A Look at a Book: Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative

I am very excited about this post, because it is my first complete book review in several years. I hope that you enjoy it.

Last week I posted an incredible and widely lauded TEDTalk by Sir Ken Robinson. This week, I will be reviewing his book Out of Our MindsLearning to Be Creative. I have actually been trying to read this book for a couple of years now. It isn’t that the book hasn’t been interesting; it has been so interesting that it has never failed to propel my personal research in new directions. But I have been determined to review this book for the blog, so I decided to make an honest effort to actually finish it.

Ken Robinson begins this book by pointing out that companies have been desperate to find people who are creative and innovative, but it is simply hard to find such people. He states that the problem originates in the structure and focus of the education system. People learn and think in many different ways, but education systems only focus on two: propositional knowledge, or an ability to remember and recall information; and logico-deductive reasoning, or an ability to see a sequence of ideas and figure out how the sequence progresses (pg. 61). Robinson asserts that our entire view of intelligence is based on these two skills. He states:

“For generations, children and students have spent most of their time writing essays, doing comprehension exercises, taking tests of factual information, and learning mathematics: on activities that involve propositional knowledge and forms of logico-deductive reasoning. Some lessons promote other sorts of ability. Most schools have art lessons and some music, perhaps playing an instrument or being in a choir; and sport. Some subjects, including technology, have a practical element. But practical subjects are typically at the margins of formal education. The main forms of assessment are still written examinations that test factual knowledge and critical analysis” (pg 64).

After an overview of how Western education systems developed, Robinson challenges the assumption that propositional knowledge and logico-deductive reasoning alone should be the standard by which people are viewed as intelligent or not. He makes the case that not only are there many forms of intellectual capacity, but that everyone is intelligent in their own way because everyone has their own natural abilities and strengths. He states:

“Does all of this mean that no one can be thought of as more intelligent than anyone else? Clearly not. But the idea of plural intelligence means we have to recast the question. Some people have high abilities in many areas, music, mathematics, verbal reasoning, visual representation, and so on. We typically think of such people as renaissance figures. But we should hesitate to describe a philosopher with strong abilities in deductive reasoning alone as more intelligent than a person with equally high abilities in musical composition or performance. This is not an argument against rationalist abilities or academic achievement, it is for an expanded concept of intelligence that includes but goes beyond them. If we fail to promote a full sense of people’s abilities through education and training, as we have done for generations, some – perhaps most – will never really discover what their real intellectual capacities are. In a crucial sense they never really know who they are or what they might become” (pg 109).

From here, Robinson defines creativity as “a function of intelligence: it takes many forms, it draws from many different capacities and we all have different creative capabilities. Creativity is possible in any activity in which human intelligence is actively engaged” (pg 111). Robinson also stresses that “creativity involves doing something: it takes place in a medium” (pg 129). The key to unlocking creative potential is to discover the medium in which your creative intelligence can flourish. He points out, though, that the wrong medium can stifle creativity just as the right one can make it blossom.

Robinson takes us on a journey through the role of emotions in our lives. He asserts that there has been a push to be much more rational about life than emotional, but listening to our emotions can help us navigate through life: “Our emotions have powerful roles in enabling us to sense threats, dangers, pleasures, and opportunities that may be essential to our well-being” (pg 145). He states that creativity stems from many different areas of the mind, not simply the rational mind. He touches on the idea of flow, saying, “These are times when we are immersed in something that completely engages our creative capabilities and draws equally from our knowledge, feelings, and intuitive powers. These peak performances typically occur when someone is working in their element at the peak of their performance” (pg 155).

Robinson talks about the role of culture in creativity, pointing out that “creativity is stimulated by the work, ideas, and achievements of other people. This is true in all fields – in music, design, fashion, science, technology, and business. We stand on the shoulders of others to see further” (pg 171).

Robinson ends the book by providing guidelines to companies who are seeking out those with creative ability, and challenging the current education system to change the way students are taught in order to foster creativity. He says:

“Creativity depends on interactions between feeling and thinking, and across different disciplinary boundaries and fields of ideas. New curricula must be evolved which are more permeable and which encourage a better balance between generative thinking and critical thinking in all modes of understanding. Our systems of education are based on the view that intelligence is a linear process of rational thought. From this we have derived economic models of education which are equally linear…We need a new Renaissance that moves beyond these old categories and develops the relationships between different processes rather than emphasizing their differences” (pg 200-1).

As someone who is deeply concerned about the direction of our education system, this book was a great read. It brought up a lot of valid points about the state of education, but in a context different from the way the points are usually brought up. Usually education is talked about in terms of test scores going down and our ranking among other countries going down. No one seems to realize how to fix these problems except to raise standards. This book points out that the way our education system is devised has a profound impact on how we view intelligence, and this view has a profound impact on how people view themselves if they don’t measure up to that view of intelligence. It leads to the view that there are only a select few that are not only intelligent, but creative as well.

As someone who is concerned about my own personal level of creativity, this book offered many points of self reflection, especially in terms of how I am educating myself about t he topics that interest me and the connections that I am making among those topics. It was actually an affirmation for me, in a way.

Robinson has taken a great interest in the element, the medium in which people realize their creative intelligence. He has written two books about it. The first, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everythingis about how some successful people came to find their medium. The other, Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Lifeis about how to find your own element.