Ken Robinson & the learning revolution

A learning revolution?Sir Ken Robinson calls for a revolution in education, the massed crowd rises to its feet and applauds. We remain seated, somewhat skeptical. We have had a little experience of revolutionary groups outside the field of education, and we are suspicious of a movement calling itself revolutionary but led by a man who has been knighted by the Queen of England for his services to the establishment – to the ancien regime, still clad in wigs and gowns. Of course, the knighthood could have been a mistake – a case of the Queen failing to spot the Castro in her midst – so perhaps we should avoid rejecting the talk of a learner revolution out of hand.

To avoid being dismissive, let’s take a closer look. What is the learner revolution supposed to be about? Or, perhaps, the first question is: Why the need for a revolution in education? This is the question that Sir Ken Robinson, in a dark grey suit lightened by an open-necked mauve shirt, implicitly addresses at the TED talk given in 2012 at Long Beach, California. He leads into his radical theme by describing the marks of weal and the marks of woe that he sees on so many adult faces. He talks about adults in work, noting how many people are just enduring what they do rather than enjoying it – just persevering, waiting for the weekend. These people are unhappy. Why? Sir Ken suggests that it is because they are not doing something that taps into their talents. And why is this? Because at school they were never given the opportunities to discover and develop their talents. Conclusion: Schooling needs to be thoroughly reorganised so that each individual can find out where his or her talents lie and can make the most of them.

Now, Sir Ken Robinson wouldn’t want us to dwell too much on why people might be unhappy at work, because it takes us away from the topic of education, but let’s dwell a little on the work situation, because this is supposed to be one reason for getting angry about things as they are at the moment.

So let’s ask the question: Are the sad people in work unhappy because they have never discovered their hidden talents? To make the question more interesting, it is worth recalling the example of Paul McCartney, who Sir Ken Robinson refers to elsewhere
as someone who discovered his talents despite his schooling. So, to rephrase the question: Are sad people in work unhappy because they haven’t been able to discover the Paul McCartney within?

Let’s pick a job: hospital porter, and let’s assume that the person has chosen to do the job. How could somebody be happy working as a hospital porter? Would they have to discover a talent for pushing people in wheelchairs? I don’t think so. The happy porters are more likely to be the ones who, on the one hand, can believe that they are part of an organisation that is doing good, and who, on the other hand, feel that their contribution is recognised and valued. If a porter is unhappy, it is likely to be because he no longer feels that his work is sufficiently well recognised, or no longer feels a part of something he can identify with (perhaps he sees himself as providing a public service, but he sees the owners of the privatised public hospital simply lining their pockets, and so ends up feeling like a mug).

Although some people will, of course, be frustrated because they find themselves stuck in a job that doesn’t connect with what they dream they are capable of, this is surely outweighed by the unhappiness spread by organisations pursuing ends that those working in them cannot identify with – ends that alienate them – and by organisations failing to accord those working in them the recognition they feel they deserve (a suitable wage, job security, health care, a pension, etc.). If we are serious about a revolution (and not just playing with the word because it sounds risky and just a teeny bit sexy in the plush lecture hall in Long Beach California), we would need to spend more time thinking about exploitative institutions, and less about the thousands of frustrated Paul McCartney’s watching “My Country’s Got Talent”, drinking too much and getting depressed. The not-so-red Sir Ken, though, keeps our attention elsewhere. Schools can be pounded to bits with his critical hammer, but God forbid anything critical should be said of the economy. No, that is strictly off limits in this very odd sort of revolution.

This criticism, though, would roll off Sir Ken like water off a duck’s back, because the sympathy he expressed for people stuck in dead-end jobs was never actually sincere. Sir Ken Robinson was lying. The issue is not happiness. The issue is the economy. The point of banging this drum about talent and the other drum about creativity is not that this is what individuals need but that this is what the economy needs. Sir Ken Robinson made this clear in his introduction to the report given the equally misleading title: “All Our Futures,” published in 1999 – a report on education produced for the UK government, and one described by The Times newspaper as raising “some of the most important issues facing business in the 21st century…[a report that] should have every CEO and human resources director thumping the table and demanding action.” The first sentence of the report describes education as a vital investment in “human capital” for the 21st century. “Human capital” – that wouldn’t bring the TED audience to its feet, but that’s how Sir Ken chose to describe the girls and boys who would be “all our futures.” The report is sprinkled with quotations lined up in a column on the right. The very first paragraph of Sir Ken Robinson’s introduction is lined up with a quotation from the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair: “Our aim must be to create a nation where the creative talents of all the people are used to build a true enterprise economy for the twenty-first century – where we compete on brains, not brawn.” The enterprise economy – that is the be all and end all. Once upon a time John Dewey wrote a book entitled “Democracy and Education.” Sir Ken Robinson’s equivalent would have to be entitled (if he were honest): “Business and Education.”

Let’s join the dots here: Industry in the old economies of the West is dead, so another way of making money has to be found, and if that means inventing and creating and designing ever newer things that will be manufactured abroad in factories and sweatshops by people whose unfulfilled dreams and unrealised talents need not worry us for a second, schools need to start churning out creative, innovative inventors and designers and people who can persuade everyone the world over to buy all this new stuff.

In the old days when we went out onto the streets chanting for a revolution, if we had education in mind, it would have been an education that prepared the young for a completely new social order – a new set of social relations. Comrade Ken has no such revolution in mind. It’s all about shaking up schools so that they can better service the existing economy and help the West fill up the holes left by the closure of so many factories.

So what are we left with? It doesn’t amount to much: Some minor policy proposals (like multi-age classes, not marking the beginnings and ends of classes with bells, and getting students to do more cross-curricular work) and a new metaphor.

