Full text of Sir Ken Robinson’s Talk ‘How to Change Education” at The RSA.
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Sir Ken Robinson- The Educationalist
What people talk a lot about in education is the need to get back to basics. And now they’ve been talking about this since the beginning of education. By the way, normally what people mean when they talk about the basics is a group of subjects that they think are more important than all the others.
And particularly education. People talk about the STEM disciplines, science, technology, engineering, and math. So they think its science, technology, engineering, mathematics. These are very important fundamental disciplines that are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. The type of education we need, in any case, the basics of education are not any group of subjects or disciplines. The basics of education or the purposes for which we do this
But why are we invested anyway in systems of mass public education? What’s it for?
And if we don’t agree on the purposes, then we have a problem in talking about the means and the processes. Well, I think there are four purposes to public education and labor them, but I’ll just point them out as a reference point and not in any particular order.
The first thing is economic. We all know that education has powerful economic purposes. It does, and it should. We should recognize it as a fact. We invest so much in it as communities because we expect education will contribute to our long term economic health, vitality and sustainability. That’s how we got to have these systems in the first place.
But the economic model of the day was industrialism, which is why the system looks the way it does. It is not that system anymore for us. We have a different set of imperatives now, for our children and for ourselves, if we are to make them economically independent.
As I think we all want to do that we don’t. We want to make our children economically independent. We do. I can’t tell you how much we want to make an economic independent and at once, if it’s possible.
But what sort of education do you need for that?
There was a report published about 18 months ago by IBM in which they reviewed interviews they had with 18 hundred leaders of companies in 80 countries. Companies and organizations. And they asked them what their priorities are, what keeps them awake at night.
And there were two ready that came out in reverse order. They are the first, they said, in reverse order was adaptability. How do run organizations which are able to respond quickly to change? Now, this is a bottom line issue for companies. Because if you don’t adapt quickly to change in circumstances, you’re very likely to go under. And the history of corporate life around the world is populated with the corpses of once great corporations that didn’t move quickly enough.
Think, for example, about Kodak. Kodak is now in bankruptcy proceedings. Kodak was synonymous in the 20th century with photography. They invented home photography. They invented digital photography. And now they’re out of business. And it’s not because people stopped taking photographs on the country. People are taking more photographs than ever.
Aren’t they? Irritatingly more photographs than ever!
I get it all the time. People posting on Facebook. Here’s my cappuccino. Check this out from a different angle this time. And here it is after I’ve drunk half of it. Fascinating. Send me more of these photographs.
What happened was that Instagram came along and whipped the ground really from beneath the feet of companies like Kodak. They just did not adapt. And the reason they didn’t adapt is because organizations are not like machines that like organisms. They are living entities made up of people with feelings, motivations, roles, aspirations, passions and ambitions.
And if the organism doesn’t respond, just as in the natural world, if it doesn’t respond to changes in its environment, it dies. And that’s what’s happened to many companies, including, most recently, Kodak.
So adaptability. But the top priority these CEOs pointed to for that company is long term flourishing was creativity. They said we need companies that are consistently and systematically creative. And how do you do that? You know, we need people who can think differently, but we can’t. This is the great irony. We can’t always find them because kids coming out of universities and colleges these days find it very difficult to come up with fresh ideas and why?
They’ve been educated on the standard routine of routine testing of multiple choice tests. We’ve been so systematically quashing the appetite for originality in our education system. The irony is that a lot of these systems are in place now in what people believe to be the interests of the economy. A corporation said they want something else.
So if we’re to meet the economic requirement of education, we need to have systems which promote creativity and adaptability as bottom line competencies, the very things that our education systems at the moment are being discouraged from doing.
The second purpose of education is cultural. We live in the world is increasingly complicated, increasingly riven, increasingly contested. Many of the great conflicts around the world now are not economic and character, although there’s an economic dimension, that cultural and character.
I mean, look what’s happening in the Middle East just now. Look what’s been happening in Central Europe. Look what’s happening across America. These are conflicts in people’s ways of seeing the world. The ideology is the value systems hitting each other head on. And they may imperils in the end. And know it’s a small enough planet as it is, but it’s becoming more populated. But in any case, for ethical reasons as well as strategic ones, we need forms of education which enable people to understand how they came to think as they do, why their values are as they are, why their patterns of life are as they are, and why other peoples are different.
