Man who doesn't teach kids or run schools tells us how to teach kids and run schools
If you only read one book by Ken Robinson this year, don’t read this one. In fact, put the other ones down too. There, I just saved you an afternoon of being patronised.
Ken Robinson has made a career of being portrayed as a guru of a topic he has little experience of: what happens in classrooms. It isn’t the first time someone who doesn’t actually teach children has told us what we’re all doing wrong when we teach children, but it’s rare for that person to be received with open arms by the very class he excoriates. He’s the butcher given a ticker tape parade by the National Union of Pigs. Too strong? I’ll scale down the carpet bombs when his impact lessens on our lessons. His ideas have started to catch the ear of policy Caesars everywhere, hungry to outdo each other in modernity, innovation and revolution. His advocates portray him as a revolutionary. But he’s no John the Baptist. He’s just Herod’s favourite educationalist.
There's little new material in his latest missive; at least in terms of new arguments, there's slim pickings. Sir Ken has many advocates who applaud his diagnosis of education’s ills, but he's been criticised for being vague as to the remedy. What this book attempts to do is to provide a road map of what schools should actually do. Unfortunately, because his diagnosis is so faulty, his prescription is equally wrong. He's the doctor that amputates your hand because you cut your finger, replacing it with a kipper sellotaped to an iPad. So what are his arguments in this book and why do they appeal?
He starts by criticising contemporary educational systems. Fair enough, there’s a lot of hay to make there. Contemporary schooling isn't working. He demonstrates this by pointing out things like literacy levels and similar. But what this argument boils down to is, "the system isn't perfect, and has frailties that need addressing". Sure, we can all probably agree that. But it reminds me of the old wonky syllogism from Yes Minister: "Something needs to be done; this is something; therefore this needs to be done." ‘This’ can mean a lot of things.
And the rest of the book is an attempt to show 'this.' He spends several chapters looking at schools, many of which have done extraordinary things in extraordinarily hard circumstances. And then he does what every politician does: he cherry picks, looking at schools that purposefully have overtly committed to the kind of schooling he believes work. It's certainly inspiring to look at these schools, especially where children of little opportunity have suddenly found themselves in receipt of re-invigorated education. But you can find a million stories like this, involving schools with very different styles of pedagogy, from Common Core to group hugs to rote and chant.
Cherry picking like this to advance a cause is the worst kind of fundamentalism. You can lasso any data set carefully enough and torture it to say what you want. Pulling out every school in alignment with your own tastes and claiming it represents the truth of education is wilful ignorance. Perhaps he doesn't know what goes on in schools other than the ones he gets invited to?
What’s wrong with education?
Plenty, in the Gospel According to Ken. Schools kill creativity because they’re based on a Victorian factory model. They test children too much. They treat children as units in a spreadsheet rather than individuals. They don’t cater for people’s individual talents. They offer a one-size-fits-all model. Globally, education has become an exercise in cramming, passing tests and treating academia as the universal goal of human life, at the expense of individual creativity. There are elements of truth in many of these. But the truth is mixed with theatre and fiction.
Do schools kill creativity, as he suggests? No. Half an hour in a school in the UK will give this the lie. The curriculum is stuffed with subjects, the entire nature of which could be said to be creative: art; design and technology; drama; music. Then there are the subjects that contain enormous creative components as part of their curriculum: English literature (which is in part the study of art in practice); PE (which in many areas contains dance as a compulsory pursuit). And, finally, there are subjects where invention, criticism and synthesis are a regular, dominant feature of study: history, RE, geography, maths.
Add to that the reality of every school club, every drama production, every orchestra and lunch band, every Glee club, every single extra-curricular activity that schools do which don’t fit into the simplistic factory model of education, and it becomes apparent that to claim schools don’t provide huge opportunities for creativity, is to wilfully ignore what actually occurs. And to insult the millions of adults dedicated to it.
You see, schools are very different to this vision. I work in schools where children are routinely asked to come up with their own ideas; to express opinions; to challenge each other – even me – if they disagree with points made in lessons. Where their essays are marked for the quality of expression and originality; where their art is praised, critiqued and hung on the wall. Where knowledge is taught as a means to increasing their ability to create with greater complexity and nuance. Frankly I'm somewhat weary of being told what schools are like by someone who doesn't actually work in one. But it certainly explains a lot of the misconceptions.
Are schools based on a factory model?
