Why We Should Mistrust Ken Robinson

In Debates and Polemics, Evidence in Education, Research Evidence by Alex Quigley16 Comments

Sir Ken – A knight amongst educationalists the world over.

A couple of weeks ago, like millions of other teaching professionals, I watched the latest iteration of Ken Robinson’s celebration of creativity on TED. It reminded me of the first Sir Ken talk which I had the pleasure of watching in Athens…whilst working! Yes, you heard right – I trained to be an International Baccalaureate teacher in the blazing sun of Athens; watching Sir Ken celebrate creativity in a fan-filled Greek classroom for part of that time (those heady days for comprehensive school teachers are long since gone!). Great work if you can get it!

Perhaps it was the heat of the midday sun, or the heady scent of sun tan lotion, coupled with the wit and charm of Sir Ken, that made me feel like his words were a sort of watershed for me as a teacher, or education the world over.

I was entranced. I felt determined that a whole new paradigm for schooling was required: the ‘factory model’ of schooling was dead. I felt what I was doing in the classroom was hopelessly ill-fitting for the needs of my students. I was enraptured by his stories of creativity and enriching personalisation. I bought the book (his talks usually precede a book – fair enough, I’m sure he has to pay the bills).

I felt myself nodding along with the book, only once I had read it the trance had been broken.

I was looking for something like answers for systematic school change, yet all I found were charming individual examples and beguiling prose. I watched the video once or twice more in various professional scenarios and at home. I still laughed. I was still taken by his persuasive argument, yet I had lost the initial spark – like a drunken first-sight infatuation spoiled by the cruel clarity of daylight. The watershed had become little more than a barely perceptible watermark.

Recently I read this article from a link by Geoff Barton entitled ‘Is This Why TED Talks Seem So Convincing?. The article was based on the enlightening scientific evidence that a fluent speaker can acutally fool us into thinking we have learnt more than we actually have in comparison to a less fluent speaker – see here.

It brought all my frustrations with Sir Ken to the surface. His skilful words and rapturous call for change under warm lights and at the beck and call of a willing crowd had wilted. I was left without any real watershed at all. In fact, it wasn’t Sir Ken who was to blame at all – I had been seduced by the cult of personality – by the promise of change led by such a guru and I was culpable for blame. I had forgotten that the reality of education is a more gritty and compromised state of affairs: with politicians, Unions, teachers and the public all vying for their respective interests, often creating a maelstrom of muddled education policy. Compromises, fractured systems and vested interests abound. No call for creativity by Sir Ken would provide a universal panacea to the grey, ambiguous reality of schooling – whether in sunny Athens, the field of dreams that is California or wet and windy England.

Having recently written a well received blog post on teacher explanations – see here – I began to unpick the fact that Sir Ken’s latest speech was another barn-storming performance. But beyond the frilly knickers of the performance we are left searching for the less aesthetically pleasing undergarments that are the practical answers for change. He includes the memorable analogies – Death Valley in bloom. His charming anecdotes and well-timed wit abound. Only this time I was distinctly less enraptured. The Death Valley image was striking, only the analogy was a little more of the same: a pleasing picture but not an answer. Perhaps Sir Ken just takes the beautiful photo to inspire and that we have to go and work the land, toiling to create the conditions for betterment?

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Death Valley in bloom – hopefully not some Hollywood CGI!

On reflection, creativity appears to me a grittier, tougher process than such talks imply. Thousands of hours of ‘deliberate practice’ enable creativity. It is not all ‘flow’ or organic personalisation. For example, repeating the rules of grammar with sometimes deadening repetition can actually create the mastery required for playful creativity and rule breaking. Sir Ken likely scripted and practised his apparently spontaneously witty talk over and over to create his seeming carefree confidence and fluency.

The pleasure of finding ‘flow’ is replaced by the dull but reassuring knowledge that perseverance could help make a difference, in a ‘factory model’ school or not.

Ken is undoubtedly a gifted speaker – like most teachers I can’t help but like him- but my infatuation is sadly over.

I will take his glamorous TED talks with more than a pinch of salt. I won’t look to edu-gurus like Sir Ken to provide watershed moments. I will prioritise the ideas of my peers at the chalkface. I will attend a TeachMeet or two. I will read a blog or three. But I won’t expect a TED talk to change the world.

I will conquer my finite disappointment in finding that Sir Ken’s speeches are nothing like promises and maintain my infinite hope invested in an education system that improves marginally day by day, by gritty perseverance. I will look spend more time looking for answers for teachers by teachers – being healthily wary of the words of eloquent speakers under the glow of cinematic lighting.

Comments

  1. Pingback: What Sir Ken Got Wrong | Pragmatic Education

  2. Well said, Alex.
    I made a search for how Sir Ken would propose to educate and how schools could implement his ideals. Sadly, or not, I only came across your article. I too have been beguiled by his speeches and feel he has a lot of valid reasoning as to how the education system is doing little to nurture our children’s talents but little idea as to how it should be done.
    I feel that his celebrity and stature should inspire solutions rather than dreamy vilification of the valuable and hard work of our educators. Standardisation is intended to enforce minimum levels but does not allow for much improvement.
    Summerhill tried to change the paradigms of education but, in my view, fails to prepare children for a structured society. However, it did ‘walk the walk’ rather than just ‘talk the talk’ something that Sir Ken should consider.

    1. Give the man a break! Why should he have to come up with all the solutions? Part of his task was to point out how things are wrong, to allow other people to look at education differently. Sure his stature “should” inspire solutions: so where’s yours? And he has now written a book on what he thinks should be done, due to public demand, so you can relax and let someone else tell you what the solution is…..

