How to Change Education – from the ground up?

Today’s blog post title may look slightly familiar. I recently wrote about a talk to be given by Sir Ken Robinson at the RSA about changing education, then my name popped to the top of the waiting list and I was offered a ticket, so I rolled into London on Monday July 1st to have a listen. The talk took place in the recently refurbished Great Room (the room struck me as more ‘very nice’ than great – though that’s not such a snappy title eh?), and was live streamed too. The room was full, I’d guess it holds about 120 people. At 1pm the CEO of the RSA Matthew Taylor took to the stage to introduce Sir Ken Robinson. Matthew said that the two hot tickets in the last few days were this one, and the Rolling Stones at Glastonbury. He mawkishly went on to suggest that what we were about to receive was somehow the winner in this two horse race and oddly used the word ‘elite’ to introduce a talk about change from the ground up for education. Hmmm? Anyway, to keep the rock theme going for just a moment longer, if Matthew Taylor was in Spinal Tap, he would have just turned the smarm all the way up to eleven. On with the show…

Confusing intelligence with academic capability

Sir Ken Robinson (I’ll refer to him as SKR from now on) started by telling us how the current model of education confuses and conflates intelligence with academic capability. There is a misapprehension within  government that education at the highest level = Oxford and Cambridge. We can’t all go there, and many of us don’t want to – so this aspiration is a disastrous waste of human talent. SKR talked about how education is built around an outdated factory model. Every 40 minutes the bell rings and we all change rooms. He suggests that were we to run a business like this, we’d be broke in a week. I didn’t think broke, I thought of sweat shops.

The factory model is wrong

This factory, or industrial model which works as if humans are machines is wrong at every level. Governments everywhere seek to mechanise people through their approach, SKR asks us to listen to policy makers language, they believe that you can deliver a system improvement by shouting commands at it. Input equals output. In part, the task is to persuade politicians to do things differently, and because they have short time horizons, they are unlikely to change. But if we do things differently first, they will follow.

SKR then briefly referred to the STEM principle – the in vogue focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as being necessary and not sufficient to prepare learners for what comes next in the world. So what other things need focussing on?

Economics – education is vital, and powerful for economic advancement, but not if education continues to follow an outdated industrial model. SKR referenced research by IBM who asked companies in 18 countries what keeps you up at night? 2nd most popular response was the need for adaptability, and here SKR used the Kodak story to illustrate how an essential brand can become redundant through failing to adapt to a changing market. The most popular response was the need for creativity, and here SKR believes that education currently enacts a systematic quashing of the appetite for creativity.

Culture – most conflict is this way inclined, conflict around ideologies. We need to understand cultural identities – the arts, languages etc. Then SKR read a glib quote about being British these days means driving home in a German car, having an Indian takeaway in front of a Japanese TV etc. before ending on, the most British thing of all is suspicion of anything foreign. This got a lot of laughs but I’m not sure it was a particularly helpful point.

Social – communities matter more than ever, politics is disenfranchised. SKR referenced Emily Davison who famously stepped in front of the King’s horse at Epsom race course in 1913 as part of her campaign for votes for women. The injuries caused by her actions led to her death four days later. And here we are a hundred years on with fewer and fewer people voting. Civil discourse is important.

Participation – education needs to be more personal – about people, different talents, interests etc. Diversity is nuanced, education is not. 30% of USA kids don’t finish high school.

Theatre of education

SKR got round to a bit more government bashing, saying that top down directives don’t work. The government cannot improve education through vilifying teachers, their involvement and support is what’s needed. He asked, what can you take away from education to get back to the core? By way of an analogy, SKR said that theatre is the relationship between performer and audience. The same goes for education. Children have voracious appetite for learning, and yet they don’t need to be taught everything. We don’t teach kids to learn how to speak, they learn how to. Education currently dissipates this appetite for learning and the conceit of education is to think we can do this (teaching) better.

Teaching is currently just a delivery system. It should be revered as an art form, you need to know your stuff sure, and beyond that you must excite people to learn – that is the gift. How? Get the kids involved. Harvard is starting to flip the classroom to become much less dependant on the lecturer, increasingly students are learning from and with each other. You can change this now yourself don’t wait to be told. School needs to be a community of reciprocating individuals.