No, and it’s ridiculous to suggest they are, designed to process children into the needs of a working economy. The implication is obviously that children are mere units in this metaphor, carved and sculpted into the shapes that the machine economy needs. Ken proves this point by revealing the shocking truth that schools frequently have bells… JUST LIKE FACTORIES. How has this evil been allowed? How could we be blind to the horrors of children sitting at desks, in rows and columns JUST LIKE A PRISON OR SOMETHING.
Schools are also very unlike Victorian factories. For example, not many Victorian factories have chess clubs, Red Nose Day and assemblies about Movember. Not many factories have parents’ evenings and gold stars and reintegration meetings and catch-up tutorials for children going through bereavement. In fact, the list of dissimilarities between Victorian factories and contemporary classrooms seems rather long. But why let reality intervene in the disservice of a catchy metaphor?
As I'm fond of pointing out, education is frequently harrowed by people who style themselves as Moses, liberators of oppressed children. But as Crispin Weston points out (link below), they're no such thing; they’re Pharaoh; the slavers, not the slaves. Because while the groovier end of the education spectrum may lend value to a small subset of very able, mature and supported children, for the most part they do not. If you set a child with low literacy an independent study program to boost their grammar skills, some will flourish, like Tarzan (who is regrettably fictional. But he did teach himself to read from a picture book in Burroughs’s original text). But most will give up when it gets hard, or a bee flies in the room. If you only ask children to study those things that they are interested in, would anyone be surprised if they only study things that appeal to them and forego anything difficult or remote? Apparently, Sir Ken would be surprised. It's not a stretch to believe that children are naturally curious, they kind of are – what they aren’t is naturally self-disciplined. Curiosity isn’t a good in itself; it is only a good when directed in a structured way that eschews novelty and distraction.
What is his prescription? Sadly, no new therapies, medicines or regimes are revealed. It's the usual blend of personalised learning, project work, thematic curriculums, knowledge-light/skill-heavy lessons that we've come to love from the 21st-century education movement (which incidentally, is the real Germ). No mouldy, skeletal cliché is too obvious that it isn't disinterred, stuck on a stick and paraded through Main Street: we're training children for jobs that haven’t been invented yet; why do we focus on knowledge when they have Google? and so on. I suspect even a fan might feel slightly short-changed by this book. You could have visited a Montessori school a hundred years ago and felt perfectly at home with the homilies preached therein, and here.
Not just pointless, but harmful
Poor children simply don’t have time for this kind of pious, optimistic grooviness. They just don’t. Sir Ken makes a living mocking the 'lie' that if you get a degree you'll get a good job, but that's a straw man. No one seriously claims a degree guarantees that. What people actually claim is that possession of an academic education is valuable in itself in order to be an informed member of the human race; plus it offers some advantage over those who don’t. Is there anything more sad than the sight of someone denying children the right to an academic curriculum and the fruits thereof, than from someone who is the very pinnacle of such an education? Yes, Sir Richard Branson and Lord Sugar made skyscrapers out of their lives without a degree. Yes, Sir John Major rose to the heights of prime minister without one. But what about all the millions more who suffered because they didn’t? You might as well point to Princess Diana or Paris Hilton and say, "Look at how successful they were."
The kind of schools Sir Ken is talking about have just as many counter examples of failure as success. In the 70s a new type of school was attempted – ironically, also called free schools. From the BBC website
"There would be no timetable, no compulsory lessons, no uniform, no hierarchy. Teachers would be called by their first names. The children would make up the rules and decide what they wanted to learn."
And the result? "Many quickly folded." If you've ever seen schools shut down, you'll know how that short phrase covers a mountain of misery, disruption and the closing of a thousand doors to children who deserved better than the twinkly futurism of well-meaning but clueless educators. Stealing an education from children is the worst kind of theft, and that's what Sit Ken’s diagnosis often leads to. I'd phrase this less firmly if the philosophy weren’t so damaging to so many children.
Other than all that, I liked the book.
If you want some further reading about where Robinson gets it wrong, here are a few more things to read, by people who are frequently more careful and precise than my bazooka approach:
Kyle Liao has some good ideas here.
Scott Goodman provides a comprehensive and thorough exposure of some of the major fallacies of Robinson's arguments here.
Crispin Weston undertakes a similarly careful unfolding of the faulty reasoning and factual inaccuracy that constitutes a great deal of the World according to Ken. This is particularly good.
I've had a few goes myself over the years to point out that the Emperor is wearing clothes made of invisible paperclips and imagination. Here, here and here. Oh, and here. I really need to get out more.