Creative confidence – totally lacking in today’s schools?

I’ve done talks at a fair few schools recently. I’ve written about what I’ve found before (see here) and some of those same concepts of a lack of creative confidence keep appearing. It all makes me wonder – is it worth it? Should I be bothering at all?

When I ask the audience (of 14 to 18 years olds), “what would you do with a billion pounds?” they manage to answer it, just, but in such a low level way.

“Buy a car” was one boy’s answer.

“What sort of car?” I asked.

“I dunno”

“What about one of those small bubble cars?”

“No way!”

“What then?”

After a big pause he said, embarrassed, “A BMW”

“Ah, one of the small BMWs”

“No way, a great big one.”

“So, you do know” I said. “Why didn’t you know that you knew? Why didn’t you write down ‘A big BMW’?”

One other girl said, in all seriousness, she would by “A book”. A billion pounds and she’d by a book.

“What book?” I said.
“I dunno”

Reading this you’ll probably laugh and say ‘that’s teenagers for you’. But I’m not sure that it is, or rather that it should be.

The question is of course testing imagination and barriers to thinking about what we want and what we deserve.

One teacher questioned my approach of attempting to ‘inspire the students to think big, break out of artificial boundaries and claim their future’ saying that they were quite capable of that and really what they needed was to knuckle down and concentrate and that my message negated hard work and academic study.

What would be the point of booking a speaker on Creativity and Brilliance for them to say “you’ve got to get your head down and study” – that’s the schoolsjob. I have to assume they’re doing her job and I can build my message on top.

It was announced this week on the news that on average 70 graduates apply for every graduate job. Companies will not even look at anyone who has less than a 2:1 degree. My theme is not that hard work and study are not important, the opposite in fact that you need to perform even better than before, but that great qualifications are no longer enough ON THEIR OWN. And that creativity is what will be the deciding factor if everyone has the same high standard.

So are children confident with their creativity? Are they able to unleash it and use it to be brilliant, to better solve problems and further themselves and their careers?

I’m not so sure. When I do any of my creativity games at schools, fun tests to see who’s paying attention and who recognises boundaries to their creativity, they all fall for it, everytime. They’re all so eager to please that they don’t have any thoughts of their own without thinking about the answer they think the teacher (or in this case me) is looking for. When I do the same routines for business we have good fun with the games and occasionally people see through them. But when the children stand there in my orange hula hoop, terrified to step out of it in case they ‘do it wrong’ I feel that imagination, thinking big and identifying boundaries is needed by them more than any generation I’ve ever worked with.

This raises the question of how far I can go without appearing to tread on teachers or the system’s toes. I don’t think I do, but anyone who has a particular bee in their bonnet may feel that I do.

If you see me do the hoop thing you’ll see that I say we need to get rid of the artificial self imposed limitations that constrains us but we are still bound by the walls of the room – the real boundaries and we need to know what those real boundaries are in order to be fully creative. I use sport as an example: without following the rules you can’t play the game. I make a big point of saying that everyone has unbounded ‘creativity’, not ability. What we all chose to do, what we’re all eventually capable of, is different. Only an idiot would say “you can do anything”.

If you look at the lyrics of my closing song it says: “You’ve got to do everything that you can” not “You can do anything that you want”. There’s a key difference there.

Schools by their nature have to operate like sausage factories. My message is anti-sausage factory, it’s an add-on to what schools do, it’s what they can’t do. At the end of the day, I’m talking about creativity, not about being normal. I’m talking about standing out and standing up, not about being the same. To do that I have to be a maverick, I have to be a loose canon, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing the job right.

We’re dealing with a changing world. The only thing we can be certain of is that things will change, and at a faster pace too. I think that systems, like schools, don’t like that and try to fight it.

My message is that if we can teach our children one thing, it needs to be that they are able to cope with change. We need to make sure they learn how to learn. And that’s what creativity is.

My opinion is that the schools may not want it, but our school children certainly need it.

(Read more here)

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14 comments on “Creative confidence – totally lacking in today’s schools?

