We don’t need no Sir Ken Robinson

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I am sure that Sir Ken Robinson is utterly charming. I am more sure of this than I am with most people I have never met because his persona is there for all to see in his famous TED talks; a jocular uncle who makes you think. And I have absolutely no reason to question his intentions. I am certain he believes that if his ideas were implemented, education would be improved and the world would be a better place.

My issue is with these ideas. Robinson is wrong. He is mistaken. And that should give us cause to be concerned about his continuing influence.

In the main, Robinson’s views reflect the views that have been popular among educationalists since the start of the 20th century; views that fit the progressivist tradition: Children should not be forced through boring drills. They should not be regimented but should instead be treated individually. Education should be a more natural process.

However, Robinson brings something else to the party. In addition to his avuncular manner, he focuses on creativity and talent. Robinson cites a study that shows that children can think of more uses for a paper clip than older people and suggests that this is because schools kill creativity. Robinson’s own definition of creativity is, ‘…the process of having original ideas that have value,’ and I actually quite like this.

However, it would be odd to think that many of the uses of a paper clip that children can dream-up ‘have value’. And that’s the rub. Creativity has value when it operates within constraints. You need to know a lot about iPhones and their software architecture before you can design creative iPhone apps. You need to able to write before you can write Ulysses or The Handmaid’s Tale. If we focus too much on simply generating original ideas then we neglect the long and gruelling process of building the background knowledge that will allow original ideas to have value. Older people think of fewer uses for a paper clip presumably because they know what a paper clip can do and they discard possibilities that lack value.

Perhaps more concerning than Robinson’s focus on creativity is his focus on talent. I think this also explains his popularity with successful people in business or the media. To Robinson, education should be about helping kids discover talents and, on first encountering this idea, it seems benign and uncontroversial.

But if we accept that different people have different talents then we accept the principle of meritocracy satirised by Michael Young in the 1950s. If you are a successful business leader then it’s comforting to think that you rose to your position through your own talents: I have a talent for leading multinational companies whereas you have a talent for domestic cleaning. Life is fair.

It is less comforting to consider the role of luck, connections and family in your success, or to think that someone out there could probably do your job better than you if only they had been given the opportunity. If you are a businessperson with a philanthropical leaning and you want to do something radically progressive then I suggest you start a TV production company that only hires working class actors and pays them a living wage or start a charity that pays the rent and accommodation of working class kids as they undertake unpaid internships in big cities. This is how talent is socially constructed.

Schools already operate too much as talent sorting systems rather than educational institutions. Take the example of how writing is often taught by simply asking children to do lots of it. Those who find that writing comes easily will persist, gain feedback and grow. Those who find it a challenge will find ways to avoid it. They might then attract labels which mean it is unfair to expect them to do much writing. Fast forward a few years and their use of ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ will be screen-grabbed and put on Twitter as an example of an argument that may be dismissed with no further explanation necessary.

Writing is critical. It is essential to be able to write in order to function in a democracy and to have your say. The spurious idea that a child’s talents may lie elsewhere is actually just a way of keeping them down.

If we follow Robinson’s model, we will have more talent selection where middle-class children choose to pursue academic talents while others are allowed to get off the bus, have some fun but leave school inadequately prepared for the challenges they face. This is not Robinson’s utopia. It’s Young’s dystopia.

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14 thoughts on “We don’t need no Sir Ken Robinson

  1. I think he is popular in part because there is a real misconception about what talent is. It’s not some fluffy thing you are just handed by fate. I have a 17 year old just signed to professional sports team. Everybody thinks he is “talented”. They haven’t seen

    -the relentless practice he does at home, out of sight.

    – the extensive reading and research he has done about technique, training & psychology. Stacks of books up to my chin. Including all the BTEC and HND text books for British sports science qualifications, because he wants a solid general foundation to build his sport specific knowledge on.

    -the charts, spreadsheets and assorted other visual measuring devices he has stuck all over his bedroom walls so he can continuously evaluate his progress and build the habits required to incorporate new elements.

    They just see him swan onto the court and “effortlessly” make 3 pointers. I’ve seen the 2 solid years of legs furiously, constantly paddling underwater.

    He found something he liked and because he liked it he dug deep and does a hell of a lot of work, on and off the court, physical, mental and … academic I suppose you could call it.

