Educators educating Educators

Feb 18

September 17 Sir Ken Robinson

Welcome back to another school year. I hope your summer was relaxing and invigorating and you are looking forward to the approaching school year and the opportunity to stimulate and challenge your students’ minds. This is indeed a time of the year when both students and teachers experience a sense of intrigue in anticipation of the experiences and opportunities that lie ahead over the next ten months.


This summer I was able to study Sir Ken Robinson, a British author, speaker and international advisor on education to governments, non-profits, and education organizations. He was Director of the Arts in Schools Project and Professor of Arts Education at the University of Warwick, and is now Professor Emeritus at the same institution. A visionary cultural leader, Sir Ken led the British government's 1998 advisory committee on creative and cultural education, a massive inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy, and was knighted in 2003 for his achievements.


I reread Robinson’s 2009 book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, a New York Times bestseller which has been translated into 21 languages. Robinson describes the “Element” as the point at which natural talent meets personal passion. The book explores the components of this new paradigm: the diversity of intelligence, the power of imagination and creativity, and the importance of commitment to our own capabilities.


Similarly, I listened to three Robinson Ted Talks on You Tube; How to Escape Education’s Death Valley posted May 2013, Bring on the Learning Revolution posted May 2010, and Ken Robinson on Passion posted April 2013.


I, like many people, find his writings and Ted Talks not only witty and inspiring but also thought-provoking and challenging. In many of his writings and presentations, he challenges educators that they should not automatically accept the status quo policies of federal, state, and local officials, as he feels they hinder the growth and development of students and teachers.


Given the start of a new year, what better time than now to take a moment to explore Robinson’s arguments and possibly adopt and integrate a few of his ideas into curriculums and pedagogy.


To begin, the following quote from Mark Twain is one of my favorite and leads to a discussion of Robinson’s Ted Talk How to Escape Education’s Death Valley; “If teaching was the same as telling, we’d all be so smart we could hardly stand it.”


Overall, Robinson contends that “the culture of the school is an essential component of the school.” He opines that “education is not a mechanistic process, but a human process and system, and it is about people; people who want to learn and educate. To achieve this, we have to embrace a different metaphor than the current performance-based testing model that exits in today’s public schools.”


Robinson argues the real role of leadership in education “at all levels is not and should not be command and control. Robinson states “The real role of leadership should be climate control. Leadership must strive “to create a climate of possibility, and if you give that to educators, they will rise to it and achieve things not anticipated and which could not be expected.”


To accomplish this change, schools must raise the expectation and broaden the range of opportunities for both students and teachers, and value the partnerships between teachers and students. Teachers must be allowed and encouraged to be innovated and creative in what they do, and “schools once bereft will spring to life.”


In his Ted Talk titled How to Escape Education Death Valley, Robinson outlines how this task can be accomplished stating that “education is a human system,” and there are conditions under which people thrive and in which they don’t survive.”


However, Robinson contends the “conditions” are challenged by the present culture of “education and the conditions by which most teachers have to labor under and most students have to endure.” Precisely, the conditions to which he refers to are the narrowing of the curriculum, the elimination or reduction of time devoted to other activities and subjects that are not directly related to improve test scores in math, reading, and science. and teachers shifting their focus to teach the test.


The first condition that encourages humans to thrive is for schools to embrace the fact that humans are “naturally different and diverse.” These principles are sadly not often present in our schools due to the demands of the current mandatory testing environment, causing “schools to find out what students know over a very narrow spectrum of achievement. The effect of this policy causes schools to narrow the focus on standard.” Robinson “agrees math and science are important but they are not sufficient for a well-rounded education.” He points out that “students develop best within a broad curriculum that celebrates their various talents and real education has to give equal weight to all subjects including the arts and the humanities.”


Robinson’s next condition is that humans are innately curious, and his concern centers on the apparent lack of it in both students and teachers in our public schools. Robinson “contends that curiosity drives human life, curiosity is the engine of achievement, and if you can light the spark of curiosity in children, they will learn on their own.” In his Ted Talk, he cites examples that show children are natural learners.


He upholds that “there is no school that is better than its teachers and teachers are the lifeblood of successful schools.” As implied in the Mark Twain quote, he agrees that “teaching is a creative profession, and properly conceived is not a delivery system. Teachers are not there to just pass on information, great teachers do that, but more significantly, great teachers also mentor, inspire, stimulate, and engage students.”


Yet, when it comes to curiosity, just as with his first condition, there is a problem in our schools that hinders students and teachers. Specifically, teaching practices that are largely mandated due to performance-based testing. He argues that “in place of curiosity, we have a culture of compliance; the teacher and student follow a routine curriculum, rather than use their creative powers to create excitement, imagination, and curiosity in their classrooms.” Given that the primarily focus in schools is not on teaching and learning but on testing, the drive for curiosity by students and teachers suffers. He concedes that “testing is important, and standardized testing has a place. But they should not be the dominant culture of education. They should be diagnosis. Testing should support learning, not be an obstacle to it.”


