Ken Robinson and The Element

I’ve started reading The Element by Ken Robinson, and I think it should be compulsory reading for all parents and teachers. Here’s a lengthy extract from pages 12-17:

Most of us can look back to particular teachers who inspired us and changed our lives. These teachers excelled and reached us, but they did this in spite of the basic culture and mindset of public education. There are significant problems with that culture, and I don’t see nearly enough improvements. In many systems, the problems are getting worse. This is true just about everywhere.

When my family and I moved from England to America, our two children, James and Kate, started at high school in Los Angeles. In some ways, the system was very different from the one we knew in the UK. For example, the children had to study some subjects they had never taken before – like American history. We don’t really teach American history in Britain. We suppress it. Our policy is to draw a veil across the whole sorry episode. We arrived in the United States four days before Independence Day, just in time to watch others revel in having thrown the British out of the country. Now that we’ve been here a few years and know what to expect, we tend to spend Independence Day indoors with the blinds closed, flicking through old photographs of the Queen.

In many ways, though, the education system in the United States is very similar to that in the United Kingdom, and in most other places in the world. Three features stand out in particular. First, there is the preoccupation with certain sorts of academic ability. I know that academic ability is very important. But school systems tend to be preoccupied with certain sorts of critical analysis and reasoning, particularly with words and numbers. Important as those skills are, there is much more to human intelligence than that. I’ll discuss this at length in the next chapter.

The second feature is the hierarchy of subjects. At the top of the hierarchy are mathematics, science, and language skills. In the middle are the humanities. At the bottom are the arts. In the arts, there is another hierarchy: music and visual arts normally have a higher status than theater and dance. In fact, more and more schools are cutting the arts out of the curriculum altogether. A huge high school might have only one fine arts teacher, and even elementary school children get very little time to simply paint and draw.

The third feature is the growing reliance on particular types of assessment. Children everywhere are under intense pressure to perform at higher and higher levels on a narrow range of standardized tests.

Why are school systems like this? The reasons are cultural and historical. Again, we’ll discuss this at length in a later chapter, and I’ll say what I think we should do to transform education. The point here is that most systems of mass education came into being relatively recently – in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These systems were designed to meet the economic interests of those times – times that were dominated by the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America. Math, science, and language skills were essential for jobs in the industrial economies. The other big influence on education has been the academic culture of universities, which has tended to push aside any sort of activity that involves the heart, the body, the senses, and a good portion of our actual brains.

The result is that school systems everywhere inculcate us with a very narrow view of intelligence and capacity and overvalue particular sorts of talent and ability. In doing so, they neglect others that are just as important, and they disregard the relationships between them in sustaining the vitality of our lives and communities. This stratified, one-size-fits-all approach to education marginalizes all of those who do not take naturally to learning this way.

Very few schools and even fewer school systems in the world teach dance every day as a formal part of their curricula, as they do with math. Yet we know that many students only become engaged when they’re using their bodies. For instance, Gillian Lynne told me that she did better at all of her subjects once she discovered dance. She was one of those people who had to “move to think.” Unfortunately, most kids don’t find someone to play the role the psychologist played in Gillian’s life – especially now. When they fidget too much, they’re medicated and told to calm down.

The current systems also put severe limits on how teachers teach and students learn. Academic ability is very important, but so are other ways of thinking. People who think visually might love a particular topic or subject, but won’t realize it if their teachers only present it in one, nonvisual way. Yet our education systems increasingly encourage teachers to teach students in a uniform fashion. To appreciate the implications of the epiphany stories told here, and indeed to seek out our own, we need to rethink radically our view of intelligence.

These approaches to education are also stifling some of the most important capacities that young people now need to make their way in the increasingly demanding world of the twenty-first century – the powers of creative thinking. Our systems of education put a high premium on knowing the single right answer to a question. In fact, with programs like No Child Left Behind (a federal program that seeks to improve the performance of American public schools by making schools more accountable for meeting mandated performance levels) and its insistence that all children from every part of the country hew to the same standards, we’re putting a greater emphasis than ever before on conformity and finding the “right” answers.

