Ingeborg van Teeseling

Ken Robinson: Globally pushing for an education re-think

Approx Reading Time-17Stepping out of the shadow of a working class existence, Ken Robinson looks to eloquently hit the education establishment where it hurts most. Right in the status quo.



Sometimes public campaigns come from the land of the bleedin’ obvious, but it isn’t often that they make me feel ashamed. That happened not so long ago, when I watched the clip made for the “Free the Kids” crusade. Under the slogan “dirt is good” (whilst, strangely enough, advertising detergent), it compared two groups of people: prisoners in the high security system in the US, kept inside for murder, rape and drug deals. And children, young kids between the ages of four and twelve. Every day, the prisoners get two hours of time to spend outside. Do a bit of exercise, feel the sun and the wind, talk to other inmates. It is their saving grace, they say, the only moment they are connected to the outside world in a physical way, when they are less part of the system, freer somehow. What, the interviewer asks, would happen if that time would be slashed in half? Desperation, the men say, sadness, anger. So do they realise that modern children spend less than an hour outside these days? Not even that, if you only count the time they are left to their own devices? Shock, horror. With the men, and with me too. Really? An hour a day is all we can give children, to run around, get dirty, play, scream and laugh? Isn’t that, you know, scandalous?

No, our fifth visionary says, that is normal practice at the moment. It is called education, and it urgently needs to change. That is why he collaborated on the “Free the Kids” campaign. And that is why he has been advocating for a revolution in the world’s schools for the good part of 20 years now. In fact, Ken Robinson – Sir Ken Robinson since the Queen bestowed him with a knighthood in 2003 – has been shaking up the educational establishment with ever more pressing campaigns for much longer. In the 1980s and 1990s he tried to change the system from the inside, by chairing national commissions and writing reports for the UK government, and developing strategies to overcome the animosities between the former warring parties in the Northern Irish Troubles. When that got him accolades, but not a lot of change, he decided to go it alone. In 2006 he gave a TED talk called Do schools kill creativity?, that has since become the most watched lecture in TED history. According to a last count, 41 million people have watched it, in 160 countries. Together with two later TED talks, Robinson has reached at least 70 million people in the world by his spoken word alone. That is not counting the masses who lined up to buy his two bestsellers, The Element – How finding your passion changes everything (2009) and Finding your element – How to discover your talents and passions and transform your life (2014).

Like a lot of visionaries, Ken Robinson (1954) is an outsider. Born in Liverpool, England, as one of seven children in a struggling working-class family, bad luck struck twice during his childhood. First his father was injured in an industrial accident and became a quadriplegic. Then his son, the boy with the golden curls, the one who was going to be a famous soccer player, was hit by polio. Ken spent eight months in hospital, unable to move. It gave him time to think, time to develop his sense of humour too. Because of the crutches, his subsequent education was in special schools, and that was a godsend, because there was time there, and the realisation that every child was different and needed a specific approach. Later, when he met other children and even more when he became an educator himself, Robinson realised that this was not normal practice for most young people. Everywhere he looked they were dropping out, miserable, medicated, depressed and angry. And even more scarily: growing into adults who endured their lives instead of enjoying them. What on earth, he wondered, was going on?

Robinson started to look into that question and soon realised that it wasn’t people who were the problem, but the education system itself. Education really got going during Victorian times, to meet the needs of the industrial revolution. Certainly, some idealists were motivated by the idea of raising up the working classes, but mostly education was used to grow compliant and efficient workers for the factories. Where schooling for the upper classes had included philosophy, arts, law and a wide variety of humanities, instruction for the workers preferenced more “valuable” skills, like maths, literacy, low-grade clerical work and maybe some languages. Anything that was not immediately transferrable to the factory floor, especially the courses that inspired thinking and creativity, like philosophy and the arts, ended up in the waste paper basket. Later on, when we went from an industrial to a knowledge society, education facilities specialised even more. Academic ability, or the capacity to invent ever newer machines, became the highest goal.

The first victim was the body. Although we all move, schools taught children from a very early age that sitting still was the holy grail. They were “educated out of their bodies, until all that was left of them was a head”, Robinson says. The “high watermark of human achievement” was to be somebody who only used their body to transport their head to meetings. Children who followed their natural instinct and preferred to run and play were diagnosed with some form of mental illness and medicated. Soon, more than 10% of children in the western world had the label “ADHD” or “autism” pinned to their back. Faulty, ready for the scrap heap.

