Ken Robinson rebuttal

Sir Ken RobinsonThanks to Scott Goodman, who sent me this essay analyzing Sir Ken’s presentation on TED in response to my own piece on Sir Ken Robinson. Scott’s analysis focuses more than mine on on Sir Ken’s technique and the way that he seduces his audience with flattery. All comments welcome.

So, if you are reading this, your curiosity got the better of you.

This essay originated as a long letter to my daughter, who had sent me the link to Robinson’s talk as part of her justification for ending her post secondary studies.  In talking to me and in statements on her Facebook page, she made it clear that she thinks that what Robinson has to say is “wonderful”.  I am afraid that I don’t share that view. The fact is that I have had a great deal of experience, as a teacher and in other areas of interest, with the claims of people like Robinson and my view is that such claims as his are not only wrong, but mean-spirited, destructive and dangerous.  To explain why I take that position requires that this essay be quite lengthy.  This is often the case when replying to blithely uttered rubbish.  A single sentence full of nonsense can take many paragraphs to expose as such.  Please be patient while you read it.

Now, Robinson is without doubt a charming, witty and engaging speaker.  I have to give him credit for having a few genuinely funny jokes.  However, having said that and having seen and heard many like him (at teacher Professional Development day seminars for example) over the years; I came to realize that humour is often a rhetorical tactic deliberately employed to put an audience into a receptive mood for a message that would otherwise be unpalatable.  Today, I pay attention to the content of the message rather than the charm of its delivery.  Even so, I agree with a few of Robinson’s observations, not because they are profound, but because they are commonplace.  I most definitely do not agree with his claims about why things are the way they are.  Moreover, in the majority of cases, I reject his portrayal of how things are and in some cases that there is even the least bit of truth to his claims.  And, I can’t comment on his solutions because, tellingly, he doesn’t present any.  I certainly don’t agree with and quite frankly resent the insulting and completely unjustified put-downs of educators that he engages in throughout his presentation, however wittily presented they may be.

The fact is that people like Robinson have exercised an extremely corrosive and destructive influence on education while contributing almost nothing to its improvement.  I would not be surprised to find that someone reading this would find that statement hard to believe since, at first glance, he seems to be suggesting things that are positive and that are supposed to help improve things.  They are anything but that.  As I said above, it took me quite a few years of attending talks like his to begin to see through the rhetorical techniques employed by such speakers and to begin to realize just how negative and destructive the ideas being presented really were.  For example, while it may not be immediately obvious, his comments are profoundly insulting to and disparaging of students.  Why?  Because a close analysis of his view shows that he believes students have no minds of their own and are incapable of acting independently of their teachers or of being held accountable for their own success.  Indeed, one of the most egregious shortcomings of education today is that teachers are prevented from holding students accountable for their own success.  Paradoxically, Robinson strongly implies that under no circumstances can teachers be credited for any success that students do achieve.  In Robinson’s view, student success, when it happens, must always be seen as occurring in spite of teachers, not because of them.

This raises a perplexing question.  If teachers aren’t to be given credit for student success and if at the same time students are defined as being mere clay to be molded by the teacher, who then is responsible for student success when it occurs?  These obvious contradictions in Robinson’s statements go begging for explanations that he never supplies.  The point is that while wittily expressing derision and scorn for teachers, Robinson is simultaneously, but tacitly, expressing equal contempt for students.  That is the insidious subtext of his message.   I ask the reader to keep in mind that I am a teacher and have first hand experience with the education system and its many faults (and, crucially, its many virtues).  The faults that teachers see, however, are not the ones Robinson puts forward.  In fact, his claims are not only false, but are a very large part of the actual problems faced by the education system as opposed to those that Robinson imagines exist.  Robinson is not the innovator he purports to be.  He is an emissary of destruction.

Superficially, he comes across as a charming fellow who is just trying to help.  From this vantage point he makes several claims about the talents and abilities of children and the supposed shortcomings of their teachers as well as what the education “system” does to children that, as he puts it, “educates the creativity out” of them.  In fact, as I said above, his message is a profoundly negative and wholly unjustified attack on teachers and the education system generally and on students as distinct and autonomous human beings in their own right.  What Robinson says has to be seen against the background of what has come to be called the “blame culture” that has been in the process of forming over the last several decades.  The essential feature of the blame culture is to identify or designate a class of “victims” who, if they experience any sort of negative outcome in life, are deemed to be entirely powerless in the hands of the perpetrators of their “victimhood” and are thus not accountable in any degree for that outcome.  Therefore, the outcome must be entirely someone else’s fault.  In this case, educators are the villains, or so Robinson would have people believe.  In Robinson’s universe, individuals (students in this case) are the “victims” of a feckless education system populated by even more feckless teachers and therefore under no circumstances are they to be held accountable for their own actions or responsible for their own shortcomings.  At the same time, if they are successful, the idea must never be entertained that such success has anything to do with their teachers.  All success is by definition, in spite of teachers.  This entire paradigm arises directly from the sphere of the post-modernist, cultural constructivist movement of the last several decades.  For a withering critique of these ideas, see “Higher Superstition:  The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science” by Gross and Levitt. [Note: Their term “Academic Left” should be distinguished from the political left/right dichotomy of North America.  They use the term in a very specific, non-political sense, which they explain at length in the book]

Robinson begins with the flat assertion that “all students have tremendous talents”.  At the same time, but less obviously, students apparently also lack free will or the slightest self-awareness and are thus entirely at the mercy of their teachers.  It follows from this set of premises, both spoken and implied, that should students fail to exhibit the claimed amazing talents and abilities and fail to succeed in school or later life, clearly it must be their teacher’s fault.  If they do somehow manage to succeed, it is in spite of their teachers.  Heads I win, tails you lose.  How else is one to explain why failure (but not success) is to be laid entirely at the feet of their teachers?  It could not possibly have anything to do with the students themselves, because by definition, they had no choice in the matter.  They have no free will, no independent ability, and no variability in their motivation; they are mere automatons, formless clay in the hands of their teachers.  It must therefore be their teachers’ fault and, more broadly, the “system’s” fault if they fail to succeed and perform at the genius level that their putative “tremendous talents” warrant.  Who had any idea that teachers were so all powerful?  It’s staggering really.  Or maybe, just maybe, the whole idea behind Robinson’s claims is faulty and dangerous nonsense.  That is my position.  Let me explain why I believe he is wrong.

Robinson’s theses are that:

  1. Children are all incredibly talented and creative.
  1. Creativity and innovation alone are the key to the future; knowledge won’t suffice and isn’t even necessary.  Acquiring knowledge is therefore a waste of time.
  1. Being creative and innovative requires risk-taking.
  1. Schools stigmatize “wrong” answers, thereby stifling creativity and innovation in favour of regimentation that frowns on risk-taking behaviour.  In essence, the education system “educates the creativity out of” students.
  1. Therefore, the traditional education system or model is completely wrong and has to be changed to eliminate these problems.

As I said earlier, based on sentiments like those expressed by Robinson, my daughter feels that there is no point, or at least little to be gained, in pursuing further education.  Presumably, she feels that one can do much better by pursuing one’s own interests and allowing free rein to their creative capacity.  She wouldn’t be the first person to feel this way and sometimes it even happens that way.  And one can easily point to many famous examples of people who achieved great things with little or no formal education.  Actual genius has a way of doing that.  Unfortunately, most people are not lucky enough to be that talented.  Anyway, let’s have a look at Robinson’s claims in more detail and see what we can make of them.  I used a verbatim transcript of his speech from the web so my quotes are dead accurate throughout.

Robinson, despite his evident charm and wit, quite shamelessly and ruthlessly uses rhetorical tricks, logical fallacies and humorously delivered insults to disguise his negative message and to get his audience on side and keep them there.  Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

To gain audience support and ultimately, audience agreement, he starts with this:

“There have been three themes, haven’t there, running through [this] conference, which are relevant to what I want to talk about. One is the extraordinary evidence of human creativity in all of the presentations that we’ve had and in all of the people here.”

This is actually the logical fallacy known as the Appeal to Flattery.  It goes something like this:

  1. ·  Person A (Robinson’s audience) is flattered by person B (Robinson).
  2. ·  Person B makes claim X (the education system kills creativity, etc.).
  3. ·  Therefore X is true.

Flattery, however, is not evidence of anything.  But by tacitly including the audience among those who are “extraordinarily creative”, he is flattering them and thereby not only setting them up emotionally to agree with him but to also make disagreeing with him later risky due to negative peer pressure.  If, later, someone does disagree with him, clearly they would be considered (by him anyway) as not being among the “extraordinarily creative”.  The audience would be highly likely to side with him and turn on the “troublemaker”.  After all, what sort of backward-thinking curmudgeon is going to disagree with all the wonderful things Robinson says about children?  By starting out in this way, Robinson is trying to make disagreeing with him emotionally unpalatable and even professionally risky for anyone actually present at the time that dares to do so.  This is a standard psychological ploy used in debates and politics and it is very effective with the uninitiated.  It is a form of reverse onus strategy.  This tactic is used by people making unsupported claims like Robinson’s in an attempt to put anyone disagreeing with him on the defensive by not only having to prove him wrong while he has to offer no evidence whatsoever in support of his claims, but do so from a position that Robinson has already characterized as negative and backward.  A neat trick if you can get away with it.  In fact, however, the onus is on the person making the claim to put forth evidence, which Robinson never does.  I’m not surprised.  He hasn’t any evidence.  So from the outset, he is manipulating his listeners.  This is an old trick and to me is annoying in the extreme.

Having complemented everyone, he now proceeds to the first of his insults to identify and isolate the “enemy”, charmingly delivered in the form of jokes:

“If you’re at a dinner party, and you say you work in education — actually, you’re not often at dinner parties, frankly, if you work in education.  You’re not asked. And you’re never asked back, curiously. That’s strange to me. But if you are, and you say to somebody, you know, they say, “What do you do?” and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They’re like, “Oh my God,” you know, “Why me? My one night out all week.”

Funny, right?  So according to Robinson, educators are not to be found at parties because they are not asked to come or, if they are, they are not asked back.  Hmmm.  If by some unlucky chance one finds one’s self sitting next to an educator at a party, no worse fate could be imagined.  I see.  So that’s what educators are like are they?  The rhetorical trick being employed here works like this; having first made the audience feel like they are among the cognoscenti, the “elite” if you will, he then identifies the group who are not – educators.  He does this by using the logical fallacy known as the Appeal to Ridicule.  The aim of the ridicule is to advance the claim that teachers are, without exception, really boring people that no one would choose to associate with if they had any choice in the matter and so are the very last people we want teaching our children.  Oh really?  Says who?  Robinson?  On what grounds?  What do you think his audience’s reaction would be at this point if someone stood up and called him out for being an arrogant blowhard for making this insulting and demonstrably false set of statements?  How do you feel about me doing it now?  Do you feel defensive on his behalf?  See how effective this sort of method is?

Next he makes his first substantive claim.  Here it is:

“We have a huge vested interest in it (education), partly because it’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue — despite all the expertise that’s been on parade for the past four days — what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”

Extraordinary?  Really?  That the future is unpredictable seems a rather banal observation to me.  He, however, presents it as if it is an earth-shattering insight.  It is hardly that.  After all, it has always been the case that we can’t predict the future.  If Robinson finds the unpredictability of the future so extraordinary, then in my view he is too easily impressed.  Education, and indeed all of society, has always faced the dilemma that the future is unknown and all that can ever be done is to take our best shot at it.  But there is another point to be raised here; one that Robinson deliberately avoids mentioning.  Education is not simply about the future.  It is also very much about the past, the present and what can be learned from them.  Humanity has certainly learned that the past can often be the key to both the present and the future so not only is he not saying anything that is surprising, he is also misdirecting his listeners’ attention, trying to keep people from reminding themselves that there is more to education than just getting a handle on the future and that what they just heard was complete B.S. After all, who wants to be stricken from the ranks of the elite?  No siree!  Can’t let that happen.

Then he makes a further claim:

“…my contention is, all kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly. So I want to talk about education and I want to talk about creativity. My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

This set of statements contains a falsehood and another banal observation that are presented as being significant and new insights when they are nothing of the kind.  First, it is flatly not the case that “all kids have tremendous talents” so his contention that these non-existent talents are being “squandered” is nonsense.  This sort of statement comes directly out of the now thoroughly debunked (and lately repudiated by its own academic originators) self-esteem movement that began around 1970.  I can’t tell you the number of times I have been to a Pro-D day presentation and heard the speaker tell us all that “every child is special”, by which they meant not that every child deserves the equal opportunity to reach their potential, whatever that might be, but that every child is equally, and in Robinson’s parlance, “tremendously” capable in every way and therefore if they fail to achieve in every way, it is our fault as teachers.  This is what Robinson means by “squandering” students’ talents.  What rubbish!

The second statement is to the effect that creativity is now as important in education as literacy.  This banal expression of support for creativity in education attempts to masquerade as a pithy observation.  But, in point of fact, creativity has always been valued to one degree or another.  This is not news.  What is news is that people such as Robinson would replace literacy with creativity – at least for others.

Rock solid research (longitudinal studies over three decades) has shown that statements like this are flatly false and that self-esteem, whatever it is, cannot be quantified and, crucially, has been demonstrated to have no connection with success in any aspect of life, be it academic, career, social or whatever (although it does correlate with a person’s subjective sense of happiness).  Despite these facts, statements like these have taken on the aspect of sacred cows in the education system, never to be challenged unless you want to see your teaching career go into the toilet.  In education today, it is highly politically incorrect to suggest for even a moment that each and every student does not possess every imaginable and amazing talent and ability or that if students fail to live up to this ridiculous idea that it might just have just as much or more to do with them than with their teachers or the “system”.  Of course, while a very few individuals actually have such tremendous talents, most people’s abilities, including students and their teachers, fall into the average range and there is nothing wrong or shameful about that, although constant attempts by people like Robinson are made to make both teachers and students feel that there is.  Not having “tremendous talents” does not mean that a person is worth any less as a human being or that they should suffer inequitable treatment or that they cannot contribute to society in many, and often in great, ways.  It is simply a fact.  We are not all geniuses.  People need to suck it up get over it.  Teachers can certainly nurture talents where they exist (and we strive mightily to do so) but no one and no methodology, however well conceived, can create them where they do not exist. To believe such a thing is tantamount to believing in magic.

I am of the view that what Robinson may be reacting to, probably without even realizing it, is the vague sense of resentment and resulting disappointment felt by young people who are of average ability when they discover that they actually don’t possess the amazing talents and abilities that they were told that they had and the realization that if they want to achieve something in life, they are going to have to work a lot harder and a lot longer than they expected or wanted or were led to believe they would have to.  If so, that is what is being done wrong.  It is my experience that this is exactly what is happening and it should be stopped.  It is a terrible thing to build up a person’s hopes on such false pretenses.  For the lucky few with great talent, I submit that it was none other than their teachers (and parents) who recognized their abilities and worked hard to help them develop them.  What a person does with their talents and abilities, though, is ultimately up to them.  It is not and never was the responsibility of their teachers.  How despicable it is for some glib-tongued traveling salesman to falsely and unjustly heap scorn and derision on such honourable people and their profession.  Another problem, and a major one, that this way of thinking has caused in the education system is that it leads students to believe that success is going to be handed to them on a silver platter and later, when this doesn’t happen, they become disillusioned and give up, blaming the “system” (and sometimes particular teachers) for the fact that they weren’t instantly rewarded with overwhelming success.  The system did fail them, but not by failing to deliver the success.  It failed them by leading them to believe that any such thing would happen without strenuous effort on their part.  It failed them by not making it clear that it is their responsibility to make it happen, not the system’s job to give it to them, earned or not.  It failed them by not making it clear that sometimes people fail even when they do make every conceivable effort.  In other words, sometimes life just sucks.  Robinson’s claims and the claims of others like him foster a set of unrealistic expectations and that is the problem.  That is why what he says is so pernicious and destructive.  It directs attention away from the real issues by attacking educators on an entirely false premise.  In a very real way, Robinson is the problem.

