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Opinion: I’m with Ken Robinson – organic learning is key

The education guru may be falling from favour, but his ideas remain indispensable in creating conditions for pupils to thrive

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The education guru may be falling from favour, but his ideas remain indispensable in creating conditions for pupils to thrive

I learned a long time ago that any organisation needs a core purpose. At Huntington School in York, ours is to inspire confident learners who will thrive in a changing world. This is no glib strapline – it drives everything we do.

We consulted staff, students, parents and governors when we were shaping our core purpose. It was the students who chose the word “thrive”, where staff had initially used “succeed”. And “learners” replaced “students” from the first draft so that the core purpose could apply to us all.

I like the idea of helping learners to thrive. It reflects something beyond succeeding, something more healthy. People, like plants, thrive when the conditions for growth are right – and creating those conditions is the single most important responsibility of a headteacher.

Over the past eight years we have been relentlessly transforming the culture of Huntington School so that every one of us can grow and thrive. Our students’ outcomes have improved year on year. The progress measures have risen steadily. Our most disadvantaged students have thrived. All of which leads me to Sir Ken Robinson.

Much of what I have learned about leading schools is articulated in Sir Ken’s work. His rallying cry for us to return to an organic rather than an industrial model for education makes sense to me in a great many ways.

In his latest book, Creative Schools, Sir Ken concludes: “There is no permanent utopia for education, just a constant striving to create the best conditions for real people in real communities in a constantly changing world.”

He writes that “good gardeners create those conditions [for growth] and poor ones don’t. Good teachers create the conditions for learning, and poor ones don’t.”

Cooling-off period

Yet the educational climate in England is cooling towards Sir Ken’s vision. His TED talk is still the most-viewed ever but the backlash has definitely begun. Tom Bennett – my fellow TES columnist (right) and a fellow advocate of evidence-informed practice – has written a brilliant and entertaining yet savage attack on Sir Ken’s educational philosophy (see

“What is his prescription?” Bennett asks. “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.”

The thing is, when writing about effective teaching Sir Ken actually comes to a pretty balanced conclusion: “In practice, teachers in all disciplines usually do, and should, use a wide repertory of approaches, sometimes teaching facts and information, sometimes facilitating exploratory group activities.”

Sir Ken’s previous book The Element can be easily caricatured. Joe Kirby, a teacher and blogger whose writing and thinking I admire greatly, says: “Sir Ken is wrong on education: profoundly, spectacularly wrong.” He adds that, contrary to Sir Ken’s view, “talent is not innate and it is only dedicated, determined and disciplined practice that leads to great achievement”.

The thing is, I don’t think Sir Ken has ever denied that disciplined practice is essential to great achievement. For instance, one of the case studies in The Element explains how world champion pool player Ewa Laurance practised for 10 or 12 hours every day when she was 16, even getting the key from the owner of the pool hall so she could play before it opened.

Laurance’s case study could just as easily have appeared in Carol Dweck’s Mindset. The Robinson-Dweck innate talent-hard work dichotomy seems to me to be a false one.

Rooted in knowledge

As for the knowledge-skills debate, it is quite obvious that creativity needs to have roots in a solid store of knowledge. How can you analyse sonnets and write your own without knowing about Petrarch, Spenser, Shakespeare and their successors? It is much easier to analyse, evaluate and compose if you have a deep knowledge and understanding of the sonnet tradition and its most sublime practitioners.

As I am so fond of pointing out, the best pastoral care for students from deprived socio-economic backgrounds is a good set of examination results. I take from Sir Ken’s work what we need in our school context, no more. I read his work judiciously. I am an astute Robinsonite, not a blind acolyte. In my experience, creativity requires academic rigour to produce the most fruitful student outcomes.

In the end, although we all work tirelessly to provide the best education possible for Huntington’s diverse 1,500 students, Sir Ken’s ideas provide me with some much-needed hopeful nourishment. When growing a truly great school, we all need bread. But sometimes we need roses, too.

John Tomsett is headteacher of Huntington School in York

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