Sir Ken Robinson’s talents

Following my recent post on Ontario’s maths curriculum, Tunya Audain left a comment linking to an interview with Sir Ken Robinson. Apparently, Robinson is in Ontario and so he was asked what to do about the decline in maths scores.

I tend to agree with Robinson’s call for curriculum balance. It would be a shame if the response to standardised testing was one that squeezed out the subjects that are not assessed. I don’t think any teachers are arguing for this but it is still a real problem.

E. D. Hirsch has claimed that standardised reading tests cause many schools to endlessly drill children in reading comprehension strategies at the expense of history or science; a myopic approach that leads to the ‘fourth grade slump‘ in reading performance as children lack the general knowledge needed to make inferences at this level.

However, I’m not convinced that Robinson hits the mark by focusing on dance. While dance should have a place in the curriculum, it seems eccentric to suggest that it will have an effect on maths performance.

Yet Robinson seems to be referring to research when he states:

“[There are] a number of schools where kids who were taking dance programs improved in all their other work, including in mathematics. Their math scores went up.”

I’d love to see this research but there is no link or reference. The best candidate seems to be a study that Pedro de Bruyckere wrote about here. It certainly seems to show an impact on maths but a number of different things varied between the two conditions. Factor in a possible placebo effect and it probably doesn’t tell us much.

Nevertheless, dance in the curriculum is valuable in its own right and will not cause harm. Unfortunately, Robinson’s ideas about talent are potentially harmful.

“I know people who succeeded in all sorts of occupations who didn’t do particularly well at school.”

I have no reason to doubt this statement but is it meant to be a serious comment about education? For instance, there are many people who have survived a serious illness and gone on to be successful but that’s hardly a recommendation for serious illnesses. The effect of education is clearly unpredictable at an individual level yet few would doubt that a good education generally improves the odds of a successful life.

And education is not just a means to an economic end, it is worth something in its own right. It is good to know some history and literature, whether you will go on to use this in your career or not. I think the world would be a better place if our captains of industry knew a little more about it.

The reason Robinson makes his statement about successful people is to segue into his talent theory of human potential. It sounds quite benign: everyone has a talent for something and it should be the job of schools to ferret this out. Yet the effects of talent theories are not benign; they are vicious.

If you believe everyone has a talent then you can believe that it is something other than a talent for sport or music or maths or even all academic subjects. It is a talent theory that led my primary school P.E. teachers to split the boys in two for football, coach the talented half and let the rest, including me, play and referee their own game unsupervised. I was interested in football. I played it every break and lunch but I soon learnt that I was not talented at it. I now realise that if I had been taught properly, and if I had practised what I had been taught, then I would have improved. I may never have joined Manchester United but I could have derived some pleasure out of the game.

Take the example of Paul McCartney. Robinson had a chat with him:

“I asked him if he enjoyed music at school. And he said he didn’t like it at all. I said, “Did your music teacher think you had any talent?” He said, “No, not at all.” George Harrison was at the same school, and the music teacher didn’t think George had any talent, either. Well, I think it’s a bit of an oversight. You’ve got half the Beatles in your class and you don’t spot anything.”

Again, this is a case based upon people who have achieved extraordinary things. It’s not clear how well this generalises to everyone else. But let’s put that aside for a minute and take the argument on face value. What would McCartney’s musical talent have sounded like at school, before the Quarrymen and the many hours spent playing in dingy clubs in Hamburg? When we think of McCartney’s talent, we look back though our knowledge of The Beatles, Sgt Pepper, The White Album. But how would this have been apparent in the early 1950s? It’s not even all that obvious by the time of, “Love me Do.”

McCartney certainly had potential but that potential was realised through a lot of hard work. There are millions of students out there with the potential to pursue an unimaginable range of goals. Perhaps some could become great mathematicians. If not, perhaps they could become competent mathematicians in ways that will enrich their lives and enhance their careers. They certainly won’t do this if they assume they have no talent for the subject and heed Robinson’s advice that, “The answer is not always to sit people down and drill them endlessly on the thing they’re failing at.” Because that is precisely the answer, provided that the drill is well designed.

After all, that’s what athletes and guitarists and dancers do; they practise over and over and over again. Endlessly. That’s what The Beatles did. That’s how you improve at something. You don’t improve by giving up and assuming your talents lie elsewhere.