Creativity, when it is present in a student, has always been as important as literacy.  Teachers know this and act accordingly.  And today this is given much more attention than ever before.  Education is not conducted, as Robinson suggests, as it was in the 19th century, although having said that, there are some aspects of how education has been conducted in the past few decades that should not be continued today, as I have pointed out in the preceding paragraphs.  Again, this is not news and his presentation is both extremely misleading and fosters false conclusions.

Robinson moves on to his second substantive claim, that the school system regards “correct” answers as the desired outcome and therefore it “punishes” mistakes.  He presents no evidence in support of the claim but he tells a couple of jokes that are intended to illustrate the dangers of this supposed characteristic of the education system.  The first, about the girl drawing a picture of God during an art lesson, is to illustrate how children, if they aren’t put down, can feel free to let their minds go in interesting directions.  Quite true.  Again, every teacher, including, apparently, the teacher of the little girl in the joke, knows this.  Arts classes are the ideal (but not the only) venue for this, which is why we have them.  Why art classes are being cut back is quite another matter, having more to do with money than educational practices.

The second joke is about the Nativity play and the punch line “Frank sent this.”  I thought both jokes were good ones.  Robinson’s point, with which I agree, is that children have to be free to make mistakes and that it is no big deal.  Did you notice, though, that while claiming that mistakes are punished and how evil this is, he doesn’t go so far as to claim that the children depicted in the jokes were “punished”?  Nevertheless, he allows this suggestion to linger in the listener’s mind, which is another rhetorical trick he uses over and over again – innuendo.  What might be missed, in other words, is that while he uses these stories to illustrate how “mistakes are punished” in schools, he stops short of actually making the claim that there were negative repercussions for these children.  So what then can we make of his claim that “being wrong is punished”?  He offers no evidence in support of this claim anywhere in his speech, including the very examples he uses to illustrate it.  In fact, you don’t hear any evidence for any of his claims in any part of his speech.  Having gotten the audience on side, and having made these initial assertions, he simply leaves this claim, like all of his claims, out there as unspoken (and unsupported) assumptions.  This is hardly a basis for improving or reforming the education system.

He then points out the obvious again by saying:

“What these things have in common is that kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

True as far as it goes.  You do have to be prepared to take the risk that you might make a mistake or get a wrong answer in order to learn and improve but context is everything here, a crucial point that Robinson never brings up.  Blowing a line in a play and winging it is one kind of mistake, and not the kind that has to be immediately addressed.  Nor is it the kind that has to be “corrected” and certainly not punished.  And such mistakes are not “punished”.  In a math problem, on the other hand, learning what the mistake was and correcting it is the point and it is not damaging to a student to do so.  It has to be stated that correction is not punishment.  Robinson implies that there is no difference between the two or that correction constitutes punishment.  This is not so and conflating the two is, in my view, unethical and a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the true state of affairs.  Belittling or insulting someone while correcting him or her would be punishing them and Robinson, without spelling it out, leaves the impression that this is what teachers do when they correct a student.  This is, of course, nonsense.   If a person’s ego is so fragile that they cannot survive being corrected without giving up, there is a problem, but not one that is being caused by the teacher doing the correcting.  If a student’s ego is that fragile, it is not the education system’s fault nor is it the system’s job to fix it.  If a singer in the choir or player in the band hits a wrong note, it has to be brought to their attention and the mistake dealt with.  But they can’t give up, at least not if they want to continue playing or singing.  They practice and memorize and improve.  If they do give up, then once again, this is their problem, not the “system’s”.  Math and English are no different in that regard.  Now, it is true that occasionally there are teachers who do belittle and demean students.  This is quite wrong and completely unacceptable by any standard, the standards of the education system included.  If Robinson is suggesting, either out of ignorance or malignity, that such behaviour is acceptable or that it is standard practice, then he is simply making a false statement.  Period.  In fact, teachers can be, and are, disciplined and even fired for such behaviour.

Next Robinson gets to the real meat of his argument:

“And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.”

This is actually two claims being presented as one.  As I said above, most people aren’t lucky enough to be born with “tremendous” talents so there was no particular “tremendous capacity” to be lost.  But it is true that some people are afraid of being wrong, or at least, of being seen to be wrong in public.  Teachers go to great lengths to try and make students feel comfortable enough to take risks but it impossible to do this for everyone, no matter how hard you try.  Once again, students are independent and autonomous beings, not mere creations of their teachers.

And then Robinson pulls another little trick.  He says:

“And we run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatize mistakes.”

Companies?  Wasn’t he talking about education?  What do companies have to do with any of this?  Let me explain what he is up to.  Companies do stigmatize mistakes because mistakes cost money and reduce profits.  Sometimes mistakes lead to disaster.  No one, for example, wants to fly in an airplane made by an aircraft manufacturing company that tolerates engineering mistakes for fear of hurting the feelings of their engineers, and for a very good and obvious reason.  Companies aren’t in the business of sheltering fragile egos.  Neither are schools for that matter.  At least, they shouldn’t be.  Of course, there are bad managers who discourage employees and, if this happens in a context where creativity and innovation is the desired outcome, then there might be a distant connection with Robinson’s comments on education but it is pretty thin gruel at best.  This is a “bait and switch” ploy.  He switched from schools to companies as if they were equivalent things.  They aren’t.  Companies aren’t schools nor should either one be run like the other.  Today, in fact, there is a huge problem with right wing ideologues attempting to interfere in the education system by trying to “corporatize” it.  This is a mistake and a huge and well-recognized threat to education.  Students are neither “widgets” to be “produced” nor “consumers” of some educational “product”.  This pernicious idea has done untold damage in the education system already and needs to be stopped.  It is exactly this sort of thing, though, that is at the root of Robinson’s little switcharoo.  If you are developing a new product, creativity and innovation are valuable and valued.  If you are checking the accuracy of engineering drawings, they aren’t.  Context is important.

Next he says this:

“And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said this. He said that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.”

It is flatly false that the education system considers mistakes to be “the worst thing you can make” nor are students being educated out of their creative capacities, as I pointed out earlier.  Schools can no more instill or teach creativity than they can instill or teach critical thinking.  Both have to do with innate talents.  These can be recognized and nurtured, but, like energy, neither can be created or destroyed by the schools.  Picasso was wrong.  All children are not born artists any more than all children are born Olympic champions or world-class musicians.  Anyone who is not in some way handicapped can learn about those things and try their hand at them but not everyone is “tremendously talented” in any or every field.  Robinson’s claim that people get educated out of their creativity is nothing more than a naked, unsupported assertion that is not backed up by a single fact and is refuted by easily observed facts.

Then there is another joke, this time about Shakespeare, with some offhand remarks about what might have appeared on his report card if he attended school today (“must try harder”) and how his Dad might have been impatient with his writing (“…and put the pencil down. And stop speaking like that. It’s confusing everybody.”).  Interestingly, Robinson doesn’t pursue the influence, for good or ill, of parents, an interesting omission.

After another joke he moves on to this:

“But something strikes you when you move to America and when you travel around the world: Every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Every one. Doesn’t matter where you go. You’d think it would be otherwise, but it isn’t. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on Earth. And in pretty much every system too, there’s a hierarchy within the arts. Art and music are normally given a higher status in schools than 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. 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. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.”

He is right about the hierarchy but all he does is ask why this is so without offering any answers.  Again, this is a standard rhetorical device.  The audience is to draw its own conclusions.  It’s that evil, narrow-minded education system (insert “Boos” and “Hisses” here).  In fact, it isn’t.  It is political interference by means of financial starvation.  It is true, as he later points out, that the education system is organized around the idea that all students will be going on to university, which is something that does indeed need to be addressed.  But what drives the hierarchy is limited funds.  As a practical matter, the so-called “three R’s”, or core academics, are rightfully considered basic information that people must have in order to function in society.  Yes, the Arts are just as important but if you find yourself with limited funds, you get put in the position of making difficult and counterproductive choices.  This is a matter for the ballot box, not the classroom.  Educators have their hands tied by politicians on this subject.

Next he engages in more derogatory joking:

“…I think you’d have to conclude [if you were an alien visiting Earth] the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it? They’re the people who come out the top. And I used to be one, so there.  And I like university professors, but you know, we shouldn’t hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement. They’re just a form of life, another form of life. But they’re rather curious, and I say this out of affection for them. There’s something curious about professors in my experience — not all of them, but typically — they live in their heads. They live up there, and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied, you know, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads, don’t they?”

This is a not-so-subtle put down of academia, notwithstanding the fact that Robinson himself is a product of it and off of which he is making a lucrative living by selling books and giving speeches, a “do as I say, not as I do” situation if ever I saw one.

I found this on the web that shows that at least someone else out there understands that Robinson is mocking academic achievement:

“Those born with charisma do not need to be the most beautiful, highly intelligent or unbeatably athletic persons around. Just as university professors view “their body as a form of transport for their heads”, the charming similarly view their bodies as a form of transport for their charisma. Every situation they encounter is made easier by their ability to manipulate personalities around them.”

This quote is a good indication that mockery is exactly what Robinson is up to and that I am not the only person who thinks so.  You could use this approach to mock anyone or any group.  Do singers just see their bodies as a way to transport their voices around?  Give me a break.  But what, exactly, is he mocking?  Learning?  Achievement?  Just what is being made fun of here?  You see, by this point in his speech, Robinson has pretty well gotten his audience to feel nothing but contempt for anyone who has achieved a high degree of learning or who has the temerity to try and pass their learning on to others.  Apparently we are to believe that such people are just a bunch of useless, bloated eggheads preening their academic feathers.  This is clearly what his audience is meant to conclude.  Is that really what people feel?  Is it a fair depiction?  Sure, it may apply to some, but big egos aren’t restricted to academia and most professors I have encountered no more fit such a stereotype than do public school teachers.  But Robinson evidently thinks so and he clearly wants his listeners to buy into this way of thinking without bothering to question it.  It is the worst sort of derogatory and demonizing rhetoric.  If this is what people think, or if people can be made to think that way by clever manipulation, it is a much greater threat to the future of education than any nonsense claims about stifling creativity.

Think about this next bit:

“Now our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there’s a reason. The whole system was invented — around the world, there were no public systems of education, really, before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas. Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist.”

Really?  Ask yourself if that was your experience.  I am willing to bet that it wasn’t and that your experience at school was just the opposite and that this is typical, not exceptional.  I’ll bet that you were encouraged at every step along the way.  Of course, there will be exceptions (there really are bad teachers after all) and people tend to remember a negative experience longer than a positive one, but think about it.  In any case, Robinson presents not a single shred of evidence to support this silly claim.

And then:

“Benign advice — now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution.”

What does that mean?  I have no idea.  It is a vague and negative statement and he doesn’t elaborate.  In any case, as I stated above, such advice is not given in the first place, as actual experience shows, so the “mistake” he refers to, whatever he thinks it is, is not being made.  Secondly, whatever the revolution is that he thinks we are we being “engulfed” by, he fails to explain how or why the arts would make a better way of dealing with the problem, if there is one, or why, for that matter, core academic subjects would fail to deal with the situation.

Now consider Robinson’s next set of statements:

“And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can’t afford to go on that way.”

By now, you can probably anticipate what I am going to say.  First, university education arose independently from the public education system.  The people who went to and ran the original universities did not design the public education system, which arose gradually and locally and evolved into what we now know as the public education system.  What universities did do is exactly the opposite of what Robinson claims happens at universities.  They fostered an atmosphere of unfettered and unprecedented intellectual freedom and creativity.  We don’t call it the Enlightenment for nothing!  Of course, to be able to take advantage of that situation, one had to first master the information needed to be creative and innovative.  This point was not lost on local authorities and so schools gradually moved in the direction of providing an education that would give students the option of pursuing higher learning opportunities.  I submit that this is not, of itself, an evil.  But perhaps Robinson feels this task is too tiresome and is asking too much of students.  They should just move straight to creativity and innovation without bothering to acquire any of that boring knowledge.  Well, good luck with that.  Public schools aim at university because of what universities have achieved for our society not because of some dictatorial control over them, and in so doing, they do make a mistake, and it is the one I detailed above.   All students are encouraged to prepare to go on to university because it is a matter of educational dogma that all students can do anything and everything they want.  Clearly that is nonsense.  But it does not follow nor is it the case that non-university oriented studies are stigmatized.  They are just not the focus.  This does need to be changed, or rather, changed back.  When I was in school, trades and the arts got much more attention (not least because there was enough money in the budgets to support them) than they do now.  This was attacked at that time, ironically by would-be gurus of the day who sounded very much like Robinson, as “pigeon-holing” students, essentially denying them access to higher academic institutions and thereby curtailing their opportunities.  That was as wrong a claim then as Robinson’s claims are now.

Moving on:

“In the next 30 years, according to UNESCO, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than since the beginning of history. More people, and it’s the combination of all the things we’ve talked about — technology and its transformation effect on work, and demography and the huge explosion in population. Suddenly, degrees aren’t worth anything. Isn’t that true? When I was a student, if you had a degree, you had a job. If you didn’t have a job it’s because you didn’t want one. And I didn’t want one, frankly. (Laughter) But now kids with degrees are often heading home to carry on playing video games, because you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a PhD for the other. It’s a process of academic inflation. And it indicates the whole structure of education is shifting beneath our feet. We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.”

Robinson says, “Suddenly, degrees aren’t worth anything. Isn’t that true?”  Well, no, it isn’t.  Graduating too many people in one area or another may lead to a glut on the market for that area of expertise, but that doesn’t make the degree worth less, it just means too many people are competing for the number of available jobs directly related to it, which is a problem, but not the problem he is talking about.  Moreover, higher degrees such as MA’s and PhD’s are required in many areas today for the simple reason that knowledge has advanced in many areas to such a degree that a BA no longer includes enough information and background to qualify a person in those fields.  Simply put, today more training is needed to work in those areas.  Does Robinson think people should just be hired, qualified or not?  He doesn’t tell us.

Next, one of my favourites:

“We know three things about intelligence. One, it’s diverse. We think about the world in all the ways that we experience it. We think visually, we think in sound, we think kinesthetically. We think in abstract terms, we think in movement. Secondly, intelligence is dynamic. If you look at the interactions of a human brain, as we heard yesterday from a number of presentations, intelligence is wonderfully interactive. The brain isn’t divided into compartments. In fact, creativity — which I define as the process of having original ideas that have value — more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.”

In fact, almost all of this is dead wrong.  He is talking here about Multiple Intelligences, an idea put forward by Howard Gardner and since promulgated by a number of his academic disciples and thoroughly rejected by everyone working in the field of human intelligence, which, tellingly, is not Gardner’s area of expertise.  And Robinson garbles things further when, after having listed several types of “thinking”, he does a 180 and says that the brain is not compartmentalized, which is quite true.  It is clear, in other words, that he has no idea of what he is talking about.

Skipping the jokes about men being different from women, he goes on with the story about Gillian Lynne:

“And the third thing about intelligence is, it’s distinct. I’m doing a new book at the moment called “Epiphany,” which is based on a series of interviews with people about how they discovered their talent. I’m fascinated by how people got to be there. It’s really prompted by a conversation I had with a wonderful woman who maybe most people have never heard of, she’s called Gillian Lynne, have you heard of her? Some have. She’s a choreographer and everybody knows her work. She did “Cats,” and “Phantom of the Opera.” She’s wonderful. I used to be on the board of the Royal Ballet, in England, as you can see. Anyway, Gillian and I had lunch one day and I said, “Gillian, how’d you get to be a dancer?” And she said it was interesting, when she was at school, she was really hopeless. And the school, in the ’30s, wrote to her parents and said, “We think Gillian has a learning disorder.” She couldn’t concentrate, she was fidgeting. I think now they’d say she had ADHD. Wouldn’t you? But this was the 1930s, and ADHD hadn’t been invented at this point. It wasn’t an available condition. (Laughter) People weren’t aware they could have that.