    There’s a lot of grind, learning by rote and pure slog involved in developing “talent”. It isn’t just bursts of unconstrained creativity. In all honesty I think his somewhat traditional education has given him an edge in terms of nose to the grindstone and honing his skills. An education he’ll need because he’ll always live on the edge of being just one injury away from an abruptly ended career.

    I like Sir Ken, in the sense that his talks are very watchable and he is entertaining. But I think the talent myth has led him, and many others, down a side street that could actually impede the honing of “talent”. Because to get really good at anything you really do need to build up your ability to just keep going with boring stuff you hate for the sake of the much longer-term pay off.

    I’m not convinced a more creative/talent focused education would have allowed my son to develop the tenacity required to develop his skills and get as far as he has with his sport.

    It’s not like I am an advocate for dull, relentless, purely rote education. I whipped my boy out of our local Italian state school and turned to the British system via Home ed. because where I live the local schools are stuck in a cycle of “eat the chapter, vomit mostly undigested on teacher’s desk in oral test, now purged …move on to next chapter”.

    It was soul destroying and I lost the plot after reaching another Sunday night with an exhausted 8 year old who had spent all weekend trying to stuff entire paragraphs into his short term memory. He has had to work hard in the British system, but there has been an entirely different feel to it.

  2. From the teacher’s perspective, making children do a lot of writing has its attractions: it keeps them busy. If you can convince yourself that they are learning how to write, you can even feel virtuous about it. Considering that a lot of teachers can barely write a coherent paragraph themselves and know far too little grammar to correct their pupils’ scrawls, the profession has worked itself into a pedagogic dead end.
    However, teaching children to write well is problematic; the only obvious solution is to ensure that lower-order skills–including handwriting–are practised until fully fluent.

    Writing came easily for me, largely due to two factors that were outside my teachers’ control: a mother who blanched when she heard colloquialisms, let alone incorrect grammar, and an exceptionally retentive visual memory. The latter enabled me to become the disgusting little creep who always got perfect marks on spelling tests (yes, I’m that old), and the former taught me how to use subordinate clauses in normal speech long before I knew any formal grammar. Hence, when I had to write anything, my full attention was devoted to the content.

    We learned very little formal grammar in primary school–that came later–and we did relatively little writing, even in secondary. Because we were tested frequently, teachers didn’t want the bother of evaluating anything more than a short, factual answer. Even in English, formal essays were rare: I don’t recall writing any before Year 10 or 11. Bear in mind that this was in the US, where writing essays has never had the hallowed status it enjoys in the UK.

    The spelling programme that I wrote employs large numbers of sentence dictation exercises which provide a model of well-constructed sentences and include high-utility rules for capitalisation and punctuation. The sort of SPaG now included in UK schools is, I think, ineffecient if not ineffective. Sigfried Engelmann has it about right: we learn more by modelling than by precept, and it’s not worth teaching rules unless they are useful enough to be practised to the point of automaticity.

  3. An article that invites the reader to reflect upon a given subject is always worth reading – regardless of agreeing with the text or not. I’ll stay with the notion of school systems should enable children to discover, develop and put into practice their own natural talents. “Talents” in the widest sense; not in the restrictive sense of academic degrees or occupations. Society benefits from all sorts of skills put into practice. When one discovers being naturally good at something, one has unfolded that platform where to start building self-confidence. Confidence to feel worthy, valuable, useful; to earn appreciation and respect, even admiration. A path in which to become useful, passionate, and find our place society. Not in the context of “celebrities or public figures” – although celebrities and/public figures earn such admiration for their talents that people around them are able to focus on that successful talent/ability overlooking other personal attributes (race, religion, social and economic background – e.g. successful sports people are an obvious example). And we’ll all do better focusing in everybody’s talents and positives rather than their/our differences and negatives.
    Sir Ken Robinson’s advocacy for education systems to create environments for children to discover their own talents makes great sense. Many are his ideas and published texts. I wonder if Greg Ashman has read them all before writing his critique towards Robinson… Or has Ashman just watched one or two TED Talk videos…?

    1. Why would analysing only his TED talks be bad? It is the medium Ken Robinson is famed in and allows a complete representation of his ideas.

