and upgrade our hardware, without losing access to our music.

For the artists, many of whom cannot make a living simply from writing fiction or recording music, it has always been necessary to publicize and make money via other means. These are areas where artists benefit from having a personal dialogue with a community of fans. To build such a community, word of mouth, sometimes in the form of file sharing and downloads, is helpful.

I have reversed my opinion on this issue twice in my life. As a teenager and in my twenties, I believed in the old medieval ethos where ideas were free and belonged to everybody. In the history of literature, stories are used, reused and reshaped by every story teller with no apologies. Why then, according to Doctorow, shouldn’t fan fic be valued highly?

I think most authors would be honoured to have fan fic devoted to the worlds they create. Brilliant writers inspire imitators but each work is unique. Some great works of fiction inspire new genres. Should we tell new writers there is something wrong with rewriting the story of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? These stories have become archetypes in our society and whole fiction genres have grow out of them. Who is to say a fan fic writer won’t be the one to create the next Dracula or Sherlock Holmes?

For a while, perhaps influenced by my very law-abiding job and influenced by my ambitions as a writer, I thought that copyright should be respected by everyone in every case. People should not steal money from artists by not paying royalties. Certainly the professional development I have received from my board of education stressed the respect for copyright. It was all about teaching children to use technology without the unauthorized use of copyright materials. I’m all for teaching children to respect artists and the hard work they must do to make a living but I’m waiting for a better set of regulations.

In Canada, we have had some ideas about fair use that worked. Cancopy was a program where writers received a certain amount of money based on their popularity because it was expected that some people would photocopy books. In the same way, a certain amount of money was charged on blank cassettes and paid back to recording artists based on their airplay. This system recognised that people liked to record songs from the radio and create their own ‘mix tapes.’ Maybe something similar could be done for ebooks.

Right now Access Copyright is working on the Google settlement for copyright holders who have had their work digitized, mostly without their permission. Nearly every book published before January 2009 is affected by this settlement. The date to opt out and retain your right to sue Google independently is September 4, 2009. For more information from the Canadian point-of-view, look at this article on the Access Copyright webpage.

One of Doctorow’s main points is copyright is always changed to catch up with new technology. Whatever law is in place at the moment, was written in reaction to the last wave of technology. He cites the introduction of the player piano (which hurt performers and sheet music printers), the radio (which hurt Vaudeville acts), or P2P sharing (which is hurting CD sales). I eagerly await new developments in this area. In the meantime, why don’t you download a copy of Doctorow’s book for free and make your mind up for yourself?

Pornographication of society – BTT meme

Booking Through Thursday

Do you have “issues” with too much profanity or overly explicit (ahem) “romantic” scenes in books? Or do you take them in stride? Have issues like these ever caused you to close a book? Or do you go looking for more exactly like them? (grin)

It’s funny this question came up because I have been pondering the pornification of our culture lately. I have trouble, for example, finding ‘clean’ popular songs that my grade 8 students can play for their dances or their physical education program. My current favorite bands, such as Red Hot Chili Peppers or Black Eyed Peas, use profanity or unacceptable concepts (drugs, prostitution, sex) in just about every song. That said, I wouldn’t change the music or its content. I just don’t bring it to school. Continue reading “Pornographication of society – BTT meme”

The God Delusion

Now reading: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

How refreshing to read a positive book affirming our common humanity. Dawkins points to a common code of human morality which predates religion and exists beyond the special purview of religion.
I think a reading of Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene would go a long way toward making this book more convincing to readers who are as yet unconvinced of Evolution.

Kingship DeFacto

Sunday I attended Kingship DeFacto by Adam Burgess at the annual Summerworks festival. This is a juried festival with considerable prestige in Toronto.

The story is about Ben (Scott McCulloch), a wishy-washy politician under the influence of his powerful advisor Becker (Stephen Kent) who must decide whether or not to remove troops from the city streets, as advised by elected representative Lindsay (Irene Carl).