  1. I could not put my blackberry down! I’m not sure anyone can answer how far you can go without stepping on toes(because you probaly will and have, but that is part of stepping outside of the box, it’s how you deal with it is key. What you do is worth it, I think kids(younger and older) need someone like yourself more than ever. I wish I knew how to leave you a link to my blog about creativity(via blacberry?), but you’d see what I mean, experiences from myself and my kids! Bottom line, there is a need for you to continue, maybe with even younger kids and maybe even teacher colleges(there is a misconception that there is no time for creativity). Thanks for writing and doing!


  2. Very interesting write up. I asked my 7.5 yr old daughter what she would do with a billion pounds, she said she would buy a massive house with a massive TV.
    When I asked my 14.5 yr old son, he replied “dunno” let me think about it”

    I would like a massive house with 20 acres and excellent hacking!


  3. Great article Ayd and supports alot of research about yp. I read in one book that this new generation has big dreams but no understanding of how they can achieve them. I think their self esteem is often high but has real blackspots where they are like rabbits in the headlights. Frozen by a lack of creativity and courage to see things through so the result of that is “I don’t want to fail so I’ll do very little”

    Scary times in a way but then I wonder what I was like when I was 15!!

    Ah the joy of schools work:)



  4. I totally agree with all your comments. Having run some industry taster sessions over the past few years, it is distressing to see how little motivation and aspiration the kids show. Some of it can be put down to an extreme desire to ‘fit in’ and not say or do anything that can be singled out by their peers as appearing to be different or to stand out from the herd and be labelled a ‘boff’ or a ‘swot’ and many will harbour secret ideas and desires which they long to express. Somehow the schools system encourages this attitude and often I have seen teachers join in with the jeering and put-downs, or at least condone them – it helps them keep control as unaspirational kids are easier to manage. I am disgusted that many teachers still keep control via sarcasm, just like they did when I was at school a million years ago…


  5. This article raises a number of implicit issues, which have so far gone unchallenged, and which I don’t feel are really to do with creativity. Firstly I think what you are describing is a lack of personal authority. Not quite the same as creative confidence. You don’t comment on the type of school. I’m assuming you have been in state schools. I wonder because I have similar experiences – but the exception was when I spoke in a private school. Children were much more likely to suggest ideas that displayed lateral and visionary thinking. With much higher staff to pupil ratios at this particular school (I:5 ish) compared with most state schools (1:30 ish). I put this down to personal tutoring and perhaps what we might call ‘life coaching’ in any other setting. Compliance is more difficult to achieve in larger classes, so perhaps the importance of control is the name of the game.

    Secondly, asking them what they would do with a billion pounds is an invitation to spend. I would struggle with this because its outside the scope of my comfort spend. I would need at least a day to roughly work out how to invest and give away that lot wisely, and then I’d need paid for advice as well. I’m being serious though. When you and I have worked together you used to ask ‘what would you do if you couldn’t fail?’ This question is better I feel. Why don’t you ask it any more?

    In university settings with undergraduates, this question, as I remember, had the effect of young people initially buying football clubs and islands etc., (to much ‘egging on’ and high excitement in the room…) but then students became altogether more philosophical and realised that if they actually couldn’t fail they could secure world peace, find a cure for cancer and eradicate poverty. In this context a billion pounds doesn’t touch the sides.


  6. I agree on one level. But I have to say that the young generation have been brought up in a world of no boundaries and I mean that in terms of the digital age. And I have found that they are incredibly creative when it comes to inventing and working with technology. It’s as if the over 25s think in terms of boxes and those under don’t acknowledge a box exists in this genre.


  7. our current school systems do not encourage such teachers who want to experiment – they want only people who conform to rules and stunt the imagination of creative students! what a pity!


    • Some schools don’t some schools do-I agree that some teachers would be put off by a system which is restrictive and statistics focused but I am employed in a mainstream school and work with drama, creative writing, film, art, music and photography to inspire and engage young people. I regularly deliver insets to school and staff who are very supportive IF evidence is provided that students are improving attendance and behaviour alongside good academic results and gaining creative skills. True our system which is predominantly performative has a long way to go before we accept and promote the value of arts and creativity in its own right but that’s not to say good projects aren’t running and fantastically creative teachers employed – I know there are lots at my school.


    • What a pity that this is what you think of teachers, Sajeev! There are bad teachers as there are bad doctors, lawyers, politicians, office workers, gardeners, factory workers. But those who go into teaching do it because they want to make a difference and on the whole, they do. Generalisations don’t help.

