Are schools killing creativity?

This post will feel different to my regular readers who know my writing as personal experience accounts of Wonderland Playhouse, the children’s acting improvisation and storytelling theater I founded, and also know that I have returned to college in my fifth decade. While at university I have been researching how improvisation may be used by teachers to reimagine classrooms. This is the first of several blogs that will bridge my experience and my research.

Elementary school can be a frustrating, isolating experience for both students and teachers. Standardized testing mandated by the government was the government’s response to the 1983 report A Nation at Risk that revealed American students were pacing far behind other countries in vital content knowledge (Popham, 2004).  Testing and reporting requirements continued to increase with the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and the 2009 Obama-era Race to the Top grant tied funds and teacher success to their student’s test scores. You may know the education strategy of this period as “teaching to the test” and an entire generation of Americans have now experienced it. Standardization rewards competition, conformity and convergent skills, a thinking style defined as “deriving the single best (or correct) answer to a clearly defined question” (Cropley, 2016, p. 391), and has left young Americans deficient in creative or critical thinking skills (Omdal, 2017).

Importantly, during this same time period, business leaders repeatedly identified creativity and innovation as the most important 21st century skills (IBM, 2008; Battelle for kids). Creativity uses various processes like imagination, intuition and divergence (the offering of many answers or ideas) and, interrestingly, longitudinal divergence tests show that 98% of kindergarteners test in the genius range of divergent thinking. Four years later those same students still testing at the genius level have dwindled to 30% and the decline continues to 12% by high school, with most adults testing at around 2% (Land, 2006, 9:16–10:35Robinson, 2010, 8:50-10:00). In other words, the capacity for generating creative ideas evaporates quickly and almost entirely by the time we are adults. The lack of opportunities to develop and practice this natural ability together with its devaluation in school result in people who don’t think they are creative when, in fact, all people are creative (Robinson, 2006; Hardiman, 2016). Paradoxically, in our push to compete on global assessments, we have failed to educate students to compete in the global economy and have contributed to student disengagement, increasing behavior issues in the classroom and skyrocketing rates of physical and emotional health issues in children (Sawyer, 2010; Louv, 2008)

In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson’s 18-minute TEDTalk “Do schools kill creativity?” revealed this issue to the world and called for an education revolution. Since then, Sir Ken’s TEDTalk has been viewed 62 million times (as of this morning) and has ever since been the most popular TEDTalk. Taking into account the appeal of online videos since 2006, anyone might imagine a video by any individual (or kittens) could easily have eclipsed 62 million views, but no other TEDTalk has. In later writings, Robinson (2016) points out that high-stakes testing marginalizes other talents in education and regards those who do not excel as “’less able’ or ‘disabled’ – as deviations from the norm” (pp. 36-7), unfair labels that may cause wounding that follows students throughout their K-12 career.  Sir Ken’s presentation may have been the first time many of his 62 million viewers considered the issue of creativity in education, but it wasn’t the first time for me. (Robinson, 2006; Robinson, 1999).    

My son, Ethan, is a creative collaborator who imagines worlds. As a preschooler he oozed original character-driven epics, using everyday objects (the food on his plate, bottlecaps, or rock and sticks) as action figures, naming each one and elaborating their backstory in a constant narration that didn’t stop when he entered school. From 1st to 3rd grade his desk sat alone facing the wall (far away from his classmates who sat together) because he was a distraction to himself and others. Killing his creativity and achieving his conformity proved to be difficult. That’s when I started the Playhouse for children aged 3-13.

Can improvisation revitalize students and teachers and develop 21st century skills?

Improvisation highlights creative competencies which include listening, observation, communication, present moment focus, problem-solving, curiosity, accessing personal resources, risk-taking, failure recovery, negotiation, flexibility, humor, tolerance of the different or unusual, self-reliance, self-esteem, self-determination, and self-confidence. All of these could be considered collaborative skills and 21st century competencies. Social skills are also developed in an atmosphere play. Future blogs will explore ways teachers might use the natural process of improvisation to engage students, prepare them to meet the challenges of the future, and improve the classroom experience for everyone.

Ethan graduated high school in full possession of his creative capacities because they were loud, valued and developed at home and through music, but it was never easy for him. The tension he experienced at school created by the conflict between his natural gifts and the expectations of conformity caused physical and emotional health challenges that he shares with many of his peers. Times are changing and working with students in a creative way has made me an optimist. Listening to their ideas convinces me that young people have arrived to solve the problems of today. They already possess what is needed and there has never been a more critical time to help them. 


Battelle for Kids. P21 Partnership for 21stCentury learning. Retrieved from

Budde, Alyson. (2019, June 6). Ethan’s graduation[photograph]. Salem, OR.

Cropley, A. (2006). In Praise of Convergent Thinking. Creativity Research Journal,18(3), 391-404.

IBM (2008). Global CEO Study: The Enterprise of the Future. Retrieved from

Land, George. “The Failure of Success”. TEDx Tucson 2006, December, 2011, Tucson, Arizona. Retrieved from            

Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods : Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder (Updated and expanded. ed.). Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Miller, Stan. Blog featured image [photograph].

Omdal, Stuart N, and Graefe, Amy K. 2016. Investing in Creativity in Students, In Beghetto, Ronald A., and Kaufman, James C. Nurturing Creativity in the Classroom (394-414). Cambridge, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.

Popham, W. (2004). America’s “failing” schools : How parents and teachers can cope with No Child Left Behind. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Robinson, Ken (1999). All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education. National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education.

Robinson, Ken. “Do schools kill creativity”. TED2006. February, 2006. Monterey, California. Retrieved from

Robinson, Ken. “Changing Educational Paradigms.” At RSA Animate. October, 2010. Uploaded by

Robinson, K., & Aronica, Lou. (2016). Creative schools : The grassroots revolution that’s transforming education. New York, New York: Penguin Books.

Sawyer, R. K. (2016). Learning for Creativity. In Beghetto, R., & Kaufman, James C. (Eds.). Nurturing creativity in the classroom (172-190). Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.