I was shocked to read Jon Kaplan’s review in Now Magazine. The director, my friend MK Piatkowski, did not deserve his glib dismissal. The acting was good, yet Kaplan gave only one star to an interesting, thought-provoking play. Kaplan’s criticism, that “Adam Burgess’s script, mostly rhetoric and glib laughs, never suggests believable relationships or involves us in the feelings of the characters,” partially misses the point.

This is an issues play, not a love story. In parliament and on the news, politicians use language to intimidate and to manipulate facts. I enjoyed this illustration of words as weapons as much as I enjoy satire on the same topic. Playwright Adam Burgess’s take is refreshing and dramatic.

Burgess majored in philosophy and I appreciated Becker’s Nietzchian rhetoric, although his misogynist statements seem too bare in the context of this complex character. The play implies there are soldiers in the streets of a western country, probably Canada, to defend people and the government from protesters and terrorists. Projected images from the FLQ crisis and references to the death of a boy protester, “shot in the back,” evoke Ipperwash, the war on terror, Vietnam protests… The target here is not one specific incident, but the way the unelected party ‘machine’ influences decisions made by elected leaders. When leading is reduced to following the polls and the pundits, the power of our votes is lost.

While the female lead, Linday, is too weak, the flaw is not her weakness but her dialogue. Lindsay, the voice of sanity in this play, never finishes a thought or a sentence. This is frustrating because we are told she is popular with the voters. I expected at least one good speech. I understand that Lindsay should be cut off by the men in charge but the playwright narrowly misses an opportunity.

In a cellphone conversation, Lindsay is able to complain of feeling alone. She is hated by party members as a dissenter. Linday thinks there is one last chance to prevent the worst if Ben will reverse his security policies but she is helpless and I have no quibble with that. What is frustrating is her inability to finish a sentence. This makes her statements too repetitive and too similar in form to Ben’s uneasy incoherence.

Without support for Lindsay and her constituents, there is no opposition to the extreme right-wing politics that Ben and Becker represent. Democracy is deeply flawed because our representatives are often weak and stupid like Ben or corrupted by power and ideology like Becker or powerless like Lindsay.

I will be watching for Adam Burgess’s next play. He is very young, voted Edmonton’s “Best Artistic prodigy,” by Vue Magazine. Am I envious of his ability to write this tight, dramatic play at any age? You betcha.

Photo Ethics on FaceBook

This little blog is anonymous and the photos posted are usually of me or of people at public panels or events where they should not expect anonymity. FaceBook is another matter.

I used FaceBook to post pictures of people taken at parties. It was nice to allow my local and overseas friends to ‘see’ each other indirectly. Digital photo albums are convenient but what about people who do not wish to have their name put to their picture online? FaceBook has a feature which allows you to ‘tag’ people’s photos. That means even the well-meaning person who posts an album of pictures without names risks having them identified at a later date.

Does this mean the fun of a FaceBook photo album is unethical? Most people like to see themselves online but what about the minority who don’t? I don’t see how you can get permission to post photos from everyone at a party – unless you make people sign a waiver at the door.

This matters to me because I got on FaceBook mainly to share photos. Now I’m considering taking my pictures down and closing my account.

If anybody is out there, I’d like to hear your opinions. What should be done with our photos? What shouldn’t? And should FaceBook get rid of the ‘tag’ feature so that people can say ‘yes’ to their photo but ‘no’ to having their name attached.

The Globe and Mail — “The Face of Chinese Cost-Cutting”

Today’s Globe reports that Chinese citizens are dying due to toxic contaminants in their food and medicines and that Chinese authorities are unwilling to make companies pay for their infractions. Guo Ping, whose young daughter Liu Sichen was killed by contaminated antibiotics, complained that the authorities “don’t think that ordinary people are important.” No investigation was made as to the cause of her death.