We need formal education to help people to understand their own cultural identity and what formed it. And those of other people. Now, for that, you need a broad education. You need an education that gives equal weight to the arts, the humanities, to social studies, not just to technical subjects.
I came across this quote, which I thought you’d like about what it is to be Bush these days, I found this on the Internet:
“Being British these days means driving home in a German car, stopping to collect some Irish Guinness or Danish lager, pick up an Indian curry or Greek kebab, and spending the evening sitting on Swedish furniture watching American programs on a Japanese TV. And the most British thing of all, suspicion of anything foreign.”
That’s broadly right. So there’s a big cultural agenda for education.
The third is social. We need forms of education which engage this generation in the processes by which our communities are organized and governed. And there’s a lot of evidence that people are pulling away from those roles. There’s a lot of areas of disengagement, disenfranchisement from our political institutions for reasons we can readily see.
But John Dewey said this once that:
‘Every generation has to rediscover democracy.’
I think its right. We live in Los Angeles. There was an election for the new mayor a couple of months ago. The election has gone on for 18 months. Millions of dollars are being spent on the election. Fifteen percent of the electorate showed up to vote for it. This is on a day where not for reasons just of interest to me, I was looking into the life of Emily Davison. Emily Davison, who threw herself at sort anyway under the hooves of the King’s Horse at Epsom in 1930 and died two days later.
She did that in the interests of sustaining votes for women. And here we are, you know, just over a century later and people aren’t bothered to vote. People died for this, but we end up taking these things for granted.
And of course, we can’t. That’s right. I have to say, it’s what I think is one of the great themes of the work of the RSA that it sets out actively to encourage, encourage the sort of social engagement, particularly in education.
It’s very important that we take part in these civil discourses and that we actively promote. Well, you don’t do that in education by giving people lessons on civics. You do it by having a culture which embodies these processes of participation and great schools do them.
The fourth purpose of education, though, is the ultimate one to be, which is personal because in the end, education is personal. It’s about people. It’s not about components of machines. It’s people who are being educated.
And if we know anything about people, it’s they are different. They’re driven by different talents, different abilities, different passions, different interests and different motivations. One of the kind of signature features of humanity is diversity. Of course, it contrasts sharply with one of the organizational principles of education, which is conformity. And an education which isn’t new wants to Individual differences soon finds that very many people are disengaged from it or alienated by it. And that’s been the evidence in America.
For example, about 30 percent of kids don’t complete high school. And there are similar figures in some northern European countries as well.
This is really what my new book is about, by the way. You’ll be pleased me to mention that at this point we’re publishing a book called – Finding Your Element, which is about the nature of individual talent and passion of the things that drive us. But if we don’t understand that education is about people and individuals in all their diversity and multiplicity, then we keep making the mistakes that we make.
If we treat it as a machine age activity rather than the human process, then we run ourselves into a cul de sac. Well, if we recognize that when I talk about changing education from the ground up, that’s the ground. I mean, see, most political strategies start from the top down. I think we can issue directives at the top and get people to conform. Everything will improve. And the evidence is quite the country that the more governments go into commander control mode, the more they misunderstand the nature of teaching and learning. The more they misunderstand the process of education, the more alienated people come from the whole process.
So we have a situation here in the UK now where most of the major teacher unions have passed a vote of no confidence in the government’s education strategy. Well, that shouldn’t promote a smug expression of satisfaction on the government. That should keep them awake all night thinking it will have. How badly have we got this wrong? You cannot improve education by alienating the profession that carries it out.
It would be like trying to improve medicine by vilifying doctors, unless you can’t do that. So recognizing that education, I believe, can be encouraged, not top down is one thing. But I can only really improve from the ground up by the people who do the work, because in the end, it’s not ministers of state who are teaching all our children if they could. It’s the people actually do it in the schools.
So when do we get back? I think we have to recognize at least this basic. There was a book published probably 25 years ago. It was called the Empty Space by a theatre director called Peter Brook.
