Calling for a transformation of education

I saw this talk that Sir Ken Robinson gave at RSA (the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce) online a week ago, and I was deeply impressed with it. He talked about a book he wrote in 2008 called “The Element”, which tries to explain how people get into “their element”, a creative place within themselves where they feel at home. Another major topic of his book is a critique of education systems throughout the world, and a proposal for what might be a better way to educate.

Unfortunately this video does not contain the full talk, just the first 39 minutes. I assume that’s most of it. All I know is the video cut off the conversation. I tried looking around for a more complete version, but I haven’t found it yet.

I recognized a lot of my own learning experience about my talents in what Robinson said. A big thing that struck home for me is that there are many things I’m good at, but I don’t enjoy, and that a problem many people have is they “shoot low and succeed”. I spent part of my life doing these things because I am good at them, and they were rather like low hanging fruit. They were accessible things I could do to make money. That’s pretty important, I’ll grant you. Everyone needs a way to sustain themselves, and that involves looking at your circumstances practically at a certain level. I could even convince myself sometimes that a few of the things I did were the things I’d always wanted to do, because I felt like I was accomplishing something, making a contribution to the world, being rewarded for it, and it related to my true passion. I spent quite a bit of time on those few things. I could feel happy about them most of the time…for a while. With these endeavors I reached a point where my motivation to continue started to wane, and it was a rut I couldn’t get out of. Eventually I reached a point where I said, “I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s too frustrating. It’s unfulfilling. It’s not worth it.” Some would look at the trajectory of what happened and say I had outgrown these things. That’s true to a certain extent. Looking at it honestly, though, I’d say I had either gotten into these things in the first place because I thought they represented the whole domain, the full experience of what I was interested in, which I found out years later was not true, or I felt forced into it because while I did see other possibilities, I didn’t see how I could get to them. So I “settled”.

As I talked about earlier, I also came to a place a few years ago where I didn’t have any other “low hanging fruit” to grasp at that felt satisfying. Without that I felt lost for a little while. I had to realize it’s okay to shoot high for a big goal, even if it means I might fail to reach it. Robert Compton, a tech VC who produced the documentary “2 Million Minutes” talked about this with respect to students picking universities. It’s important to shoot high, even if you fail to get what you want. That doesn’t just mean shooting high because you can, but also because you have done the work to try to prepare for it. That ambition makes you more capable than those who shoot for the easy goals.

I felt for a long time before I embarked on this pursuit that there was something a bit wrong with me, certainly that I was a bit eccentric. I tried to conform more to what others expected, in a sense, but the strange thing is doing that felt like work! And besides, I don’t like trying to not be me. Imagine being a child and having a teacher tell you that you’re doing something wrong by doing your own creative activities, or you won’t amount to anything if you keep it up, in addition to all this. This is why Robinson says that education systems throughout the world tend to kill off our creativity in childhood. You have misunderstanding from your family, and perhaps your friends, and you get discouragement from your teachers. What’s a kid to do but try to conform in that environment? Not that this happened to me so much (I got plenty of encouragement in childhood). It’s just that I didn’t get it as I was entering into adulthood, and I didn’t know how to find a supportive community for my passion. What’s changed everything for me since then is the availability of quality information in the subject area I’m interested in on the internet.

Robinson didn’t talk about this much, but I’ve found that following my passion can be scary. If you’re accessing your own unique set of talents they can look odd to your friends and family. I’ve certainly gotten strange looks from some of my friends, and my mother has been worried for me from time to time. Of course they mean well. An important thing I’ve discovered is that if someone is making you feel wrong or foolish for pursuing what feels great to you, it’s worth looking at whether they’re right. Perhaps they’re trying to alert you to some practical realities you need to pay attention to for the time being, but it’s also worth considering that they could be wrong. Maybe it’s just something they can’t see clearly, and the unknown is scary. The main thing everyone’s noticed is that my behavior towards my pursuits has changed dramatically. I don’t have the same outlook towards them as I used to.

If you’re in the process of discovering your talents you also might be doing things that hardly anyone else around you is doing, and they can’t relate to it. You may see things in ways that few others recognize. You can end up feeling very alone, isolated. “Finding my tribe” has occupied my thoughts a lot lately. I’ve found a few kindred people, both locally and nationally, with whom I’ve been in communication from time to time.

Another big thing Robinson talked about is creativity is not just for special people with an inborn talent. He equated creativity to literacy, and that large numbers of people can be creative, but it may take some prompting and mentoring to help them develop it. He almost expressed it as a skill, because he set up some characteristics for it. Being creative is not passive. You’re creating something, doing work. Secondly, you’re coming up with original ideas that have value. So you’re having to engage your mind, and imagination, and perhaps work with your body, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. My own experience is that this can be encouraged by setting out the premise that everyone is unique, and everyone has their own voice, their own perception, and their own ideas to contribute–that everyone has their own intrinsic integrity. It probably requires encouraging a sense of one’s individuality, one’s self, and taking some pride in it. An important point Robinson makes is that it’s important to develop people’s critical faculties as well. Creativity without criticism can lead to disasters.

