The Changing Landscape of Education: An Interview with Sir Ken Robinson Part II
Part Two of a Two-Part Series
“We need to treat teachers as professionals who are able to connect with students. Not just as learners, but as living human beings. Once we do this, our education system will improve in almost every way.” – Sir Ken Robinson
This is the second installment of a two-part interview. The first part can be found at Sir Ken Part One
by Dr. Rod Berger
Before my two-part interview with Sir Ken Robinson comes to a close, we continue our discussion on the current state of global education and its relevance in the world today. Sir Ken expands on the external pressures facing educators and administrators – many of which have nothing to do with educating our students. Instead, they have everything to do with a growing bureaucracy. Where does this issue stem from? According to Sir Ken, our very own society is to blame, which has started to embrace “short-termism.”
Sir Ken Robinson makes the point that across the board, industries are pushed to follow data instead of building meaningful relationships. Overemphasizing the importance of evaluating data and basing decisions off of numbers, has unfortunately caused a form of dehumanization to emerge. It’s a widespread epidemic that’s affecting many professions, but it has firmly rooted itself in education.
I found our conversation incredibly enlightening, and I sincerely hope that you enjoy Part Two. I wish to thank Sir Ken Robinson for taking the time to discuss this growing issue, and for letting us gain insight from his brilliant mind.
Rod Berger: Can we do a better job? I think that we continue to rotate the populations and we said, “We’re not focusing on the talents and strengths of young girls in the math and sciences.” So we start to do that, and we walk away from the needs of boys.
It seems like it’s always an either/or and we do the same thing with the professionals who are serving education. We don’t want teachers to feel as if they are on a one-room schoolhouse, so we try to figure that out and address some of those issues and provide inspiration and community.
If you continue to expand that out a little bit, I’ve just spent some time with a number or superintendents at their national conference down in New Orleans. And I cannot tell you how many of them talked about not only the loneliness of the position but also the strain on them.
We just saw one of the most publicly well-known superintendents, Dallas Dance in Baltimore, just put in his resignation from one of the largest districts in the U.S. talking about 18-hour days for five years straight. It’s just not something that’s sustainable for a human being, one who values his own family life.
Can we do a better job systemically of looking at education without the fear that we are going to disrespect one group and understand that if we’re going to change the system, we have to uncover and move the rocks all over the place to figure out what is really in front of us?
Sir Ken Robinson: There’s no question of that. I was in Pennsylvania earlier in the week. I was giving a talk at Lehigh University, and I was speaking beforehand with a school principal who has been in education for 35 years, and she’s retiring early because she said she just couldn’t take it anymore.
I asked, “What is it you can’t take?” and she said, “It’s not the students. It’s the external pressures of accountability, of testing.” And I asked, “Are these easing or getting worse?” and she said, “In my experience, they’re getting worse.”
People have different experiences as to where they are in the system. There’s no doubt about it. If you look at the turnover rates among school principals, among teachers, the non-graduation rates among kids, the burn-out rates among superintendents, there’s something deeply wrong in the way the system currently functions.
Clearly, there are differences as you travel around the country. There are districts that are trying to do things differently.
That’s my point. These things can be done differently, but we need to take what are often the more isolated innovations and get them into the mainstream culture of education.
The thing is that a lot of these strains and stresses are unique to the education system. It’s partly through the increasing bureaucracy that we see in all areas of public and professional lives these days and the pressures of short-termism and of the particular form of accountability it tends to take.
One of the interesting things that I have been asked to do in my own work is talking to people outside of education. I speak a lot to corporate groups these days and also to professional groups in other fields. I spoke a year or two ago at the annual conference of the National Association of Pathologists. It’s the U.S. and Canadian association of pathologists. I did explain to them that I don’t know anything about pathology and they said it doesn’t matter. They had watched all my TED Talks, the senior team, and they invited me to give a talk at the centennial dinner.
The background to it was that they felt that, in their profession, the forms of accountability and of extreme specialization that are being encouraged, partly by the change in the field itself, mean that a lot of the professional discretion of individual pathologies have been eroded over the years, and they’re under intense pressure to become accountable in ways that they don’t feel help them to do the job better.
They said there was a time when a professional pathologist in a hospital ─ they’re not just doing autopsies, obviously, they’re doing all kinds of biological tests and evaluations. Pretty much any sample you give in a hospital ends up passing through a pathology lab.
But they said they used to be able to have the competence to sign off on all sorts of samples. Nowadays, they’re becoming more and more specialized, and accountability is cramping the innovation and creativity they feel should be driving the field forward. And also the satisfaction they get from the work.
Incidentally, it’s worth noting that, often, when you give these talks at events, the association may give you a gift of some sort. In this case, the chairman offered me a free autopsy. [Laughter] People give what they can, don’t they?
I also spoke at the NASS, the North American Spine Society. It’s the meeting of 3000 neurosurgeons and related professionals. I was asked to give the president’s lecture there, and I was very pleased to do it, but not because I’m a specialist in the field, but they were saying that they felt that their practices were becoming dehumanized.
And I asked them what they meant by that, and they said that in the field of neurosurgery and neuroscience, many of the conditions that people suffer from for which they may have been proposed for surgery, many of them can be relieved or remediated by the attitudes of the patients themselves.
And as a doctor or a surgeon, they said, you really do need to get to know the patient to determine what the best course of treatment might be because there’s a very subjective dimension to many of the disorders that people are suffering from that are referred to neurosurgeons.