Peter Brook is one of those eminent theatre actors. On Earth is as uncertain of his generation. He found it, among other things, the Center for Theatre Research in Paris. Peter Brook is convinced has been throughout his working life that theater can be a generally transformative experience. It can be a deeply powerful experience for people and can change the way they look and feel. But he also says that because most state is not like that. It’s a night out. It passes the evening, but it would have passed anyway. So he said, if you’re really concerned to make theatre the most powerful experience you can be, we have decided what it is we mean when we say theatre. We have to get back to basics and focus on what is what’s fundamental.
And he answers that question in a brief passage in the book. By performing a thought experiment essentially says, what if you take an average data points, what can you take away and still have it? So what’s the core of what’s the irreducible minimum?
So he says, well, you know, you could take away the curtains. You don’t need those. You could take away the script. A lot of theatre doesn’t have script. You could take away the stage crew and the lighting. You don’t need it. You can get rid of the director, definitely. You can get rid of the building. You don’t need any of that. The only thing you can’t get rid of and still have theatre is an actor in the space and somebody watching. Because the actor performs a drama fair to describes the relationship between the audience and the performance.
It’s that relationship that we mean. So if you’re trying to make this, the most powerful expense can be, we have to focus on that relationship between the performer and the audience. And he says we should add nothing to it unless it helps. And of course, a lot of what we at the theater distracts that relationship and substitutes for it. Well, the analogy for me with education is exact because at the heart of education is a teacher and a learner.
And we’ve over time kind of obfuscated that relationship with every type of accretion and distraction. We have syllabuses. We have testing regimes, testing companies, political ideologies, political purposes, subject loyalties, union issues, building codes, all of the things, timetables, and schedules. It’s why we can spend all day long discussing education and never mentioned teaching or learning.
But if there’s no teaching and learning happening, there is no education going on. So if we’ve got to improve education, we have to improve that bit. and everything else has to take place around it and not get in the middle of it or get in the way of it.
So the focus on teaching and learning to me is vital. Now, what we know about learners is about children, is that children are learning organisms. Children don’t need to be helped to learn For the most part. They are born with a vast, voracious appetite for learning. In fact, they evolve in the womb with a great voracious appetite for. There’s a lot of evidence now that beyond a certain point, children are absorbing all kinds of things and their mother, while they’re in utero, that they’re picking up voice rhythms, they’re actually developing tastes for certain types of nutrient.
It’s why kids come out listening to the cadences of language. Now, what we also know is you don’t teach your child to speak. Most kids get to learn to speak in the first year and a half or so of their life. But you don’t teach them, do you? If you’ve got kids, you know that you don’t sit them down when they get to the age of one and say, okay, here’s the situation.
You know, you’ve probably noticed your mother and I keep making all these noises and actually refer to things that are in the in the room here. All these things have names, as we call them. And here’s a list of them that they’re roughly 50000 to get through in the next couple of months. And when we’ve got all those down, we’ll start to use verbs. We can tell you what you can do with these things.
And later on, things you might have done with them in certain circumstances and things you could have done possibly in the past. Or at least the hypothetical past.
Of course, you can’t do that. They just pick it up. I mean, you nudge them. You correct them. You encourage them. You know, teach them to speak. We do teach them to write. That’s a different thing. Writing appeared much later in human evolution than speech. I mean, very recently, actually, we’ve had a history of written systems. But my point is that children have a vast appetite for learning.
And it only starts to dissipate when we educate them. That’s to say when we put them in buildings designed for the purpose and put them in serried ranks and start to force feed them information and which they may or may not have an interest.
Now, the conceit of education is that, you know, children learn anyway. The conceit of education is that we can help them do better and direct them to things they may not otherwise learn. If left to their own devices. That’s why we plan to do this sort of stuff.
But learning will happen anyway. And with the new technologies happening more and more spontaneously. What it means is if we really want education to be effective, we have to focus on the process of teaching and learning and teaching. I think over the course, the past number of years of these so-called reform movements has become reduced in the political discourse to a kind of delivery system. Your job is to deliver the national curriculum. I don’t know when we borrowed all this lexicon from FedEx, I don’t know. But that began to happen, that we dropped the curriculum off for you.
But teaching has become seen as kind of delivery system and teachers have become seen as kind of functionaries in the raising of standards in the administration of tests. Actually, teaching is an art form. Everything I’ve ever learned and seen about teaching convinces me that is the case.