The Globe says cancer has become the number one killer in China due to pollution, contaminated foods and the non-regulation of industry. It could happen here too, if we are not vigilant in protecting the rights of the individual and the rights of the Earth. Now there’s an idea…

Defining the Earth as a being with legal rights is a concept worth considering. If the Earth were a legal entity the way a corporation is, it could sue. It would have a legal right to protection. It might even stand a chance against the humans who grow astronomically each day, both in numbers and in their consumption of natural resources. If the Earth had a right to some of the profits made off its back, those profits could be used to undo some of the damage caused by human activity.

There has to be a way of making human life on earth sustainable without sacrificing the advantages of modernity. Individuals need to think in the long term and rally others to exert their democratic rights within their own countries as well as supporting international organizations who would have the power to prosecute and mete out penalties against environmental offenders. Think of it as a war crimes tribunal, in the war against Earth’s profit-minded persecutors.

Here is a link to the original article, while it lasts: Chinese Cost-Cutting

For an analysis of the laws which protect corporate rights and profits, I highly recommend the documentary series, The Corporation. Isn’t it odd that something as important and fragile as our planet has less rights than a corporation?

Crispy crunchy return

Thanks to “Anonymous” for your comment. This is a site on the Internet that could have been designed for me. Use it to name your own cereal. I’ve chosen the obvious but you don’t have to.

Try the link and litter your blogs with your own crispy, crunchy confections: http://www.cerealfreak.com/

Irreverent and Moral Reviews

L’Apocalypse à Kamloops:

The Théâtre Français de Toronto does a lot of unique, interesting stuff. They do the usual French favorites, of course. If you like interesting takes on classic comedies by Molière, this is your theatre. It’s also a good way to see the latest Michel Tremblay plays. Best of all, they do new material.

The latest foray, L’Apocalypse à Kamloops, is about a family with 25 hours left to live. An urbane angel and her earthy apprentice are given the job of helping them resolve their conflicts and redeem themselves before an enormous asteroid hits the Earth.

I am a fan of absurd theatre but after reading Albert CamusThe Myth of Sisyphus in my lonely dorm room, overlooking Mount Saint Victoire in Aix-en-Provence, and watching or reading the classics: Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard etc. I often find new absurd plays to be beside the point.

Yes, Atheism exists. Yes, our lives could be completely random, ordered only by human and natural forces with no ulterior motives to influence us from a higher plane. In fact, Heaven and Hell could just be stories people have made up and told each other because the alternative, that we are just animals like any others, without prospects for life-after-death, is too painful to accept. Worse still, if it’s true we have no excuse for what we are doing to the planet and no right to mess things up for other animals because our rights are not superior to theirs.

[Start of impassioned rant.]

In fact, opposing comforting religious beliefs might be the best thing we could do for the Earth and it’s non-human residents, but only if we linked this movement to a feeling of dire personal responsibility: No excuses, no afterlife, no divine intervention when things go too far — just a moral obligation to correct our wrongs ourselves, to forgive each other, to make the world a cleaner, more peaceful place because this world is all we have.

[End of impassioned rant.]

In writing, L’Apocalypse à Kamloops, Stephan Cloutier sidesteps the trap of derivative absurdism by looking at the incongruities of modern life within a framework that postulates a higher power. For him, angels are beings much like humans with vanities and frailties similar to our own, who struggle to influence peoples’ decisions within a scientifically sound universe that includes life on other planets. Contemporary French Canadians are not adrift in an absurdist, godless universe, but they must still face facts: Our short lifespans are dwarfed by eternity and the vastness of the (possibly multiple) universe(s). It’s cleverly updated absurdism for our multifaith, scientifically sophisticated times and I found it very funny indeed.

Truth and Reconciliation

Guy Mignault, in discussion with the audience after the preview, made an interesting point. He said that in theatre, by playing different roles, you are able to understand how people can do terrible things. He gives the example of a father locking his daughter up in a nunnery, a practice common enough in Molière’s day but which we would consider a violation of human rights.

Could we, by putting ourselves into the shoes of those who commit evil acts, prevent them from reoccurring? Can forgiveness and understanding heal the perpetrators as well as the victims? It’s a question that returns to me as I have recently finished reading Country of my Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa by Antjie Krog. It’s such a hard, poetic, factual book. It made me cry in public places, losing and gaining faith in humanity by turns. Anyone interested in ant-racist anything should read it. I just find it impossible to review Krog’s work in an objective way.