They said that there was a time when doctors would spend a lot of time with the patient getting to know them and they’ve discovered what is a good thing to do; it’s an important thing to do. These are real people.
But, increasingly, they find that they are sitting around computer terminals with groups of young doctors not meeting the patient but looking at data and a printout. They only get to meet the patient once they sort out what the treatment is going to be and they say, “This is very back-to-front, there’s a very human dimension here to medical treatment which is being eroded because of the way the profession is being driven more and more by data.”
I’m just saying that other professions feel this, too. It’s not something that’s uniquely being put upon the education profession.
I think we have to reaffirm the human nature of these professions ─ that education is a human process. We’re dealing with real living people with biographies and circumstances and hopes and aspirations. And we know that.
But if you treat teachers as the professionals they are, with a vocation that many of them have and if they’re able, then, to connect to students as living human beings who live in real communities who have actual circumstances, then, things start to change and improve in almost every way.
That’s what personalizing education means. It seems to be such an extraordinary fact that we have to talk about personalized education as if it could be something else.
It is about people. It’s only when we forget that, or when policy makers forget that and start to treat this as some sort of industrial process that’s focused on output and league tables and data points ─ I’m not saying data is not important. Of course, it is. It is in medicine that if I’m going for a course of treatment, I want the doctor to note what’s happening and have the data there in front of him. But that shouldn’t be the prescription. That’s the diagnosis and how you, then, use the data is where professional discretion comes in.
And in schools, the whole process, particularly in the States, has become very data-driven, very test-driven. And it’s data of a certain sort that’s being secured. People’s jobs are being made to hinge on the outcomes of these processes they don’t believe in and know aren’t appropriate to the education of our children.
So I do see the need for ensuring that everyone has access to a broad, balanced and properly humane form of education. My campaign ─ and not mine alone by any means ─ is against a system that has, over time, become over standardized and depersonalized.
It doesn’t mean we don’t need any sort of system, but we need a better one than we are typically able to provide just now.
RB: What is next? I would imagine that people look to you in that regard. I’m sure that it’s a heavier burden than need be. But I see things that I’m encouraged by, and I think, whether they are intending or not. they are good motivators because they’re engaging the students where they are in the given day and time we live.
One example would be sustainability in education around that, designed thinking, things that we know the younger population are interested in; and I think as a simple course of business, if you can interact with people at the level and the interest that they’re really in, now you’ve got an audience, and that can, then, propel different experiences and ideas so that, hopefully, they will maybe put that back into education when you and I are long gone.
My autopsy is not covered, Sir Ken.
SKR: I’ve got a credit for one if you need it.
SKR: The education system isn’t static. There are national differences in the way countries around the world are tackling similar issues. The sort of education systems we have are deeply embedded in the overall culture of our communities. Insofar as cultures vary around the world and there are different manifestations as to how education systems operate.
But there is a lot of change happenings already. That’s part of my optimism about this. The system is naturally being changed partly by the impact of technology on education itself.
I was reading your piece in Forbes about the ways in which TED now has become a very significant source of ideas and material inspiration within education. I think that’s a very important shift.
We’ve only really scratched the surface of how the tools and technologies that we have available to us now ─ iPads and laptops and those things. But digital technology is moving at such a pace. We’ve only really begun to scratch the surface of how we can help to personalize both teaching and learning and can deepen and enrich the curriculum and can give us more sensitive forms of assessment.
It is perfectly possible for kids now in schools to have their own daily schedules. That was never possible when I was in school. It was beyond the competence of anybody with a pencil and an eraser to redo the schedule every day but now we can begin to think about those things.
And there is a big appetite for change. I meet wonderful people all the time as I travel around and work with school systems and individuals. And parents, too, as we’ve seen in campaigns against standardized testing in America, are very keen to see changes. Kids themselves are pushing for changes in the education system.
It’s a slow process, but it’s not a static system. That’s the point. And it’s also tied up with all kinds of other global issues. People are beginning to understand more clearly about the need to take care of the physical environment of a lot our agricultural process, our manufacturing processes.
Our systems in cities are not sustainable and they don’t create the right conditions for human life to flourish alongside the rest of life on earth. People in more and more numbers are beginning to understand that. You say it in a way that people are changing their eating habits, not everywhere but it’s happening.
I think people are pulling back and beginning to see the need for a greater reciprocity between different cultures and ways of living. And it’s desperately important that we should do that.
I’m involved with a movement called the circular economy that was established by Dame Ellen MacArthur which is related in many ways to the sorts of ideas that are being promoted through conscious capitalism. Both of these movements are arguing for forms of economic activities which are inherently sustainable by design, not being supported by some later attempt to recycle things that were not intended to be.
There are ways of living harmoniously with the planet and with each other which many people are beginning to think very seriously. And education is a big piece of it.
That’s why I say in Creative Schools ─ I quote the H.G. Wells’ comment that “Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe” and there’s some truth in that.
So it’s important to see education as well as part of other global movements toward sustainability and more harmonious conditions for people to live and work together.
It’s why I push so hard against the dominant political models that see education as a very narrow form of part of a supply chain just for our particular forms of economic activity at the moment.
It’s a much bigger issue than that and it manifests itself in the way that people behave day to day in schools and their communities. But there’s a larger context in which we have to frame in.
It’s why I subtitled the book Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up. We have to work both ends. We do have to persuade our policy makers that there should be a different climate in education, and we have to encourage and empower the people doing the work that they’re part of a bigger change. There is room for innovation, and they’re operating on the right principles when they look at other options.