The presenter of the most-watched TED Talk of all time continues to offer a provocative indictment of the current education system.
Speaking at the recent Engage 2018 conference on innovation in education, Sir Ken Robinson challenged his audience to pursue “forms of education which are consistent with the nature of human growth and development.”
Robinson, a native of Liverpool, has served as a professor, advisor, author, and speaker on education theory. His February, 2006 TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” (the answer is yes) has had tens of millions of views and enjoys the top spot among TED’s Most Popular Talks of All Time.
His thesis then was that “creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” Robinson criticized the tendency to equate the proof of intelligence with success in formal academic settings.
In his view, this narrow mindset was a logical result of the dominance of universities, which “designed the system in their image.”
Robinson observed, “If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.”
Now, almost twelve years later, Robinson’s speech at Engage shows he’s expanding on the same themes.
Robinson’s dismal assessment finds in the education system an almost singular focus on preparing and processing students for university, which evolved over centuries to provide a steady output of predictable, compliant labor units. The degree serves as the culminating certification of a satisfactorily conforming product.
In the process, students are immersed in an anti-creative environment which pressures them to be compliant and to compete. “Human beings are intensely collaborative” by nature, Robinson says, but in contemporary education, “the whole thing is about competing.”
He identifies three levels of gaining knowledge: Learning–the natural, childlike, spontaneous process where we acquire new skills; Education–a more formal process of learning; and School–the place where this is supposed to happen.
But over time, School has become far too focused on standardization, grades, and simply moving students through additional tiers.
Robinson noted that the educational testing business, which has “contributed nothing” to the improvement of students or teachers, represents a $16 billion industry.
“To conflate the complex process of human development to a series of grades for a college entrance exam seems to me to be the most absurd reduction of the enterprise that you can imagine,” he said. “But shifting that is our great aim.”
According to Robinson, this shift must prioritize the individual interests of each student and foster creativity and self-determination. He added, “As AI (artificial intelligence) begins to accelerate, we should focus on those things which are distinctively human–the powers of creativity, of curiosity, of compassion, and of collaboration.”
How can such a shift take place in the face of a vast, entrenched educational system? Robinson’s answer is, in essence, to act locally. Every educator encounters countless, daily opportunities to break from convention: “If you’re a teacher, and you’re faced with a room full of students, what you do next is the education system for those students.”
You can watch Robinson’s Engage presentation here.