Sir Ken Robinson’s Next Act: You Are the System and You Can Change Education
Sir Ken Robinson’s views on creativity are abundantly well documented. In his 2006 TED Talk—still the most-watched of all time—he claimed that “we are educating people out of their creative capacities” and charged the current education system with being too rigid in adhering to traditional academic subjects. Kids, he argued, need time to dance, draw, create and find what they’re good at.
But he hasn’t given up on schools or education—far from it, in fact. For his follow-up act, Robinson is releasing a new book for parents on how to raise capable children who thrive in school. Make no mistake, though, he’s still shaking up the system (and redefining what that actually means).
In a wide-ranging interview, Robinson recently spoke with us about collaboration versus competition, the all-important parent-teacher relationship and what every parent and educator can do to improve education.
EdSurge: Your new book, “You, Your Child and School,” seems like it’s intended as a playbook for parents. But I wanted to ask you about the other side of the coin, about educators. How can they deal with parents to create productive and healthy relationships?
Sir Ken: I wrote a book a few years ago called “Creative Schools,” which was directed primarily to educators, and there was a chapter in there for parents. So it seemed reasonable to try and offer some thoughts and guidance in a more extensive way to parents because they are a vital part of the partnership.
And that’s the point really. It is an attempt to engage parents more positively in the conversation. They do, after all, have an enormous vested interest in how their kids are educated, and they bear a lot of the brunt of the shifts in policy that seem to come along on an almost monthly basis in education.
This partnership obviously involves, by definition, different groups, and parents sometimes can be part of the problem that schools face. There’s the perception there about how sometimes parents can get overprotective and overreach. There’s a fine line in all relationships to strike between satisfying the interests of the various parties and working together to meet them all. So, the partnership is a very important part of it and it requires, of course, that teachers also reciprocate.
EdSurge:It reminds me of a book was popular a few years ago, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which talked a lot about how the parent-teacher relationship in China is different from that in the United States. How should both groups work together?
Sir Ken: You know, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been compared to a Tiger Mum. I don’t know how to feel about it. There are big cultural differences. It’s interesting of course that at some levels the issues that educators face are global in character. There’s the fuller point here about the fact that we have to think globally but act locally.
There are also changes over time. And it is true that in some Asian cultures there is a much greater level of deference to teachers and their professional competence. It’s part of the legacy of Confucianism as well that there is a respect for elders. There’s a respect for teachers, for people who are thought to be purveyors of cultural wisdom.
I grew up in Liverpool in the 1950s and ‘60s, and my parents didn’t tear off down to the school any time there was some kind of issue. On the contrary. I’ve got six siblings and if one of us came home complaining we’d been treated unjustly at school, the assumption was the school was reacting in the right way. And again, if something egregious happened then my parents might have taken it up with the school. But, on the whole, education was delegated to the school and the assumption was that these were professional people who were qualified and knew what they were doing.
And that has shifted, and I’m glad it’s shifted, because there should be a constructive and positive partnership between the schools and families. There are things that parents know about their kids that teachers don’t and vice versa.
In thinking about the relationship, it’s important for understanding properly how children’s minds work, what their talents and what their interests are, and helping teachers to customize and tailor their approaches to individual children. The partnership’s important because there are deep resources in most communities which can help to enhance what the school has to offer.
EdSurge: The book talks about collaboration, including some novel approaches such as mixed age groups. What are some ideas or some ways to promote collaboration over a competitive environment?
Sir Ken: Competition in itself is not a toxic dynamic. On the contrary, it can be very constructive and a great motivator. But like most things, there are good and bad versions of it. Where kids are being pitted against each other on the basis of spurious forms of testing, it sets up a false sense of antagonism between people that I think we should avoid. And it’s also been a big problem with the whole movement in standardized testing that the schools and districts have been forced to compete against each other for resources.
One of the successes of Finland for example—which is often lorded, and rightly so—is it has not based its revolution in education over the past 40 years on competition in the way it has been here in America. In Finland, it’s based on collaboration between teachers and schools; it’s been collaboration across age groups within students. It’s been based on schools working with the broader community more than we commonly see in other countries.
So I think as in most things, it’s about getting the balance right. It’s not one thing or the other but it does amaze me sometimes that you have to speak in defense of collaboration, where but for collaboration we would have no social systems to speak of and the ones we had wouldn’t last very long. Rather than thinking of education only in terms of subjects and content to be learned, we should also be thinking about the many skills and competencies and attributes that we hope education will help to encourage in our kids.