All children start their school careers with sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think. When my son was four, his preschool put on a production of the Nativity story. During the show, there was a wonderful moment when three little boys came onstage as the Three Wise Men, carrying their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I think the second boy lost his nerve a little and went out of sequence. The third boy had to improvise a line he hadn’t learned, or paid much attention to during rehearsals, given that he was only four. The first boy said, “I bring you gold.” The second boy said, “I bring you myrrh.”

The third boy said, “Frank sent this.”

Who’s Frank, you think? The thirteenth apostle? The lost Book of Frank?

What I loved about this was that it illustrated that, when they are very young, kids aren’t particularly worried about being wrong. If they aren’t sure what to do in a particular situation, they’ll just have a go at it and see how things turn out. This is not to suggest that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. Sometimes being wrong is just being wrong. What is true is that if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

There is a basic flaw in the way some policymakers have interpreted the idea of going “back to basics” to upgrade educational standards. They look at getting back to basics as a way of reinforcing the old Industrial Revolution-era hierarchy of subjects. They seem to believe that if they feed our children a nationally prescribed menu of reading, writing, and arithmetic, we’ll be more competitive with the world and more prepared for the future.

What is catastrophically wrong with this mode of thinking is that it severely underestimates human capacity. We place tremendous significance on standardized tests, we cut funding for what we consider “nonessential” programs, and then we wonder why our children seem unimaginative and uninspired. In these ways, our current education system systematically drains the creativity out of our children.

Most students never get to explore the full range of their abilities and interests. Those students whose minds work differently – and we’re talking about many students here; perhaps even the majority of them – can feel alienated from the whole culture of education. This is exactly why some of the most successful people you’ll ever meet didn’t do well at school. Education is the system that’s supposed to develop our natural abilities and enable us to make our way in the world. Instead, it is stifling the individual talents and abilities of too many students and killing their motivation to learn. There’s a huge irony in the middle of all of this.

The reason many school systems are going in this direction is that politicians seem to think that it’s essential for economic growth and competitiveness and to help students get jobs. But the fact is that in the twenty-first century, jobs and competitiveness depend absolutely on the very qualities that school systems are being forced to tamp down and that this book is celebrating. Businesses everywhere say they need people who are creative and can think independently. But the argument is not just about business. It’s about having lives with purpose and meaning in and beyond whatever work we do.

The idea of going back to basics isn’t wrong in and of itself. I also believe we need to get our kids back to basics. However, if we’re really going to go back to basics, we need to go all the way back. We need to rethink the basic nature of human ability and the basic purposes of education now.

There was a time in our history when the steam engine reigned supreme. It was powerful, it was effective, and it was significantly more efficient than the propulsion system that came before it. Eventually, though, it no longer served the needs of the people, and the internal combustion engine ushered in a new paradigm. In many ways, our current education system is like the steam engine – and it’s running out of steam rather quickly.

This problem of old thinking hardly ends when we leave school. These features of education are replicated in public institutions and corporate organizations, and the cycle goes around and around. As anyone in the corporate world knows, it’s very easy to be “typed” early in your career. When this happens, it becomes exceedingly difficult to make the most of your other – and perhaps truer – talents. If the corporate world sees you as a financial type, you’ll have a difficult time finding employment on the “creative” side of the business. We can fix this by thinking and acting differently ourselves and in our organizations. In fact, it is essential that we do.

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2 Responses to “Ken Robinson and The Element”

  1. monika hardy Says:

    i love the element.
    these are the books we’re currently recommending for reading: http://screencast.com/t/MTdlNGFkYTM
    well – since then we’ve added Bach’s Buccaneer-Scholar.

    read your bio. interesting stuff you’ve done..

  2. Simon Kidd Says:

    Thanks Monika. I’ve got Mindset also. I’ve checked out the others, with the exception of the second from the right in the back row – I can’t see what it is!

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