A grumpy interview with Sir Ken Robinson

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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.

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25 thoughts on “A grumpy interview with Sir Ken Robinson

  1. It’s pretty annoying that someone would engage in TED talks to widen his audience and then complain that you need to read his books! If you need to read the books to understand then don’t make flaming videos!

    I’d love to have Sir Ken with me in my class of 14 year olds when we introduce quadratic equations to reassure them that learning is “natural”. He could take this graphing quadratics section — I’d enjoy watching him show them in a natural way.

    Well taught algebra is actually quite enjoyable for many, even most, students. But they have to fight your natural inclinations. The ones that fail are precisely those that refuse to fight and want everything to make sense in a naturalistic way.

    For me one of the key reasons for teaching algebra is to impress on students that the world cannot be dealt with simply by assuming the “obvious”. That there is great power in digging deep and thinking in different ways.

    It’s why we study literature, not just teach reading, for similar reasons.

    1. Quite. Probability springs to mind: rely on your natural instincts and you will be in big trouble. As all bookmakers know, our natural instincts about probability are wrong.

    2. It’s pretty annoying that someone would engage in TED talks to widen his audience and then complain that you need to read his books! If you need to read the books to understand then don’t make flaming videos!

      I’m not sure that’s a fair complaint to make – people give lectures all the time that tie in with the book that they have written. Greg, for example, has given lectures as well as written books – I’m sure he’d agree that each format has their advantages and pitfalls, and that it’s necessary to do both. Would you attend an author talk or book signing and then complain that they didn’t cover everything in their novel?

      1. No. But if someone criticised one of my talks then I would think that was fair. I wouldn’t insist that they read my books before they could comment.

      2. True, but you would also acknowledge that the misunderstanding of the meaning contained in your talks was due to the nature of having to leave out certain content, because there’s only so much you can say in a talk. You wouldn’t let the person continue to have the same impression if it was a mistaken one – apologise for the wrong impression being given and invite the listener / critic to get more context from your written material, whether it be an article, book or whatever.

        Which is exactly what I heard SKR say in the podcast.

      3. “True, but you would also acknowledge that the misunderstanding of the meaning contained in your talks was due to the nature of having to leave out certain content, because there’s only so much you can say in a talk.”

        No I wouldn’t. I would be happy for people to criticise my talk in its own terms.

  2. “Grumpy”!? I listened the whole way through and it didn’t sound that way. He’s entitled to defend himself against claims he believes are wrong – that doesn’t make him “grumpy”.

    I hope you didn’t choose that word because he’s nearly seventy … No, I’m sure that’s not the reason! 😉

  3. What an awful interview. He argues against the worst real or imagined views rather than worry about how someone might get what apparently is the wrong idea from his TED talk and the interview feeds him more of it.
    If you get the completely wrong impression from my talk you have to read my books to figure out what I actually mean should be a damming admission that he gives poor talks.

    I’d say for the part Greg is talking about he comes across as defensive and grumpy rather than owning that he is not getting his message across well.

  4. Just had a chance to listen to this.
    In fairness to Dan Haesler he is not an overly confrontational interviewer as evident by his interview with the Michaela principal. He also seems to genuinely grapple with the concepts even if he doesn’t always conclude the same things I do.
    Oh my gosh! That was a hard slog to listen to. After 5 minutes of listening to him say how great his talk was, how it was a lifesaving message and claiming that 75 million individual people have watched his video I almost finished it there. I just felt so unworthy to listen to this messiah we have been blessed with (I know, I know, I am being personal here and attacking the man – I just need to vent).
    His defence, as you say, was poor. From trying to marginalise his opponents rather than address their arguments to the whole defence of ‘I never said that’ when it is pretty objective that he did. I actually did read one of his books, The Element, and I found it as academic as a self help book. As you say someone can critique his talk without critiquing the whole body of his work. It doesn’t matter if some Arts education report he wrote in 1982 talks about the importance of knowledge – his TED talk claims the opposite.
    I also stand by the claim that there is a strong element of teacher bashing or at least teacher blaming in his message. I am more than willing to acknowledge that plenty of people from all sides do a similar thing (which is why the prestige of the profession is so low) but to say that schools kill creativity is to blame teachers for it. The only way you shift blame from the student to ‘the system’ is to go via the teacher.
    I would love to see him in a genuine debate with someone. Volunteering Greg?