Creativity is the third condition that Robinson believes is responsible for the flourishing of human life. To illustrate his point, he points out that “we create our lives, & we recreate them as we go through life. It is why human culture is so interesting, diverse, and dynamic. And how do we do this? “We all create our lives by imaging all of the possibilities, awaking the power of creativity.” Instead, in our schools “we have a culture of standardization.”


Another issue that Robinson regards as responsible for the educational malaise affecting U.S. schools is his observation that many people do not fully utilize their natural abilities and talents. He addresses this issue in his Ted Talk “On Passion,” in which he speaks of two types of crises in the world, both revolving around depletion of resources - one involving natural resources and one involving human resources.


As is often discussed and debated, the Climate Crisis involves the reduction of our natural resources by the actions of the human race. The other crisis Robinson describes is less obvious but just as crucial; a Human Crisis. According to Robinson, the Human Crisis is caused by a continuous decline in human resources due to “many in our nation not recognizing nor understanding their natural abilities and fully utilizing their innate talents.”


He opines the “most distinctive feature of human life is the power of imagination, and human beings are born with expansive imagination and numerous possibilities. Since we have the power of imagination and creativity that flows from it, we are born with the power and ability to create and produce new things. Some people discover their unique abilities and talents and some don’t and they conclude they don’t have any.”


“There are people who have found their natural place, their natural talents, and they love what they do and their lives that flow from it. They are in their element doing something that they have a natural capacity for, they get it. When you are in your element your sense of time changes. When you are doing something you love, an hour seems like five minutes. However, when you are doing something not in your element, five minutes can seem like an hour,” Robinson submits.


It is the latter group he is most concerned about. A British study cited in the Harvard Medical School online newsletter (July, 2017), notes that only about one-third of people have a useful understanding of their strengths. If something comes easily to you, you may take it for granted and not identify it as a strength.


Since this group of people “are not really sure of their talents or abilities, they have no idea of what they are capable of doing and conclude they don’t have any, and naturally there is nothing special about them.” Robinson believes in the contrary, that “we are all born talented with many abilities. If you are a human being, it comes with the kit.


Robinson believes a major reason for this lack of awareness is due to our nation’s education system which is based on a “linear mode of production.” That is, an “education system that prioritizes certain types of talents (i.e., standardized testing in math and reading), and marginalize others, and the vast majority of other ones. If you are not good at certain things, like math, you are assumed not to be good generally,” and “why so many people feel so detached from their own talents. For vast improvement in our education system, we must strive to engage students’ curiosity, creativity, and individuality. That’s how you get them to learn.”


In addition, this narrow testing focus of our schools is “the major reason so many teachers have a problem with creativity. They are slaves to the tests, both the preparation for and the tests themselves. Given that teachers are focused on testing, they are not in touch with themselves about their own creative possibilities, and unsurprisingly, one can’t promote things that you are insensitive to,” he eluates.


He maintains “there is a lot of great education going on, but it in spite of the dominant culture and not because of it. It’s like sailing into a headwind all of the time.”


Lastly, Robinson explores the educational practices of developed countries that score higher than the U.S. on international testing (PISA). Some of the top performing countries are Singapore, Estonia, Finland, Canada, Vietnam, New Zealand, and Australia. In 2015, the last testing year for the PISA, the U.S. average in science was lower than 18 education systems, higher than 39, and not measurably different than 12 education systems. In reading, the U.S. average was lower than 14 education systems, higher than 42 education systems, and not measurably different than 13 education systems, and in math, the U.S. average was lower than 36 education systems, higher than 28 education systems, and not measurably different than 5 education systems. Source: National Center for Education Statistics:


He found that higher scoring nations view “professional development not as a cost, but as an investment.” He has found that higher achieving nations place “an emphasis on the teaching profession, and in order to improve education, the U.S. needs great people to teach to teach, and to give them the constant support and training they need.”


He offers that nations which develop high performing students “give the responsibilities to the schools to get it done. The problem with our nation’s schools is that education doesn’t happen in a legislator’s office, but in our classrooms and in our schools. The people who do it are the teachers and if you remove that discretion it stops working and we have to give it back to the teachers.” He suggests that many of “today’s policies are based on a mechanical/method concept, that is, educational decision-makers who believe in an industrial process and our schools can be improved just by having better data. It won’t get better and it never did.” He believes that “education is not a mechanistic process, but a human process and system. It is about people, people who want to learn and educate. We have to embrace a different metaphor. Education is a human system and there are conditions under which people thrive and in which they don’t survive.”


“In the end, it is all about energy. That is all about what life is about. Life is about what stirs your energy, what encourages you, what fuels it, what it takes from you. If you do things you love to do, you get energy from it. Some activities can drain you of energy. You spend your life doing something and you find that it drains you. When people do things they like to do, their energy levels rise because they take energy form the activity and it doesn’t drain them of energy. Since life is about energy, it is important we try to pursue those things for ourselves,” Robinson explains.


“That is why we have to argue for a transformation in our education system and our work places, and it begins with a transformation of ourselves. The initial starting point in this conversation is to discover ways to create the conditions under which that will happen, namely, curiosity, imagination, and creativity,” he concludes.


I hope you find Sir Ken Robinson’s words inspiriting and challenging as I do and be mindful of them as you plan for the new year. Here is to a great 2017-2018 school year!



“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.