It’s not enough to be a good teacher to know your stuff, though. You need to know it. You don’t need to know everything, but you need to know enough to be able to teach it.
But more than that, you need to be able to excite people about the material. You need to engage them. You need to pick their imagination. You need to fuel their creativity. You need to drive that passion for it. You need to get them to want to learn this. You need to find points of entry. That’s the gift of a great teacher.
Some of your say to me earlier today, how can you do that with 35 kids in the class? I know teachers and my wife Terry is among them, when I first met her with 42 kids in the class and the place was humming and alive with activity and learning. And you do that not by you having teach them everything, but by getting them actively involved And teaching themselves and teaching each other.
In Harvard, now that they talk a lot about the flipped classroom, the physics professors there who have stopped lecturing people. Which is ironic to me to be reporting on. Now I know that. But instead, he gets the students in groups to work together and teach each other. And I find it very interesting that finally, Harvard and our universities have discovered what every good primary school teachers know for years. You know, that people teach themselves if you create the right conditions for it.
So one of the ways that we improve education is by recognizing that happens at the point of where teachers and learners meet. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen at all. Informal, organized education systems. So you can’t improve education by ignoring that relationship or demeaning it or vilifying it.
But it also means if you are in a relationship, you hold the tools of power right in your hands. You can change the system yourself. You don’t need to wait for anybody to do it.
Now, the shift, I think, is, as I said, that we have a mechanistic metaphor’s of education. We do for the most part. We have systems of education, too, but it’s not a mechanistic system. And this, I think, is one of our points of entry into the future. that a school, just like a child or teacher, is not a component. They are living organisms, living, breathing entities.
A school is a community of reciprocating individuals with who develop their own culture, their own way of saying things, their own habits and rituals and so on.
We can begin to see that there isn’t a single point of influence. The teachers in the system, the head teachers, are just as influential in their own world as the policymakers. And if you are a teacher, if you’re a school principal, if you’re a superintendent, if you run the school district, so far as the kids are concerned, go to your school, you are the education system. If you close the door on your children, you aren’t the education system. It’s not the sector state. It’s you.
And if you begin to change your practice, if you begin to change the environment of the school, if you’re, in other words, construct on your own microclimate in the school as part of a larger climate event, you start to affect the whole. That’s how all social movements have happened.
When people say times change, what values don’t that make the fundamental mistake? Actually, values do change over time, but they don’t change by the activities governments. They change from the ground up. People starting to act differently and demanding something else.
I’m always struck by the fact that Rock And Roll – One of the great cultural movements of my generation was not a government plan. It was not the case that a group of culture ministers got together in Brussels for a briefing from two civil servants who discovered three chords and said, “We think ministers, these will come together in lots of interesting combinations and Jenkins’, various designs, some hairstyles that might go along with it. We thought we’d run a few focus groups and shout takes off.” NO.
This thing just took off and bowled over everything in its path. People thought, this is great. The Internet was not a government plan.
Al Gore, despite what he says, didn’t think of it. And the people who did think about it. Tim Bensley did not have in mind what’s actually happened and how fast this has grown. Human culture is essentially unpredictable. But it accumulates over the creative activities of individuals feeding off each other. That’s how organic growth happens. And when I say the revolution is needed and it should start the ground up. What I just want to tell you is it’s already happening.
This isn’t a theory. There are already points of disruption across the whole planet here. And I’m just encouraging you to believe in it and to trying to move our systems into the 21st century.
I was in Austin, Texas, last week where the whole school district has given their kids iPads, for example. It’s a revolution in the way they’re teaching and learning in that school district. Look at the massive online open courses, The MOOCS, which are beginning to really drive a wedge into the whole process of higher education.
You can multiply these examples. The system is already adapting. The parts system that’s not adapting is the high level of government policy. And if any of the social movements to go by, the movement will gather force before they wake. And I hope that they’ll recognize that they too, are part of the ecosystem and that they should at least understand that the real role of leaders when it comes to education, whether you’re a teacher or a head teacher or you’re the head of a district or a sector state for education, your proper role, if you have a loving relationship with education, is not to try and command and control it, but to recognize your place in climate control.
And if you can help to change the climate of expectation in education, if you can change what’s happening on the ground, then you’ve changed the world.
– Sir Ken Robinson