  5. to say that schools kill creativity is to blame teachers for it

    Nup, not convinced. I’m finding a lot of teachers get very defensive about these sorts of statements. I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years and I don’t see it as an attack on me. The most challenging aspect of it is what I see as the unspoken message to teachers: “What are you going to do about it?” Fair enough challenge, I say. In my own way, I push back as much as I can with the limited powers I have, while trying to do my job the best I can.

    1. Anything like this blog can become an echo chamber so it is good that you provide an alternative view here.
      I clearly stated that to blame ‘the system’ goes via teachers. If ‘the system’ is the problem then we as teachers must be either willing participants or cowardly unwilling to push back as much as is needed (in your view). You may not see it as an attack on you but then it must all those other teachers that are doing all the killing for you then.
      I am more than willing to defend ‘the system’. It’s certainly not perfect but there is no doubt in my mind that it will help more disadvantaged students, unlock more creativity, and lead to a better society than any sort of blind faith that all everybody needs to do is find their passion.
      I don’t really see your challenge. Everything you have stated is clearly the dominant discourse at the moment and you have no trouble finding gurus, academics and celebrities who agree with you.

      1. Thank you for your acknowledgement. It is greatly appreciated.

        Everything you have stated is clearly the dominant discourse at the moment

        Except that NAPLAN and its global pals in high-stakes testing and “accountability” are actually the dominant discourse in school curricula, and therefore teaching in general. Research has been piling up over the last few decades (particularly around NCLB in the US and its successor, Common Core) to show just how much it has taken autonomy away from teachers, created greater gaps in terms of inequality, and (most egregiously, in my view) caused schools and school systems to cut arts programs.

        As with anything, I believe the answer is more nuanced. Do schools kill creativity? I don’t think so, but I am speaking as a teacher of a “creative” subject. Do high-stakes testing and accountability measures cause schools to kill creativity? The evidence would suggest that yes, they do.

        An anecdote – decades ago, when I was in a “progressive” primary school (well, the entire system could be classed as on the progressive side) in a disadvantaged regional area, a whole term project for the senior students was to create a town. This was what could be termed these days as “project based learning”. In the open learning space that our classrooms occupied (told you: progressive), we created papier-mache blocks and put them together as buildings, discussed the sorts of businesses our town would have and incorporated maths into this, and so on. Forty years later I still remember it. We ran it as a functioning CBD during open day in education week, including with a cafe that the students ran. My mother and grandmother came along and loved it – grandma remarked in the visitors’ book: “I wish we had this sort of thing when I went to school”.

        Most of the feedback in the visitors’ book was along these positive lines, except for one killjoy who wrote: “The kids should be doing schoolwork, not wasting time with this.” This had a huge impact on us, as we discussed it at length during one of our classes the following week (summary: “The kids” disagreed completely). For us, it WAS schoolwork, and we had worked very hard and learned a lot. I share this anecdote because for me, it’s a baseline that I return to during discussions like this. Working in a primary school now, I doubt whether such a project would get off the ground these days.

      2. Hi John
        I don’t think you can say that just because NAPLAN exists in Australia that it is the dominant discourse. Of course I am talking about educator and educationalist discourse not necessarily that of the public which I think would approve of it as a majority. For what its worth I do have a problem with MySchool and some aspects of the test but there seems to be no limit on the harms that NAPLAN can be blamed for in some circles.
        Some schools may go overboard with their focus and actually be detrimental to their own goals by cutting arts programs but I have seen no evidence of this. My own anecdotes from primary school teachers are that it is very difficult to even get over 2 hours of maths per week but an hour for dance, an hour for drama, an hour for games, 2 hours for art – no problem. We had a teacher complain that we were teaching to the test and forcing too much focus on NAPLAN for wanting to do a few small NAPLAN-like quizzes in the lead up, total time probably 2 hours, the same teacher seems to have no problem taking students out for a week to do dance rehearsals.
        In regards to your anecdote I don’t know what to say. Students often remember the rich tasks that they have bought into and forget the whole learning to read or understand a fraction bit. At the same time a whole lot of students don’t buy into them and waste a lot of time on not much.