      Aydin, you need to spend a little more time in classrooms as a teacher, not a guest speaker – why not volunteer some time as a helper? You turned up in a class, ran a workshop and got annoyed when it didn’t turn out as you wanted. And then you took your fee and left for the next school. But you aren’t the one who has to spend time with those kids, get to know them and what they need and how to help them. How creative can they get in an hour or two – and then you blame their teachers when they don’t?

      I think you might have been better to ask kids what they would do with a million dollars. Hell, even *I* wouldn’t know how to answer a question about a billion dollars and I’m a writer myself. I get creative for money. How do you expect children to do it? After first reading this post, I did the exercise with my class, using the million, not billion dollar question – and that worked. And I was touched by how unselfish their responses were. Invariably, they wanted to help their families, donate to charity and, in one case, the girl said she would send her parents to Mecca, something they clearly dreamed of but can’t afford. I did all this, by the way, in one fifty-minute period, with about forty minutes to do it after explaining what was required.


      • Thanks for the comment, but I see no need to be so defensive. I’ve run the exercise in numerous ways and had some wonderful results. But that original post was about a certain trend that perhaps I’ve too heavily sanitised in the post. There are good schools and bad schools and great teachers and appalling teachers and then there’s the ‘system’ that good and bad teachers have to work with. If I revealed some of the things I’ve seen by visiting kids in deprived areas and kids in affluent areas it would perhaps paint a better picture of the point I was originally trying to make.

        And I do volunteer in schools and run music and creative writing lessons, including with kids kicked out of schools for violent and criminal behaviour who have been shunned by society.

        I don’t think my original post was accusatory towards teachers such as yourself and don’t know why you’ve made so many assumptions from such scant evidence in the post, which was more a case of raising the issue and asking the question of ‘do we allow children’s confidence to flourish?’ rather than saying that I have all the answers, which I know I don’t.


  8. Whilst it is true that there are fundamental problems with the education system that negate creativity, spontaneity and flexibility, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible as part of the school system. I agree with the previous poster that the issue of confidence (assuming you can’t fail) and thinking laterally (imaginatively) might be needed more than just being able to think of something to spend a great deal of money on. Some young people who don’t have particularly well off families will, as you suggest, simply pick an item that they want but can’t have (eg a book) whilst others who are financially very comfortable might struggle to think of something they want at all because at 14, the latest clothes an iPhone and some iTunes vouchers pretty much covers it.
    I disagree that the current generation are incapable of creativity (as I’m sure you do) and as a teacher myself have witnessed creativity in abundance in the Drama classroom and on art and music projects, particularly from students who, across the board, may be struggling to engage. What I have found in almost all cases is that successful engagement with creativity absolutely relies on rapport (a trusting relationship of mutual respect with the teacher) good peer relationships (because the impact of what they think their mates will say is enormous and probably hugely affected their responses to you) and relevancy and challenge of content (for example when I asked 8 teenagers to take a portrait photo, edit them to reveal something about the subject’s personality and then use scissors, paints, pens and glue to “destroy” the artwork to extend this message, the results were inspiringly creative, going far beyond my expectations & receiving praise from famous photographer Rankin amongst others.
    The key to success was that the students wanted to please me (as you suggest) but I didn’t frame this as the wrong thing and force them away from this but embraced it and encouraged it, using this tendency to fuel the student’s commitment to the work, and over time, they became as attached to the work and their pride in it as they were to me at the start of the project.
    When we created an exhibition of student work the students created advertising promoted the event, wrote to staff to invite them and bought food and drinks for the guests. They elected to wear smart formal clothing and serve guests drinks and nibbles and beamed from beginning to end, one student summed it up when he said “I didn’t know I could do work that was this good and I’m really proud of it”
    Students are more than capable of being creative when the conditions are right (the same is true for adults of course). Te challenge for schools is to create these conditions and channel the creativity as part of the learning, not as a bolt on.


  9. I would argue, from my 57 years of experience in life, and work in a number of businesses, that we have altogether too much creativity. Let me be a devil’s advocate, if you will. A very serious one. And slightly cynical. But then, well, if you knew more, you might know why….

