Strictly bølløcks: Sir Ken Robinson, lovely but wrong on Radio 4

8th August 2014 at 09:09



This week, BBC Radio 4 treats us to a series that might well be very interesting indeed. The Educators, every Wednesday at 4pm GMT, looks at some of the most influential names in the education landscape today. Week 1: Sir Ken Robinson. Oh boy.


Sir Ken is, without a doubt, the nicest guy with whom I frequently completely disagree. His avuncular, jocular TED talks and his ability to simultaneously convey bemused surprise and weary dismay at the state of education, makes him a popular, if unlikely, revolutionary. He's a digital John the Baptist, railing against the Herods of factory schooling. He's kind, witty and literate. He is fantasy dinner party bait. He's also impressively wrong about what schools are actually like, and, therefore, how we should improve them. Apart from those two things, we are of a piece (I'll express an interest in this programme – I'm in it, somewhere, railing against the cult of Ken, pointing out the emperor is naked, but still a really nice guy).


I've written more about the Sir Ken phenomena here and here. You can also read more about his views by reading the story in today's copy of TES.


He believes in children, but don't we all? He values creativity, but who doesn't? Who would stand on a platform against it? All that we differ on is method. He says creativity is something we can teach in schools and I say how do we know? How do we measure it? No one has ever agreed on a method, or an assessment method, and many (me, for instance) say it can't even be taught in any way that resembles how we teach.


He deserves his place in the list of the 21st-century's most prominent educationalists because of what he represents more than the influence he has had. The salon revolutions he encourages have been represented and embodied for many years before the RSA decided to animate his lecture. The cry that children are crushed by a system that doesn't care is as old as the Enlightenment. This ancient enmity between rationalism and romanticism, between the forces of order and reason and the fluid armies of idea-space, is a mythical battle in contemporary classrooms.


If anyone has a mind to, a visit to a school will reveal the reverse to be quite true: that classrooms, far from being battery farms where children are clipped and de-beaked into automata, are frequently bastions of group work, discovery learning and freethinking libertarianism. The model he presupposes last enjoyed mainstream acceptance round about the time of Tom Brown's School Days. Since the 1960s onwards (and earlier, in many pockets of education) progressive ideas such as those Sir Ken champions have become part of the DNA of everyday schooling. Which isn't to say that it predominates everywhere, but merely that it certainly has enjoyed popular status. See: what Sir Ken evangelises as revolution has been the establishment orthodoxy for several decades. He isn't Moses. He's Pharoah.


As to the curriculum: why, his dystopian Cassandra stance is even more at odds with real schools. Every school I have ever visited has bounced with compulsory drama, expressive arts, art, design and technology, music – and those are merely the subjects that are intrinsically and obviously creative and expressive. What about large segments of the English curriculum, creative writing assignments and role plays and poems threaded through the whole curriculum like veins in blue cheese? Even given the contemporary trend towards the holy grails of good passes in English and maths, the claim that schools are Soylent Green factories is patently, obviously nonsense.


The dance equivalence argument is also worrying. You walk on booby-trapped eggshells when you criticise a subject, but I will put a delicate toe into this one: while I genuflect with a mixture of awe and envy at those who can call the American Smooth and pirouette their friend, to claim that dance is of equivalent importance to, say, literacy is like comparing advice from Herodotus with a magic 8-ball. On what grounds is this possibly true? Certainly not utility. It's like listening to someone watch Footloose while smoking furiously on a crack pipe: "We have to save dance! THEY'RE KILLING DANCE LET THE PEOPLE DANCE."


There are some aspects of school that are boring and authoritarian, but try and run one that isn't and still teaches them anything. However, this doesn't mean schools are prisons or the easy, obvious slur of the Pink Floyd mincing machines. Schools, despite their mild-mannered and often anodyne appearances, are dream factories, where children of all backgrounds are given the opportunity to become the architects of their own destinies. Some of it's a bit dull. Some of it will fascinate and inspire. Some of it is, "you need to know this", and some of it is, "what do you think?". There is often a good deal of dance. And if there isn't, there are other ways for caterpillars to become butterflies. To say that schools don't offer these things is probably a bit of an insult to schools and the hard work that teachers do.


You'll need to excuse me now. Gotta dance.