If talent exists then it is largely out of our control. We may not even be able to reliably spot it if Paul McCartney’s teachers are any guide, so it is an odd thing to try to build a school system around. Far better to expose children to a range of experiences; to teach them that hard work leads to improved performance; to ensure they have the necessary baseline knowledge and skills to chase their dream, whatever that turns out to be.

Talent theories take you away from that. Talent theories provide excuses not to act and not to work. Talent theories teach us despair.

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16 Comments on “Sir Ken Robinson’s talents”

  1. Mike says:

    It’s what I call the “argument from celebrity”, which is just as misleading as the argument from authority. It’s extraordinarily seductive and appeals to that most reliable of touchpapers – human vanity. An adult reading the above guff could easily be led to believe “Hey, if my teacher hadn’t so cruelly inhibited all my creative energies at school, I could’ve been a McCartney as well!”. And adolescents reading it would have all their convictions about their own unrecognised genius confirmed, with predictable consequences.

    The problem, of course, is that the world isn’t made up of Paul McCartneys. It’s made up of a very few people who become outstandingly successful, and a vast, vast majority of people who have to do the ordinary, mundane but perfectly valuable and honourable jobs that keep our society and our civilisation going. And that society and that civilisation is hurt immeasurably if its foot-soldiers are (a) poorly educated, (b) constantly disgruntled, bitter and jealous because they labour under the misapprehension that they are unheralded geniuses who could have been recognised as such but for their teachers.

    Incidentally, given Sir Ken’s tendency to fall back on his SIr Paul anecdotes to wow his audiences regularly, as a chessplayer I’ve decided to dub it the Two Knights’ Defence.

    • I agree. Saying everyone is talented at something is a great excuse for not teaching children properly. The other, even more insidious and evil, excuse is ‘this (Shakespeare, maths, English history, classical music – supply your own, it will be on the list) is not relevant to these pupils’. This always short changes the most disadvantaged, and is frequently said of ethnic minorities by, wait for it, teachers and educators who want to improve those children’s prospects! They will even label as racist the suggestion that these children are taught e.g. classical music etc instead of something more relevant to them.

  2. S McEneaney says:

    So often when I read discussions on internet blogs and social media, the crux of the conflict can be found in one word, or rather, the careless use or misreading of one word. In this discussion it can be seen in Ken Robinson’s statement about ‘endless drilling’. I think we would all agree that ENDLESS drilling is good for no child or adult. Drilling, as in repeated practice, is an excellent way to learn and improve at both practical and more academic pursuits. Perseverance will lead to improvement. I think that PISA results should be accompanied by the numbers of hours spent in school and at homework rather than just looking at curriculum and teaching styles (maybe they are, I haven’t checked). But ‘endless drilling’, as well as being literally impossible, would be soul destroying and so then the equal and opposite reaction comes when some people say there should be NO drilling. It is tedious.

    Humans enjoy a variety of activities in a variety of ways; playing football, watching football, reading, talking and even writing about football, perhaps coaching or bringing ones own children to football practice. Variety and enjoyment should be part of a school programme as well as hard work and effective drills or practice of skills.

    I am going to assume that your qualification ‘provided that the drill is well designed’ is meant to cover those minority of cases where the major time and effort put into the drills is not worth the small improvements they bring about.

    • Mike says:

      This is a very good point. The arguments of Sir Ken and his ilk rely to a very large extent on such straw men, of which the trendy progressivists have a long list (I almost said an endless list…).

    • Mitch says:

      I don’t think Ken Robinson deserves any benefit of the doubt or nuance.
      When you use hyperbole to present public schooling as a factory where creativity is discouraged and students are treated like robots by uncaring teachers and administrators all for the bizarre reason to better train them for factory life (??).
      When you say to people that you are special snowflakes and that the only reason they are not famous rock stars is the fault of a teacher who just refused to see their innate talent.
      When you use cherry picked anecdotes as evidence.
      When you have whole books to explain yourself but instead write complete garbage that rivals ‘The Secret’ for pseudoscience.
      When you can’t help but accept every conference, interview and self-marketing opportunity that presents itself.

      Of course I don’t disagree with everything he says but when you do these things I don’t think you deserve me looking for ways to agree with you and I will point out all the ways I disagree. I also don’t think I should go looking for wisdom in someone whose main arguments are so deeply, deeply flawed.

      • S McEneaney says:

        I don’t care what Ken Robinson does or does not deserve, I do think that words have meanings and that should be respected. Put it down to my boring teachers who made me do old-fashioned comprehension exercises. Caricatures of schools abound, as well as critiquing the pseudoscience of the proposed alternative, one can (and, I would argue, should) also point out the incorrect description of the current practice.

