Learning through doing instead of listening to bloody talks

Cardboard wings

There is a TED talk by Ken Robinson called Do Schools Kill Creativity. Over the last five years I have watched it more than 20 times. It’s actually the most watched TED talk of all time.

Ken Robinson identifies that creativity should be as important as literacy in our schools. He argues that our creativity is our best hope to meet a future which we cannot foresee.

When I was asked to do this talk, I couldn’t think of anything better to say than “what Ken said”. I do think Ken Robinson would make a great Prime Minister. I would like to declare my love for him. The best bit of advice you’ll get from me is to watch his talk.

Did you know that when you get asked to do a TED talk, to help you prepare, you get sent the 11 must-see TED talks of all time. I think someone at TED must have worked out that it’s a really good way to settle the nerves of future speakers.

You know, someone could have thought, let’s send future speakers the 11 biggest blunders in TED history. Maybe it will boost their confidence. But no, you get sent a set of rules about how, basically, to make your talk perfect.

By the time I’d watched 11 people walking around talking fluently, with a mic strapped to their head, I just thought, I haven’t got anything to say. And why on earth did I agree to do this anyway?

But the other thing it made me realise, watching all these great talks, is that up until this point I had never watched another TED talk from start to finish, except for Ken Robinson’s one.

Not because the people who give the talks aren’t brilliant. Not because their ideas aren’t excellent. But because I find myself getting overwhelmed with the sheer wealth of good ideas.

At latest count, there are around 93,000 TED and TEDx talks online. That’s 93,000 ideas worth spreading, to make the world a better place.

Is anybody else wondering why the world isn’t a better place? If all these good ideas have been spread, then why haven’t more of the world’s problems been fixed?

Even when I think about King Ken and his awesome talk, I look at the education system in the UK going in the opposite direction to what Ken suggests, with creativity becoming less valued by our school system, not more.

Why is this? When there is such a blindingly brilliant and beautifully expressed argument there, that’s been played nearly 50 million times…why does our school system, and those who defines our school system, not seem to be changing?

A listening and watching culture

I think part of the issue is that giving talks, including TED, is part of a wider watching and listening culture.

I imagine that TED-utopia is a place where good ideas get spread to everyone. But how many of these good ideas actually get implemented by those of us who listen to them?

How many of us actually change the way we think, or more importantly how we act, because of what we hear or read? I think there is an unquestioned principal, in our education system and in our culture, that people learn most, by listening and reading.

But is that true?

This assumption means that the way we organise things, systematically privileges listening and reading as our preferred approach to learning.

Education is largely based on this approach. With children, predominantly, expected to listen and read.

Our companies generally operate using this approach. With work carried out via some form of instruction.

Our governments also work like this. With public policy usually developed through the analysis of data and reports.

But I think most of us, as individual human beings, do not change, to the point where we take action, unless we undergo an experience.

Try asking your friends what’s made them change something about their life.

I think it’s less common for people to tell you about a talk they listened to or a book they read, than an experience they had. About going somewhere. About meeting someone. About trying something new.

I think this is because when we practically try something, we take more of a personal risk than when we listen or read.

When we experience something, we’re not just intellectually involved – but emotionally, physically and socially involved.

And in this more visceral state, we are more likely to open ourselves to the possibility of change. We are more likely to carry that experience forwards. To learn through doing.

But somehow – the systems we’ve developed in our schools, our organisations, and our governments, privilege listening and reading, above a culture of learning through doing.

A doing and learning culture

Could a culture of learning through doing be any better?

It’s interesting to look at times when a family or a community or even a country goes through some kind of crisis. Because it’s often in these moments that people are extraordinary.

My guess is that this is not just because people have a primal instinct to want to put things right in a crisis…it’s also because difficult situations compel us to take action. To do.

The result is that we take more risks and do all kinds of things, practically, that we probably would not have attempted, had it not been for the crisis.

You can see this kind of risk-taking happening, on a massive scale, during and after World War Two.

For example, because of the challenges during the war, the Emergency Medical Service was established and run by government, to help provide free medical care to people in bomb-blasted communities.

This helped people, including government ministers, experience the benefits of this health-care system, and after the war, free healthcare for all was established as the norm.

Because people believed it was a good thing. Because they’d experienced it. And as a result, a new idea was not just created, but delivered, on a massive scale. A health system which has been envied around the world.

Can you imagine such an extraordinary idea, that changes the lives of generations of people, that changes the fabric of our country, being developed through our current systems, which are not about learning through doing?

I am not suggesting that we have to experience trauma to get stuff done. I am just suggesting that we practically test more ideas.

I’m not saying anything that we don’t know already.

Because when we were all small, about knee-height, this is how we lived.

Most of the useful things we learnt – that we do today – speaking, moving or walking, eating, being able to represent something through scribbling – and so on and so on – we learnt through doing.

We didn’t read a book about reading and as a consequence learn to read.

At the heart of our learning experience as a toddler, was doing things, instinctively. And often failing to achieve the thing we were trying to do.

But through learning by trying stuff, we would continue to refine the way we did something.

I believe we all display a very pure form of human creativity when we are that young. We are prepared to try anything in order to learn new stuff.

