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.