Habits and habitat

Complex adaptive systems – involves loads of different people reciprocating. Do something different and when it works it will grow. Tend to your own microclimate. Values can change, ground up only. Rock n roll, the Internet, these are not government initiatives. iPhone – when it launched there were 800 apps, now 750000. Unplanned – these things just just took off. Organic growth is cultural and already happening, system is adapting but not at government level, SKR hopes they realise and respond. A loving relationship is not command and control, but climate control. Change the micro climate.

Creativity in learning

We need to know how to play the instrument but not top to bottom – creativity is about finding other people who know more chords. Recognise individual learning styles, dissolve more learning down to the individual. Schools that engage and inspire are better. Acknowledge the power of ‘I don’t know’, facilitate more, ask more questions encourage collaboration, balancing instruction with intrigue. Standardised testing is wrong, testing should be a support for education not the point of it.
Quality of teaching and learning – that’s what matters, structure is much less important, gather round the quality aspect.

Breaking the system

SKR asks, is government trying to break public education by stealth, in order to privatise the whole thing? He feels this would be a disaster and if it’s part of the plan then tell us so we can have an informed disagreement about it.

SKR sits down to huge applause, then takes a few questions, all of which were broadly in agreement with his assertions, followed by a very long queue of people buying books and having them signed. I’m afraid I didn’t join the queue.


I confess that I enjoyed listening to SKR speak – he is an engaging speaker, and though his humour was at times a little bitchy, he was also very funny. But – having been provoked and excited by the animated version of his previous RSA talk on Changing Education Paradigms, I was expecting something much more radical from SKR. I left the Salon of Disappointment (sorry, the Great Room), feeling…underwhelmed. I felt the talk was aimed more at trying to bolster the egos of teachers, and less about changing the system from the bottom up. A more robust challenge might have been to question whether we need the vast school infrastructure with all of its cost and inflexibility. Home schooling didn’t even get a mention, despite acknowledging the power of community in the talk. This wasn’t so much about changing education, more like a little bit of light tinkering.

How to Change Education – from the ground up

How to Change Education – from the ground up

Now there’s a grand statement eh, ‘How to Change Education – from the ground up’. Fear not dear reader, you do not have to rely on me to deliver on such a grand aspiration, instead you must look to a master in the art of creativity, Sir Ken Robinson. Sir Ken is giving a talk on how to change eduction at the RSA on July 1st at 13:00 UK time, and if you are anything like me – you were a little slow out of the blocks and missed out on the chance for a ticket. Don’t beat yourself up too much – the talk sold out in a blink of an eye, and importantly the RSA will livestream it, so join me and other ticketless hordes as we sit in comfort at a distance and violently (or otherwise) agree and disagree with Sir Ken, whilst eating crisps at the kind of noise levels which would surely get us thrown out, were we in the auditorium.

‘What does this Robinson feller have to say about education anyway?’ I hear you ask. Well quite a lot actually, and if you are tempted to listen into the talk – maybe check this neat RSA animated video where among other things he challenges the practice of anaesthetising kids through school and the model of standardised education.

Divergent Thinking

Something Sir Ken talks about in this video is divergent thinking, or the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question. He describes this thinking ability as an essential capacity for creativity and collaboration, and then proceeds to talk about some tests carried out to assess our ability for divergent thinking.

Typically when asked to explore a question like ‘How many uses can you think of for a paperclip?’ we will come up with ten to fifteen suggestions. Someone who is very good at divergent thinking might come up with over a hundred. In the book Breakpoint and Beyond, 1,500 people are tested for their ability to think divergently. The percentage of people who rated above genius level for this ability was an astounding 98%. When they were first tested, the 1,500 people were at kindergarten level in school. The same group were retested at the ages of 8-10, and at 13-15, by which time the percentages had fallen to 32% and 10% respectively. The researchers then tested a large group of adults over the age of 25 and this group returned 2% of people considered genius level in divergent thinking. When you consider the importance work places on creativity and particularly on collaboration – that seems like a pretty alarming tail off in our ability to deliver against a collaborative agenda, don’t you think?

Increasingly my work focuses on helping people unlock pathways to creativity and collaboration so I’m intrigued to hear what Sir Ken will have to say on July 1st. Making changes in such a calcified system will not be easy. This week Neil Morrison laid into workplace platitudes such as ‘Raising The Bar‘ and for sure, the boldness and persistence required to make worthwhile change in eduction stick is not well served by over simplifying the challenge. In the meantime, and before Sir Ken lays his ideas out for us all, if you’ve got any thoughts on this subject, I’d love to hear them.

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