    1. Bernie Madeoff Creative dude, no? Cost the US $72 Billion dollars, and it will likely cost another $72 Billion dollars to straighten out the mess. And he was not the only one! How much of this can ANY economy take?

    2. Those creative US bankers with those nifty computer split-up and packaged junk investments they were selling! They crashed the entire economy. (They did this a few years ago with “Derivatives”. Same computer software. But the economy was more resilient and recovered faster.) Then there were the very creative and speculative boys on Wall Street. They did a number in London, too. Heck, globally! What fun! And no one has ever gone after them. It is not lack of laws, or lawyers, or courts, or evidence. It is lack of willpower or a sense of justice on the part of our VERY creative politicians. INDEED: They have been very creative in finding excuses NOT to prosecute these people! How nice! Yet, if a kid posts some sarcastic silly comment on Facebook, as kids are wont to do, why they have lots of time, creativity, and resources to want to drag him off to jail for 5 years!

    3. Every couple of years Microsoft, rather than repair it’s O/S, cobbles up a whole new one with more bugs, from scratch. Very creative. Planned obsolescence. A very creative way to get more money, too. Detroit did that for a few years, with their shoddy products, planned obsolescence, and poor customer service. They were so creative, they nearly all went bankrupt. (And should have gone under.) Toyota was so creative not long ago, that they had a major scandal. But then … brakes on cars. This is a very recent technical development. We nevver had brakes on cars before 2010, I think… Disclaimer: I do use MS software. I eschew Apple for a number of reasons. I have owned GM’s and Chryslers. I now drive a Nissan. Why? I have no idea. when i came to buy a car, it was there, I guess. And am I wholly loyal to Nissan? No.

    4. Every couple of years Mirthcosoft completely re-does their Popular Office package. So if you are a serious user who has created macros, button bars, templates, etc… Too bad for you! You can start to relearn to re-use the whole dammed package from scratch. It does cut into your productivity, but who cares? The only purpose of computers IS to waste time. Ummm… We’re talking about spreadsheets and documents here, folks. Why make it complicated? I have seen some of the other “suites”. They are not much better.

    5. Meanwhile, speaking of wasting time, I know of an otherwise half way decent teacher who had NO IDEA of what to do with her students! So they went around the school and did videos on their cell phones to be “creative”! One of the best video was on drinking fountains!!! Well, it is not like we would want them to teach the little darlings to read, write, and count! She has been teaching for 20 years! Might I ask what the kids learned from that? Are they all going to be going to become the next George Lucas’s? I doubt it. And at any rate, even if they do, I do not think they will be using cell phones to film the next Waterworld!

    6. Meanwhile, I know a number of businesses who have a hard time finding, hiring, and keeping employees. One is a small contractor. Some of these jobs pay fairly well. But, he has trouble finding and keeping good staff. He finds older workers slow, but more loyal. And careful.

    Another fellow, is in HVAC. Tinsmiths he could not find. He replaced them, to some extent with machines. Of course, if you need something custom made, which often happens… Good Luck! Good installers of heating and cooling systems he has a hard time finding. He could grow his business if he could get a few more good crews. And repair and maintenance people? Well, good ones are gold. His shop is non union, he pays a very good wage, and there is a health care plan, and you can buy into a pension system, run by a reputable insurance company. He has as many apprentices as he can handle. But, good competent people are not being turned out of our schools and colleges.

    A sales agency I know of, had trouble finding good salespeople. True, the equipment they sell, is specialized.

    Another company does road work. We do roadwork all the time in northern Canada. See, we have this thing called climate… with real weather. They have problems finding people, too.

    Yet another firm cannot find good nursing staff. They go help seniors and others who have problems taking their medications, and so forth….

    I know a senior lady, a diabetic. I will not discuss all her handicaps here. But I can tell you: She is on a regime where they measure her blood sugar 4 times a day, and cue the proper insulin dose based on those numbers. One of the requirements of using insulin, is that the person must eat a small amount of food, within 15 minutes of taking the injection. The staff who visit, are all highly trained and educated and experienced. They all have smartphones. Presumably they are all very creative! None can make a SIMPLE meal! They only know how to make an egg sandwich in the morning, or a toasted tomato and lettuce sandwich at other times. Then they wonder why she is not hungry….