Anyway, she went to see this specialist. So, this oak-paneled room, and she was there with her mother, and she was led and sat on a chair at the end, and she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school. And at the end of it — because she was disturbing people, her homework was always late, and so on, little kid of eight — in the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said, “Gillian, I’ve listened to all these things that your mother’s told me, and I need to speak to her privately.” He said, “Wait here, we’ll be back, we won’t be very long.” and they went and left her. But as they went out the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out the room, he said to her mother, “Just stand and watch her.” And the minute they left the room, she said, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick, she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”

“I said, “What happened?” She said, “She did. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was. We walked in this room and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.” Who had to move to think. They did ballet, they did tap, they did jazz, they did modern, they did contemporary. She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School, she became a soloist, she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School and founded her own company — the Gillian Lynne Dance Company — met Andrew Lloyd Weber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history, she’s given pleasure to millions, and she’s a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.”

Now that is a pretty impressive story.  But what is his point?  That all kids who are fidgety should take up dance, or at least, that they all have some “tremendous” untapped talent that is being destroyed by being in school?  What he is doing here is presenting the logical fallacy known as the Biased Sample.  He is presenting an exceptional case as if it represents the majority of cases.  More on this below.  I have to digress here for a moment to respond to a particularly nasty comment Robinson makes.  In the last sentence of the paragraph above, Robinson mixes in a little kernel of emotion about medicating students to “calm them down”.  This is a particularly vicious and nasty lie and as such is a totally false attack on educators.  While there are anecdotal stories floating around about the unauthorized medicating of students to “keep them quiet”, as far as I know such instances, if they do happen, are rare.  Indeed, if it is happening it is deplorable and unconscionable.  Teachers certainly don’t do it because they can’t.  The medications are prescription drugs and only a doctor can authorize their use.  In fact, teachers are not allowed to give students any sort of medication whatsoever.  Not even an aspirin.  What I can tell you and what Robinson says nothing about are the many cases I have seen where a student who formerly could not function in a classroom at all because of a genuine attention deficit disorder was able, with the help of appropriate medications, to function and do well in school for the first time in their lives.  Why do you suppose Robinson doesn’t talk about that?  But there is an actual problem along these lines.  The simple fact is that students fidget and behave in other disruptive ways that can become an issue in a classroom for a variety of reasons, the least common of which is that they have some amazing talent that is being ignored or that is unrecognized. Some are just ill behaved brats.  Some drink too many caffeinated drinks. Some, as mentioned above, actually have unidentified or uncontrolled ADD or ADHD problems.  A very real problem is that students who are misbehaving for reasons that have nothing to do with either attention deficit problems or frustrated genius are informally categorized by counselors and administrators (and sometimes teachers too I’ll admit) as having some sort of disorder but no steps are taken to verify it.  Instead, they are simply excused from the normal behaviour expectations in a school and allowed to go on destroying class after class, oftentimes for years.  The pathologizing of normal range behaviours originated with modern Psychology, not education and it is a real problem.  Educators have been misled by these ideas but this can be, and is being, addressed.

Getting back to his story about Gillian Lynne, by citing this very exceptional example and suggesting that it represents the majority of cases, Robinson is trying to suggest that in reality, all kids who behave like she did are unrecognized geniuses who are being overlooked by their nincompoop teachers and are therefore examples of teacher incompetence and a lousy education system.  He is just plain wrong and, in this case, deliberately attempting to mislead people as far as I am concerned.  It is really an outrageous example of the most objectionable sort of calumny.

And finally, this”

“Now, I think … What I think it comes to is this: Al Gore spoke the other night about ecology, and the revolution that was triggered by Rachel Carson. I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children. There was a wonderful quote by Jonas Salk, who said, “If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.” And he’s right.

What TED celebrates is the gift of the human imagination. We have to be careful now that we use this gift wisely, and that we avert some of the scenarios that we’ve talked about. And the only way we’ll do it is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are, and seeing our children for the hope that they are. And our task is to educate their whole being, so they can face this future. By the way — we may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it. Thank you very much.”

There is a glaring omission in the two paragraphs above.  Can you guess what it is?  Al Gore, Rachel Carson and Jonas Salk all have one very important thing in common from the standpoint of this discussion:  They were or are all highly educated people whose education, including public schools, was the very thing that enabled them to make the great breakthroughs, contributions and achievements that they did, and in Gore’s case, continues to do.  None of them could have achieved what they did without it.  Robinson’s own examples give the lie to his premise.

Robinson uses the horrific image of “strip-mining children’s minds” to characterize the supposed evils of our education system and declares “…for the future, it won’t serve us.”  I couldn’t disagree more.  His image, while horrific, is not only a false one it is entirely meaningless.  It is gratuitous verbal violence.  Robinson has no corner on the market of celebrating the gift of human imagination and his charmingly delivered sneers suggest that such a celebration is not what he is up to at all.  Of course the goal of education should be to educate the “whole being” of children.  I know from the inside that this is exactly what educators aim to do and much time is spent trying to make sure that everyone works very hard to that end.  Our intellectual and creative capacities are indeed the very things that will, and must, serve us.  For the simple reason that they, and the human race’s hard won knowledge are all that we have.  Robinson’s rant contributes nothing to the future.  He offers only disparagement, insults and deception.  He panders to self-inflicted prejudices that are based on false beliefs.  He is just plain wrong.

Scott Goodman
November, 2010


Related posts and pages

Sir Ken Robinson is the original rebuttal to a different Ken Robinson video, written by blog owner Crispin Weston.
Home page, with a full listing of posts on this blog.

68 thoughts on “Ken Robinson rebuttal

    • With what do you ‘completely disagree’ exactly, archana? And why? It would be interesting and informative, having read Scott’s closely argued piece – itself based on a detailed analysis of Robinson’s rhetorical techniques – to see you join the argument with some reasoned points of your own. Disagreement is fine, of course, but without debate it’s pretty sterile.

  1. Scott,
    Robinson stirs up emotional discontent regarding the educational system. His talk gives people the emotional muscle to go out and find a solution. And here is the solution for the USA and the UK:

    Simply open up K-12 education to the market place, with government only playing a role by financing the students with a yearly education check of $8000.
    *This would allow students(and their parents) to choose how, when, where, and what they learn, and also who teaches them.

    • Peter, For my part, I fully support your solution – more of a free market supporting educational innovation. But I am not so sure that Ken Robinson would also support it. Here in the UK, the policy of promoting “parent power” in K-12 is exactly what our current (centre-right) government is doing – and it seems on the whole to promote traditional approaches to education (though different sections of the community would undoubtedly choose different approaches). Crispin.

  2. I take some serious exception that Robinson’s makeing clams that teachers are in fact the problem. Teachers are just as much cogs in the wheel of industrial education as students. The fact is that everyone needs to rethink WHY we have education. As a middle aged American living in China and teaching English I can say without ANY hesitation that education in China is PURELY about programing children for the job market….PERIOD!!!

    These children are stripped of any original thought, and even punished for being unique. Creativity has been erased from their minds. This is reflected in their society where they copy and duplicate, not innovate. More and more I see this same educational mentality in western schools…especially in America where a huge percentage of children are drugged into submission so as to be more easily “programmed”

    The simple fact is that in order to create a future we need to educate people to become better HUMANS, not better employees. Schools have become void of teaching social skills and when we strip arts programs in favor of athletics its an affirmation that creative thinking is not valuable in society. Scott I disagree with this essay rebuttal of Robinson’s speech. You take it as an insult rather than what it actually is, an idea to make people question WHY we have education and what the final product should be….which is a valued, conscious thinking member of society.

    • Lance, I have passed your comment on to Scott. As someone who also opposes Ken Robinson’s position (link now added at the end of Scott’s piece) I fully support the call for creativity and I am a passionate supporter of liberal values. My disagreement with Ken Robinson is in supposing that you get creativity by moving away from teaching knowledge. Creativity *requires* knowledge and understanding – it is just about getting the balance right. As it is surely also about getting the balance right between athletics, arts, sciences and life skills. In short, I would very much agree with what you are saying (including on China). What I and I think Scott both dislike in Ken Robinson’s message is his attack on knowledge and his rather rhetorical attack on “industrial education”. That may be justified in relation to China but is it really justified in relation to the US and UK? Crispin.

  3. I also found Sir Robinson’s talk charming but misleading. There isn’t a day that goes by that I realize how dangerous it is to mislead people into thinking that creativity solves all problems, and does not require strenuous effort in acquiring knowledge and understanding. If you have passion, it makes the long journey of knowledge acquisition or craft mastery seem a little shorter. If you are genuinely interested, you find different ways of making the journey interesting. If you have willpower (which can be trained), you push yourself a bit harder on the route. BUT ONE HAS TO GO THROUGH THE LEARNING ROUTE, NO MATTER WHAT FIELD. Gillian Lynne didn’t just close her eyes and automatically became a genius , successful dancer. There is a corpus of knowledge in the field of dance as well, and she would have had to master the craft. I have severe ADHD, but do not have any talents in dancing or anything physical. Because I went through the school system before ADHD became the ‘norm’, as Sir Robinson puts it, I had to learn to manage ADHD somehow, and schooling helped. It helped me to understand that I have to set goals, learn things, achieve things step by step. Learn to do things even if I don’t feel like doing so. There were good teachers and bad teachers, but on the whole they taught me how to manage ADHD, improve willpower, use my creativity to come up with different strategies to cope with it. I am a very creative person, but again, that is of no use without the years of studying. Now I am in a very technical field where I work with people who have put in decades of hard work. They are not dumb automatons who mindlessly sat through the education system. They are bright, hardworking and creative people who put the hours in with the help of the education system.

    There is a small percentage of people who needed someone to spot their talents and let them flourish. The vast majority of people are by default average. The education system helps them to learn goal setting, discipline, putting in the hours to acquire knowledge, and mastering the concepts. Creativity is absolutely exercised in every problem solving exercise. In a way, saying that dancing is creative but math (or other students who do well in the system) is not is another form of prejudice.

    I now have a young son. I plan to never extol the virtues of creativity or tell him that he just needs to find one thing that interests him and everything will work out. He will enjoy different things; trick would be to find one thing that makes the long, hard journey to mastery more enjoyable. Learn self-control, discipline, and the joy of hard work on the way and the rest should follow.

    Thanks for the article. This explained why I felt a little uncomfortable after listening to the talk, although it was very charming.

  4. If I may, I would like to respond to a couple of the comments so far posted.

    Proposing the “market based solution” of providing a set amount of tax money per student (presumably sent to their parents in the form of a voucher useable only for tuition to an approved educational institution) without very clearly stipulating the expected outcomes is a dangerous idea in my view. Among other things, it assumes that the “market”, with its oft-vaunted efficiencies (real and imagined) will arrive at an optimum solution that serves society’s best interests rather than its own; that of capital profit. I submit that, in the absence of very close and strict regulation, there is no evidence or expectation that this would be met. I might add, that having worked for large private companies, it is my experience that they are just as prone to organizational shortcomings and inefficiencies as are governmental ones. Moreover, we already have the example of this approach having been tried in a couple of U.S. jurisdictions, where the attempt to offer this option was quickly subverted to the cause of evangelical religion in the form of the inclusion of creationism, climate change denial and blatant historical revisionism. There were no innovations of pedagogy whatsoever.
    All of that aside, it would overturn one of the main reasons that a publicly run education system was, and is, necessary: Equality of opportunity. There is no lack of high quality, privately run schools now. Very few can afford them and an $8,000 annual stipend isn’t going to come close to meeting the fees such schools charge. Nor do such schools accept those who do not meet their academic, behavioural and, in some cases, physical standards. One can easily predict that, much like the for-profit prisons in the U.S., education corporations would be organized around maximizing profit, which would likely mean cranking out the greatest possible number of “graduates” for the minimum financial investment. A more dystopic solution would be hard to formulate. Of course, laws could be passed requiring them to accept all comers, as public schools are required to do now, but then what do you have? The public school system with the cost of profit added, hardly an inviting prospect for the taxpayer.

    As for stirring passions for reform, it seems very clear in his presentation that Robinson has cast teachers as the clear target of that passion. The “system” is far too abstract a concept for his purpose. Teachers, on the other hand, are real and available targets at which frustration driven wrath can be aimed.

    The idea that we need to ask why we have education, or put another way, what purpose do we wish education to serve, is precisely the question that must be asked and one that has not been answered or even addressed in any meaningful way in my view. Certainly Robinson’s TED talk does not address it. It appears that we all share a vague set of ideals that are an amalgam of creating engaged and well-informed citizens who are both ready to participate meaningfully in a democratic society as well as being well-positioned to pursue a useful and productive career. No one is in favour of creating an ant colony society where the only goal is the drudgery of unceasing labour and the vilification of creativity and suppression of originality. Much of Robinson’s argument is that we are doing precisely that. The point of my essay is precisely that he fails utterly to make that case and that his claims are false. Moreover, whether teachers are to be seen as mere cogs in some blindly malevolent machine or as conscious and deliberate perpetrators of this putative horror, it is clear that Robinson largely blames them for what he views as the failings of the education system and he misses no opportunity in his presentation to belittle and belabour them for this supposed outrage.

    I have a couple of observations about all of this. First, as the debate rages on as to what is to be done with education, it is worth taking note of some of the obvious contradictions that are manifest in the discussion. For example, much is made, and much hand-wringing is done, over such things as declining achievement scores in key subjects like math, science and reading. You will notice that these are all things that are comparatively easy to subject to empirical measurement. This fact goes a long way toward explaining the motivations of those promoting the virtues of standardized testing. On the other side of the coin, we have the example of a long succession of would-be reformers like Robinson, who speak of creativity, critical thinking and self-esteem. These are, without doubt, all desireable, even vital, characteristics but you will immediately see that they are all also entirely subjective. They cannot be meaningfully measured and, crucially, cannot be taught, although they can be nurtured and encouraged. And it is precisely these subjective and unteachable qualities that Robinson and others like hiim excoriate teachers for failing to inculcate in their students. To be vilified for failing to deliver an unquantifiable quality is Orwellian in my view. Worse, Robinson accuses teachers, and the education system generally, of deliberately suppressing these qualities. It may well be the case in a society like that which exists in China, that such draconian practices exist but it is simply false to claim that this is the case in the U.S, Canada and the UK.

    Are we to believe that our school systems have, for at least the last two generations, set about training and hiring the most incompetent, untalented and ideologically rigid people that could be found or is it more reasonable to suggest that something quite different is wrong? Without doubt, there are very real problems. But it is critical that we accurately assess the situation and properly identify the problems lest we embark on a fool’s errand yet again. Are we, for example, to fixate upon hard empirical measures at the expense of creativity and original thinking? Conversely, should we insist on pursuing subjective qualities on the assumption that hard knowledge will be acquired as a matter of course. Neither course seems to me to be wise. It seems clear that both of these and more are needed to face an uncertain future.

    I have a number of observations and questions that intrigue me when trying to come to grips with these questions. Let me give an example. Much is made of declining achievement scores. Yet what is not examined at all as far as I can tell is that this decline carries with it an inkling of what the right questions might be. Such a decline strongly suggests that, in the past, we were doing something, or some combination of things, much better than we are doing those things now. What has changed? Why was it changed? Do we even know? I think we do, at least to a degree. One thing is certain, people like Robinson will not be of help in answering such questions. For Robinson and those like him, the only prospect more ghastly than maintaining the status quo is to return to what they view as an even more hideous past. Yet the fact remains that we were doing a better job in some respects several decades ago than we are now. It is also true that much of earlier practice was misguided and counterproductive. This means that great care must be taken in any such retrospective analysis before any action is taken.