    2. I don’t think you will find many people that think that talents should be squashed so it is a bit of a straw man to suggest that if you don’t believe in Ken’s vision that you believe that. The problem with his talks (and books – I did read one) is that it is all self-help, ‘The secret’-esque BS that present anecdotes like they mean anything. Most students, unfortunately, don’t have the ‘talent’ to be a professional dancers, musicians etc. no matter how much they like those things. We are doing them a disservice to say ‘follow your passion’ above all else, especially based on their inklings in primary school – it is much better to try and give them the knowledge they need if it doesn’t work out and a chance to maybe find their passion in calculus, chemistry, literature etc.

    3. I want students to be creative, to be able to find valuable work, to have confidence, and to be successful in life. But I also realize that my intuitions–and folk intuitions in general–about how to make that happen are not sufficient and are often wrong.

      So, I look to evidence of what *is* effective and I work to implement those ideas, while keeping an open mind, of course.

      A popular alternative to this seems to be to reckon that because you have happy thoughts about people and think the best of them, that at least makes you a good person. But to me, it doesn’t. If a strong preponderance of the evidence suggests that your ideas about making happy creative people don’t work in practice, then I don’t see how you’re a good person for promoting them.

  4. 1. The road to creativity is long and grueling. My first degree was architecture. I quickly learned that anyone can have a good idea: they are like bums, every one has one; but a real productive creative idea that produces great buildings…really great buildings? Live, eat and breathe buildings for a few decades, then we’ll check in.

    2. My kids have started writing essays at school. But they do not get to read and study great essays. Nor did I at high school. I believe this is a gap. Essays about literature, the arts, technology, science, even maths, at level for age would be invaluable. Even great historical essays (I mean written in the past) have much to teach. Finding collections of essays good for teenage readers is tricky, I must say. Any tips appreciated

  5. Creative thinking- which is something that we do have a chance of actually teaching- relies on a wide general knowledge. De Bono describes it as ‘connecting things that would otherwise be un-connected’. This is usually illustrated with Sir Ken’s ‘foam rubber paperclip’. Like the common theme here: ‘knowledge is what you think with’, you can only make creative connections if the stuff is in your head in the first place. The best design students I’ve taught over the years are the ones with the most knowledge about a wide range of things. Down grading subject knowledge in favour of Creativity (and Collaboration, Communication Critical thinking etc) is counter productive. (but we know that, don’t we).

  6. Actually it was William Plomer: ““It is the function of creative people to perceive relations between thoughts, or things, or forms of expressions that seem utterly different, and to be able to Connect the seemingly Unconnected”.

    but the gist is the same

  7. I’m not going to plunge into the worthiness of SKR’s message as it’s still a highly contentious issue. However, I will take on the worthiness of one of the arguments I hear from those who disagree with Robinson: that Mozart’s talents developed only due to the rote learning and drill-like exercises drilled in to him by his disciplinarian father and teacher (yes, there are plenty of commenters who take this line – you don’t need to look too far), rather than due to his innately creative personality and musical adventurousness.

    In fact, Leopold Mozart’s personality has been frequently misrepresented, in popular thought mostly due to that “documentary” Amadeus. Even in that movie, the director couldn’t help portraying him as exasperated rather than cold, when he visits Wolfgang and his wife and sees how much money they are wasting. In reality,

    Leopold discovered that his two children were musically gifted in about 1759, when he began with keyboard lessons for the seven-year-old Nannerl. The toddler Wolfgang immediately began imitating his sister, at first picking out thirds on the keyboard and then making rapid progress under Leopold’s instruction.

    Which shows that Leopold, as the teacher (admittedly one with plenty of self-interest), identified Wolfgang’s talents and brought these out to reveal the boy’s prodigious musicality. He also gave up most of his work to homeschool the two children, and later in life was the babysitter for his grandchild, Nannerl’s son. And as for his pedagogical approach?

    Leopold’s view [was] that mere technical instruction would not produce fine violinists. For instance, concerning a particular aspect of bowing, Leopold insisted “that the performer pay attention to the Affekt (approximately, emotion) intended by the composer, so that the most appropriate bowing could be chosen. Leopold envisaged that the performer should be capable of studying a piece for clues about the intended Affekt… One element [necessary to this] was an education broad enough to encompass the study of literature and especially poetry, for a cantabile style should be the aim of every instrumentalist, and poetry was the key to good phrasing in music.” (Leopold Mozart was himself highly cultivated, with strong interests in poetry and many other areas.)

    (both from Wikipedia)

    Once again, what I would describe as a holistic education, which produced inarguably the world’s greatest musician.

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