Robinson has brought up elsewhere that the world’s modern education systems came into existence in the 19th century, largely oriented around supporting the Industrial Age. School was designed to inculcate habits needed for creating manufacturing workers. Other sources I’ve consulted have confirmed this. What this does is create a system where certain subjects and traits are selected and emphasized, and other subjects and traits are de-emphasized and rejected. It also makes very narrow selections about intelligence and talent, partly based around myths about them. We’ve heard of the term “gifted”. Robinson said it was like saying that we only want long jumpers (making a sports analogy). We know there are other sports, but this is the one that matters. If you are not a good long jumper, well there’s remedial education in the 100 meter dash. In addition, schools have unnecessarily separated subjects into absolutist categories, and this shuts off multidisciplinary learning opportunities.

Robinson doesn’t totally reject standardized testing. He used a medical test as an example. If he wanted to get his cholesterol tested, he’d want a standardized test. He wouldn’t want it rated according to something his doctor came up with. What he doesn’t like is that standardized testing has become the end-all be-all of public education. He complained that governments always insist on standardizing everything in education, which doesn’t work. Assessment is important, but the method of assessment is important as well. He said that creativity needs to be assessed, but there’s no objective systematic way to do it. It has to be assessed in its own context. This implies that the assessment must by its nature be subjective. In my view standardized tests might be better used as diagnostic tools, as he suggests by the medical example, rather than assessments of how much you’ve learned about a subject area, or assuming that they give a total view of intelligence. What he’d prefer is much more of an emphasis on good teaching, and this means hiring people who have a very good feel for, and are interested in what they teach, and are capable of engaging students in a way that’s compatible with where they are at. Bad teaching can turn students off to learning, defeating the purpose of education. I certainly know about that.

He pointed out, and this is ironic given that we’re talking about a school system that was designed for the Industrial Age, that school systems shun vocational skills, as if they’re unworthy. I’ve been somewhat guilty of having this prejudice. I don’t detest vocational training at all. I think it can be a positive thing for many people. What I react to is how I see schools and universities preferring vocational priorities for academic subjects, over going deep and exploring the ideas. In short it’s what Alan Kay would characterize as instrumental reasoning. It’s the idea that they’ll teach what’s perceived as contributing to the goal of advancing a career in particular sectors of the economy, and they won’t go into exploring the ideas, because it takes away from that goal. That’s the thinking, anyway. I disagree with the premise. There’s an emphasis on skills, and certain modes of thought, but not others.

As for me, I wouldn’t be satisfied with just theory. I love being hands-on with what I’m learning, and I like the idea of creating things that will be useful to people, but I like exploring the ideas at the same time. I’m not satisfied with just being given “how to” knowledge. I want to understand how things are the way they are, and I like creating a synthesis of ideas in order to create new ones. This is how I’ve been at least since I was a teenager. So I agree with his preference that abstract ideas should be combined with real world subject matter, artifacts, and materials. What I would emphasize is that exploration of these ideas and material things should be encouraged, getting into their “guts”. A lot of unplanned learning can take place this way, which to me is the best kind. 🙂

What I really like about Robinson’s philosophy of education is he says it’s a process of personal development, and that talents you will love can be buried very deep. You may not recognize them until you are exposed to a subject area, an activity, or an environment that brings it out of you. He emphasized that the point of his book is not so much about creativity as diversity of intelligence, and that when he talks about creativity he’s not just talking about the arts.

I was struck by Robinson’s criticism of “back to basics” movements. I haven’t totally liked the idea of “back to basics”, either, because I think it has some weak ideas in important areas. It’s just that every effort to reform public education that’s gotten away from the “back to basics” ideas has turned into something worse. Robinson, in a broad sense, expressed better than I have what I’d like to see our educational system recognize. The thing is I am skeptical that our school system would make a good transition to what he recommends. He has called for a transformation or revolution in education. The only way I see this happening is as a result of forces that come from outside the system. There have been some small movements in the last few years to try to do this using the internet, to bring important lessons to the masses for those who are willing to find them. I really don’t expect this movement to be accepted by the public school system. If anything it will be seen as a threat if it grows, and there will be efforts to change it or try to make people not pay attention to it. It’s going to take parents becoming aware that other possibilities exist, and pursuing them with their children. Private or home schooling is another avenue to pursue. It’s going to take people making the change. “The system” is not going to do it on its own.

—Mark Miller,