Conformist Schools for Creativity

 “…there just aren’t enough fizzy people around.”

Tham Khai Meng
co-chairman and worldwide chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather

In a ‘Supported by the Best Awards’ piece in the Guardian Tham Kei Meng writes that “Young children fizz with ideas. But the moment they go to school, they begin to lose the freedom to explore, take risks and experiment.”

Now I don’t necessarily wish to burst Tham’s bubble but what is he talking about? Is this a suggestion that every household in the world is full of children experimenting, taking loads of risks in a state of absolute freedom? Are there no helicopter parents hovering around to stop a child from falling off a swing? Are there no parents telling a child when to go to bed? Are there no carers ensuring that little children keep within parameters and, maybe, garden, nursery or park walls?

Is the school the place where children begin to lose freedom or is it part of the natural state of childhood? Man is born in chains and the process of parenting and schooling can help the child become ‘free’. Tham writes:

We need to do two things to address this. First, we have to debunk the notion popularised by Hollywood that the creative artist is cut from a different cloth than normal folk – that creativity is something mysterious, elusive and cannot be taught.

We are not talking about high art, but empowering people to use their imagination. Not everyone can be Mozart, but everyone can sing. I believe everyone is born creative, but it is educated out of us at school, where we are taught literacy and numeracy. Sure, there are classes called writing and art, but what’s really being taught is conformity.

Debunking the Romantic notion of the artist in ‘his’ garret is one thing, knowing this is not a Hollywood invention is another but, oddly, in three sentences Tham writes that he wants to rid us of the idea that the creative artist is cut from a different cloth, that he is not talking about high art and then writes that not everyone can be Mozart, but everyone can sing. What does he mean by all this? High art is for the genius? The rest of us can join the chorus? Is singing a song creative? Is speaking creative? Is a conversation creative? Where does Tham draw the line? Clearly he thinks Mozart is cut from a different cloth and, I suppose, high art is different to creating adverts, but are creative people who have not had it educated out of them at school, school refusers? Are they all rebels with a creative cause? Sure there was learning to write and do a bit of art but what’s really being taught is conformity, what does he mean?

I hate the terms literacy and numeracy, but why not learn to read and to write, and to count and calculate, these things don’t ‘kill creativity’. When Tham worries about conformity does he mean conformity in using the alphabet? Conformity in the use of watercolour, charcoal, pastels and clay? Conformity to a tradition? Don’t we learn to do art by copying the way of the ‘geniuses’ of the past – read some Rowling then write a Harry Potteresque story of your own… learn the form, challenge the form, create your new(ish) or derivative form?

When we try to knock the creativity out of people, what happens? Try confining them in, say, a prisoner of war camp – put them in real chains. What happened when people tried pushing conformity onto the prisoners in ‘Colditz’ Castle? The first British officer to escape from the High Security Prison was educated at Eton and Oxford, he escaped through the trap door in the theatre during a production of a play, then dressed as a German soldier, Airey Neave, escaped to Gibraltar with his comrade in Arms the Dutch officer Anthony Luteyn.

Later Neave got a job with MI9 as an Intelligence Officer – here he was in charge of another old Etonian Michael Bentine who went on to create the mad world of Potty Time and work with the Goons. Fellow Goon Spike Milligan attended a Convent School in Poona and St Paul’s High School in Rangoon, these schools didn’t knock the creativity out of him. Peter Sellers attended the Catholic St Aloysius College before he fell in the water… Harry ‘Seagoon’ Secombe, attended Dynevor school in Swansea and, yes, he did sing in the choir of St Thomas Church. These schools taught conformity maybe, but one needs a sense of conformity to appreciate the ridiculousness of it. Anyone who has listened to the Goons appreciates that the art grew from a sense of knowing a lot about conformity.

Bluebottle: ‘Ere, why ain’t you got no clothes on?
Eccles: I’ve just been making a phone call.
Bluebottle: You don’t have to undress for that!
Eccles: Ha, ha! We learn something new every day!

Conformity, dressing for dinner, putting on a ‘telephone-voice’, trying to do ‘the right thing’, in a world without rules, ‘proper behaviours’, we have nothing to laugh at… the problem for Tham is that actually we fizz with ideas at the very point of constraint, when people try to put us in chains we are at our most ‘fizzy’. Try being in a staff room when a new initiative is announced, the dark humour, the ‘taking the piss’, the ideas on how to undermine the new order.