The second problem was that making mistakes turned from an educational tool into something that needed to be punished severely. And that was an issue, because if you are scared of making a mistake, you will become somebody who avoids risk. And risk is where things grow and flourish. Not just creativity for the individual, but innovation for the community. “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.” Robinson is fond of quoting Pablo Picasso, who said that children are born with creativity, but that we lose that natural ability by the time we become adults. It is not something we learn, it is something we unlearn. It is educated out of us and that is one of the reasons why we are so unhappy with our lives. Who we are, what we like, what we are passionate about: education tells us that there is no place for that. Because it is a system that only caters for the common denominator, it “batches people up”. We all have to be the same, otherwise the organisation doesn’t work. Human beings are naturally different, but during the 14 years we go to school we are taught that we need to conform, forget about our individuality and adhere to the standard. We have built our educational system, Robinson says, on the model of fast food, and that has “impoverished our spirits and energies as much as fast food has depleted our bodies.”

One of the issues is that talent is being “squandered” and this has left us with “a crisis of human resources.” Robinson’s favourite story is of Gillian Lynne, the celebrated choreographer of Cats and Phantom of the Opera. When she was a little girl in 1930s England, ADHD had not yet been invented, and that was a good thing, because Gillian was a fidgeter. She couldn’t sit still at school and this had led her principal to tell her mother to take the little girl to a child psychiatrist, to figure out what to do with her. First the doctor spoke with her mother for a while, then he told Gillian that he needed to talk to her in private. He left her alone in his room, but switched on the radio on his way out. The second the door shut, the girl got up and started to move, twirling and bopping away. Looking in at her from a window, the doctor said to her mother: “Gillian is not sick. She is a dancer.” So instead of medicating her, as would probably happen now, Gillian’s mother put her into dance school. The girl became a prima ballerina, a choreographer, actress, television-director and then a Dame. And oh yes, that too: rich.

Also on The Big Smoke

To Ken Robinson, the doctor’s response is exactly what we need in education now: the understanding that people are different and that encouraging individualisation and creativity is a good idea. First, of course, we need to realise that intelligence is not one thing. It is diverse, dynamic and distinct. So far, our education system has “mined our minds the way we have strip-mined the earth: for a few particular commodities only.” For the future, that will not do, and we need to “start seeing our creative abilities for the riches they are.” Robinson realises that it won’t be easy to get rid of the schools we’ve got now and start again, and yet that is exactly what he thinks is necessary. “There is the tyranny of common sense. That what we think and experience every day is logical and normal and can’t be done any other way.” What we need to do, Robinson says, is allow people to look for what he calls “the element”: the thing that you are both good in and have a passion for. The thing that sets your soul on fire, that turns work into a joy, makes time pass without you noticing it; the thing that you would do even if you wouldn’t be paid for it, that drives you and charms you and keeps you up with excitement. Often, we don’t know what it is, because “like natural resources, human resources are buried deep and you need to dig to get them out.” Nevertheless, giving people a chance to find out at which point their natural talent meets their personal passion is vital in a world in desperate need of creative solutions and lateral thinkers.

More than anything, what we need to do to give people a chance to find it, is to tell them to close their ears for “well-meaning, but wrong” advice from their “betters”. When Robinson started to research “the element” and interview people like Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington, Mat Groening and Paul McCartney, the one thing they had in common was being thwarted and made fools of by teachers. McCartney’s music teacher, who was also trying to educate George Harrison, thought both boys had no talent and were, frankly, losers. That fits, Robinson says, with the response to Elvis Presley, who was not allowed into the Glee club at his high school because “he would ruin their sound.” Difference and creativity, Robinson says, scares a lot of us, and we are jealous of the lucky people who know what their element is. That, of course, is completely silly, because “if we were all the same, we would be in deep trouble.” Then everybody would be a baker or a candlestick maker and we would have no sparkies and road builders and farmers. So let’s encourage diversity and creativity and realise that it is this that makes us human.

If you take a small child into the garden at night and point to the moon, the child will look at it. If you do the same with a dog, the dog will look at your finger. The difference is imagination, being able to open our minds to the infinite possibilities out there. What we need to do is grow that, nurture it and give it space, water, sunshine and good soil. It will give back to individuals and our societies the energy and life we are lacking now, and do away with the anger, the depression, the mental health issues. Let’s throw out “command and control” and let a million flowers bloom, Robinson says. This makes him my fifth visionary. And we can start implementing his ideas right here, right now. Not just by leaning on the system to change, but also by giving ourselves, our children and our friends and families the opportunity to step out of the boundaries and think big. Go our elements, and go Ken Robinson!



Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

Related posts