21st-century education must be more personalised

5th December 2008 at 00:00

State schools should be moving closer to the Steiner, Montessori, Waldorf or Outward Bound education models if they want to prepare children for the demands of the 21st century, according to the education and creativity adviser to governments and global corporations Sir Ken Robinson (pictured).

What set these models apart was their real commitment to personalisation in education, rather than the homogeneity that character- ised mainstream models, he told The TESS.

These educational movements had always been seen as the "heretical branch" of education but it was time, he said, to examine their approaches, characterised broadly as allowing children, particularly in early childhood, to play and socialise, explore their imaginations and develop an aptitude for learning through a form appropriate to them.

Sir Ken believed the current mainstream systems were "rather industrial" and based on the premise that you could process children at the same rate. If they did not keep to "the programme", they were seen as problematic. "From the beginning of public education, there has always been a parallel tradition of people who have been experimenting with different ways of doing it," he said.

"What they have in common is a belief in the individual and community, and the need for a broad and balanced curriculum in which people explore their learning and develop their talents as they go on.

"The problem with how standardised systems work is that they are about people following set stages and set programmes, and remove the discretion of teachers to teach."

Sir Ken was not criticising Scottish education, but advocating a look at the best alternative practices and applying them to mainstream education, just as healthcare systems were adopting "alternative" remedies such as herbalism and osteopathy.

The important thing was to deal with children as individuals. Most school systems suffered from a "plague" of standardised testing and a standardised curriculum, driven by the perceived needs of the economy. As a result, they were producing generations of children who could not "think round the corner".

In 1999, Sir Ken chaired the All Our Futures report into creativity, culture and education, heading a commission made up of figures from education, the arts and industry. David Blunkett, the then education secretary, had sought to bury the report, he said. "In England, we have a literacy strategy and a literacy hour. I am pretty sure that the government at the time thought we would recommend a creativity hour, preferably on a Friday afternoon," he said.

The report had argued for a transformation of the system in terms of the curriculum, teaching and learning, and assessment. But the tendency for policy-makers, when they thought the economy was in trouble, was to go into "command and control mode". "You can't make people creative unless you are creative yourselves," he told the audience of 300 primary and scondary teachers. They should be concentrating their efforts on improving the quality of the teacher and empowering teachers.

Sir Ken not only called for an end to a hierarchy of subjects in schools, where science and maths were accorded greater importance than the arts or creativity, but for the curriculum to become more inter-disciplinary if it was to encourage creative growth. "Economic circumstances require that more people do intellectual work, but what is a degree worth when we all have one?" he asked.

In Los Angeles, where Sir Ken lives, children were being groomed for college at the age of three, with parents competing for the best kindergarten. Such a mindset could be attributed to the legacy of the Enlightenment, he believed - a separation of the arts and sciences and "a feeling that what matters more than anything is academic ability".

Science was considered "harder and more intellectually challenging" than the arts because it was associated with objectivity, fact and truth. The arts were seen as recreation, something you could do at the weekend. If countries were to help their students engage with a world that was changing faster than we can understand, this mindset had to change, argued Sir Ken.

"We have to transform education so that it is fit for the 21st century. We have to set a direction - a different sense of purpose and human possibility. Creativity is the portal into that argument."

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