John Cleese’s Educational Philosophy


Following up on the video from earlier this week, I can’t help but connect John Cleese’s thoughts to education. I’ll skip the first premise that must be believed to follow this line, that the primary goal of education is to teach the skills of creativity and not to impart a collection of received knowledge. That is a topic for another day, and that day was thirty years ago.

Key points of the talk:

  • Creativity is not a talent and is not dependent on IQ.
  • Play is important to creativity.
  • Creativity can only come to the fore when in the “open mode” – a state of comfort and relaxation, free from outside pressure.

Replace creativity with education in the previous list and you have the last thirty to a hundred years of educational theory. Why shouldn’t it be? He’s drawing from the same sources, but coming about it from another way. Since this is not another “silver bullet” for education, but instead an educated and successful communicator explaining how he works, we can receive this knowledge and turn it back on the problem at hand, the education of our children.

The prescription for education:

  1. Space – Students must be undisturbed by the pressures of the closed mode. They must know that they are safe and that any answer they produce, especially intermediate answers that are approaching the truth, are not going to be evaluated.
  2. Time – In some ways the easiest thing to offer, in others the hardest. We have the time to give them, but we fill it up with pressures and limits and expectations. It is not “playtime” it is “worktime” and the closed mode is mandated by the structure of the traditional school day and school room. Any teacher will tell you there is never enough time, and playtime is always the first kind of time on the sacrificial altar.
  3. Time – Time to think and time to make mistakes and time to stick to a problem. When we give students a sheet of ten problems we’ve implied that each problem must be completed quickly. Time limits are the enemy of creativity and therefore the enemy of education.  Do one problem and do it well. Do it two ways or more. Explain why you’re right or why you might be wrong.
  4. Confidence – You’re either free to learn or you’re not. Nothing is wrong when you are learning. Mistakes lead to breakthroughs.
  5. Humor – Giggle. Have fun. Don’t take it too seriously. Learning is play.  5.5. Keep coming back to the problem.

Simple right? A great way to approach the classroom.  But wait, even more wisdom comes:

  • Education works better in groups (as long as there is no one who makes you feel defensive *cough* teacher *cough*)
  • Always be positive.  Build on what’s been said. “Would it be even better if … ” “I don’t quite understand that … ” “What if … ” “Let’s pretend … ” Establish a free atmosphere.
  • Build on systems of previous knowledge (we call this schema) and allow ridiculous juxtapositions.

These suggestions echo the cutting edge of educational philosophy that so many are trying to implement in their classrooms. What keeps this from being a new paradigm?  In the last two minutes he tells us.

How to keep your subordinates from being creative:

  1. Allow no humor that could undermine your power. All humor is frivolous or subversive to the organization. Keep class clowns silent.
  2. Use your authority to zero in on all the things you can find wrong. Undermine your student’s confidence when you’re reviewing the work they’ve done. Only criticize, praise makes people uppity.
  3. Demand that students should always be doing something. Pondering means laziness or indecision. Give them no thinking time. Demand urgency.

No what does that sound like to you?

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