Tham writes that the school:

…system worked well for blue-collar workers – people who clocked in at factories and stood on production lines making things such as automobile engines. But in a world driven by search engines, the system is a busted flush. We must teach creativity at school as a matter of urgency.

No doubt the system also worked for advertising creatives, who are these people in advertising who learned how to sell product? Are they all mad men? Are they cut from a different cloth? Did they go to special creative breeding schools, or the same schools as those blue-collar workers? And these factory workers – why teach them to read? Why risk that they might be able to read the 1945 Labour Manifesto (written by Toby Young’s dad) and what it said about education?

And, above all, let us remember that the great purpose of education is to give us individual citizens capable of thinking for themselves. (Labour Manifesto 1945)

This is the point: school doesn’t educate the creativity out of people, instead it educates to give them the wherewithal to be free, to be creative and think for themselves. Without constraints we are left to wander, without the imprisonment of a place we can’t think how to escape, without the sonnet form we can’t write poetry that lasts for centuries, without the alphabet… hey here’s twenty-six letters – write a blog! Without the idea of constraints how would advertising work? Without a client, a product, the need to be concise and connect different media both ‘old’ and ‘new’ they don’t have an ad campaign…

NB: Teaching creativity in school is not about ‘free activity’, as this piece, from the wonderful Joyce Grenfell shows very well.


11 thoughts on “Conformist Schools for Creativity

  1. Thank you Martin, this leaves me with lots to think about. I am drawn to the juxtaposition with the central ecological tenet of diversity breeding stability.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great piece. Glad you included the quote that refers to school as the “factory model” of education. This is nonsense and always gets me angry.

    Oh, and speaking of Bluebottle of the Goons, there was one incident where he was embarassed by his non-conformity.

    Grytpipe Thinn: Bluebottle, why are you wearing your trousers on your head?
    Bluebottle: You know I always wear me trousers on me head on a Tuesday.
    Thinn: But today is Wednesday.
    Bluebottle; (pause) Oh. I feel a proper fool.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Young children fizz with ideas. But the moment they go to school, they begin to lose the freedom to explore, take risks and experiment.”

    How many hours do you reckon Tham has spent in a classroom?

    Kids have lots of ideas. Most of them are, frankly, shit. And when they are good ideas, they need very careful direction to make them work. Watching my colleagues in Business Studies trying to get students to get their ideas into a useful form might be an education for Tham in how having “ideas” is really not sufficient.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The awful Education Secretary, Nicola Morgan, has warned students that choosing to study arts subjects at school could ‘hold them back for the rest of their lives’. Gradgrind is at the helm.


  5. interesting comments on here. I’m inclined to put some of Tham’s thinking aside as useful as it is in respect of debate and put all this in a simpler context and aligned toward Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas. We are by our nature both physical and cognitive. The physical act of expressing oneself, for example drawing and dance for example are an extension of the way in which we reach out and communicate with the world by using our minds. This is as much academic as it is expressive. The problem in schools is that such extensions of public language of primary communication have been made tertiary an activity without much cause. The danger is that children loose the ability to repeatedly try until they begin to get things right, to experiment and slowly realign and become more effective self practitioners of formative assessment technique. As Black and William point out, learning is like landing a plane, you know roughly where you’re going, but you need to keep checking the instrumentation to get there as paralleled in drawing technique for example.This is accepted wisdom in teaching and lifelong learning so why can we not model the model, encourage students to practice in the same way? When we talk about a humanist approach which encourages a spiral curricula we can only do so by seeing the value of getting things wrong first and not being afraid to do so. By trying we learn. Too much do as I do as demonstrated by the modern Baccalaureate and a fear of missing league tables and design and creative subjects relegated to secondary subjects. Is it possible STEAM may inform STEM?


  6. I’m reminded of Victor Papanek’s decades old book ‘Design for the Real World’. For instance:

    “Extensive psychological testing has shown that the mysterious quality called ‘creative imagination’ seems to exist in all people but is severely diminished by the time an individual reaches the age of six. The environment of school (‘You mustn’t do this!’ ‘You mustn’t do that!’ ‘You call that a drawing of your mother ? Why, your mother only has two legs.’ ‘Nice girls don’t do things like that!’) sets up a whole screen of blocks in the mind of the child that later inhibits his ability to ideate freely.”

    But they also began their preface with:

    “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second. Never before in history have grown men sat down and seriously designed electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-covered file boxes, and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell these gadgets to millions of people.”


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