Sir Ken Robinson’s talentsPosted: September 10, 2017
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.