The Changing Landscape of Education: An Interview with Sir Ken Robinson
Part 1 of a 2 Part Series
“There’s a desperate need to rethink the very basic assumptions on which mass systems of public education have operated for a very long time.” – Sir Ken Robinson
This is the first installment of a two-part interview. The second part can be found at Sir Ken Part Two
by Dr. Rod Berger
I had the honor and pleasure of meeting renowned education visionary Sir Ken Robinson at a conference a few years ago, and I am happy to say that we have continued to stay in touch on a regular basis. Whether it’s discussing the unifying passion in educators or providing insight into the business of education, I’m always left feeling inspired. The above video is an in-depth interview with the ever-popular educator. He shares with me his intriguing ideas and progressive views on education that demonstrate exactly why he is such a well-respected thought leader.
In part 1 of the interview, he discusses his current book Creative Schools and his popular TED talks that have resonated strongly with educators. Sir Ken realizes he is blessed with the ability to articulate ideas that so many people are thinking in a clear and passionate way. It is this clarity of consciousness, the understanding of educational values, and a deep sense of purpose that provides Sir Ken with a great source of pride.
The interview continues with an examination of the state of education, the history of our school systems, and what is hopefully a bright future. As Sir Ken reminds us, it will take a societal effort to accept and embrace change in education that is very different from the way things have been done in the past.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
Dr. Rod Berger: Sir Ken, we talked off-air about meeting a few years ago at the ASCD conference and speaking there amongst educators from around the country and the world. One thing that is interesting is the role that you and others like Sugata Mitra play in the next chapter of education. Have you given much thought to the role motivation and the power of audible exchange that helps educators move forward and take action?
Sir Ken Robinson: I’m asked a lot to talk to groups of educators around America and around the world, and that’s something I’ve done for a very long time.
I was saying in a book I published a year or two ago called “Creative Schools” that a lot of people know the work I do through the talks I’ve given at TED. I’m delighted at the impact of those talks because they’ve spread far and wide.
I think one of the reasons is that ─ and I heard a lot from teachers I’ve worked with ─ they feel that the things I say in those talks and in the books I’ve written are articulating, in some way, is what they have always felt and believed.
I think that’s one role of being in the position that I find myself in ─ and that Sugata does as well. We’re able to articulate values and purposes in education that most educators feel very deeply.
I think that’s inherently encouraging to people. I also have people saying to me that when they’ve seen the talks I’ve done, or they’ve read the things I’ve written, it helps them to feel they’re not alone in what they’re trying to get done in education.
There are lots of wonderful people out there and a lot of them feel that they’re operating in a political headwind. That’s been true for the past 15 to 20 years where the culture of testing and standardization has made life very difficult for people in schools, and it’s done very little to improve what’s been going on in schools.
I think what people feel in a curious way is that hearing other people say these things on a public platform gives them permission to make changes. I think that’s very important because I’m convinced that there is a need for profound change in a lot of what goes on in education.
I never say that in criticism of teachers or of school principals or even of superintendents. That’s something in the political culture of education, the pressure on the system that gets in the way of what people feel they most urgently need to do in schools in making them more humane and more personal places.
My argument is that there’s really a lot more room for innovation often than people suspect there is in schools. A lot of what goes on isn’t required by law. It’s more a function of habit and tradition and routine than anything else.
So there’s a lot of room for innovation because people tell me that they feel encouraged to make changes, sometimes, because these sorts of things that I know the people are saying are possible.
RB: I asked Sugata what TED Talk remains to be told or presented that has yet to be given the platform of a TED Talk He paused and he said, “I’m not pausing because I don’t know the answer. I’m pausing because I’m not sure how I can communicate this, understanding the gravity of what I’m about to say.” And he went on to say that he believes the TED Talk should be “Do we even need an education now?”
SKR: Do you mean an education system?
RB: An education, in general ─ in essence, that it was started as a way because we were disconnected as individuals. Our ability was to basically read books and get connected through the written word in that way, but we were not a connected society the way we are now. Because the system is so fraught with challenges, do we need a formal education system as it stands today? And is it okay to question that very thing?
SKR: Sugata has shown through his work that not just kids but people in general, are perfectly capable of organizing their own learning, that people are natural learners. Left to their own devices, it’s extraordinary what even very young kids will figure out.
At the moment, I’m working on a book on education for parents because I’m often asked by parents what’s the best thing they should be doing for their kids in respect of education.
There are three terms which are often used interchangeably: One of them is learning. The other is education. The other is school.
Learning is a very natural process. We’ve demonstrated all the time as human beings that we have a tremendous appetite for learning. Very young children are born with a rapacious appetite to discover the world around them.
Learning is a process of acquiring new skills, knowledge, and understanding. We don’t need schools for people to do that. We learn in all sorts of ways on our own and in collaboration with other people.
