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When Gillian Lynne — multimillionaire choreographer of "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera" — was in school, her teachers thought she had a learning disorder.
So her mom brought her to a doctor to find out what was wrong, and he made a startling diagnosis.
"Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn't sick," he said. "She's a dancer. Take her to a dance school."
She did. As education scholar Ken Robinson says in his TED Talk on creativity, Gillian went onto the Royal Ballet and into musical theater history.
"Lynne's been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history; she's given pleasure to millions; and she's a multimillionaire," Robinson says . "Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down."
Gillian Lynne, second from the right, composed the choreography for "Cats," one of the highest-grossing musicals of all time.
This is an example of something going right in a child's education. The kid is put into an environment that fits her skillset and stokes her passion. A few decades later, she's a legend in her field.
Robinson is becoming a legend in education reform. He led the British government's 1998 committee advising on creative education . His findings were so powerful that he was knighted in 2003. He uses Lynne's story at the close of his popular TED Talk, "Why Schools Kill Creativity." It's now the site's most-watched talk by 8 million views .
Sir Ken Robinson.
But Robinson says our education system does the opposite of what Gillian Lynne was so fortunate to find. Instead of organizing around individual flourishing, we have standardized testing.
That structure alienates students, so that many drop out before graduating.
"If you have a system as in the United States where there's a 30% high school dropout rate — in the African American/Latino communities it's over 50%, and in some of the Native American communities it's nearly 80% — you can't just blame the kids for it," he said in an interview.
Those drop-out rates reflect a disconnect between what (and how) schools teach and what kind of education resonates with people, he says.
Many of the people who do have skills that fit into the education system end up trying to become professors, Robinson says. But that doesn't necessarily help , given that 1.6% of the 22 million Americans with graduate degrees are receiving some sort of public assistance .
So how exactly do schools stamp out creativity? Let's go over a handful of reasons.
1. They're industrialized.
Robinson says the public education system grew as a response to industrialism. And in looking to serve the factories, schools look like factories.
If you look at public education systems in their general shape, they are manufacturing processes. And a lot of it happens — we separate people by age, it's a very linear process, very focused on certain types of outcome. And standardized testing is, in a way, the grand example of the industrial method of education. It's not there to identify what individuals can do. It's there to look at things to which they conform.
This is toxic for students. Like Robinson says, there isn't a kid in America who " gets out of bed in the morning wondering what they can do to raise their state's reading standards."
So what schools — and the people that run them — need to do is organize around helping students find the disciplines that most motivate them.
This requires a shift from standardization to personalization.
Reforming education is " about customizing to your circumstances and personalizing education to the people you're actually teaching," Robinson said in a follow-up talk. " And doing that, I think, is the answer to the future because it's not about scaling a new solution; it's about creating a movement in education in which people develop their own solutions, but with external support based on a personalized curriculum."
2. They create a hierarchy of subjects.
Robinson says that we privilege some subjects — like math— over others — like dance — and doing so stifles creativity.
"At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts," he says. "Everywhere on Earth."
And there's even a hierarchy within the arts, with fine art and music above drama and dance.
"There isn't an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics," Robinson says. "Why? Why not? I think this is rather important. I think math is very important, but so is dance. Children dance all the time if they're allowed to, we all do. We all have bodies, don't we? Did I miss a meeting? Truthfully, what happens is, as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up."
As a result, there are few Gillian Lynnes in the world, but there's a surplus of MBAs.
3. Classes are rigidly timed.
Schools hem to a strict schedule.
"If you live in a world where every lesson is 40 minutes, you immediately interrupt the flow of creativity," Robinson says.
This is part of the reason that progressive education programs — like the Bronx KIPP schools that place students at 84% at grade level compared to 16% in neighboring schools — have longer class periods than their peers. The reasoning: kids need to learn that feeling "stuck" is part of solving problems, and it takes time to get unstuck when you're reasoning through calculus or putting together a play.
That layout jibes with the latest in education research: cognitive science shows that the harder it is to learn something, the better you remember it.
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