    It is also my view that a much more pragmatic and realistic approach must be taken with respect to students and their interests and abilities. Anyone who has been a teacher is all too well aware that children, for the most part, begin school with great enthusiasm and that this fervour decidedly wanes over time for most. But, realistically, after a certain developmental point in a child’s life, as well as by virtue of the naturally increasing complexity of the curriculum content as the student advances, school becomes a job of work that cannot reasonably be expected to be an experience of constant intellectual wonderment. Nor should anyone expect that it would be. Indeed, the hollow promise that life will be a constant source of positive stimulation is one of the very problems we have created for ourselves in education (and in society at large) much to our children’s detriment. Moments of high intellectual excitement occur to be sure, and educators have developed clever and interesting strategies to present the curriculum in as interesting a manner as possible. But no amount of makeup and lipstick can disguise the fact that the process of acquiring and understanding knowledge and developing high level skills is hard work that cannot be circumvented. By insisting that every moment of every day must consist of a succession of great intellectual “highs” is to set the stage for failure for all. To be sure, modern educational methods have come up with innovative techniques to improve the enjoyment of study and learning, but it is still work and there are still many human beings who do not, or will not, take joyfully to toil. In short, we have not yet evolved to a higher intellectual plane, whatever our aspirations may be. We may wish to be better humans than we are but we are not yet there. Perhaps they lie in our future. But today, we must deal with human beings as they are, not as we would have them be.

    In addition to taking children as they are, I must say that I am a strong advocate for the re-introduction of failure. One of the hallmarks of modern education is that any hint of failure must at all costs be avoided. However, where there are no stakes, there is no motivation. Currently, student motivation, or more properly, the obvious and increasing lack of such motivation, is occupying a great deal of the attention of the educational hierarchy. On every side one hears the question “What can be done to increase the desire to learn”?
    To me, that is the wrong question entirely. What we should be asking ourselves is why we are so terrified of demanding diligence and commitment from students. Why have we removed failure as an option? Why should anyone work hard if the consequences are essentially the same regardless of how hard one works? Of course, later in life those consequences will be driven home with a vengeance. But somehow, we have lost the will to impose them on students in the belief that they are too fragile to cope with even the slightest negative emotion. It is not creativity that schools are killing thereby, it is ambition and diligence. As noted in my essay, failure must not be equated with punishment or cruelty. Failure can be, and often in the past was, used in that way, but it can also be incorporated as a positive force for personal growth. Try, however, standing up and saying such a thing at your next staff meeting. It will be a truly educational experience for you.

    Finally, regarding the supposed epidemic of drugging children in schools to control them. As I alluded to in my essay, this is a commonly held belief that is out there that is simply not supported by the facts. There have been a handful of incidents of this kind, which for obvious reasons became notorious, but the fact of the matter is that school districts and school personnel are not authorized to prescribe or dispense medications of any kind without a medical doctor for the former and parental consent for the latter. School psychologists can recommend that a student be referred for a medical/psychiatric examination if they are thought to be acting out due to a medical condition, but that is the extent of their authority in such matters. Teachers are not allowed to give so much as an aspirin to a student in all of the jurisdictions with which I am familiar. Typically, if a student has been prescribed a drug like Ritalin, a supply of the pills will be kept in the school office and they are only doled out to the student on the recommended schedule by a school administrator, after first having obtained parental permission.

    I have no doubt that these comments will stir up further debate. That is to be expected and welcomed. I do not pretend to have all, or even very many, of the answers. However, it must be said that if I had no contribution to make whatsoever, that fact would still not affect the accuracy or cogency of my analysis of Robinson’s position as presented in my critique of his TED talk. The fact that I, or any other critic, does not have the answer to the problems facing education does not detract from the fact that Sir Ken Robinson offers none of his own. He has put forward claims that he does not, and in my view cannot, support with facts. There is no requirement that those who point out the deficiencies of such claims are only to be listened to if they have the answers themselves. That is the very reverse onus argument that Robinson attempts, all too effectively, to foist on his audiences. I will have none of it.

  5. I strongly disagree with your postion as a former student of second level education I struggled greatly in a school system that was clearly not designed for me. I was a statistical outlier, my only solace was in the Art class which had an excellent teacher who loved his subject and inspired me to love it also. Ironically my final grades in that class were poor because of the school system that put and over-bearing weight of pressure on my shoulders, I felt all my efforts were futile because I was afraid of being wrong of “losing” my solution was to not play the game so I couldn’t lose. But enviably I did lose, the opportunities for my future paths narrowed, I have been afraid ever since to go near Art because I was deemed inadequate in the written part of this examination, even after hours of staying in school to perfect my work. (Which I in no way regret.)

    The education system crushed my enthusiasm and self-worth and nearly had me on the verge of suicide. Now granted I am a unique case, I do not flourish in an exam arena and require time for my handwriting, when forced to write fast simple mistakes are made. I would not consider myself dumb and my University grades certainly would not reflect this but my second level education would beg to differ. For so long I was enraged at this system of “education” but more importantly I was very angry with myself. (Thankfully the former is beginning to reside ever since University) It leads to the question What is the purpose of our examinations? To lay an set of hoops to test their ability to regurgitate facts in order to satisfy arbitrary quotas or to inspire them to strive in their own bodies and the eventual path they discover for themselves. Are we really teaching them or telling them?

    I feel you took this video as a personal attack at your profession that you could well be brilliant at, I have had a couple very good teachers that believed in which made all the difference when I did not, while it is a critique of the system which has failed to evolve according to the climate. The system is not the combination of its workers but the framework they must satisfy. That current system is the one that has failed me, and has silently strained my personal well-being emotionally, creatively and educationally for too long.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this.

    • Hi Dylan, Thanks for your comment. I own the blog and have also posted a critical piece on Sir Ken Robinson – so I am sympathetic to Scott’s position – though this is not my post.

      The story that you tell of your own experiences is clearly an unhappy one – I don’t think anyone is arguing for anything other that an education system that enables people to build their self-confidence and their abilities (as well as facing their inevitable weaknesses, disappointments and failures with equanimity).

      What Scott and I are arguing for, though, is a system that does not give people confidence in false abilities – because that just comes back and bites you later. I think that the promise that Sir Ken gives of creativity without knowledge is a kind of fool’s gold.

      There are many things you can do about someone who is not succeeding at a particular course. You can (1) give them the extra help needed to succeed, (2) find them something else that they *can* succeed at (either changing course or maybe building self confidence elsewhere before returning to the thing that they found difficult), (3) or you can remove the criteria which they are not meeting, pretending that there is no such thing as success and failure.

      If at a particular stage in your education you were left to fail, then that is bad because no-one was working on options (1) or (2) for you – not (as Sir Ken seems to be saying) because they were not working on option (3).

      Glad things are better now. Speaking for myself, I find that blaming others (including “the system”) tends to feed any anger hanging around and that (unless you can do something about it) anger becomes a very destructive emotion and a healthier way to move on is to go with Neitzsche when he said: “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”.

  6. “As I said above, it took me quite a few years of attending talks like his to begin to see through the rhetorical techniques employed by such speakers”

    You could show some respect for those who disagree with you. Some of us might actually agree with his position because we believe it to be right, not because he is “charming”.

  7. My heart goes out to you Dylan. My own daughter has a learning disability called sensory neural integration and she suffered in school much the same way as you describe, especially where writing and test taking were concerned.

    No system that I know of has ever succeeded in protecting all of its members from misfortunes caused by the system itself and probably it is impossible to do so. Teaching is a very personal and imperfect process in many ways. However, having said that, most of my daughter’s issues resulted from financial cutbacks for children with learning disabilities. In our jurisdiction at the time, extra funding to assist such students was capped at 3% of the student population, regardless of whether or not that reflected the reality in any given school or school district. Not all problems are to do with methodology.

    As for Eddie’s comment suggesting that I think people agree with Robinson because of his charm, I have to respond by saying that I see that as an oversimplification. He is charming and that, combined with his rhetorical expertise, makes him an effective and persuasive speaker, as demonstrated by the fact that he is the one getting all the speaking engagements. Clearly he is good at what he does.

    However it is not an insult, at least not to me, to suggest that people might be more easily convinced to accept a negative message if it is cleverly, wittily and charmingly delivered. And his message is profoundly negative. However, your comment leads me to ask, what “position” of Robinson’s is it that you feel that you and other people agree with? Because, as far as I can see, he doesn’t actually adopt a coherent position. He merely cries “J’accuse!” without offering anything more. His depictions of teachers are at once absurd and insulting. His examples of failure fail to demonstrate the case. His thesis appeals to the emotions, I’ll grant you, but he has no facts to back it up. In other words, he has, in my view, nothing other than charm and polished speaking skills to offer.

    Creativity is indeed important and it is valued. But it cannot be instilled in those who lack it or increased in those who have it. It can be nurtured and usually it is. Again, however, teaching is an imperfect human enterprise and we have to accept that fact, making genuine improvements where we can and trying to mitigate the worst mistakes. My concern is that we avoid misidentifying the problems we face and wind up doing tremendous harm. The last three decades especially have seen one supposed panacea after another on offer, each one supplanting the one before it, using students as the guinea pigs to their vast detriment. If one looks, for example, at the damage done by the Whole Language debacle or the self-esteem movement, one quickly learns to be very cautious of any bold claims.

  8. “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education” – Albert Einstein

    It seems to me that Robinson, like Einstein, is challenging educators to rethink the goals of our public education system. Is it possible that the educators here cannot understand the value of those who challenge the system because of their own education?

    • Jim, According to http://www.2spare.com/item_92868.aspx, the Einstein is a mis-quotation. It certainly seems unlikely to me that such a thoughtful man should have such a superficial attitude to education – as shown by the numerous sourced quotations listed at http://gabrielatardea-development.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/albert-einstein-on-knowledge-philosophy.html. For example:

      “What a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous”.

      That does not mean that the wrong sort of education, based on fear and promoting the uncritical acceptance of orthodox thinking may not be damaging – but that is not the sort of education that anyone hear is advocating.

      It is also absurd to suggest (a) that the only reason why someone does not *agree* with Sir Ken Robinson must be because they not *understand* him, or (b) that we do not welcome the debate: both Scott and I have posted tens of thousands of words in response to comments, entering with considerable enthusiasm into a debate that you completely fail to engage in.

      This blog is sub-titled “Challenging orthodox thinking about education technology” – so it is clear that we are also keen to reform education.

      The reason that we oppose Sir Ken Robinson is not because he challenges the status quo – but because of the direction of the actual reforms that he advocates.

      If you support Sir Ken’s position, then do please respond to our comments and explain what it is that we have got wrong.

  9. CRISPIN wrote:
    This is actually the logical fallacy known as the Appeal to Flattery. It goes something like this:

    · Person A (Robinson’s audience) is flattered by person B (Robinson).
    · Person B makes claim X (the education system kills creativity, etc.).
    · Therefore X is true.

    ~

    My response:
    This is actually the logical fallacy known as the Political Flattery. It goes something like this:

    · Person A (Robinson) is Critiqued by B (Crispin).
    · Person B makes claim X (Robinson is wrong, and I am the righteous one etc.).
    · Therefore X is true.

    -and about the Political thing, believe me, I’ve seen this before! It’s like the new President is making the former President look so bad so the People would think: oh yeah, the new president is better!

    ~

    MY POINT IS:
    You can both be RIGHT!
    If you think He is wrong, you don’t have to prove it!
    Just prove that you are right.

    Sorry about bringing the politics :) I just can’t help it.

    • Hi Candid Emotions,

      Just to clarify, the critique of Sir Ken made on this page is made by Scott Goodman – he is a guest on my blog. I am sure he will reply separately. My critique of Sir Ken is at http://edtechnow.net/2012/01/20/sir-ken-robinson/.

      Re the question about who is flattering whom – I don’t think any of us can get away from feeling a little bit of pride in what we do – nor perhaps, is that a bad thing – except if one’s pride is excessive or is served by unnecessarily doing down other people.

      On the other hand, I think a culture in which well-intentioned criticism and debate is condemned as unseemly or as merely an attempt to boost one’s own ego – ends up being very unhealthy. Free speech and taking a pleasure in constructive debate (which is compatible with robust debate) is surely the only way to search for truth. In the Anglo-American tradition, it is the basis of the adversarial system that underlies our courts, our politics and – as inherited from the ancient Greeks – our academic processes.

      I do not agree that two people can be right in so far as they are saying incompatible things. But I do agree that different perspectives can contribute to finding what Aristotle called the virtuous middle way. The way to have such a constructive debate in this case would be for Sir Ken Robinson to agree to join a debate over these issues. Then we could both incrementally clarify and develop our positions, discovering what was compatible and what was incompatible. That is what people do when they have a genuine interest in searching after truth. I emailed Sir Ken’s office a year ago but received no reply.

      Thanks for your comment. I will be writing a post soon on this subject – what I see as the right way to conduct constructive debate. Crispin.

      • “But I do agree that different perspectives can contribute to finding what Aristotle called the virtuous middle way.”

        My thoughts exactly! Now you make me want to write Sir Ken, and make him answer this immediately..

  10. Candid, I feel it is necessary to point out that there is nothing inherently self-righteous about offering up a critique on any given subject. Nor, to answer some comments by others, is it illegitimate or unreasonable to offer up a defense in response to what is clearly an attack.

    I point out in my essay that Robinson makes what amounts to several bald assertions in his TED talk and elsewhere, about both the abilities of students and the faults of their teachers, that he uses as a springboard for condemning those teachers and the education system, for which he provides no substantive evidence, and, even if the assertions are accepted at face value, for which he offers no solutions. Instead he relies on rhetorical devices that exploit his audience’s predisposition to go along with the notion that we are probably not doing as good a job as we might wish to push a very negative agenda and to mount his unjustified attack on educators. This makes him a destructive influence in my view (and he has become quite influential, let’s face it) and one that must be countered.

    That is the debate that must be had and that is the debate I have attempted to foster. I don’t claim to have all the solutions, although as some of my previous responses have indicated, I do think that there are some very good places to start. But, speaking pragmatically, my general view is that we must take students (and indeed all people) as we find them, not as we would have them be, and work from there. We should not, as Robinson urges, start with the demonstrably false premise that all students have “tremendous talents”. Instead, we should start with the premise that all students deserve the opportunity to be their best selves, whatever that turns out to be. Additionally, we must, as a society, set some clear goals as to what the education system should be trying to achieve. Whatever standards we set, we have to accept that not all will meet them, either because they can’t or because they won’t. Teachers do have to be accountable in this process to be sure but we must always remember that so too must their students.

  11. Robinson is a self-esteem huckster, pure and simple. He’s never run a primary or secondary school classroom in his life, so he can preach this nonsense without ever having to attempt to put it into practice. We poor teachers, whom he holds in such low regard, will have the onerous task of executing his bad ideas until some other prophet comes along with yet another alternative to the mundane tasks of teaching reading, writing and arithmetic.

    The only way to individualize education is through private tutoring, which is unaffordable to the masses for whom public education was created, or through some yet-to-be-developed artificial intelligence technology. In other words, it can’t be done.

    Robinson is welcome to prove his critics wrong by actually establishing and running a school along his principles, but you know he’ll never do that; the work is hard, the pay is low, the ego-stroking is minimal, and, worst of all, it’s all been tried before: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montessori_education

    • Thank you Felix. I (who host this blog) and I am sure Scott (who wrote this post) would both tend to agree with you.

      As well as criticising guys like Robinson, however, I am for my part also proposing that the efficiency of our education systems can be radically improved, if we saw the problems in the cold light of day and not through ideologically-tinted spectacles. I would be very interested in your thoughts on a couple of my recent posts: “Education’s coming revolution” at http://wp.me/p27xY2-8o and “In the beginning was the conversation” at http://wp.me/p27xY2-8F.

      Do you see any merit in these ideas, or are they the empty prophesies of yet another self-esteem huckster? Thanks.

      • I only perused both posts, so this is going to be a possibly unsatisfactory response. As an American, I can tell you that the biggest problem in ed. in the US is, to put it bluntly, dumb teachers. Virtually anybody with a pulse can get into a teacher education program; once in, the attrition rates are close to zero. The result? The deaf leading the blind. Unlike Finland and South Korea, where teachers’ compensation is high relative to GDP, US teacher salaries are relatively low, so the talent goes elsewhere…engineering, finance, tech., etc.