      1. Author

        Hi Bethany, I’m sure Sir Ken gets lots of breaks! No need to reiterate my point, but if, like me, you think there are flaws in the problems he describes then some prospective solutions may enlighten the problems he thinks are being created by schools stifling creativity.

        If you want my solutions then the thousands of words on my blog, by a teacher, for teachers, is a start. I have written some solutions for new English teachers in ‘Teach Now! become A Great English Teacher’ and I have written a whole host of solutions in my next effort, ‘The Confident Teacher’. I will expected to get challenged by people on some of the things I right, which I accept, so it is only fair I challenge some of the notions of Sir Ken. I actually like him a great deal and I think he has a purpose in education and challenging us to be better, but I will critique him if I think he isn’t right.

        Have you read his books? Do you think the problem is as he describes and the new ‘solutions’ are good?

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  4. I can’t entirely agree with you. The very fact that you were inspired by his talk , means you agree to the fact that the present education system is incomplete and needs revising.

    What I do agree with you is on this point. Sir Ken pointed out the problems and the need to change and yet he did not say how. Well, you can’t expect all the answers from a single person, can you?

    You are a teacher yourself(alex). I believe it is up to you guys to accept the fact that system cannot continue like this forever. And I firmly believe if every teacher can make an attempt to change or solve a problem then it can start the much needed revolution. Its after all teachers who students look up to in the end to tell them what to do.

    Its good to be entranced. But to say that you lost that initial spark lets me down. Sir Ken never made any promise-speeches as you described. He pressed the panic button. Its up to you people to respond.

  5. I am not able to understand what is your problem exactly, with Ken Robinson’s talks. Yes, he is a great orator and that is why he was able to give you and millions of people like me, the ‘watershed’ moment’. As someone commented, he need not present the solutions to the problems. Why can’t you and other creative people come together to provide solutions?! And, that’s precisely what his talks convey, under the so-called cinematic lights.
    By the way i didn’t fail to notice your clever use of ‘Ken Robinson’s’ popularity for your own blog!

    – a father who is homeschooling his 5-year-old son.

    1. Author

      The detail of the post explains myself. I don’t think he provides a ‘watershed’ at all. I think he uses beguiling anecdotes and makes some interesting statements but not much more beyond that. I argue that we should provide solutions – my central crux is that we should not be taken in by such gurus (who charge a huge fee for the privilege of course) and that we should focus in on professionals on the front line who make the difference.

      The post was very popular – not much more so than most of my posts. The title was deliberately provocative to engage in the debate beyond simply accepting SKR’s arguments hook line and sinker.

      I hope your home schooling is going well. That must be a really rewarding challenge.

  6. Firstly I think it is quite insulting to say ‘we should not be taken in by such gurus’ as though Robinson has set out to deceive us in some way. And snide comments about receiving fees to pay the bills do you no credit. Secondly the whole premise that he offers no solutions is plainly nonsense. Did you miss the parts about ‘alternative education’ in LA and the systems and practices in Finland? Or were you expecting a fully costed 107 point plan of action to be laid before the TED audience prior to being passed into law? The question you have to answer is – did he describe the problem correctly? If not,then it’s fair to criticise him. If he did, then it’s not up to him alone to rectify it. He has provided a diagnosis. If you don’t agree with it say so with reasons and an alternative.

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  8. What’s your complaint is with this article? Are you saying that Sir Ken provides a fun well presented speech with no substance? In which case I would argue that his main premise; that modern education systems need to be reconsidered from the ground up, seems pretty substantial and clear.

    Or are you suggesting that the talks mislead us into thinking that creativity is simply a case of going with the flow and don’t require the kind of rigor or hardwork currently focused on in education systems world wide? I fail to see any suggestion of that, at no point does Ken assert “this is all we need to do,” I would say as intelligent human beings the hard work of any paradigm shift is implicit, put simply Ken isn’t saying we must replace hardwork but rather that we should redirect it.

    Sir Ken is saying is that our education system is outmoded and prioritizes a limited set of intelligence types over others, your post doesn’t address this assertion and instead seems to criticize the lack of a complete simple solution upon delivery of a well presented speech.

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  12. Hi Alex, I’m also an IB teacher and funnily enough did my training in Athens also- more than a decade ago; so it’s cool to hear they are still doing it there. Yes, a week of learning whilst eating souvlaki and moussaka was idyllic!
    I’ve commented previously about SKR’s speech and it’s quite aligned with what you’ve written. I don’t think he needs to spell out his 107 point plan as was stated by another post, however he also can’t hide behind other fad speakers and data, such as sprouting about Finland.
    What people seem to so quickly forget is the importance of context and culture. Reform and moving away from heavily controlled centralisation and standardisation is perhaps relevant in a few pockets of England and the US. I have experience and agree that the control is suffocating. However, the blanket way many teachers jumped on board- me too initially- reflects another yearning within teachers and not necessarily his direct message. A lot of teachers are crying out for flexibility and more autonomy- that is, less bureaucratic control and dictation. SKR’s speech hits out at the control and standardisation of tests.
    The great educator asks further questions and is reflective. It is here that SKR’s talk loses punch. It’s nice to rally the troops (teachers) against the distant dictator (education system), and this talk met that need. There are, however, so many other commentators who provide greater depth and argument which teachers should be quoting, rather than SKR.
    Regarding Finland, I think we should celebrate aspects of what happens there. But those making thousands off preaching this gospel are false prophets- because they ignore the most important part of why any success occurs: culture and context. These must all marry for sustained success. Therefore, until every country represents Finland identically, their model, as it is, won’t work outside of Finland to the same levels of success that it does within it. Adopting their open- minded reflective and innovative approach is what every other Ed system needs to copy- not necessarily what they ‘do’.
    I hope you’re still enjoying the creativity which the IB promotes and allows for within their programmes.

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