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Sir Ken Robinson: A Brief In Memoriam [guest post]

Amidst the chaos of 2020 we lost a true leader in education in late August just as schools were trying to reopen. In the event that you might have missed it, I wanted to circle back and offer a brief tribute.

Like most of you that knew Sir Ken Robinson’s impact on education, I first learned about him through his wildly popular TED Talk in 2006. It was, of course, not the first impactful thing he said, nor the last. He was by then already declared a Knight by the Queen, so I assume the story before the TED talk was robust as a professor and leader of the arts. But, anytime something is viewed around 100 million times, it tends to define the person. So, of course, the relationship between schools and creativity, and the embedded story of a young dancer, is perhaps Sir Ken’s most defining message. If you have not watched it yet, as it is the starting place for so many others, I do of course recommend viewing. 

A different message of his, less well known, has always resonated most deeply with me though. It is a metaphor he liked to use about a garden and it shows up in a few different videos that do not have a million views. Articulated more fully in his book Creative Schools (chapter 2), this is a short clip of the essence of it (start at 1:30 where he speaks of changing metaphors … at around 6:00 he begins on the distinction with industrial agriculture):

 

 

Contained in this message is something that strikes at the essence of our outdated approach to learning systems. As America, Britain, and others grew and industrialized, we adopted elements of that mentality for our schools as well. While the factory model of school narrative is certainly overused and a bit misplaced (particularly by reformers and salesmen) the transition to large-scale institutions of learning certainly shared notions of efficiency tied up with our conception of mechanization, standardization, and competition. As Sir Ken says in the video above, perhaps the better comparison is not the factory as much as it is the monoculture-based industrial farm. 

I would have loved to see Sir Ken continue to explore and develop this idea further for it is something that our generation must confront. It is remarkable what was achieved by industrialization and, specifically, industrial farming. I grew up working on an industrial farm and was convinced of its efficacy. Billions have been lifted out of subsistence poverty and the American grocery store became the envy of the world. But, these industrial achievements came at a heavy cost. We burned oil and coal to power our machines and changed our climate. We cleared the forests endangering countless species. Our topsoil has suffered and now must be supplemented by lab-created chemicals. With pesticides and herbicides we poisoned our waters. We medicated our domestic animals and produced lower cost, but lower quality, meats that have been shown to have adverse health effects on the humans that consume them. I’ve personally been recently diagnosed with colorectal cancer and I can’t help but wonder what might have contributed. Sir Ken died of cancer as well. I wonder whether he might have asked similar questions.

In a comparable way, in America, our industrial schools have achieved much but at a high price. We have achieved near-universal basic literacy. Nearly nine out of ten students graduate high school. Yet, according to Gallup polling of students, more high school students are actively disengaged in school than are engaged. Our schools have shown a nearly complete inability to close achievement gaps or serve as a tool of desegregation. And, research has shown economic mobility, achieving higher standards of living than your parents, has declined as inequality in America continues to grow. This year, 2020, has shown with stark clarity the implications of these failures. Our society is dangerously scientifically illiterate. Racism continues to bring out America’s worst inclinations. A majority of us are economically vulnerable. And, perhaps most concerningly, we seem unable to share a common social purpose or work across differences to make any substantial progress. Like our farms, the dominant ideologies of our schools are good at many things but increasingly feel antiquated and ill-equipped to help us solve our modern challenges. 

In this way, Sir Ken Robinson was a critical voice that, in his humorous but insightful way, brought forward the loss of the full complexity of humanity we have sacrificed for standardization. He considered our approach to be Out of our Minds, in that we only sought to develop some of the potential each mind has to offer.  His passion and stories around dance and the arts were just one of those sacrifices that, upon reflection, a listener can’t help but regret. With a chuckle, Sir Ken was able to cut through the dominant narratives of education and insert a new notion that we might be capable of schools in which all children can flourish. Schools in which each child can find their Element

He offered a different mental model through a new metaphor.  “Human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it is an organic process.” A teacher’s role then is to prepare the soil, nurture it, and then let natural processes innate in each learner grow. In well prepared soil with the right conditions life of all forms flourishes. Our attempts to craft the standard educational system has worked very well for a few, but left many others for whom “the standard” was not a good fit to wither. In this sense our schools, our farms, and our society must be more organic. 

For me, and I think a great many others, Sir Ken pollinated a shift in paradigm. For the millions who watched his videos, read his books, or listened to speeches, he prepared the soil and created the conditions for us to grow our own new notions of how we might help learning flourish. The task of growing the complex, organic ecosystems in which all children might flourish then is left to us. Happily, Sir Ken, and many others, have helped to pollinate these ideas so widely that a global effort to grow these more organic models of school has inspired models of Creative Schools to bloom all across the planet. 

Sir Ken Robinson had a unique and irreplaceable ability to reach an audience and to open minds. His legacy is a challenge for us to be creative ourselves to empower students to engage the full range of their natural instincts to learn. 

Thank you, Sir Ken, for opening my mind and engaging my own natural instinct to learn, grow, and find a better way. We have lost many precious things in 2020 and we will dearly miss your presence, wit, and insights. But, you have left us a powerful metaphor from which to find our way to a better place. 

Guest Post by Justin Bathon. Associate Professor of Educational Leadership, University of Kentucky. Director, Center for Next Generation Leadership.