Book Review: Out of Our Minds

In a complex world, we need creative solutions more than ever. Yet, the very systems that are “designed” to prepare us for the real world, the working world, instead are stripping us from or denying us access to our creative capabilities. This is the message that Sir Ken Robinson outlines in detail in his book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative*. If you have ever watched Robinson speak, you will not be too surprised what you find in the book; however, it was useful for me to get more of the details to the stories he has presented in person. I recently saw him in person at the ASTD 2013 conference.

While I read the Kindle version of the book, the hardcover book has 352 pages and is now in its second edition. Robinson covers his content in 10 chapters. In the preface, Robinson explains the reasons that he called the book, Out of Our Minds. 

  • “First, human intelligence is profoundly and uniquely creative.”
  • “Second, realizing our creative potential is partly a question of finding our medium, of being in our element.”
  • “Finally, there is a kind of mania driving the present direction of educational policy.”

Throughout the book, Robinson fairly harshly critiqued our education system, and the direction that it is going. He believes that it is crippling creativity, which in turn is hampering our developmental process. I personally agree with him. Schools, in their zeal to cater to sciences, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), are stripping art, music, theater, and fitness from the equation. In a push for standardized testing, we are developing clones that can answer multiple choice questions, but are not creative enough to develop unique solutions.

Robinson began by defining creativity and its importance to our ability to navigate in an increasingly complex and ever-changing world. He stressed that because of rapidly changing times driven by technology and population growth, we need to be able to think differently, we need to be more creative.  He pointed out many recognize our key to success will be education and learning. But he also added, “many succeeded only after they had recovered from their education” (p. 8).  Robinson noted our current education system is hampering progress because it was designed and built for a period that is long gone. We need an updated education system that serves this period and the future. Businesses are critical of the current education system because it is not producing the “thoughtful, creative, self-confident people they urgently need” (p. 15)

“Many succeeded only after they had recovered from their education.”

“If someone had told you fifteen years ago that you could sit on the beach with a small wireless telephone and search the Library of Congress, send instant mail, download music and videos, book your holidays, arrange a mortgage and check your cholesterol, you would have thought they were being ridiculous” (Chapter 2, Section: Supercharging your brain, para. 6). Robinson highlighted the rapid change of technology and our need to stay current. Technology is found in all aspects of our lives and is being used in unexpected ways with unexpected consequences. Because of technology, we are tied to a 24/7 information stream, we have the opportunity to learn from anyone, anytime, and anywhere. However, in most schools, access to technology and information is restricted; schools are clinging to a past that is no longer applicable. In chapter 3, Robinson outlined the history of education along with the challenges we currently face because of its history. “The assumption that there is a direct linear relationship between general education and subsequent employment puts schools under pressure to prioritize those subjects that seem most relevant to the economy” (Chapter 3, Section: The culture of education, para. 7). Unfortunately, disciplines such as art, music, theater, and fitness do not seem relevant to the economy and are often discarded; however, these disciplines are gateways to creativity.

In chapter 4, Robinson continued with his examination of the history of education, but also included a quick look at how various technologies caused a shift in education and learning. He explored Thomas Kuhn‘s work. Some of the periods examined included medieval world, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and others. He also explored how current changes to our education system came about. He concluded this chapter with a look at the academy. “Professors of English are not employed to produce literature: they are employed to write about it” and “Producing works of art doesn’t often count as appropriate intellectual work in an arts department” (Chapter 4, Section: Arts and Sciences, para. 7). “So why is it that in universities writing about novels is thought to be a higher intellectual calling than writing novels; or rather, if writing novels is not thought to be intellectually valid, why is writing about them?”  (Chapter 4, Section: Arts and Sciences, para. 7).

“So why is it that in universities writing about novels is thought to be a higher intellectual calling than writing novels; or rather, if writing novels is not thought to be intellectually valid, why is writing about them?”

Robinson next explored how the brain works. For me, the most important takeaway was the importance of learning about arts, language, music,and other creative subjects while young, while the brain was still flexible and developing connections. Through a number of examples, Robinson pointed out the benefits for working with both halves of the brains, as well as the challenge, when we do not engage different parts of the brain. Another lesson is the importance of supporting others on their paths of learning; it is easy to cripple a career path with only a couple of words.

In the second half of the book, Robinson focused more on the concepts of creativity, imagination, and innovation as well as ways to develop these ideas. He stressed the importance that failure had in the learning and creativity process. If we were not willing to fail, we would not be able to discover unique concepts.  It is interesting that schools certainly do not reward you for failure, and instead make you adverse to failure to the point that you do not want to take risks. How many great ideas have been stifled because of education.  Robinson believes it is important to find a medium as an outlet for creativity. He exclaimed that everyone is creative; however, we may not have yet found the right medium. “We all have creative capacities but very many people conclude that they are not creative, when in truth they have never learnt and practiced what is involved” (Chapter 6, Section: Conclusion, para. 1). Throughout the book, Robinson highlighted how people stereotype scientists and artists; one being more analytical, and the other being more emotional. In chapter 7, he poked holes in these stereotypes, and provided detail why each needed key elements of the other for the pursuit of creativity. Chapter 7 also contained detail about scholars who have been pursuing a more creative education systems such as Montessori and Dewey.

Robinson stressed the importance collaboration with others has on the creative process. A unique idea rarely is developed without the input and influence of others. He pointed out the importance of integrating with other cultures to learn and merge ideas. Again, he commented on the impact technology had on cultures and disciplines such as the arts, which resulted in new art forms. Specific examples he included were cameras, pigments, and digital representation and their impact on painting. He highlighted the impact social media and cell phones are currently having on creativity.

In chapter 9, Robinson explored the impact the organization has on creativity and innovation. As expected, organizational leadership has to set the tone. If the leadership does not believe it is important, it will not be considered important. To get the best out of people in the workplace, they must not only have the ability to do the work, but they also must have the passion. Employees must be afforded challenging assignments that help them grow. Robinson listed a number of corporations who have their own universities for the purpose of exposing employees to new ideas as well as allowing employees from different disciplines to network. Robinson stressed to hire people who are diverse and do not all think the same. Robinson also challenged us to reexamine how our workplaces are set up as well as the hours we work.

Robinson summarized his book by again looking at the purpose of education. He pointed out that most people associate education and learning with youth, school, and teachers. However, learning is a lifetime activity. Our education system should be preparing individuals for a lifetime of  learning rather than killing off the desire to learn. Our education system should be for exposing individuals to a broad range of topics in order to help them find what they are good at. Instead, we continue to narrow the scope thus we are denying individuals an opportunity to live to their true and full potential.

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” ~Socrates

I have personally been critical of our education system, especially as we narrow the scope of topics and eliminate essential topics necessary for creativity. While I believed my primary and secondary years were well balanced, I personally wish I was encouraged to participate more in the arts. All these years later, I regret having no talent. More importantly, my lack of talent in the arts is holding me back as an effective instructional technologist.

I think this book is a great resource on the topic, and provides countless argues for redesigning our schools to be more balanced. It is not as prescriptive as it could be, he leaves it up to the reader to find the answers.  Instead of specific answers, he continuously raises questions. If you are involved in education in any manner, I would read this book.


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