        This appeared in The Irish Times criticising PE, it refers to ‘five mile runs at dawn’, which is the most ludicrous misrepresentation of a school subject I have yet come across. It also indulges in the fantasy that school curricula can solve society’s ills.

        https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/school-pe-is-part-of-the-childhood-obesity-problem-1.3216049

  3. “[There are] a number of schools where kids who were taking dance programs improved in all their other work, including in mathematics. Their math scores went up.”

    I’d love to see this research but there is no link or reference. The best candidate seems to be a study that Pedro de Bruyckere wrote about here. It certainly seems to show an impact on maths but a number of different things varied between the two conditions. Factor in a possible placebo effect and it probably doesn’t tell us much.

    Nevertheless, dance in the curriculum is valuable in its own right and will not cause harm. Unfortunately, Robinson’s ideas about talent are potentially harmful.

    Observationally, physical activity in general tends to help math. Encouraging kids to run around and be very active during recess probably has as much or greater effect; I agree with your take, there’s no harm in dance as a subject, but the fact that it — like a myriad other non-academic physical activities — likely has a positive effect on other subjects is not, in itself, a clear argument for its inclusion. That’s the old “Yes Minister” syllogism:
    “Something must be done!”
    “This is something”
    “Therefore this must be done”

    • Mitch says:

      You know very well that Sir Ken’s argument is not that physical activity leads to increased concentration in maths class or something.
      He is alluding, as he has done umpteen other times, that the creativity of dance helps maths or that if somehow we could just get kids to express maths through dance then we will find that they are all actually geniuses.

  4. The kids who did poorly in the school I attended had clear talents. Personal destruction, pyromania, kleptomania, property damage, pot smoking. Genuine, world-class talents, some of them.

  5. Tunya Audain says:

    Sir Ken Robinson has a decided knack of diverting attention away from the academic side of schooling. Here he is in Ontario, probably an unplanned coincidence, but nonetheless in the midst of a “math crisis” and he’s here pontificating about creativity and talents.

    As a parent and grandparent I’m particularly sensitive to people sidetracking parental concerns. As it is, parents have a hard enough time advocating for children’s need to master the 3 Rs without some sideshow. How long has this craze been going on? Six years ago his youtube on Changing Education Paradigms hit the waves and parents were encouraged to watch this. It wasn’t just teachers, but school trustees and fellow parents who were also caught up on this bandwagon. And it still hasn’t stopped.

    I’m pleased to see educators taking Robinson to task, especially on his take on “drill”. It reminds me of the literature that identifies John Dewey as the first to denounce primary reading lessons as “drill” and a “fetish”. (1898)

    Well-designed drill, as Greg points out, is nothing more than the practice needed to master something, for example, as “athletes and guitarists and dancers do”.

  6. Marie Snyder says:

    Robinson’s talks leave kids feeling empowered because they can blame their lack of motivation and creativity on the school system. Apparently they could be doing amazing things if it weren’t for those boring teachers. I wrote at length about him ages ago.

  7. goddinho says:

    I don’t know whether or not dance helps with maths- but knowing what I know about cognitive science (through following blogs like this, among other things) it seems that doing more maths is the most likely route to improvement. One thing that does strike me though is the number of professional classical musicians who have a particular facility with maths; If this is true (and I’m only speaking on my own observations) why not have more music in schools? Would studying Rap make you better at maths, or would it just be reading and playing music? You could probably argue for anything- I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that learning anything requires hard work, focused on the knowledge and structures of the subject itself. Dance and rap might be motivating, but that won’t make you more motivated to solve simultaneous equations.

  8. Have just read my NEU (used to be NUT) magazine, which includes a suggestion that measures in education do ‘not put the needs of the children first’. I am keen to put children’s needs first, but those needs are ‘what they need to learn’.

  9. John Perry says:

    A few comments here describing the sort of practice that musicians and dancers do as “drill”. I can assure you that “drill” will not get you anywhere in the arts. Repetition yes, drill no.

    The art is in being able to repeat phrases, technical studies, what you will, in a way that you learn from each repetition. Focused attention on what you are doing at every point of the repetitions is essential.

    Just doing something over and over will not achieve anything. If anything, it will be detrimental. Having the imagination to visualise what your playing / dancing / singing will be like after your practice is the key.

    Imagination, creativity, motivation and the artistic impulse is far more important than just repeating it over and over. The repetition (not drill) is the tool you use.


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