      3. My own anecdotes from primary school teachers are that it is very difficult to even get over 2 hours of maths per week but an hour for dance, an hour for drama, an hour for games, 2 hours for art – no problem.

        Thanks for your anecdote but I am actually researching this at the moment and the data – from many different sources – says otherwise. 2 hours for art? That’s a new one for me – never seen that at all.

      4. That is what you decide to address? Righto.
        The more important point of that part of my comment was the small amount of time spent on maths but anyway.
        Had a talk with some another primary teacher after your reaction and she thought ‘on average’ being somewhere between and hour or two per week across all year levels. They would typically try and fit in something purely arty every fortnight (They had a kiln and would do ceramics every year for instance) and maybe a few short additional activities that were sort of arty but connected with other things, but in the final week of each term close to holiday time there was a lot more of these activities.

        I’d be interested to see your scientific study of where primary school time is spent.

  6. From “Out of our Minds”:

    When I first moved to Los Angeles, I saw an egregious example of the linear principle in the form of a discussion paper for education entitled, “College begins in Kindergarten.” There’s a lot more to say on this issue of linearity but let me simply say here that college does not begin in kindergarten. Kindergarten begins in kindergarten.

    Sounds like a good point to me. And no teacher-bashing at all: squarely at the feet of the system.

    1. Don’t really see your point here as the anecdote doesn’t raise any anger in me at ‘the system’.
      I have no idea what was in that paper, who wrote it and if it was an egregious example of ‘linearity’. It could have been trying to discuss the right mix of literacy, numeracy, play and art for all I know. Is this not worth discussing? What would a palatable discussion paper be called?

      How could it be seen as teacher bashing? Kindergarten is taught by teachers. If they care about the academic progress of their kindergarten students too much then they obviously don’t care about wellbeing/social skills/play/creativity/ etc.

    2. John,
      I am struggling to see your argument. You can’t take an arbitrary quote where he doesn’t bash teachers and claim he never bashes teachers.

      Also I am not sure why one discussion paper that may be out of line gets credited to “the system” rather than the specific authors.

      Teachers spend most of their working hours autonomously teaching, the level of control exerted by a system of administrators is lower than the majority of professions. Teachers cannot be both responsible professionals and have no responsibility if the school system is failing students in some important way.

      Who does Robinson sound like? – things are terribly broken, according to him loads of people love his message, just do what ever he says and childhood will be great again.

      1. Well, Mitch and Stan, all I can say is that the only one who has bothered to actually quote Ken Robinson in this entire post is me. The post and the rest of the commenters just contains paraphrasing, and some loose examples at times. I’d like to see people actually quoting (AND providing context when they do it!) and taking apart what they have a problem with.

      2. John,
        I am mostly pointing out a logic error in your comment here. I don’t see why I need to quote anything as your statement is right here.
        I don’t see how your quote supports your criticism of Greg’s point about whether teachers are justified in feeling attacked by his question and its implication “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” which is a quote Greg uses. If creativity is being killed in schools what is the teachers’ role in this and their explanation of their going along with it?
        If you are really arguing that SKR doesn’t believe there is a significant problem with what is done in schools you need to quote him saying something more explicitly relevant.

  7. Is this the sort of thing you are after?

    Yes, though it is a criticism of one specific aspect of SKR’s argument. And you’ll notice that I responded to your statement about the arts being doing something “over and over”, by clarifying the misconception of “drills” in the arts.

    1. John,
      I didn’t follow your distinction with drills verses repetition. Take scales and arpeggios on the piano or violin as an example that most people would refer to as drills. Of course the point is to focus on ensuring they are done well not just mindlessly repeated. But to argue these are not drills seems to be an argument for a personal preference for word meanings. Your entitled to mean whatever you want by a word as long as you explain yourself but then you can’t really demand anyone else to agree with you – they have the same entitlement.

      You might say there is an artistic aesthetic to music scales but I’d be guessing you haven’t spent too much time around beginner violin lessons.

      You might say times tables or reams of trig integrals have no aesthetic merit but there you may not be interested enough to see what others do – there are people going around writing books like “The Joy of Factoring” or “Inside interesting integrals”.

      I am interested in what you would say to make your point clearer.

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