But as we get older, more of our adult systems kick in to action. Which tend to make us fearful of making mistakes. This suppresses our creative instincts.

Even the idea of our own creativity becomes confused. To the point where I think people tend to think about creativity as a skill that you learn. Like painting. Or singing.

For me, being creative just means that you’re prepared to take a risk – to try and make something or do something when you’re not quite sure what will happen.

Our creativity is free, it’s on tap – and like the right to life and the right to be free, we all have a right to be creative. Theoretically, no one can take it away from us.

But instead of exercising and enjoying our own creativity, most of us have learnt to sit in auditoriums, like this one, and listen to other people, talking.

Instead of TED talks, perhaps we could have creative TED actions? – in which we come together to test out ideas. In which we all get to do stuff. To learn through doing.

So the idea I want to share with you today is not an idea.

It’s just a practical suggestion, and a process.

Rather than think through passively listening, let’s think through a creative process of doing.

An approach to doing more stuff

How do we take a more practical approach without any crisis or trauma forcing us to?

Our listening and watching culture has become so ingrained, sometimes we just need a bit of help to actually just do stuff.

Scratch - without detail

This is a process I have used in my work as a producer to support other people’s ideas to develop. It can apply to lots of different contexts. It’s called scratch.

It’s simply a creative process to develop and deliver ideas and this is how it works.

  1. So someone has an idea. Say it’s you. You start by defining your idea. This could be a massive idea. Or it could be something small.
  2. Then you plan how to practically test your idea. This could be an elaborate plan. But equally, it could be quite a simple plan. As part of this stage you would assess the risks of carrying out your idea and the resources you will need, making sure you save some resources for your second, third or fourth test.
  3. Then you would carry out the test of the idea. Live. Before you really know what it is. And other people would get to experience it.
  4. Then you would gather feedback to find out how people react to your idea. What did they experience?
  5. Then you analyse what their feedback means. You decipher what it means for the future of your idea.
  6. And then ideally, you take time to go away and do something else for a bit. So that when you come back to your idea, you’ve got a bit more perspective.
  7. And then you revisit your idea – you further develop it – and plan a new test. And so on.

This is a simple way to iteratively develop an idea practically.

It’s not the creative process, it’s just a creative process. And before you think this is some new process or jargon or idea I’ve got to get my head around, remember this is not something new to you.

You used this approach, or a simplified version of this approach, literally millions of time, in the first few years of your life, as a toddler, as you learnt stuff, tried stuff and as you changed, because of the responses you got from people.

And through your willingness to take creative risks in your early years, you probably learnt more stuff and changed more quickly, than you have done for the rest of your life put together.

Some quick tips on using this process

Be prepared that receiving feedback is almost always frustrating on some level.

In my experience feedback rarely just says, wow, what a great idea, what a wonderful thing to make, gosh you’re so smart.

Instead feedback is usually really annoying. Because other people see things that you can’t. Or they just seem to be looking at something else entirely.

But either way, their feedback provides you with more information, to help you reflect on your idea.

And it’s likely to disrupt your thinking.

And that’s the point. It helps you see your idea from someone else’s perspective.

It helps you see through their eyes, not yours.

When I was growing up, I consistently felt inadequate.

In a system which graded intelligence like a product, I felt like I had a missing chip.

Like millions of other children around the country I struggled to absorb large quantities of information and regurgitate it to order. The system didn’t only make me feel insufficient, it meant I felt bored.

And despite a current generation of wonderful teachers, the current system is doing the same to hundreds of thousands of young people every year.

But imagine if our schools adopted creative learning principles that looked something more like scratch.

Learning could be a practical adventure.

Rather than force children into subject-specific disciplines, a more practical approach could help young people develop more ways to think.

Not just analytically but laterally and divergently. Critically, strategically, even entrepreneurially.

Every day could be about doing and learning, rather than thinking about how not to be wrong.

Every day could increase our sense of involvement as young people, our purpose and our agency.

If we went the whole hog and used a creative process like this in the way our government operates, how would that work?

Rather than a group of policy researchers evaluating data, in order to change the lives of people they will probably never meet – every day could be about practically testing policy ideas by working with members of the public to feed back and to help shape public policy.

At a time when divisions between different communities, ideologies and approaches threaten to dangerously divide us, we need, more than ever, to creatively and practically work together – to understand each other and to invent our future together.

Rather than one group of people present another group of people with solutions.

Because it is through the very process of doing, the creative process of making it up as we go along, from which we have so much to gain – it gives us agency and a renewed sense of purpose – it is powerful for us as individuals – it is also powerful for groups and communities.

I am not saying there isn’t huge value in listening, reading and watching.

But we must seek to balance this with doing, testing and creatively learning.

So my simple practical suggestion is to watch less and do more.

And as this TED talk finishes, let’s turn it in to a TED action.

Please turn to the person next to you, introduce yourself. But also do something.

Please share an idea, or a fragment of an idea, that you hope to practically test in the coming weeks and months. It might be at work or at home or at school.

Take a minute each to do this. I’ll give you a shout to swap round. Your time starts now.

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