The most-viewed TED Talk of all time is more than a decade old. This is not just a testament to its popularity at the time, but the longevity of its relevance.
It’s called “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” and it has been viewed over 49 million times.
The speaker is Ken Robinson, creativity expert, former university professor, and author of The Element, a book of interviews with people like Richard Branson, Paul McCartney, and Arianna Huffington on how they discovered their talent.
The talk itself is full of funny and poignant stories, but one in particular stands out.
It’s the origin story of Gillian Lynne, someone, Robinson points out, not a lot of people have heard of but whose work everyone knows. She’s the choreographer behind Cats and Phantom of the Opera, among others.
Gillian didn’t start out a massive success. In fact, when she was 8 years old, in the 1930s, her school wrote to her parents to tell them they thought Gillian had a learning disorder.
“I think now they’d say she had ADHD. Wouldn’t you?” Robinson says. “But this was the 1930s, and ADHD hadn’t been invented at this point. It wasn’t an available condition.”
So Gillian’s mother did what you do: She took her daughter to a specialist. In an oak-paneled room, Gillian was placed in a chair. She sat on her hands for 20 minutes while the doctor and her mother discussed her problems: She was disturbing people at school, her homework was always late, etc.
Finally, the specialist turned to Gillian. He said, “I’ve listened to all these things your mother’s told me; I need to speak to her privately. Wait here. We’ll be back; we won’t be very long.”
The two adults went to leave the room. As they did, the doctor turned on the radio. Once out, he turned to Gillian’s mother and said, “Just stand and watch her.”
Like magic, as soon as they’d left, Gillian was up on her feet, moving to the music. She didn’t have to sit on her hands anymore — she could fully express herself, in the way that came most naturally to her.
They stood watching for a few minutes until the doctor turned to her mother:
“Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick … she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”
So she did. Gillian’s mother took her out of her traditional school and brought her to a dance school. Upon arriving, Gillian later said, “I can’t tell you how wonderful it was. We walked in this room and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.”
People who had to move to think.
Gillian Lynne went on to become a member of the Royal Ballet; contribute to some of the most famous musical theater productions in history; expand dance history; and make millions of dollars. In 2014, at the age of 87, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
And, as Robinson pointed out, “Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.”
According to the CDC, approximately 11 percent of children aged 4 to 17 years have been diagnosed with ADHD — a percentage that climbs every year.
That’s nearly one in 10.
For three years, I worked with some of them. As a private tutor in New York City, I was, over and over, assigned students whom the system had deemed ADHD.
We’ll call one of them Nathan. He was a brilliant, fun, and athletically talented 13-year-old kid who hated writing papers. Reading chapters about U.S. history and then constructing a thesis paper wasn’t his strong suit; it was all I could do to keep him in his chair while we went over the material (remind you of anyone?).
But that same weekend, he spent four hours straight constructing an intricate skateboard, with parts that pivoted and moved — a feat of engineering he helped design himself. He did the research, executed on it, and enjoyed the results. He did it basically effortlessly.
My point is this: There was nothing wrong with Nathan’s ability to concentrate, and there was nothing wrong with Gillian Lynne’s.
Robinson makes a convincing argument in the most popular TED talk of all time that intelligence is multifaceted and includes creativity, and we take a major risk in squandering it if we educate people the wrong way.
Some people need to move to think. Some need to build things with their hands. Others need to sing, or play the piano, or both. Not everyone learns in the same way, and not everyone thinks in the same way.
The cost of not honoring this is, quite frankly, dangerous. Why? Because our current educational system systematically disenfranchises kids like Nathan and Gillian, which causes extraordinary damage to girls’ and boys’ self-esteem (effects that lead to issues of anxiety and depression that can last decades or an entire lifetime).
Plus, and perhaps the more pressing issue, as Robinson points out, is this: If we are to survive the next few decades–if we are to solve massive, species-threatening issues such as climate change, deal with fundamental shifts in the global financial market, and navigate things like artificial intelligence and the rise of robots–it will be by harnessing the creativity and skills of all members of our population. Not just those who happen to excel in a school system that was designed to churn out people ready to work in factories.
I cannot recommend this talk enough. Not just because it’s funny and wise and poignant, but because it’s also a good reminder for all of us:
When it comes to intelligence, it’s not all in your head.
– article credit Melanie Curtin for www.inc.com