    HERE! Be creative, sir! Live on toasted tomato and lettuce sandwiches for a month or so! I am sure you will enjoy it, and declare it the only meal you will evver want to eat! See, it is not a matter of creativity that is lacking. it is a matter of getting the job done.

    As for the old lady, I try go over as often as I can, to make something for her. No, I do not make “Chateau Brillant”. But a hot dog and a salad, or a hamburger and a salad, or a stir fry and a salad, or pork chops and veggies, are a welcome change, she says. Sometimes, I will take her out for fish and chips, or i will go get a pizza.

    Me creative? HAH! No. And I do not even know how to turn on a smart phone. Or do a video. But I do know how to take care of the lady’s feet, food, shopping, and banking. It does not pay. She cannot afford much. But I know, when I’m laid to my rest, that my heart….

    I could go on and on! And I know of these things not only in Canada, but also in the USA and Europe. (I am partly disabled, so I spend a lot of time on the web.)

    I do not think we need a million more George Lucas’s and a million more programmers. We do not need a new smartphone every 6 months. We do not need new laws. We could start enforcing (fairly, honestly) the ones we have.

    I do know we will always need trades people, of all kinds. But the schools do not teach about this. (Have they never heard of these jobs?) And sales people. And nurses and attendants. And a lot of other jobs. But we have NO schools capable of training people, apparently. And asking young people to make change in the store now-a-days? Without a machine? No way.

    Everybody seems to want to be on the ground floor of “THE NEXT BIG THING!” I have seen that before: Hula hoops, pet rocks, Junk bonds, and so on. As far as I can see, that is likely to be the extinction of homo-sapiens. We have destroyed the planet. And you know, the extinction of homo-sapiens, from a planetary viewpoint, might just be a good thing. And the way things are going in the Middle East, I can tell you one thing we WILL need, soon. “Cannon Fodder”. And undertakers. Unless we creatively blow all of ourselves to hell. Then we will not need any of that. The roaches will take care of everything for us. Roaches are VERY competent. They have been around for 450 million years. Not overly creative, but VERY competent.

    We have PLENTY of creativity. Indeed, we create and produce too much. What we need, is, perhaps, some wiser consumption…. and management. Suppose… What if we were all creators and producers of, say, music, we would all starve. And we would not listen to music. Why? Why would I need yours, if I am making my own? We would, instead, be desperate for an audience. Think about it. The world needs all types. And all work has value and worth. If it were not needed, it would not be done. I did not say that. I think Chairman Mao said something very similar to that. Oh, you probably do not like him. I was not in love with him, myself. But how many of you have managed something of the size, population, and complexity of China?

    As for asking anyone under 26 what they would do with a billion dollars, pounds, or anything…. They have not the life experience yet to know what to do. It is not creativity that is lacking. They can create a hundred LOL-cats in 10 minutes. It is experience. Any one who can tell you what to do with a billion anything in less than 10 minutes, may be creative. But useful? To consider what to do with a billion, of anything, kind sir, takes a little while and some planning. And let me tell you this: If you have no hope or expectation of dealing with a billion of anything, do not waste your time at it. It might be creative, but of little use. Far better to make wise use of the resources one has in hand.

    Here is an experiment worth doing: Give someone $20. Actually give it to them. Then ask what they would do with it. You will see plenty of ideas. But here is the ultimate test, here, is the catch, the crux: Making WISE use of it….

    I used to work in income tax. People would do a “cash back”, where they would sell their tax refund. They wanted/needed the money today. So if they had an $800 refund, they might sell it for $500. This included the tax return preparation, forms, et all. They viewed this as a good deal. Far better to sell $800 for $500, than wait 3 or 4 months. (If you know a little of the Maths of Finance you will be horrified.) Sometimes they had a desperate reason: Need for medicine (NOT drugs), or car or house repairs. And they had no other way to get the money quickly. Them, I felt sorry for. But then there were the ones who did not know it was their own money they were getting as a refund. And why sell? TO HAVE A PARTY! Creative? Yes. (They would tell me of elaborate plans!) Practical, no!

    Do kindly think about all this. No, I have not got all the answers for the problems of society today. At any rate, you write a lot of good stuff. And you asked for ideas and debate. I dare say I have furnished some grist for the mill. Enjoy.

    And of course, as always take care.


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