        As for conversation, you’ll get complete agreement from me, probably because I did my MA at this place: http://www.stjohnscollege.edu/GI/program.shtml. I think seminars have a place in learning, but mostly for a limited group of advanced students. Most students just aren’t that intellectually curious. Additionally, younger kids rarely have the adequate knowledge base to tackle big issues with aplomb. Advanced secondary kids on an academic track would probably greatly benefit from the Great Books seminar format. More here: http://www.greatbooks.org/

        • Hi Felix,

          Sure, the posts are long! Nor are they quite as blunt as you but yes, I agree that – let me call it the inevitable “ordinariness” of most teachers occupying jobs that really demands extraordinary people – is always going to be a problem. That was the main theme of “Education’s coming revolution”.

          Once we have agreed on that problem as the fundamental starting point, then this blog attempts to ask how technology can be used to address it. My point in “In the beginning was the conversation” was not to promote conventional conversations – which are great to the extent that you can resource them but impractical as a scalable solution – but to look for technical analogues of the traditional conversation.

          I agree that most children are not intellectually curious – this applies to most adults too. But I don’t see that as an excuse but rather as a symptom of the problem.

          Thanks for your comments. Crispin.

  12. What is the author’s beef with constructivism? Unlike behaviorism which can be easily delivered through technology, human beings are hard wired for constructivist forms of learning and arts education. This is the essence of Robinson’s criticisms of the modern education.

    Constructivism, multi-sensory learning experience and arts education have been going on for thousands and thousands of years: ( http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent-exhibitions/human-origins-and-cultural-halls/anne-and-bernard-spitzer-hall-of-human-origins ).

    You cannot develop elite STEM professionals under the guise of behaviorism or information processing. You could develop them within a constructivist learning setting ( See “Sparks of Genius,” Root-Bernstein, Root-Bernstein ).

    After reading your long winded critique, it is apparent you are threatened with the arts as a vehicle for educational experience.

  13. Much of the rhetorical analysis here is explicitly misreading. To give just one instance, the author says that “What is news is that people such as Robinson would replace literacy with creativity – at least for others.” The quote from which this interpretation is taken in fact does not suggest the replacement of literacy with creativity, but specifically and explicitly says one is AS IMPORTANT AS the other: “My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” How the author moves from “same status” to “replacement” is not clear.

    In another type of misreading, the author says that Robinson’s reference to the “tremendous talent” inherent in all people refers only to a small group of extraordinarily gifted individuals. Let me concede that the examples Robinson tends to cite are often indeed extraordinary people who have made a mark in a particular profession, such as the choreographer and dancer Gillian Lynne. However, it is possible to read “tremendous talent” as merely referring to talents of a sort that are not typically encouraged, much less taught, in schools. Two examples that spring to mind right away: What about kids who are intensely interested in taking things apart and rebuilding them — the “Makers” of the burgeoning DIY movement for kids online? What about kids who are naturalists in the making, who concentrate best in natural settings, are careful observers? These types of talents are definitely not considered “academic” or a vital part of a school curriculum, so they’re left out. And I would argue along with Robinson that we are all the poorer for that. MIT professors lament the loss of kids who come to their school without the hours upon hours of tinkering, taking apart, and putting together that used to characterize kids who grew up in the era where shop, woodcrafting, auto mechanics, and other forms of pre-engineering skills were indeed incorporated into school courses of study and/or valued as much as the book- and test-focused learning that has currently replaced so much of that. Kids used to be able to run around outdoors for hours upon hours after school; however, in our increasingly urbanized landscape and with kids being kept indoors for safety or taken to organized activities instead, that freedom which lay the groundwork of the careers of many previous naturalists is also now under threat. If such areas are not taken up by the schools (the only way many poor and/or inner city children are ever going to access them), or if the schools don’t clearly indicate to parents the importance of such activities or opportunities outside of school, we’re in danger of losing them altogether.

    The author further misunderstands the meaning of Gillian Lynne’s story. It is not meant to say that all ADHD kids would become award-winning choreographers if teachers turned on the radio and got those kids into dance classes. It is to say, I think, that many children need to move to learn, that their interests and talents would best be served by a curriculum that included a more balanced schedule of formal seatwork, movement, projects, and the arts. Gillian Lynne is a prominent example of this, but she’s one person in a much more comprehensive big-picture view of what is left out, and what talents go untapped in kids, in an educational environment which is choking out hands-on learning and MANY other forms of physically active learning which, again, some kids NEED to develop their talents AND to achieve their best in more formal desk-bound education. There is a larger context and interconnectedness to Robinson’s argument that the author loses in paying attention to minute details and phrasing.

    Then I come across passages like this one, where the author critiques Robinson’s suggestion that many children were discouraged from following up certain skills or talents because they were not considered marketable skills:

    “Really? Ask yourself if that was your experience. I am willing to bet that it wasn’t and that your experience at school was just the opposite and that this is typical, not exceptional. I’ll bet that you were encouraged at every step along the way. Of course, there will be exceptions (there really are bad teachers after all) and people tend to remember a negative experience longer than a positive one, but think about it. In any case, Robinson presents not a single shred of evidence to support this silly claim.”

    Okay, here you have the author doing exactly what he accuses Robinson of doing: using dismissive language (“silly claim”), and offering not one piece of evidence. For the record, I myself was indeed discouraged from writing because it was creative and therefore inherently unstable in economic terms to my teachers and parents alike. I have read for years what is, I believe, the largest online homeschooling chat board, and have witnessed over time a good number of parents saying adamantly that they would not allow their children to major in such fields as drama or creative writing in college, because it’s a waste of the money that goes to college tuition and will not lead to employment. Many more make a distinction between their kids’ “hobbies” or “fun” and what really “counts” in education, which leads them to dismiss their children’s burning interest in such things as inventing imaginary languages, building Rube Goldberg contraptions, or photography. It is precisely this way of making a hierarchy of what “counts” in which things like math and reading and science are at the top and arts and creativity at the bottom, best left to free time and not qualifying for school time, that Robinson is critiquing. Again, he’s not saying to invert the existing hierarchies or replace one category (literacy, numeracy, science, history) with another (fun, hobbies, creativity), but to bring both into legitimacy within the educational framework.

    It’s one thing to disagree with Robinson’s points; it’s another to mischaracterize them or to fall into the same rhetorical maneuvers the author claims invalidate those points.

    • +1

      I really agree with some of your criticisms of the rebuttal.

      I feel that both Mr. Weston and Goodman exaggerate Robinson’s arguments and misrepresent them in their criticisms.

      For this criticism of Robinson I think the author draws way more antagonism against teachers than is really in the talk. Robinson talks about the system and how it tends to dissuade creativity and the pursuit of other, non-academic subjects. Though teachers may be included in this, it is not just limited to teachers, but everyone surrounding the education system and the predominant ideology surrounding it, strongly emphasizing these academic skills and values, while ignoring other valuable skills and talents.

      I also am confused with both Weston and Goodman claiming that Robinson is trying to replace academic areas (such as literacy) with creativity, or that Robinson states or implies that they are incompatible. Nothing from either of his referenced talks, to me, implied that, but instead seemed to note how there should be an increased emphasis on creativity rather than solely on these academic abilities. The authors of these criticisms continually state how creativity can’t be built without academic knowledge, but Robinson never makes a claim that creativity should replace traditional academic knowledge, but rather seems to imply it is an important area, and should be treated as such.

      This criticism also particularly holds teachers in a very high and exalted status. Though I disagree that Robinson’s criticism of the education system is as big an indictment against teachers as the author suggests, I do feel like that teachers often are not as great as the author makes them out to be. I have had my share of amazing teachers and I am grateful for that, but through my own experiences, and from my friends’, I know that there are plenty of bad teachers out there who do not conform to all of the lofty expectations and claims made about teachers by this author. You often criticize Robinson for making unsupported claims (in a very limited timespan of his talk, and he does often include anecdotes that supplement his claims) and saying he uses examples that are extraordinary rather than average, but I think your examples of such great teachers could be seen as further outliers than Robinson’s. Even if that isn’t the case, many of Robinson’s points and anecdotes resonated with my educational experiences and those of my friends and family.

      At the core I think Robinson is saying that he believes that every child is talented and creative, often in ways that aren’t encouraged or supported by traditional education. He thinks that creativity and the arts are useful things moving forward and thus should be given more emphasis in the educational system.

      Though I agree that its bad to give false hopes and to act like everyone is great at everything, I am not sure that this is really Robinson’s point. He may overstate exactly to what extent children may be talented and creative, but I don’t think he is necessarily wrong saying that they are. Its true that not everyone is a genius, but that is exactly his point. Some people may be great in academic areas, thats great. However, other people may have extraordinary talent in other areas and may never discover that or be discouraged in following that path.

      I surely don’t think that Robinson is destructive like the author suggests.

      • Hi Will,

        Thanks for the comment.

        You say I am misrepresenting the extent to which Ken Robinson opposes the academic with the creative. I agree that he does not do so in so many words – but I do claim that that is his intention and implication.

        First is the assumption that creativity is something that you get in dance but *not* in academic subjects. All disciplines are creative: you do creative writing in English, create arguments in History, create theses back by experiment in Science, create software in Computer Science etc. It is a simplification to say that there are the creative subjects on one hand and the academic subjects on the other.

        Secondly, in the talk that I critique, he attacks “the intellectual culture of the enlightenment”, which came up with the idea “that real intelligence consists in this capacity for a certain type of deductive reasoning” – but that this is not appropriate any more. And then in the talk that Scott critiques, he ridicules university professors because they are uncoordinated on the dance floor.

        I completely agree that there should be much more physical activity in the school day, (a) because physical education is important in itself, (b) because it helps concentration in academic subjects, and (c) because it helps build self-esteem among non-academic children (which sets up a feedback loop with points (a) and (b). And as people have different aptitudes, they should be encouraged to specialise at the right point in their education, always keeping an eye on the more humdrum issues like employability that might not seem so important to a 14 year old but will certainly become more so 10 years later.

        There is so much to agree on! The trouble is that Ken Robinson is cited by many people to advocate new approaches to education that are very light on knowledge. Here in the UK, we have a government that is trying to increase the amount of knowledge in the curriculum – and this is opposed by people who say something along the lines of “haven’t you listened to Ken Robinson, who says that all this focus on knowledge is bad and unhelpful?” So whether you see the dichotomy in Ken Robinson’s talks or not, I can promise you it exists in the minds of the “followership”.

        But arguing about what Ken Robinson meant to say is perhaps as futile as arguing about the interpretation of some Old Testament prophet. What matters in my book is the live conversation. Maybe you and I and Scott could agree quite easily if we carried on the discussion with serious intent and good will. I have invited Ken Robinson to respond to my first piece, made a year ago, but he never came.

        I agree with you, by the way, about teachers. I do not think they are by any means all good enough and that, in my analysis, is the fundamental problem with modern schools, that are given the formidable task of attempting to deliver universal education. I have written an essay on this at http://wp.me/p27xY2-8o.

        Thanks again for the comments. Crispin.

        • Thanks for the response Crispin,

          I can only argue based on what I have personally seen from Ken Robinson, most of which came from his Ted talks. From those, I didn’t see the dichotomy as his intention, though with his other work or his followers it may be much clearer.

          I am not sure that he tries to create a distinction between academic and creative subjects. I totally agree that there is room for creativity in the so-called academic subjects. I think that was his point in the video that you critiqued where schools direct students towards thinking one way about problems and trying to get one specific answer. While in some situations, like you mentioned, there only is one correct answer and thinking about it any other way isn’t beneficial (often in math, though there may be multiple correct ways to solve a problem, there in almost all cases will only be a single correct answer). However, in other subjects there is often a tendency to do the same thing, even when more creative thinking could be beneficial. I would take history as a prime example (and one that you used). Often I feel like history is taught by giving specific facts about dates, people and events while presenting a specific narrative of history. History is much more complex than that though and though the basic facts are necessary to understand whats going on, the whys and hows are important too and are much more interesting to think about and I don’t think they are emphasized much until later in education. So I agree that it is a simplification to state there is a difference, but I am not so sure he does make a specific distinction.

          I would argue that Robinson doesn’t attack the “intellectual culture of the enlightenment” so much as he argues that the enlightenment view of intelligence isn’t fitting now. My understanding of his argument is that the modern education system was built on the (enlightenment) basis that there is one type of intelligence, that of “deductive reasoning and knowledge of the classics,” or academic ability. This, according to Robinson, has created a division between the academic and non-academic. I think that there is some validity to these claims. From my understanding of his argument I think that rather than arguing against academic ability as such, that education should be more inclusive of other skills or types of intelligence, like creativity, that lie outside of traditional academic disciplines. There are many talented people who don’t conform to our traditional views of academic ability, but still have a lot to offer, but may be discouraged to follow their passions based on the predominance of academic ability. I know I have seen discouragement in following other non-academic paths often.

          I agree with your points on more physical education, though I would add (if its not already included in your point a) that now, more than ever, is it important to have our children exercising for health reasons.

          I don’t have any background with the education debate in the UK, but I can give my thoughts in general. I think knowledge is good, but I think thinking is important too as well as other abilities past just academic ability. From what I have heard about some systems (particularly a few in Asia) they focus on more memorization and not as much on problem solving or thinking, like the US, UK and other systems do and I think that is bad. I think learning knowledge is important, but so are other things, like I’ve mentioned already.

          It seems like we are in somewhat similar places and that the main disagreements are on the interpretation of Robinson. It would be interesting to hear his response, but I don’t find it surprising that he didn’t respond.

          • Thanks Will,

            As before, I agree with much of what say.

            On knowledge vs. skills, I completely agree that knowledge without an ability to use it is arid. I am (or at least was) a History teacher and it has always seemed to me that the chief merit of the subject is to teach children to argue. The more original and counter-intuitive the better – and doing the opposite of giving children a single correct answer is to impose a sort of intellectual death on them.

            And I agree with you on the need for diversity and breadth in education. Though I would say that there is nothing new in that – certainly in the best schools in the UK in the nineteenth century, it was all about initiative and leadership and physical education, and woodwork and gardening or whatever.

            So I guess you are right – it is our interpretation of Sir Ken’s views that may differ. And I am not hugely surprised either that Sir Ken did not reply – though I am surprised by how little *any* of the proponents of the non-knowledge-based curriculum are prepared to argue their case. I will be taking part shortly in an online video debate on technology in education, being run by a prominent technology site – and none of the representatives of the community urging creative use of technology to support independent learning, that has been gobbling up government money for the last ten years here in the UK, will agree to turn up and argue their case.

            Thanks anyway for the comments.

            Crispin.

    • I don’t believe that Robinson is advocating “teaching” creativity, but more so advocating for education to be more nurturing towards creativity and the arts, supporting these more than they are now. Nowhere does he talk about distinctly teaching creativity, but he rather talks about allowing students to use their innate creativity and to help foster their innate talents.

      • Will,

        It is the “innate” bit that I dislike here. I think we learn creativity, partly by imitating other creative people (which school teachers often are not); partly by acquiring knowledge (which is a prerequisite for creating things that have value); partly by ensuring that we can access many different traditions of knowledge, allowing us to weave these traditions into our own cloth (which is why liberal societies tend to be creative and mono-cultural societies tend not to be); and partly by fostering a critical relationship to that knowledge, so that you realise that it does not represent the last word but represents an invitation to go one better than anyone else has managed to do.

        I do not claim that schools are great at nurturing creativity. But it is easy to agree that is something is wrong – much harder to agree on how to solve it. I think Ken Robinson misunderstands what creativity *is* and in particular sets up a false dichotomy between creativity and knowledge.

        Crispin.