But I’m always keen to say this, that although learning is natural, much of what we do learn is cultural, and it’s a very social process for the most part. Even when we’re learning on our own, we’re learning from the people around us. The idea is that we’ve accumulated the materials that have aggregated around our adventures as species in coming to ourselves in the world.
One way of defining education is that it’s an organized program of learning. People can organize their own programs of learning. It’s what self-education means.
But we have developed these systems over a long time ─ national systems of education ─ on the basis that there are some things that, collectively, we want successive generations to learn, things that are important to us culturally or economically.
And part of my case has been that the systems that we have now were developed in other times for other purposes and, in many ways, the systems themselves in their structures and ways of working are anachronistic and also obstructive to the realization of the talents and abilities that many people have within the competencies they need to acquire these days.
School ─ I think of in a more narrow sense, but an important sense ─ is a community of learners because we do learn with and from each other. That’s what a school is. It’s a community of people who come together to learn with and from each other.
I was asked recently if I thought schools still have a role. I do think that schools are important in that sense ─ the school as being a community of learners who come together to learn with and from each other.
The thing is, we’ve come to associate schools with particular types of institutions which have developed over the past couple of hundred years. The school is a place where there are separate classes; different age groups; bells and whistles; schedules and time tables; and exams and tests.
None of those things are necessary to the conception of a school and there are multiple examples of alternative school movements, in democratic school movements. Going way back before Summerhill and schools like that which has shown that schools can be much more self-organized by the people in them.
I do see a place in schools. In fact, Sugata does, too, because the school in the cloud is still a school, and the kids that gather around the computers are self-organizing in groups of learners. They are schools effectively.
I think there’s much more room now to rethink how schools function, how they work, how people do organize their own learning and a desperate need to rethink the very basic assumptions on which mass systems of public education have operated for a very long time.
Very often, parents tend to think that the education they had is what their own children need. They, sometimes, collude in the pressures on kids in schools, particularly tests and exams, because they can’t see the alternative.
I don’t think we’re quite yet at the point where we can ─ in the interest of kids themselves ─ simply say we can get rid of any form of formal structure for schooling. I mean, that may be a long-term evolution of the way we approach learning and the tools that are available to us. I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
But it’s certainly important that we should rethink the way schools currently operate and the way these systems have evolved and look at their strengths and weaknesses. They’re not without strengths ─ of course not. There are wonderful schools all over the place.
But the dominant systems ─ perpetuated through public policies for education ─ tend to perpetuate practices which are unhelpful for most kids in the way they want to learn or certainly in helping them discover what their real personal individual talents and abilities are.
RB: And would you agree that a lot of those policies are driven by perception in keeping parents from basically feeling like they can be connected through the physical walls of a school?
If we’re going to realize some of the visionary statements and thoughts that you have written and spoken about, we have to do a better job of engaging and communicating with parents and caregivers in a way that brings them into the process in a more active way so that we’re not just relying on the schooling practices of when you and I went to school but of what can be in the future.
I know that you have mentioned and talked about groups like FreshGrade out of Canada. They’re now driving a lot of conversations about transparent learning. Is that the wave that you see so that we can actively engage and, in essence, market a new experience of education?
SKR: The book I’m writing at the moment is addressed to parents because parents are deeply invested in how their kids are educated and what they expect to get from it.
Very often, parents tend to think that the education they had is what their own children need. They, sometimes, collude in the pressures on kids in schools, particularly tests and exams, because they can’t see the alternative. We’re going to have to play this game and go along with it.
And, sometimes, they think it’s the teacher’s or the school’s fault that there are such pressures on kids. And often educators themselves in schools regret and resent the way that education has become so reduced by the pressures of testing.
So I do think we need a better conversation between parents and schools in planning how the future of education can evolve. And it’s not a new idea, by the way. In the sixties, seventies, and eighties when I was first getting involved in education in the UK, there were wonderful community schools. They were called “community schools.”
They weren’t just places where the kids were sent. They were places where adults learned alongside their children, where people came in from the community with a whole range of different skills and contributions, where the boundaries between the school and the surrounding neighborhood were much more permeable than they are in many schools, still.
I’m sure we need to engage parents much more productively in thinking about how schools can evolve because the irony is that although they often buy into the system as it is because they don’t see what the alternative can be, they are dissatisfied. They can feel the pressure on their own kids. There is so much evidence around now that children are being caused all sorts of unusual stresses and strains by the pressure of schools.
The cultural context in which kids are learning today, the pressure through social media and so on, is creating all sorts of historically unprecedented pressures on our kids. Many more kids are suffering from stress and anxiety; they’re on anti-depressants. They’re suffering from bullying not just in person but online.
It’s not all bleak and awful, but there are real stresses and strains out there which do have to be dealt with. Education should be part of the solutions to these things. And, too often, because of public policies ─ the testings and standardization ─ it’s become part of the problem.