Do Schools Really Kill Creativity? Jonny Sun on What Schools Get Right

Jun 26, 2019

As an architect, comedian and playwright, with a loyal following across the arts and social media, Jonny Sun knows what it takes to nurture a creative mindset. But the artist and writer isn’t so sure that he agrees with Sir Ken Robinson, the education thought leader whose video “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” remains the most-watched TED Talk to date. (Robinson’s answer: Yes.)

Sun, who will be keynoting the EdSurge Fusion conference this November, recently offered his insights into creativity and authenticity in the digital age, and what schools are doing right—and wrong—when it comes to digital literacy.

Authenticity in an Age of Omnipresent Technology

Jonny Sun

During a keynote at ISTE in June 2016, physicist Dr. Michio Kaku spoke to the impending reality that the internet would “be everywhere and nowhere” as artificial intelligence develops and renders certain jobs a thing of the past. Adaptability, he noted, will be a key skill in a future awash with data and information that upends how we interact across physical and digital realms.

To that point, Sun would add another critical competency: authenticity. Specifically, how do human beings retain some sense of identity, reality and truth as technology and machine learning become more omnipresent?

“Authenticity is part of a social language that changes as different technologies form. On online mediums, and in different new technological contexts, I trust that different languages of authenticity will develop in order for us to parse authenticity and trust,” Sun says. “We are increasingly hungry for ways to determine what’s real and what’s authentic.”

For Sun, this is a challenge that presents an opportunity for teachers and students to tackle together. His own social presence on Twitter developed out of a desire to create a place for himself online, given how he had struggled with social anxiety and depression as a young person. To him, the offline and online worlds fused to form one space, as he described to Harper’s Bazaar in 2018:

“It’s kind of funny—when I was in high school, I was way more comfortable talking to people on MSN or AIM than I was in person. There’s something really cool about getting to know someone through the identity they choose to put out there, online. I’m of the belief system that your online identity is genuine, is real, is authentic and is part of your holistic identity. I don’t think that there’s a separation between a real life identity and an online identity. I think they’re connected.”

Why Teachers Also Need a Better Command of Digital Literacy

In a world of misinformation and “fakes,” Sun calls for the biggest online platforms to do more to identify what’s true and what’s not. Companies have a “huge responsibility to keep their platforms authentic,” he says.

But because current fact-checking efforts and reporting on authenticity are “being challenged and in trouble” (which Sun himself parodied with “fake facts” back in 2015), digital literacy is key to helping people know what’s real and what’s not, he believes. Educating today’s children on how to be better consumers of what’s online will prepare the next generation of more-informed digital citizens.

That’s where schools can play an important role. But Sun’s not just talking about educating students:

“Teachers and faculty often think they know better than students when it comes to digital literacy, but in my opinion, it’s not as clear cut. I think having teachers better informed is a good start.”

Part of being better informed, Sun adds, is taking off the “kiddie gloves” and not shying away from tackling difficult discussions happening in the online world. Holding classes on digital literacy with materials that are “well-planned, informed and complex” is incredibly important. Sun himself contributes to the cause as a member of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, where he assists on the digital arts and humanities platform metaLAB.

As he explains: “In my experience, students feel seen when we discuss the internet with them in complex ways that respect the fact that they have an incredible amount of experience with the internet—and perhaps, in many cases, more complex experiences than those who teach them.”

What Schools Do Right

Jonny Sun’s April 2019 TED Talk: “You Are Not Alone in Your Loneliness”

Sun’s experiences with learning in school shape his concerns about whether K-12 systems truly trust students and treat them as “intelligent, thoughtful, mature” individuals. He also worries about the “ongoing traumatization of active shooter drills,” sharing that he is deeply saddened to see that such drills have become so common across the United States.

But Sun is quick to share that there are many things that schools are getting right, from “providing more flexibility, support and opportunity for students to pursue their own interests and identities” to “allowing students to advocate and organize for themselves.”

And as far as Ken Robinson’s belief goes that schools kill creativity? It’s hard to make a blanket statement, Sun says.

“I think those schools that teach the ways that Robinson describes do as he describes. But I think that there are many models of teaching and education that do not operate the ways that he describes, and I think that those are potentially doing a better job,” Sun says.

“It’s hard to say that ‘all schools’ do this or that,” he adds. “I think there are ways that creativity can be supported and nurtured among students, and that happens at all levels: institutionally, communally, and individually.

Curious to hear more from Jonny Sun, or ask him directly what more he thinks schools can do? Join EdSurge on Nov. 4-6 at the Fusion conference to meet him.


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