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Remembering Ken Robinson

Sir Ken Robinson died last week. If you haven’t heard of him, stop reading this blog post and go and watch his first TED talk, “Do schools kill creativity?” It’s an excellent talk – one that has been viewed more than 65 million times, and remains the most watched TED talk ever. If you haven’t got time to watch it now, or need a little more convincing, then feel free to read on.

Ken Robinson spent a great deal of his career talking about talent and genius. Now, personally, I really don’t like these notions. We typically use the notions of talent or genius to explain how remarkable people do remarkable things – the Einsteins and Mozarts of this world. If someone seems to be simply “natural” at doing something, we marvel at how talented they are. If they reach great heights with their special talents then we might even call them a genius.

The problem with this way of thinking is it ignores the crucial role that nurture plays in the development of people’s skills and abilities. It leads to what the educational psychologist Carol Dweck calls having a “fixed mindset” – where you are simply either good or bad at something, whether that be maths, music, sport, socialising, studying or whatever. But Dweck has consistently shown it’s having a “growth mindset” that helps people succeed over time – where you become good at something as a result of deliberative practice, of putting in the effort, from being patient and going through the hard work of making mistakes and learning from them. Our natural abilities only get us so far. Our notions of talent and genius often ignore this fact.

Well, Ken Robinson was a lot more tolerant and optimistic than I am. Instead of rejecting notions of talent and genius, he wanted to transform the way we think about them. He passionately believed that all children have their unique gifts, talents and passions. He believed all human beings are creative at heart – that the process of living itself is a great act of creativity. His work set out to show how people’s talents can be nurtured by our educational systems, not crushed by them.

In his influential TED talk, he gives the example of Gillian Lynne. Gillian was a very successful choreographer, who is well known for doing “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera”. But her talents were not immediately recognised. When she was at school, she was sent to a psychiatrist because she couldn’t concentrate in class – she couldn’t stop fidgeting. Countless other children in that position might have been told they had ADHD and given some medication to help calm them down. But Gillian was lucky. The doctor put on the radio during their consultation, and ended up telling the girl’s parents that, “Gillian isn’t sick. She’s a dancer.” Gillian was doubly fortunate – unlike less privileged children, her parents were able to enrol her in dance school. On her first day of school, she claimed that, “it was full of people like me – people who couldn’t sit still, people who had to move to think.”

The power of this story does not rest on the fact that Gillian Lynne was a genius, though she may well have been. It’s powerful because it makes us realise just how many children do not end up in the nurturing environments that make the most of their talents. We know from educational psychology and cognitive science – such as the work of Carol Dweck – that people who have repeatedly been labelled a dunce are no less able to develop complex skills and abilities, given the right training and opportunities (here’s a great example of how all kids can learn maths with the right approach). The problem is we don’t give most children those opportunities. Our failure to do so means we miss out on thousands of Mozarts and Einsteins, which we no doubt already have.

In his talks, Ken Robinson traces these failures of education back to the Industrial Revolution and makes an analogy with industrial farming. Like industrial farming, our education system is primarily concerned with maximising outputs – making sure that as many children as possible get as good exam results as possible. With farming, the outputs we care about is maximum yield of a particular crop. So we end up with large monocultures and heavy fertiliser and pesticide use. The problem with this industrial system is that it destroys the weeds and insects that create healthy soil. Robinson notes that, if our primary focus is the plant – and how high are yields are – then we fail to notice how we are steadily degrading the soils our entire food system relies upon. Which is exactly what we are doing. In 2014, the UN declared that we only have 60 years of farming left if soil degradation continues. A more sustainable or organic form of farming would primarily focus on creating healthy soil, not simply look at how to maximise yields. Robinson concludes that we need to think in the same way about education – less about exam results and other learning outcomes and more about creating a diverse culture of learning in which individual students can thrive.

This speaks to a distinction I often make in my own work, between outcomes and process. We like to control things – to achieve the best outcomes – and our educational system is no different. But, if we force students into boxes at an early age and repeatedly tell them that the worst thing they can do is make mistakes then we are controlling them in all the wrong ways. We all know that children need to give things a go, to be curious, to play, explore and experiment. There are learning environments and processes that foster these practices – such as peer-to-peer learning and multiple learning approaches – and there are those that stifle them – such as year groups and subject hierarchies. Ken Robinson was passionate about the kinds of processes that nurtured children’s creativity instead of killing it in the pursuit of better outcomes.

It’s a bold idea – that every child is talented, maybe even a genius. Like a seed, full of potential, it is the soil in which a child is placed that determines how they will grow. Perhaps the reason Ken Robinson’s talks have been so popular is that we’ve all been through this process. We all know just how important a particular teacher, experience or opportunity at school was to how we ended up. We all know just how damaging these things can be too. Robinson presents us with an optimistic vision about how our education system needn’t fail anyone – not just in terms of getting good grades, but how every child can discover their talents and their place in world.

A couple more things: If you haven’t watched any of Ken Robinson’s talks yet, they are also very funny. He comes across as very composed and personable. You can imagine having a chat with him. I think it would be a mistake to put this down as just being good at public speaking. He believed that we need to engage people’s hearts and minds, not just their brains. In that, he practiced what he preached. It’s what I’m currently trying to do with my YouTube videos and online discussions – to engage people in something more like a conversation, not just present them with a bunch of abstract words and ideas. I might never be as funny as Ken Robinson, but he inspires me to give it a go!

Robinson’s work also inspires me to think about what my own talents might be. As I said already, I don’t really like the notion of talent. But there is a version of it I do find palatable – one that acknowledges we are all talented and in multiple ways. For me, I love thinking about abstract ideas. But I also love talking to people about stuff and learning from personal experience. What I love the most is combining these things – talking to people about abstract ideas that have had a profound impact on my own life. Thank you Ken, for giving me the inspiration and confidence to develop these talents and see where in the world it takes me.

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