  14. I returned from an extended holiday to find some very penetrating and trenchant comments and questions on the forum that I feel require discussion. As usual, replying to such questions will require a rather lengthy response, for which I beg everyone’s indulgence. My responses are directed mainly at the comments by Will, Karen and Semiotic Jim.

    Questions have been raised as to my “beef with contructivism” and the validity of several of my inferences and conclusions. I will get to those near the end of this response. I would like to begin by bringing the discussion back to the basic theses that Robinson puts forward in capsule form and then responding to the objections that people have raised and commenting upon the points people have raised with those theses in mind.

    As stated in my essay, I described Robinson’s main theses as being these [note that I have added his main thesis to this list]:

    1. Schools are “killing creativity”.
    2. All children have tremendous talents.
    3. Creativity and innovation alone are the key to the future; knowledge won’t suffice and isn’t even necessary. Acquiring knowledge is therefore a waste of time.
    4. Being creative and innovative requires risk-taking.
    5. Schools stigmatize “wrong” answers, thereby stifling creativity and innovation in favour of regimentation that frowns on risk-taking behaviour. In essence, the education system “educates the creativity out of” students.
    6. Therefore, the traditional education system or model is completely wrong and has to be changed to eliminate these problems.

    A major thrust of my essay is the fact that points 1 and 2 are actually a tautology, each depending on the other to be factually true if Robinson’s critique of education is to be accepted. The fact that neither is factually true should inspire caution on the part of Robinson’s defenders. Creativity, as I explain below, is so subjective a concept that it is practically tailor made for use as a rhetorical tool. And, as my essay points out, it is self-evident that children do not all possess “tremendous talents”.

    Point 3 is partially an inference, but one that is justified as I will explain. Point 4 is an obvious fact so I have no quibble with it. Point 5 is an assertion that attempts to bolster point 1 and is also factually challenged. Point 6 is the obvious conclusion or recommendation at which one arrives if one accepts Robinson’s line of argument.

    Several people have commented upon the issue of creativity, whether or not it can be taught or merely nurtured and similar lines of discussion. While that is a worthwhile discussion to which I will return, it is a separate issue from the question of whether Robinson’s ideas have any basis in fact or are telling us anything useful or important about education. And the reason that is so is because of point 2.

    Karen writes:

    “However, it is possible to read “tremendous talent” as merely referring to talents of a sort that are not typically encouraged, much less taught, in schools. Two examples that spring to mind right away: What about kids who are intensely interested in taking things apart and rebuilding them — the “Makers” of the burgeoning DIY movement for kids online? What about kids who are naturalists in the making, who concentrate best in natural settings, are careful observers? These types of talents are definitely not considered “academic” or a vital part of a school curriculum, so they’re left out.”

    I respectfully disagree. Robinson asserts, “all children have tremendous talents”. He does not specify any talent(s) in particular that he feels are being ignored nor does he say, “all children have tremendous talents and by that I mean all children have the ordinary abilities that most people have.” Consider what would happen if he had instead said that some children have tremendous talents, most have average abilities and some have tremendous challenges, and that we are not doing a good enough job to identify those with great talent or to help those who don’t and are thereby allowing students to “fall through the cracks”. I, and I suggest most thinking people, would fully agree with him had he put that argument forward. Such a statement would much more accurately reflect the facts of the human condition. However, he did not say anything of the kind and it would also instantly dismantle his entire argument had he done so. In order to accept the claim that schools are “killing creativity”, one has to first establish that it has been ascertained that there is some huge pool of creativity to be destroyed. I submit that this flies in the face of the facts. So I maintain that we have to take him at his word and that in so stating, he is mistaken. I also, as an aside, find it curious that Robinson conflates creativity with “tremendous talents”. Are we meant to assume that they are one and the same? Robinson in my view exploits this sort of ambiguity. It encourages his followers to fill in the blanks for themselves by inserting their own real or imagined shortcomings or those of “the system”.

    As to activities such as taking things apart and rebuilding them (something that I greatly enjoyed as a child and continue to enjoy to this day), there are two things I would say. First, such activities naturally occur in a variety of contexts in school classrooms. It is simply not true that they are absent. Children do all sorts of building and construction projects at school as well as a variety of other hands-on activities. Of course, as they proceed through the system, the nature of the curriculum changes and so those types of activities both diminish and, where they continue, become more complex. Shop classes and arts classes in the higher grades have been cut back, but not by the choices of educators. They have been cut due to continually falling (in real terms) budgets and the demand from the political overseers of the education system that the “core academics “ must remain inviolate.

    Secondly, one can reasonably ask whether it is the responsibility of the education system to provide every possible opportunity. I, and I suspect most children, did my tinkering at home and only occasionally at school. One has to guard against the expectation that schools can or should be all things to all people.

    Returning to the subject of creativity, for the purposes of would-be reformers like Robinson, creativity has the great advantage of being largely subjective. Like self-esteem, creativity cannot be quantified. Like critical thinking, it can be described but not taught. Like intelligence, we can observe its effects but it cannot be defined, or at least not to this point in time. We all have the sense that we can recognize these things when we encounter them but our understanding of them is woefully inadequate and they remain largely immeasurable. So, for someone to assert that the problem with the education system is that it is “killing” this ill-defined and poorly understood quality is obscurantist nonsense. The advantage that someone like Robinson has in putting this type of argument forward is precisely that it is a subjective, ill-defined and poorly understood concept. It is this quality that makes it difficult, although not impossible, to present an empirical and quantitative case in rebuttal. I leave that task to others. What I have argued is that Robinson has failed to present a positive case of his own and have pointed out his many dubious claims, rhetorical tricks and the several logical fallacies that he engages in while promoting it.

    So, what can be done? If the question is whether or not there are sufficient opportunities in our schools for creativity to be given free rein then perhaps we can begin to get to the heart of the matter. I maintain that schools, generally speaking, do a great deal along this line. Visit any elementary school and you will see all sorts of art, science and other project oriented activities with which children have been very much encouraged to explore and exercise their creative abilities, whatever those might be. We can always strive to do more and do better but Robinson has not provided us with anything concrete in this regard nor any evidence whatsoever that this is the problem in education today. Again I have to say that he is long on criticism and insults and short on ideas.

    But before embarking on the quest to improve education, we must, as a society first decide what it is we are trying to achieve. As I have pointed out in previous posts, the answer to that question remains obscure at best. One thing that must be avoided is falling back on educational dogma. Raising this question is the ideal moment to address what Semiotic Jim describes as my “beef with Constructivism”. As a teacher who taught a project-oriented subject (film and television production) to secondary students, I am a firm believer in the value of the constructivist approach with the caveat that it must be deployed where and when it is appropriate. It is not a one-size-fits-all panacea and is certainly not appropriate in all circumstances. However, it has become the ruling paradigm of education for the last four decades and has taken on something of the character of a secular religion whose tenets are never to be questioned. Robinson fits neatly into this paradigm so his appearance, or that of someone like him, on the scene is not entirely unexpected. By the way, if you doubt the quasi-religious hegemony of the concept, try questioning it to the powers that be. It will be a teachable moment for you.

    The foundational concepts of Constructivism as it applies to education are that learning is largely experiential, intrapersonal and it asserts that knowledge is not directly transmittable from person to person (Liu and Matthews, 2005). There is no doubt that much of learning does fall under these concepts. However, didacticism is not dead and it is a crucial mistake to discard it. Constructivism is a reaction against Cartesian dualism and the didactic model and has held sway as the primary theory of learning in the Western industrialized world since the 1970s, although the idea itself originates in the 19th century. Constructivism is the conceptual basis for the idea that teachers should see their role, not as that of imparting knowledge and/or information, but as facilitators for students (now reborn as “learners”) who, it is asserted, know what they need to learn and will learn from the environment and from one another as they explore the world from their “existent knowledge base”. Indeed, one often hears it explicitly stated that “students know what they need to learn and teachers just need to get out of their way”.

    I call this the Lord of the Flies approach and much chaos has erupted in schools as a result of its unintelligent application. Furthermore, there is unnerving research that suggests that what at first might seem to be hyperbole is all too real a problem.

    Prof. Gordon Neufeld, of the University of British Columbia has written and lectured extensively on the phenomenon of “peer orientation” wherein children learn culture (and other forms of knowledge) from their peers rather from their parents and other adults in society. This phenomenon has been studied and quantified since the late 1940s and has grown tremendously over time. The result is that the ability of the adult culture to pass on its knowledge and values has been greatly handicapped over time and even, in the worst of cases, destroyed.

    http://www.transformativeparenting.com/dr-gordon-neufeld/

    The bottom line here is that children, and indeed all of us, can and do learn from experience, hands-on interaction and from one another. When appropriate, this can be a powerful teaching methodology. But there are obvious limitations to this approach. Children manifestly do not “know what they need to learn” when they lack the knowledge base to even understand that there is something to know. They lack, in other words, the very “existent knowledge” and experience that Constructivism relies on as its very foundation. Knowledge does need to be imparted to them directly in order to provide the needed knowledge base for further learning. Consider this. As mentioned above, the Constructivist model has held sway since the 1970s. The modern decline in achievement scores so lamented by educational leaders also appears to begin at that time. Is this causation or correlation? The answer to that question is critical and should, in my view, be closely examined.

    And we have empirical experience that should give us pause. Take, for example, the debacle of Whole Language, a direct attempt to implement the Constructivist approach in teaching spelling, grammar and vocabulary. It was an utter failure. The result has been an entire generation with poor spelling skills and reduced vocabulary with the accompanying and predictable degradation of communication skills. It has spawned what I think of as the “reactionary phonics” backlash. It is clear that a sensible blend of the Didactic and Constructivist approaches would have been a much better idea.

    And so we have Robinson and his assertion that teachers and the education system are killing creativity and everyone should just get out of the way and let the kids get on with it. Constructivist dogma writ large. I cannot imagine a greater disaster. I often have the feeling that we have collectively lost our minds, ignoring basic facts about human beings in favour of a set of rigid concepts for which we have little, if any, evidence of success while discarding wholesale practices that have worked in the past. The attack on knowledge in favour of pure creativity is inherent in everything Robinson says. Crispin Weston is right when he points out that the education establishment, having embraced ideas like those put forward by Robinson, clearly interprets them in that way. It does not have to be stated in so many words. Already, the educational industrial complex is cranking out the lesson plans and resource materials that will entrench this new iteration of dogma. The attack on teachers, on the other hand, is explicitly stated (boring, egomaniacal, etc.). To respond to such an attack is not to put teachers on a pedestal. As I have said before, teaching is an imperfect art. Teachers are as variable in their abilities as their students. Can we do better? Most certainly. And we can most certainly come up with a better way of going about it than Sir Ken Robinson and his ideas. We owe that much to our society, our students and to posterity.

  15. I always thought the example of the dancer/choreographer was a bit banal.
    Anyone that has ever attended a ballet class knows that the dancers must be absolutely silent while the choreography is being demonstrated; the environment is typically highly synchronized and regulated. But maybe the ballet classes in England are different: raucous, rebellious riots of renegade prima dees.
    I thought that this dancer was 1, probably very middle or upper class, and 2, did whatever she had to do to get out of school, and 3, her teacher was probably thrilled that she was gone.

  16. I find the stance and tone of this article offensive and ill-informed.

    Not only have I had the pleasure of working with an organisation that Sir Ken chairs, but I have also witnessed firsthand, the benefits of applying his approach to ‘education for creativity’ with various groups of young people, in both formal and informal, educational environments. The fact of the matter is that not only is education for creativity important, but it is also essential in order for young people to discover their own sense of purpose and potential.

    The author makes reference to the lack of fact, or evidence in Sir Ken’s philosophy, but offers no firsthand evidence of his own as to why the approach is wrong; most likely as he has never applied the philosophy to his own teaching practice.

    The Ted talk only scratches the surface of Sir Ken’s theory, may I suggest that reading his books on the subject might help to alleviate some of the misconceptions in this essay. In the meantime, I have pasted a link below to a piece of significant evidence, concerning the benefits of using the arts and creativity to engage and educate young people.

    If you want to understand what creativity is, an essential first step is to question your own way of looking at things, something else that this article fails to do.

    http://artswork.org.uk/domains/artswork.org.uk/local/artswork-flipbook/index.html

    • Hello Alex,

      I respond as the host of Scott’s article, not its author. So as far as the substance of the article goes, I leave that to Scott’s response which is below.

      1. I agree with your final point, Alex, that it is essential to question your own way of looking things. One of the best ways that this happens is through constructive debate. Which is why we both welcome you onto the discussion board.

      2. My view on offense is that the blame in most cases lies not with the person who gives offense but with the person who takes offense. Accusing people of giving offense is shifting the blame for one’s own intolerance, which is a fundamental virtue in a liberal, rational society. If you take offense every time that you find something you disagree with, then you lose any possibility of constructive debate, which ought to be the foundation of academic and liberal society (as well as an aid to self-examination, see point 1).

      3. As far as tone goes, I think one should tolerate the fact that your opponents may feel strongly about their views and want to argue them robustly. And you should not underestimate the critical intent of Sir Ken’s humour – I think that Scott argues this point particularly well. You cannot go around criticising other people and then shouting “offensive!” when someone criticises you back. But neither of us attack Sir Ken for being critical—we attack him for being wrong, and do so through carefully justified arguments. By contrast, you do not take issue with any of the detailed arguments presented, but just dismiss the whole of Scott’s post out of hand.

      4. You accuse Scott of being ill-informed, apparently because he has not read all of Sir Ken’s books. But he is not criticising all of Sir Ken’s books – he is criticising this particular talk, which must stand on its own merits. In case you think that this particular talk was unrepresentative of Sir Ken’s views, then you might like to look at my criticisms of another of Sir Ken’s talks at http://edtechnow.net/2012/01/20/sir-ken-robinson/.

      5. The publication that you reference appears to me to be a piece of advocacy / publicity for Artswork and its associated organisations, which have been publicly funded but which I imagine have suffered in the current period of austerity. It is not a piece of dispassionate research. The decision as to what is the appropriate level of public funding for the sort of projects that the brochure lists is of course a complex one and I do not have enough information to come to a view – but in the context of the UK education system, I am all for more emphasis on art, drama and music, which I think plays an important part in the development of confidence, self-expression etc. On the whole, I think that it is preferable if really good arts education could be provided as standard within schools, rather than through ad hoc out-of-school projects – though I can see a strong case for the latter with prisoners and youth offenders.

      6. My own case against Sir Ken, which I think Scott broadly shares, is that (a) he attacks traditional and academic teaching and does not recognise the importance of creativity in these subjects (b) he trivialises creativity as something that is easily achieved by everyone as a result of native talent, rather than something that needs to be worked at very hard and in combination with the acquisition of knowledge and understanding. But your final comments appear to assume that Scott and I are against the teaching of the arts or of creativity. Nothing could be further from the case.

      Crispin.

  17. In replying to Alex Soulsby’s response to my essay, I would like to first say that it is gratifying to at last have received feedback from someone directly involved in working with Sir Ken Robinson’s organization, even if it is in the form of an attempt to flame me and repudiate my essay. Communication, even if negative, is at least progress.

    In making his points, Mr. Soulsby, both directly and indirectly, reiterates several of the same flaws found in Robinson’s TED talk that were the basis of my essay. For example, in restating Robinson’s thesis on the importance of creativity in education, he strongly implies, as does Robinson, that educators and the education system place no importance on such things whatsoever. This is, of course, Robinson’s primary thesis and equally, demonstrably false.

    As to the suggestion that I offer no facts, I would beg to disagree. It is a fact, contrary to Robinson’s main claim, that schools honour, encourage and nurture creativity where it exists in students and where it is appropriate to the task in hand. Even the most cursory walk through the halls of any school makes this fact obvious. It is also a fact that creativity cannot be taught to a student if it does not exist in them. It is also a fact that creativity is not always what is needed. One very real shortcoming in education is the lack of any mechanism to require diligence. Creative people who won’t apply themselves to the task in hand are of no use to themselves or anyone else.