Krog is able to depict the stress-induced illnesses and daily horror experienced by those serving or reporting on South African Truth and Reconciliation because she was there. Her writing is up to the task, as is her analysis but her experiences nearly break her, and many her fellow journalists. Rending, painful, necessary. Who needs fiction?

The End — Lemony Snicket

I have read The End. Lemony Snicket had me hooked from the very first page of The Bad Beginning, the first installment of his novel series about the Baudelaire orphans. Although his series lost some freshness for me in the middle, The Carnivorous Carnival, for example, felt like it was following the Snicket ‘formula,’ they all remain fun to read. I was afraid that the resolution of the conspiracy, in book thirteen, would be a let down. The End does not disappoint, although it is not especially happy.

This is a kid’s book, so I won’t judge it mostly on adult terms, but Snicket’s style offers unique formal elements that are the main part of his appeal for me. I love the faux-gothic atmosphere, metatextual humour, quirky definitions and baby Sunny’s poetic exclamations.

These books are an exercise in style but they also ask philosophical questions at a level children can relate to: Can bad things ever be justified? Can good people do bad things without becoming corrupt? How far should we trust our leaders? Are peace and consensus the most important values? Is community safety worth saving at any price? Is there good and evil in all of us? I could keep going but I’m sure, as an adult reader, these are not new questions for you.

The Baudelaire childrens’ guilt for crimes they have committed, in order to survive, becomes an imprtant theme in The End. At the same time the villain, Count Olaf, is humanized by a heroic act before he dies. It is satisfying to read a story for children which challenges a black and white view of ethics. Young people need debates of this kind as an antidote to the simplistic values and “group-think” some social leaders and organizations would have young people embrace.

In a time when no one should feel complacent or completely innocent of the war, terrorism and genocide that makes up our modern reality, it’s nice to see Snicket bring some “shades of grey” into children’s literature. We must acknowledge even our enemies to be our equals as human beings, with rights and motivations just like us. This is the best way to prevent future atrocities, but it is a lesson that must be taught again with each generation and in each community. One day our children will run the world. They will need to make nuanced judgments if they are to understand and, hopefully, improve it.

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart — by Lydia Millet

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart begins with the type of premise I love. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard are transported, at the moment of the first nuclear test, to contemporary New Mexico. They are discovered by a librarian, Ann, who at first refuses to believe she has seen “dead physicists.”

Lydia Millet’s latest novel takes a unique approach to the story of The Bomb. First off, the time-travelling these “dead” men do does not alter past history. One of the most touching sequences in the book is a pilgrimage they make to Japan. The physicists visit a museum dedicated to victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“The bomb” remains the definitive human invention because it is capable of wiping out all our civilizations. I admired the poetry of Hiroshima Mon Amour (book and film) and The Ash Garden, but Millet distinguishes herself with humour. The human condition is progressive, hopeless, inspiring, wrong-headed, tragic, heroic, and, looked at the right way, very funny. Millet allows us to laugh and care at the same time.

A stunning piece of world-building, this book applies research like paint. I mean, these “dead physicists” are here but where do they stay? What do they eat? Ben, Ann’s adoring husband, ends up housing entities he doesn’t believe in. Ann shouldn’t believe, rationally, but still finds that she does. This book is about faith on so many levels, including broad satire of certain sects of the Christian Right and their support of the Military Industrial Complex.

A few incidents are predictable. It was no surprise when the highly militarized Christian leadership came out in favour of nukes as a means of bringing Armageddon. Good thing this isn’t an old-fashioned suspense novel.

Millet’s book is modern. She embeds non-fiction sections into the larger story. I appreciated her facts on current-day military spending, historical casualties, and international bomb-testing. Reading a novel is like travelling alongside the author from cover to cover. How pleasant it is to be entertained on the journey but how much better to feel one has learned something too.