Yesterday, I listened to a podcast interview with Sir Ken Robinson conducted by Dan Haesler. It wasn’t exactly a challenging interview, but I don’t suppose these things are meant to be, and it irritated me how Twitter criticism of so-called ‘no-excuses’ schools in the UK was presented as established fact. Nevertheless, I listened in case Sir Ken took the opportunity to respond to his critics, which he did.
I don’t know whether Sir Ken has ever read any of my stuff or whether he had me in mind, because he did not state who his critics are. This means that they gain no additional publicity but it also makes it hard to test what Sir Ken says about them. For instance, he calls-out personal attacks and suggests that his critics are on the political right or far right. For my part, I avoid personal attacks and my politics are centre left.
His other main beef with his critics is that they don’t appear to have read all his books; they’ve only seen his TED talks. I’m not sure this is a valid rebuttal because despite Sir Ken having released some best sellers, it is clear that far more people in education have seen and been influenced by his TED talks, and so the ideas presented in these talks are worth scrutinising on their own terms.
It’s actually an odd corollary of the personal attack. If Sir Ken is taking criticism personally then you can understand why he might want us to judge him for the entirety of his output, whereas I am interested in criticising specific ideas.
For instance, when I criticise his views on creativity, I give the example of the paper clip task; an example he deploys in a talk and that I criticise directly. That seems a reasonable thing to do, regardless of whether he goes on to contradict himself or expand on this idea in print.
There is an interesting discussion in the interview about how critics have cunningly framed Sir Ken as being against teachers, as if this is some kind of dastardly plan cooked up by Cambridge Analytica. He has never criticised teachers, Sir Ken complains. But when you ask ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’ then you should expect some teachers to see it as an attack on them and their work. I understand that many teachers don’t see it that way, and that they certainly didn’t back in 2006, but that tells us more about the cringing lack of professional confidence of the teaching profession than anything else.
If you believe that schools kill creativity then that’s fine. Make the case. But don’t complain if you get some push back.
It is also clear that Sir Ken should read David C Geary’s work on biologically primary versus biologically secondary knowledge. Sir Ken often claims that learning is ‘natural’ and he does so again in this interview, supporting the point by explaining that we learn to speak without direct instruction. Geary would suggest that speaking has been subject to evolution and so we have evolved ways to learn it quickly whereas academic tasks such as reading and writing have only been around for a short time, we’ve not evolved a way to learn them and so learning them is effortful. Even if Sir Ken rejects Geary’s thesis, it would be worth knowing it exists and having a rebuttal ready. Of course, he wasn’t challenged on this point in the interview.
Apart from this, my main impression of the interview was that it was on the grumpy side of jocular, despite the lack of challenge. I can’t help agreeing with Martin Robinson:
Sir Ken’s views should be tested in a more challenging environment. Somehow, I doubt we’ll see that happen.