    It is a fact that Robinson’s claim that “all children have tremendous talents” is flatly false on its face. For example, if all children had tremendous talents, a claim that can be directly empirically examined, then it would follow that all adults must be similarly endowed. Since this is manifestly not the case, the whole claim collapses into fatuous nonsense. It is the equivalent of saying that all children are above average, a mathematical absurdity. All children deserve the best opportunities we can provide but that does not guarantee that they will all achieve the same outcomes. This crucial point seems entirely lost on Robinson and his followers.

    It is a fact that in his TED talk (which, after all, is what my essay is in response to), Robinson presents no actual facts of his own and his examples do not support his premise.

    It is a fact that throughout his talk Robinson smirkingly disparages teachers, current teaching practice and education generally while simultaneously portraying students both as hapless victims of feckless teachers as well as mindless automatons who, by virtue of their mindlessness, are entirely at the mercy of a hostile and indifferent education system staffed by incompetent teachers. The purpose is clearly to undermine teachers as a group and to make them entirely responsible for any shortcomings in their students’ achievements, thus laying the groundwork for his claims.

    As it happens, my own teaching practice (of which Mr. Soulsby has no knowledge whatsoever) was that of teaching film and television production to secondary students. It was entirely to do with creativity and self-directed exploration. Predictably, my students spanned the range of behaviour and creative output that all teachers are familiar with regardless of subject. Some were highly creative and delighted at the chance to pursue their ideas. Some were just as highly creative but chose to reject such opportunities, an example of why the expectation of diligence is so crucial. Some had few creative ideas but liked the technical work and vigourously applied themselves to that. Some showed no ability at all in a creative sense, no matter how much help and encouragement they received. In other words, they demonstrated the normal spectrum of human abilities and motivation.

    Sir Ken Robinson is just the latest in a long line of would-be education reformers. He is merely the guru du jour. They all follow a similar pattern. The way we are doing things now is bad. Their new idea will solve all the problems. Often, when put into practice on a limited scale and when staffed by fervent believers with unlimited resources available for their demonstration, their ideas do produce good results. Just as often, when attempts are made to introduce the model to the system at large, where there are no implementation funds available, no training for teachers and no clear goal in mind, they fail miserably, usually at great expense to taxpayers.

    Typically, when these people are making their case, they will put up graphs in a PowerPoint presentation showing how our educational results are in continual decline in an attempt to bolster their case for adopting whatever new panacea they are promoting. One of my favourite things to do when this happens is to ask them to put that graph back up for everyone to see and then ask, “Why don’t we go back to whatever we were doing back at the high end of the graph?” At this point their heads usually explode because the only thing that would be worse, in their minds, than the status quo would be returning to earlier practices that their own graphs show were working much better. No, no, no! Only implementing their ideas will do.

    I will make the following prediction; sometime in the next five years or so, a new reformer will emerge to tell us all why it is that Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas were completely wrong and that their “new’ idea, whatever it proves to be, must be implemented in its place. We have seen this over and over again. Open classrooms, student centred learning, multiple intelligences, self-esteem. The list is endless. All have failed.

    We have indeed learned much about how learning occurs and how improved pedagogy can greatly help. We have rid ourselves of many of the bad, even abusive, practices of the past. But what is needed is not a panacea or religious conversion, but a clear-headed assessment of what we know, where we wish to go and solid, evidence-based methodology that we can establish will work and for which funding for implementation and ongoing operation is forthcoming. I have yet to hear anyone speaking in those terms.

  18. Thank you for taking the time to provide such detailed responses. To clarify, I do not work with, nor have I ever worked with Sir Ken Robinson’s organisation (I’m not sure that he even has one), I have however, worked with many different schools, arts organisations and arts education organisations including an organisation that he chaired.

    To reiterate, I took offense at the tone of the article and stated that it came across as ill-informed, for the simple reason that I have witnessed firsthand, what the implementation of this philosophy and approach can achieve. It was a little like reading a restaurant review by a diner who had read the menu, yet never eaten at the establishment they were criticising. Your points are well constructed and presented and rather than ill-informed, it was perhaps more the cynical tone that struck such a raw nerve with me.

    I simply believe much of what was written to be wrong based on the evidence that I have seen. After all, what is presented without evidence, can surely be dismissed without evidence? My inclusion of the Artswork link, was to simply demonstrate that there is significant evidence for supporting working in a youth-led, process-focused way, and more importantly; one that prioritises creativity. It really does work and it can change the lives of a significant number of young people.

    There is no and never will be a one size fits all approach to building successful, meaningful educational organisations. For the time that I have spent working as a classroom teacher, arts education manager and arts education advisor, I have only seen incredible, eye-opening and life affirming results from implementing the approaches that Sir Ken advocates for.

    I guess in this exchange we will need to agree to disagree.

  19. Alex, I am not so certain that our disagreement is as wide as you might think. Because of the subject I taught, film and television production, I am well aware of the power of unleashing creativity and of the benefits of project-based work. If those were the only propositions being put forward by Robinson and others like him I would never have written my essay.

    The tone of my essay arises from two aspects of Robinson’s TED talk (and I would be astonished if they weren’t also to be found in his books and other materials). First, contrary to your perfectly sensible statement that there is no “one size fits all” solution to improving education, Robinson’s thesis takes that exact position. He claims that “all children have tremendous talents”, an obvious canard. Such a statement has no meaning if it isn’t coupled to a one size fits all solution.

    In itself, a mistaken or misguided position isn’t offensive. Certainly I am not offended when someone makes a mistake. However, what does offend me is Robinson’s disparagement of teachers and the education system as a means of promoting his ideas, whatever one may think of them. Any reform that depends on such tactics to promote its adoption is suspect from the outset.

    My objections to Robinson’s thesis, and indeed to the theses of many would be educational reformers, fall into two categories: scientific, evidence-based objections and political agenda objections.

    Almost every critic of the education system makes much of the fact that many, perhaps even most, students begin to lose the enthusiasm for learning near the end of elementary school that most of them demonstrated when they began. Invariably, this is characterized as an educational “shortcoming” that is laid directly at the feet of teachers and the system generally. While there is little doubt that we can always do better and, as we have learned more about how human beings learn, we have been doing better, there is something else in play here.

    The offspring of all higher order mammals, including human beings, exhibit to one degree or another a shared characteristic; they undergo a period of learning through play during which they acquire the knowledge of their environment and the skills needed to survive that environment. That period eventually ends and they get on with the business of survival. To give a familiar example, compare the behaviour of any kitten to that of an adult cat.

    Human beings, of course, have evolved a much higher order of thinking and behaviour than other animals. But that ability has not supplanted the biologically pre-programmed pattern of youthful exploration and learning. It has been superimposed upon it. Our ability to consider abstract and symbolic ideas such as past, present and future is what allows us to even consider the idea of an education system. And, of course, humans have been educating their children “informally” from the beginning.

    So, what are the implications of this for education? Allow me to suggest that, far from being perplexed and dismayed by the decline in the self-motivated, play-based pursuit of learning at the end of childhood and using it to berate teachers, the sensible reaction is that we should expect it. A simple and obvious fact is that, after a certain point in a child’s life, learning and studying ceases to be an instinctive, play-based behaviour and becomes a job of work that they only willingly undertake because of the higher order thinking skills that human beings possess. And it is here that the one and only intersection of agreement exists between my view and that of people like Robinson. It is the question of motivation. We have spent a great deal of time investigating how people learn and far too little time on investigating why they should want to do so and how we can lead students to that understanding.

    You spoke in your first post about facts. It is a fact that not all learning is “fun”, even for people who have a great love of learning. Often, it is a tremendous struggle. Only our understanding of the benefits to be had at the end of the process keeps us going. It should therefore not strain the imagination too greatly to understand the reaction of someone who isn’t particularly fond of learning to the prospect of such a struggle. Beyond a certain point, not everyone enjoys learning. That is not the fault of teachers it is simply a fact. Nevertheless, our society requires a certain minimum of education for all in order to function so those who do not particularly enjoy learning must still somehow be enticed to do so. Clearly, this is the area where we must focus our attention. The solution to this problem, however, is not to be found in the disparagement of teachers.

    Questions of motivation aside, the other demonstrable fact is that, contrary to the premise put forward by Robinson and so many others in this field, human beings are not all equally endowed with abilities in every conceivable subject. By postulating such nonsense, teachers and the education system are being set up for failure when they inevitably are unable to produce the equal outcomes for all that a belief in equal abilities suggests should be possible. We have confused equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. We owe the former to our children, but not the latter. We simply must face the truth of this simple fact of the human condition.

    And that brings me to the political dimension of this discussion. It is no secret that there has been a sustained attack from some political quarters on teachers and the education system over a period of many years. Whenever one hears talk of reform that involves and depends on the demonizing and disparagement of teachers, one can be sure that this political dimension is well and truly in play. Yes, there certainly are boring and incompetent teachers. The same can be said for aspiring education reformers. But all of that is beside the point. As a group, teachers are highly motivated, hard working people who have the best interests of their students at heart and who tirelessly strive to improve their practice. So let us have no more vilifying talk of uncaring, boring, and feckless teachers who are doing everything completely wrong, all the while “punishing students for failure”. Instead, let us move forward together with a realistic understanding of who we are as human beings, employing sound, evidence-based methodology that we can demonstrate works for the majority and that we are willing to pay for as a society, and flexibility in our approach wherever and whenever it will help with the positive assumption that we are all doing our very best to improve the outcomes for all.

    • I think this is a cracking comment and I reply by way of making a note to myself.

      I think it raises two challenges to my recent post, “Why teachers don’t (necessarily) know best” (http://edtechnow.net/2013/08/27/blind/). How does my argument for a better understanding of pedagogy (i.e. teaching as a set of general technical principles):
      * differ from a “one size fits all” solution?
      * relate to the importance of motivation, stressed here by Scott – how do we prioritise motivation vs the technique of teaching and learning?

      Just thinking aloud.

  20. “I came to realize that humour is often a rhetorical tactic deliberately employed to put an audience into a receptive mood for a message that would otherwise be unpalatable.”

    An English accent also helps tremendously. If this guy was from Brooklyn, he would’ve been laughed out of education years ago.

    I know I must be missing something – the man is a knight, after all – but…what exactly did he teach? I know he’s held some director spots and done some professor gigs, but was he ever a classroom teacher?

  21. I feel like what Robinson is trying to say is that we all need to figure out our passions and what we truly want to do and become in life. We all have natural God given talents, that needs to be nurtured in preparation for adulthood, and that schools should be trying to enhance that process and teachers aiding us to do so, rather than other people implementing what the public believes is right for children. I’m in school right now, and I can attend classes that I like for hours and hours with no problem, while classes that I dislike can bore me and drain me in minutes. I can say the same thing about almost every child in the education system as well. I feel like if school helped us to find what we wanted to do and what interested us, there would be less dropouts and more importantly less teens finding too much time on their hands and too little excitement. I feel like that a vast percentage of the students at my school are picking up bad habits from drug and alcohol abuse to compulsive stealing, and as a teenager I can tell you that we do all this because we are lacking a thrill, a thrill that we would normally get from doing something we loved, stepping out of our routinely day to fulfil ourselves spiritually.
    I do see what you are saying, and by all means I’m still a teenager and still have much to learn, but I am extremely interested in this topic and I would like to really understand your perspective on this.

  22. Noelle,

    I always find it a privilege to speak to students. Certainly, if you are reading such in-depth materials as this website deals with, it shows that you are thinking seriously and deeply about important issues. Such effort deserves to be recognized.

    Your comments reinforce those of mine above in that, for most students your age, the desire and motivation to learn anything and everything has been replaced by the desire to learn about those things you find most interesting, just as you say. In fact, when it comes to learning about things that interest us, it is fair to say that we are all lifelong learners.

    The problem comes with those subjects that you describe as those that bore you and that you quickly lose interest in. So, what exactly is the problem? It is that, as with so many things in life, a person must take on a task because it is necessary, not because it is interesting or fun. One of life’s most difficult lessons, and one that comes along at just your age, is precisely this one. Quite apart from whether or not the teacher is doing a good job, there is the simple fact that our society has deemed it necessary that a certain body of knowledge is necessary for all citizens. The natural result is that students will have to accept that fact and apply themselves to learning about subjects that, at least at the time, are not of great interest to them.

    Of course, it is the resistance to this idea and the desire to live a life that is one “thrill” after another that leads to the sorts of behaviour you describe among your peers. Drugs, crime and the general defiance of “authority” are the result. Adolescence is the peak period in most people’s lives for this response and attitude. The brain is still undergoing reorganization from child to adult and this, together with the lack of adult experience, leads to poor judgment and choices for some. Learning to delay gratification in favour of a better future outcome is what “growing up” is all about.

    In any case, later in life, your opinion of these “boring” subjects may, and probably will, change. Perhaps it won’t. But whatever the outcome, accepting and applying yourself tasks that must be done as opposed pursuing only those you like is part of accepting the responsibilities of becoming an adult. In addition, there are so many things that, lacking experience, you might think you will dislike and therefore try to avoid, only to find them interesting in the end once you have learned more about them. Part of the responsibility of the education system is to, in effect, force the issue so as to give students as broad an exposure as possible within the limits imposed by time and available resources. Many adults will tell you that there is something in life they now enjoy immensely that they initially “hated” and would never have pursued had it not been for it having been a requirement in school or, later, on a job.

    All of that said, it is important that teachers and the education system do as much as possible to help students discover what they are good at and what they like. It may surprise you that these are not always the same thing. My advice to you generally is to realize that you are in school for your benefit, not that of your teachers. Treat it as the investment in your future that it is. Taking that approach, you will find that most of your teachers will do everything they can to help you. Take this time in your life to explore, even those things that you may not like, and you will be rewarded in the end with a richer and more fulfilling life.

  23. You make some good points, but I think you end up beating the horse to death. Robinson’s an opportunist who saw his chance to make his mark and took it, and it paid off for him, handsomely. People will listen to anyone like him these days – members of the Cult of Personality. If we could teach our kids anything worthwhile, it would be the ability to see through nonsense of any kind. Frankly, I’m suspect these days of anyone who’s a TED presenter.

  24. Who are these TED fans anyway? Are they all intelligent but naive tech types? Your average philosophy undergraduate would see through this fluff immediately, yet engineers and other geeky people buy into this nonsense despite their superior reasoning skill.

  25. As philosophical as you all might be, as deceptive as sir Ken Robins may be, he is the one that moves the hearts, turns the heads, and inspires the crap out of crowds.

  26. I think everyone is taking the talk way too personally. It was a critique of the educational SYSTEM, almost none of it was directed at teachers. I think he was referring the fact that art education isn’t considered a fundamental of a full education by people on top (like federal funding agencies), and his goal was to get the general populace to demand this. The problem is not that math and sciences don’t allow for wrong answers; it’s that children in many schools don’t have good quality programs which DO allow for creative development. But creativity is essential, not just to art, but to any kind of problem solving. He made reference to companies where they just follow the handbook because you see no drive for better processes and solutions. This Black Friday, customers at Walmart had to stand in four lines to buy a flat-screen TV: first for a bracelet, then for a card, then to pay for the item, then to receive it. The reason being, that was the procedure handed them and no one had the good sense (or they were too afraid) to fix the process. No, not everyone is a genius, but everyone excels at something and that’s where their concentration should be, certainly by high school, if not earlier. Career exploration shouldn’t be taking place in college. Kids should be discovering their talents and inclinations and marketable skills in high school, while it’s free! Every semester spent undecided in college is wasted time and money. Unfortunately the public school system is so big and understaffed that it’s impossible for students to get that kind of personal counseling. It’s NOT the teachers’ fault, it’s the system, and that was the basis of his argument and of his work in the UK (check it out sometime).

