Divergent thinking, carrots, and sticks: Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink

by Mr. Sheehy

Ken Robinson is a lot of fun to listen to, and I enjoyed this video as much for the animation as for the talk.

I also appreciate a couple of his questions of the system, like why do we insist on grouping students primarily by age? After school is finished we never group ourselves like this. Can you imagine a company having the first year employees over in one wing and the almost retired employees over in another? Even though students tend to be at different developmental spots at different ages, any teacher will tell you the developmental range is shocking even within the same age group of children. It could be interesting to conceive of a new way to organize ourselves.

Still, one question I have as I listen to Robinson is this: is it really so awful that we lose our divergent thinking as we get older? Is this a process of our educational system or a process of growing up and learning our culture in general? It’s certainly not new, anyway, as Wordsworth lamented in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” the six year old giving up the “work of his own hand” to imitate the work of the adults around him:

But it will not be long
Ere this be thrown aside,
And with new joy and pride
The little actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his ‘humorous stage’
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,
That Life brings with her in her equipage;
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation.

Ultimately it does not strike me as fair to compare a kindergartner to a high school student when it comes to divergent thinking.

Yet as one who appreciates divergent thinking, I do not want to exaggerate my case. I would love to foster that kind of creativity, especially because too many of my students insist out of what appears to be laziness and fear that I give them more assistance and directions than I am inclined to give them. I give a prompt, they want an example. If I give in and provide the example, I soon receive a pile of examples in slightly varying forms from students incapable of independently reproducing the very paper they just wrote.

That problem is explained well in Daniel Pink’s TED talk on motivation (through the candle problem he shares).

His carrot and sticks concept is intriguing to me because we use lots of carrots and sticks in schools, and they seem to be corroding what we are trying to do (they sure seem to be a part of the entitlement attitude, anyway, and as Pink points out, they do not help us engender original thinking). Not only do they corrode what we do with students, they undercut what we would hope to be as teachers. I chimed in on systematic changes in education the other day, but I realize in light of Pink’s comments that most of what we describe in changing education is simply enforcing a new system of carrots and sticks for teachers. Perhaps what we should really be doing is eliminating the use of carrots and sticks altogether. Now that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?

Thanks for reading.