EdSurge: It’s interesting that you mentioned Finland, which scores very well on international rankings. You’ve mentioned before that the U.S. and testing companies have put a big emphasis on improving these standings to not much success. Should we care about international rankings or is that just one more element of competition?
Sir Ken: I think we should take an interest in it. It’s important information and it’s part of the collaborative ethic. Knowing how other people go about educating their kids and the sorts of outcomes they have and the methods they use is important information. There’s much to be learnt from it and my concern with it is not the existence of the data, it’s the use to which it’s put.
The problem is that when these league tables are published, people have a very reductionist view of what they mean. And there’s no doubt that they have spurred a lot of internal strategies in this country and others which are dedicated almost exclusively to improving ranking on these scales.
And that’s where the problems start to kick in, because hitherto the main focus of these tests has been on language, mathematics and some aspects of science. And when the raw data comes out, it’s like when people look at the Olympics. You look at all the effort and strife that goes into all the preparation to become an Olympic athlete and the tremendous passion and conviction that goes into it. But if somebody just comes along and just looks at the raw medal table at the end and says, “Well there you go then, that’s obvious isn’t it? That’s the better country by far,” it doesn’t begin to capture the complexity of the processes. Obviously there’s a national dimension to some of this, but when it’s presented as a head-to-head between nations and who’s the best country according to the medal chart, there’s a kind of absurdity built into it.
So when we get these raw table rankings from 1-40 and America finds itself at number 23 in maths, moral panic sweeps Congress, and the consequence is that people draw a straight line and say, “We’re going to do a lot more maths in school now. We’re going to have to test a lot more than we have in the past, and we’ve got to put more money into maths.” And money starts to drain away from other things that matter just as much. And those things that aren’t tested seem not to matter at all in some people’s eyes. I think that’s become part of the problem—it’s the weight on these things.
EdSurge: An individual teacher can’t really fix structural inequality, and parents cannot fix equity issues or problems with testing. So what can they do to help move education forward that doesn’t seem so scary and daunting?
Sir Ken: I come back to the idea of “Think globally, act locally.” We can talk about international league tables and we can talk about strategies to improve maths scores across the country. But we’re also talking about our children putting their backpacks on with their lunch in it every day, and going out the door and waving them off. We’re talking about the sort of day they’re going to have and how they’re going to seize that day, and what’s going to happen to them when they grow up. Education is not an abstraction. It’s something that sits at the very heart of our family lives, our communities and our relationships.
What can people do? Well, there’s a lot they can do. Education is a system in the sense that it’s organized on a grand scale, but it manifests itself every day in the actions and reactions of living people. Education happens in classrooms and studios and on playing fields and in school buildings and sometimes not in school buildings—in home schools. It manifests itself as relationships and feelings and achievements.
[As a teacher,] you have a big role in that. Whether you sit students down and make them face the front, or whether you get them in groups. Whether you give them something practical to do, get them to work in pairs, get them moving around. How you report back on the work you’ve done, what interest you take in the way they’ve composed their work and the way you speak to them. All of that is the education system, and you have a lot of control over that bit of it.
It’s why across the country and around the world there are wonderful teachers working in schools—often in difficult circumstances—who have a transformative effect on the lives of their kids.
If you’re a parent, you are part of the system. When your child comes home, how you respond to them, what pressure you put them under, how you relax the pressure, the way you relate to the school, the priorities you convey to them and the way you respond to their anxieties—all that’s part of the education system. There’s a lot people can do because the system consists of the actions of individuals.
I was looking recently at a school called Orchard Gardens in Massachusetts, which I talk about in the new book. This is an elementary school that was right at the bottom of the list of achievement in the district. A sink school that nobody wanted to send their kids to. They’d had five principals in seven years, and they were spending about a quarter of a million dollars a year on security at the school.
Well, they had the new principal come in who weighed up the whole situation and made a radical shift. He decided to get rid of all the security and put the money he saved into arts programs. He interviewed all the teachers, he fired some and he hired some new teachers. He particularly wanted teachers with expertise in the arts, in music and theater and dance, because he wanted to revitalize the culture of the school.
Anyway, the upshot is that the school became enormously more successful over the course of the next two years and there was a waiting list to get into it. And this wasn’t because the law had changed; it was because a school principal came in who understood about the conditions for learning and worked with the community to create them. The law wasn’t stopping him. He worked within the system as it was to bring about changes that were feasible and permissible with the right vision.
My point is, you are the system. You’re it. And I know it’s a complex system. You’re not all of it, but you’re part of it. When you stand there with your children, your class, what you do next is the education system so far as they’re concerned. And I know it’s layered, but as you start to engage them, you are the system and what you do next is up to you.