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  29. I think this is an excellent essay. Thank you. I haven’t read all the comments but I will do when I can. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Robinson’s talk is so popular, because it strikes so many chords with so many of us. He makes us laugh, he flatters us, he alienates things that made many of us feel inadequate like university, school, teachers, mathematics, and high-achievers, providing someone who we can all safely despise. It’s the typical quick-fix, feel-good, nonsense that self-help gurus peddle. How can we complain that our politics is a beauty contest when we are so easily won over by a vacuous and totally insubstantive comedy routine?

  30. It appears that your analysis describes whether or not Robinson’s talk is applicable to the education system. In other words, you feel that the school system has problems, but it does a great job of schooling.

    I don’t think that Robinson is commenting on whether the status quo is good for the status quo. I think he is commenting on whether the status quo is producing humans that can easily fill the needs of the society they find one they are out of the education system. In other words, the way I hear it, Robinson is explaining that schooling and education are not synonyms.

    You have interpreted creativity and art the same way most school systems have. Creativity, music, theater and art are playground activities while crunching numbers, analyzing data and writing journal articles are truly what keep a society civilized.

    The way I hear it, Robinson does not see the world as academics vs. artists. That is how those he is arguing against see things. Instead he is pointing out that science cannot exist without hypothesis. Architecture cannot exist without a creative use of physics and design. Websites can be created in HTML using block formatting. Most 20th century medical practices work just fine. All of these things are true, yet we keep innovating. Why? How?

    Schooling is a key to education, but without an emphasis on creativity, there is flair, there is no innovation.

    Robinson holds a PhD. He has seen his share of the classroom. I am sure, in your classroom, you have seen many bright students who have gone on to do wonderful things. Now, turn your attention to the 20 percent or so that struggled in your class. Were they stupid? Did they not apply themselves? Where did they end up? Who failed who?

    Modern education blames the student, it evaluates intelligence by test scores, but it only evaluates reading, writing, math and sometimes science. If you look around at those who truly innovate, at those who are changing the world, they are using the academics to realize their dreams, they are dropouts who couldn’t sit still in class because they had too many daydreams. Without the daydreamers, what would the world look like. Without the academics, we’d only have music, art, drama and theories.

    In other words, Robinson is not arguing that schools should ban math or other academic subjects, he’s just arguing that students are getting lost because they are not rigid or concrete thinkers.

    This was a TED talk, not detailed plan to fix the world’s problems. The problem is, there are thousands of proposed fixes for the problems in education. You criticize Robinson for not presenting a fix at the same time, you shut down the very premise of his talk. This would lead one to believe that you would find fault with any solution that may give his premise any validity. Therefore, presenting a proposal for a fix is not the proper approach. First, he must find common ground. First, he must present the problem so that those who see the world the way he does will realize that the problem can be fixed. That is how all revolutions begin – with a pep talk.

    • Hello Professor Cochran,

      It is really for Scott (who wrote this piece) to give the substantive answer to your comment. I am merely hosting his article here – and have posted my own critique of Sir Ken at http://edtechnow.net/2012/01/20/sir-ken-robinson/.

      My criticism of Sir Ken is that he appears (maybe because he comes from a background of dance) to suggest exactly the sort of dichotomy between academic discipline and creativity that you (and we) are against. We all value creativity but in my view, this is not in any way antagonistic to knowledge. I agree with basic premise behind Blooms taxonomy that knowledge is a prerequisite for creativity and that genuine creativity – creating things of value – is difficult. Yet in the talk that I critique in my post, Sir Ken’s advocates divergent thinking which he himself demonstrates is, quite literally, a puerile capability.

      In his recent appearance on the BBC’s radio interview programme, Desert Island Disks, Sir Ken illustrated the creative capacity of humans (as opposed to apes) by saying that only we could choose 8 records that we would like to take with us if marooned on a desert island. It is revealing that a self-styled creativity expert cannot distinguish between substantive creativity and mere self-expression.

      It is easy to identify a problem. There’s always a problem because nothing is perfect. It is much harder to identify the solution. You say that he is not proposing a solution – only building a consensus on the fact that the problem can be solved. But what sort of evidence anyone can produce to make the case that a problem *can* be fixed, which does not involve making a proposal for *how* it might be fixed? He *is* proposing a general approach to solving the problem – and that is what Scott and I object to.

      We need day-dreaming experts. We criticise Sir Ken is because his rhetoric suggests that these two characteristics are in opposition. He explicitly opposes the intellectual approach of the enlightenment and makes fun of academics who live in their heads more than their bodies.

      Crispin

  31. I find myself a bit short-changed by the essay and much of the following commentary for one simple reason: at no point in the TED talk – or anywhere else for that matter – does KR state, or imply, a *dichotomy* between knowledge and creativity. That’s just a straw-man, and its presence undermines the credibility of much of the rest of the piece/commentary which may or may not have merit – but frankly one just doesn’t trust it to.

    What he is arguing for is the *complementary* nature of these two approaches. Quote at 3:00: ‘my contention now is that creativity is as important as literacy’. Unambiguously, and obviously, the two are not mutually exclusive.

    Yes, there are shrill voices on either side of the formal/standardised vs. child-centred/democratic education debate. This isn’t one of them.

    Stuff like this in the comments, on the other hand, veers dangerously – and disappointingly – close to that territory:

    “We criticise Sir Ken is because his rhetoric suggests that these two characteristics are in opposition. He explicitly opposes the intellectual approach of the enlightenment and makes fun of academics who live in their heads more than their bodies.”

    Somewhat defensive, no? First, ‘these two characteristics’ are not in opposition in the sense of some Manichaean struggle where one must ultimately triumph. Think more yin and yang; if you don’t buy that, I refer you to the direct quotation from the talk I cite above. Second, the making fun of academics is what’s known as self-deprecating wit. As in, you know, he *is* one. Try not to equate a throwaway remark with the burning of the Alexandrine libraries or postfeminist critiques of Fermat’s last theorem. It does you no credit.

  32. As several have commented to the effect that my essay is an example of being “defensive”, I would like to respond to that charge. Describing a reaction as being defensive implies one of two things; either it is a defense when no attack has been made or, if an attack has been made, that the reaction is out of proportion to that attack.

    Clearly, Robinson has attacked educators, so the former characterization simply does not apply. The notion that Robinson has made no attack on educators does not stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny. The latter characterization, however, requires some discussion. One of the ways to marginalize a group or individual with whom one disagrees is to depict their legitimate defense to a clear attack as somehow being hysterical (“shrill” as Alex W put it) and/or out of all proportion to that attack. While Robinson has not attacked me personally (I suspect he does not even know I exist), I reject his attack on educators on the following grounds.

    First, it is entirely gratuitous. His thesis that all children have “tremendous talent” and therefore more emphasis on creativity is necessary in education to nurture these putative talents does not require the belittlement of teachers to make the case. His case either stands on its own merit or it doesn’t. Since the first part of his thesis is demonstrably false and he has failed to make the case that opportunities for creativity are lacking or are of low quality, never mind that they are being actively suppressed, I contend that the case is not made.

    However, lacking evidence to support his charge, it seems he feels he must attempt to make his claims plausible somehow and so turns to the disparagement of educators to lend them credibility. While there are certainly poor teachers, and I have said as much, his blanket characterization of educators as being boring, dogmatic and hyper-vigilant to “punish” mistakes is simply false on its face. All together, his entire position is at once false and odious.

    Alex W charges that I have engaged in the creation of a false dichotomy:

    “I find myself a bit short-changed by the essay and much of the following commentary for one simple reason: at no point in the TED talk – or anywhere else for that matter – does KR state, or imply, a *dichotomy* between knowledge and creativity. That’s just a straw-man, and its presence undermines the credibility of much of the rest of the piece/commentary which may or may not have merit – but frankly one just doesn’t trust it to.”

    In fact, the dichotomy is entirely Robinson’s, not mine, and is anything but false. It is implicit in Robinson’s entire thesis. And while it is not baldly stated in so many words, it is clear that that is his meaning. On the one hand, Robinson depicts children who, in his view “all have tremendous talents”, awaiting only free rein to realize them, as the hapless victims of educators on the other hand, who are depicted as stultifyingly boring, robot-like presenters of “mere” content, mindlessly intent upon punishing mistakes whilst simultaneously rejecting and suppressing any expression of creativity. It calls to mind the horrific image of the underworld labourers in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. Lest one think this charge is hyperbole, recall Robinson’s own image of “strip mining” the minds of children, an horrific image indeed. It is perhaps the one moment in his TED talk that he lets slip his true colours and makes an entirely ugly comment without the slightest attempt to use of humour to disguise it. The dichotomy Robinson is presenting could not be more clear. It is also could not be more false.

    What is true is that one can easily point to the rare prodigy or savant as examples of talent that transcends the educational milieu. Robinson does just that in his talk, falsely proffering such outlier examples as some sort of everyman/woman characteristic. Hence my charge that he engaged in the fallacy of the biased sample. Such people are rare exceptions and, as such, are completely atypical. Educational pedagogy cannot be based on the rare exception, however much we might wish to do so.

    For the vast majority of people, creativity in a given field only becomes possible with mastery of the content of that field. The challenge of mastery is that the acquisition of the necessary knowledge is no easy task. Moreover, the task is at precisely its most boring and tedious at the beginning, when one has not yet achieved mastery and is therefore not yet able to use the knowledge creatively. What is far more valuable at this beginning stage is diligence and tenacity, precisely those qualities the current education system is forbidden to require of students and where much, but certainly not all, of the problems in modern education lie.

    But that said, providing opportunities for students of all ages to engage in what might be called naïve creativity, that is, creativity and creative process that does not require a sophisticated knowledge base (only a minimal one or none at all) or the disciplinary focus that will come later, is a very valuable exercise and one that I would argue is much practiced in schools.

    Professor Cochran mounts what at first glance might appear to be a more serious challenge:

    “You have interpreted creativity and art the same way most school systems have. Creativity, music, theater and art are playground activities while crunching numbers, analyzing data and writing journal articles are truly what keep a society civilized.

    The way I hear it, Robinson does not see the world as academics vs. artists. That is how those he is arguing against see things. Instead he is pointing out that science cannot exist without hypothesis. Architecture cannot exist without a creative use of physics and design. Websites can be created in HTML using block formatting. Most 20th century medical practices work just fine. All of these things are true, yet we keep innovating. Why? How?

    Schooling is a key to education, but without an emphasis on creativity, there is flair, there is no innovation.”

    The charge that creativity (music, theatre and art) has been relegated to the level of “playground activities” is to some extent justified. However, I would respond by saying that this has been more the result of budget cutting than of pedagogical philosophy. Emphasis on the Arts varies widely by jurisdiction so it is difficult to entertain any generalizations on this subject, let alone arrive at a useful conclusion. It is deplorable that any jurisdiction has been forced (or chosen) to treat the arts as a disposable option.

    To the series of statements regarding scientific hypotheses, architectural design and what have you; I think that Professor Cochrane muddies the waters. We must keep sight of what level of education we are discussing here. We are not discussing college and university level students who might be expected to have, or be well along in acquiring, the base of knowledge that would allow them to be creative on its strength. The child learning the fundamentals of science is not yet in a position to form useful and creative hypotheses because he/she does not yet possess the underlying knowledge to do so. No amount of “tremendous talent” will overcome this fact (leaving prodigies aside). The process of putting forth an hypothesis and then testing it can be practiced on a naïve level and, in fact, every science curriculum of which I am aware incorporates such activities. Similarly, a knowledge base is required to have any chance of being creative in almost any field of human endeavor. The acquisition of that knowledge base is the answer to Professor Cochran’s rhetorically posed questions of “Why?” and “How?”.

    As an aside, it is sometimes true that in the case of the Arts, and in athletics, that creativity and accomplishment emerge more commonly at younger ages. Even here, however (and again, leaving prodigies aside), skills must be mastered in order for the creativity to be effectively expressed.

    Athletics is an interesting case, in that it enjoys such support from the broader society that it has been largely immune to the effects of budget cuts and that same popularity virtually guarantees that talent is not only nurtured when it manifests itself, but talent is actively sought out. Would that it were also the case for mathematics and music!

    Be that as it may, I return to my position that Robinson completely ignores the reality of the need for knowledge in favour of creative process. This idea is not new. It goes back to at least the 1920s. It has been tried, sometimes with disastrous results as in the case of the Whole Language debacle. But there is merit in continually re-examining our practice. Let no one mistake my views in that regard. But what we do not need to do, and indeed, should refrain from doing, is to listen to gratuitous and false attacks on educators that are the stock and trade of each new wave of would be reformers, each heaping scorn and derision on those who have gone before while attacking those who foolishly attempted (or were forced) to put the former regime into practice. If Robinson has something useful, positive and, above all, specific to contribute, then let him say it and support it with facts and leave the disparagement and belittlement out of it.

    As a final thought in this particular exchange, I think it is worth reflecting on the fact that the views expressed in a single TED talk by a single individual is not the point at issue except those views are exemplars of a broader set of issues. Whatever one may think of the merits or lack thereof of Robinson’s claims, my critique of them in no way calls into question his right to make them. As is obvious, I take issue with the claims themselves. But equally, I take issue with the tactic of using teachers as whipping boys to gin up support. I make no apology for mounted such a defense.

    Robinson is only the latest, or one of the latest, in a long line of self-appointed education critics to use this tactic. It is in my view unjustified by the facts and underhanded in its use. It is possible to bring empirical rigour to the evaluation of education without also bringing rancour. But we must first decide what that education is attempting to accomplish. That debate has been ongoing for well over a century and seems to be to be far from settled. Is it, as Professor Cochran made reference to in his post, to produce “humans that can easily fill the needs of the society they find once they are out of the education system?” Or is it to find self-fulfillment, whatever that may mean. Are these two things different from each other or different aspects of the same thing? The unresolved tension between the multitude of views of what constitutes an education is at the heart of all of this. So I will say again what I have said before. We must dispense with the laying of blame and cast our discussions in a positive vein. What are we trying to do and, if we are able to decide that question, how best should we go about doing it?

  33. Thank you for rebutting this “education revolutionist”. I must agree he is a very good presenter but once out of his influence, when I did think about what he said, I discovered it was nonsense. As everybody seems to cheer him over the Internet, it has been a big relief to find your text.

  34. Thank you for unmounting this “education revolutionarist”. If you search the Internet you only find people cheering his videos. It is a relief to have found your rebuttal.

  35. All I can say after this very long string of erudite comments is thank you, Scott Goodman. Thank you for saying what so many of us would like to say in response to Sir Ken and the followers of his dangerous rhetoric. He has found a way to feed the chips on many people’s shoulders. There is no way of reasoning with his followers because, of course, rational thought is seen as being academic, ‘bad’, a symptom of a flawed education system. The irony is that despite Sir Ken’s premise that we are all of equal worth, he and his followers are extremely derisive of those of us who have a different point of view. And would Sir Ken be capable of such calculated rhetoric if he himself had not had a traditional academic education?

  36. All I can say after a long string of such erudite comments is ‘Thank you’, Scott Goodman. I have only just discovered you essay.

    Thank you for saying what so many of us have been thinking and trying to say for so long. There is no doubt that Sir Ken is a clever man – but his form of rhetoric (the same used by many politicians and religious cult leaders) is dangerous. There is no reasoning with followers of Sir Ken, his followers do not give time to reason and logic. Point out to one of his followers the duality of Sir Ken’s views and there is no discussion about the basic premises of his arguments, instead one will face a derisory or arrogant comment aimed at making one appear less worthy and one’s viewpoint therefore irrelevant. Oh the irony of that!

    • Hello Sarah,

      Thank you for your comments on Scott Goodman’s article about Sir Ken Robinson. You made two comments that were pretty similar – so I have approved the second and unapproved the first. Let me know if you want me to do it the other way round!

      Best, Crispin.

  37. Pingback: Ken Robinson rebuttal | Ed Tech Now | To Talk Like This and Act Like That

  38. Pingback: reposted Ken Robinson rebuttal | Ed Tech Now | Magnitudes of dissonance

  39. Pingback: Schools That Kill (Creativity) | To Talk Like This and Act Like That

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