People seem to find the metaphor attractive, so let’s have a look at it. Sir Ken says that hitherto the metaphor has been industry (an industrial education for an industrial economy). In other words Pink Floyd were right, and schools have been operating like factories indiscriminately sucking in the raw material at one end, forcing it through a linear process that runs like clockwork to churn out identical batches of graduates at the other end – Pink Floyd’s educational bricks. The industry metaphor has to go, Sir Ken Robinson tells us. In its place we need to think of education more along agricultural lines. We need to focus on the individual learner as someone who must flourish, like the seed slowly developing and bringing into being the incredible thing that was latent within it from the start. Teachers should be like farmers, creating just the right conditions in which that flourishing can take place.

Of course the idea of the student as potato is not especially inspiring. As Sir Ken describes his agricultural vision, though, the image of the student as potato doesn’t spring readily to mind because he is quick to add that the educational horticulturalists will recognise that different individuals flourish in different ways, and educational flourishing (in contrast to the potato variety) is essentially unpredictable: “You cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do is, like the farmer, change the conditions under which the talents will flourish. We can’t clone systems, but we must customize them. We must create movement in which people develop their own solutions but with external support and a personalized curriculum.”

What is surprising is that Sir Ken – previously a professor of education – can allow his audience to go away with the impression that his talk about the flourishing of the young individual is something new and revolutionary. Even within the strict time limitations of his TED talk he could at least have doffed his hat to Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852) of kindergarten fame, who imagined the school as a garden in which each child would find the conditions to grow in his or her unique way. Or how about John Dewey, who insisted that education be seen as a process of growth that was an end in itself: “Since growth is the characteristic of life, education is all one with growing; it has no end beyond itself. The criterion of the value of school education is the extent in which it creates a desire for continued growth and supplies means for making the desire effective.” (Democracy and Education, 1916) On the subject of respecting the child as a young person who must be allowed to develop in his or her own peculiar way, Dewey quotes Emerson (1803-82) as having summed up this idea of a child-centred education in the best possible way: “Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude. But I hear the outcry which replies to this suggestion: Would you verily throw up the reins of public and private discipline; would you leave the young child to the mad career of his own passions and whimsies, and call this anarchy a respect for the child’s nature? I answer,—Respect the child, respect him to the end, but also respect yourself…. The two points in a boy’s training are, to keep his nature and arm it with knowledge in the very direction in which it points.”

To the people who applaud Sir Ken’s call for a revolution, I’d like to give them a little quiz question using a passage taken from the internet describing the ideas of another educational revolutionary. The question is: Whose name belongs in the gaps and when was he writing?

“_______ treated children as human beings in whom the gradual development of rationality needed to be fostered by parents. ______ urged parents to spend time with their children and tailor their education to their character and idiosyncrasies, to develop both a sound body and character, and to make play the chief strategy for learning rather than rote learning or punishment. Thus, he urged learning languages by learning to converse in them before learning rules of grammar.”

Answer: John Locke, who published “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” in 1693.

Then there is the metaphor of linearity. Sir Ken Robinson insists that the revolution will end the tyranny of linearity. Linearity is bad. Unpredictable organic flourishing is good. Okay, but what sort of a revolution is it that bashes linearity in school but leaves the real tyranny of linearity outside school uncriticised? There is nothing more linear and more tyrannical than the imperative that all of society be mobilised to advance the GDP. Every three months the GDP is measured and it must be found to go up the required number of notches. Why must the GDP keep going up? Is that an emergent property of people’s spontaneous organic flourishing? I don’t think so.

So Ken Robinson’s talk of a child-centred education is nothing new (and to be genuinely revolutionary it would at least have to be new), plus it conceals a very unrevolutionary affirmation of an economic system that is about as child-centred and human centred as a combine harvester. It is also not a criticism of the dominant ideas shared by the majority of teachers in countries like the UK, where, for a long time, there has been a broad agreement about the need for education to be child-centred.

If there is an axe to be ground here, it is more properly directed at governments like the one in the UK that have been insisting that greater central control and standardisation of the curriculum and a greater emphasis on testing both of pupils and teachers are the keys to a better educational system. Sir Ken, though, is very careful to frame his critique so that it doesn’t appear to challenge the political establishment. The issues are technical issues to do with the organisation of schools. They are not political issues to do with the way power is exercised in society. It is a strange sort of revolution that respects a taboo against talking about politics.

So all the talk about revolution was mere hype – carefully staged and spun to sell something. Given how feeble Sir Ken Robinson’s suggested education policy changes have been, there has to be the suspicion that what he was really selling was himself all along – Ken Robinson, now a recognisable brand, a great stand-up comedian who, in between the gags, can raise the revolutionary passions of a crowd without offending anyone, including the Queen of England.


For more on Ken Robinson, see our critique of how Sir Ken Robinson dumbs down the education debate in calling for a change of paradigm.


Interesting to read the flattering summary in The Huffington Post (24/05/2010): “Why don’t we get the best out of people? Sir Ken Robinson argues that it’s because we’ve been educated to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers.” (Of course, “education” is understood merely as what goes on in school, ignoring the elaborate and more powerful informal education provided beyond it.)

A more revolutionary reader might prefer to see the Huffington Post question turned on its head: “Why don’t people get the best out of society? Because the prevailing system obliges them to keep their heads down and merely be good workers, rather than creative thinkers and active and engaged citizens with ample opportunities to participate in a meaningful public life.”

written by Torn Halves on September 10, 2012 in education and Ken Robinson with 5 comments