Sir Ken Robinson: The creative approach to teaching and learning

Ending an outmoded industrial education system
By: | Issue: July, 2015
June 18, 2015

Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED talk, “How Schools Kill Creativity,” still ranks as the most watched video of the series, viewed more than 30 million times.

In that presentation Robinson said that we are all born with immense natural talents, but by the time we’ve been through an education system, far too many of us have lost touch with them.

His new book Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education (Viking, 2015) builds on the ideas in his TED talk.

“People tell me they enjoy my talks online but are frustrated that I don’t say what they can do to change the system,” he says. “I have three responses. The first is, ‘It was an 18-minute talk; give me a break.’ The second is: ‘If you’re really interested in what I think, I’ve published various other books you may find helpful.’ The third response is this book.”

You say that the creative school is one that “transforms rather than reforms.” Can you elaborate?

Our education systems developed in the context of The Industrial Revolution. And the way schools are organized is resonant of industrial principlesÑ conformity and compliance and linearity.

A lot of things that happen in schools are habits that just become ingrained in the institutional character. They are not mandated by anybody. It doesn’t say anywhere that you have to have a day organized into 40- or 50-minute pieces, or that you have to educate people constantly by age group. It’s just what we do. It’s become a cultural habit.

So when we talk about changing the system, part of my argument is that you can change the bit of the system that you’re in control of. You can change what you do. And if you do that, you are changing the system.

If a teacher decides to adopt a different set of strategiesÑif instead of having students sitting in rows of desks facing the front and writing and listening all the time, the teacher decides, as many do, to adopt a more project-based approachÑyou are changing the system. You don’t have to reauthorize No Child Left Behind to do that, you can do that tomorrow morning if you decide that’s what you want to do.

I know head teachers who get their faculty and students together and ask, “Is there a better way of doing things?”

There are pressures and expectations, of course, and I’m not minimizing them. But there are more creative ways to address them than this tendency to sayÑas many schools doÑ”We just have to knuckle down and get the job done, and don’t expect it to be interesting.”

Can any school become a “creative school”?

Absolutely. Creativity isn’t an add-on. It’s a way of thinking about things, of doing things. I’ve defined it as the process of having original ideas that have value.

You can present material in a straightforward, dull wayÑ”Here it is on the board. Just write that down and memorize it”Ñor you can bring it to life, as great teachers do. There are multiple techniques for doing that. Teaching for creativity is about encouraging kids to develop their own creative thinking, their own skills of creative production.

It is happening in lots of places already. There are some people who have been doing it for years and some who are coming to it and some who are a bit ahead of the curve.

Assessment plays a big role in school funding and teachers’ jobs. How can you accurately measure what’s going on in these creative schools?

My argument is that all of those things should be focused on improving the quality of teaching and learning. And if the focus is on test results, then we’ve already missed the point because we shouldn’t assume that test results are the best or even adequate guide to the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

It’s like IQ tests. What they really tell us about is the ability of people to take IQ tests. And test results tell us about the ability of people to be trained and focus on doing these sorts of tests. They don’t tell us much else.

So part of my argument is since it is a complex system, policy makers have to think: Are we applying the right criteria of accountability to schools that will allow learning and teaching to flourish in the way that it really should in the best interest of schools in the communities?

At the moment it’s all about testing and getting the right GPA score to get to college. And a lot of things get pushed out of the way that are valuable in themselves. The experiences that people ought to be having in elementary and high school education are being discarded in the interests of keeping test scores up and getting more and more people through to college.

So more testing isn’t the answer? Well, things haven’t gotten much better from it, have they? In fact, in some respects, they’ve become worse. The teachers are often very disaffected. They talk about the

terrible conditions they have to operate in.

One of the estimates I’ve seen is that the education testing support sector in the U.S., which is largely private, generated revenues the year before last of $16 billionÑalmost twice as much as the NFL. One estimate is that the introduction of the Common Core, if it goes ahead as planned, could generate revenues of about $8 billion for testing companies that develop standards for the Common Core.

Can you imagine what improvements could be brought about in the nation’s schools if we had another $16 billion a year to spend on them? What facilities we could build? What we could do to recruit great teachers, to train them, to support them, to recruit and train great head teachers? To provide real professional development programs?

To create cultural programs? But at the moment, it’s largely going into the pockets of private testing companies, and it’s not helping. It’s not doing what people claim it does.

When it comes to education, politicians say we need to raise standards. But that does little to address underlying problems.

Politicians sometimes ask me, “What should we do to solve these problems in schools of disengagement, and of non-graduation, and of disaffection, and low standards, and low morale? What do you think we should do to solve all of these problems?”

Part of my response is, “Well, stop causing them! Do something else!” And the something else is what we’re trying to describe in the book.

The American education system has embraced a culture of testing and standardization that clearly is not working, because it’s not conducive to how people actually learn.

I’m very keen to say this: This is not a theoretical book; it’s a book of practice. There are ideas in the book that I hope people find helpful and encouraging. I’m not saying we should try this or that and see if it works. What I’m saying is this does work. I show you that it works in all kinds of different settings and here’s why it works, and can we do more of it?

And I want to be clear about something: I never, for a moment, thought the things I am arguing for line up with a particular party manifesto. They don’t. There are people in all parties who may or may not agree with this approach.

And I find many people who do agree very strongly come from all sorts of political backgrounds. I don’t want to make my argument party political. But education is political in the broad sense, because it’s a matter of public policy and we need to have a clear understanding of what we’re trying to get done here.

Does the transformation begin with teachers and parents?

If it’s not happening in the schools, it’s not happening. It doesn’t happen in the committee rooms of the Senate, or on the floor of the Senate, no matter how much people talk about it. People can talk all they like about education, but if it’s not happening in the schools, it’s not happening period.

The sort of education that we really needÑthat kids respond to and the country is crying out forÑwill happen only if the culture of schools is encouraged to move in that direction. And that’s a multiple responsibility. It’s not just politicians. It’s teachers. It’s parents. It’s kids. And it’s school boards and all the rest.

Tim Goral is senior editor.