`The education system is a dangerous myth'

8th May 2015 at 01:00
In an exclusive extract from his new book, Sir Ken Robinson argues that our approach to teaching is wrong - and hundreds of years out of date

I'm often asked the same questions: what's going wrong in education? Why? If you could reinvent education, what would it look like? Would you have schools? Would there be different types? What would go on in them? Would everyone have to go, and how old would they have to be? Would there be tests? If you say I can make a difference in education, where do I begin?

The fundamental question is this: what is education for? People's ideas differ sharply on this issue. Like democracy and justice, education is an example of what the philosopher Walter Bryce Gallie called an "essentially contested concept". It means different things to different people according to their cultural values and how they view related issues such as ethnicity, gender, poverty and social class. That doesn't mean that we can't discuss it or do anything about it. We just need to be clear on our terms. So before we go on, let me say a few words about learning, education, training and schools, terms which are sometimes confused.

Learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills. Human beings are highly curious; from the moment they're born, children have a voracious appetite for learning. For many, that appetite is dulled as they go through school. Keeping it alive is the key to transforming education.

Education means organised programmes of learning. The assumption is that young people need to know, understand and be able to do things that they wouldn't if left to their own devices. What those things are and how education should be organised to enable students to learn them are core issues.

Training is a type of education that focuses on learning specific skills. I remember earnest debates as a student about the difficulty of distinguishing between education and training. The difference was clear enough when we talked about sex education. Most parents would be happy to know their teenagers had had sex education at school; they'd probably be less happy if they'd had sex training.

By schools, I don't mean only the conventional facilities that we are used to for children and teenagers. I mean any community of people that comes together to learn with each other. School, as I use the term here, includes home-schooling, un-schooling and informal gatherings both in person and online, from kindergarten to college and beyond. Some features of conventional schools have little to do with learning and can actively get in the way of it. The revolution we need involves rethinking how schools work and what counts as a school. It's also about trusting in a different story about education.

Happily ever after?

We all love stories, even if they're not true. As we grow up, one of the ways we learn about the world is through the stories we hear. Some are about our own families and friends. Some are part of the larger culture - the myths, fables and fairy tales that have captivated people for generations. In stories that are told often, the line between fact and myth can become so blurred that we mistake one for the other. This is true of a story that many people believe about education, even though it's not real and never really was. It goes like this.

Young children go to elementary school mainly to learn the basic skills of reading, writing and mathematics. These skills are essential for them to do well in high school. If they go on to higher education and graduate with a good degree, they will find a well-paid job and the country will prosper too.

In this story, real intelligence is what you use in academic studies: children are born with different amounts of this intelligence, so some naturally do well at school and others don't. The ones who are really intelligent go on to good universities. Those who graduate with a good university degree are guaranteed a well-paid professional job with their own office. Students who are less intelligent naturally do less well. Some may fail or drop out. Some who finish high school may not go any further in education and look for a low-income job instead. Some will go on to college but take less academic, vocational courses and get a decent service or manual job, with their own toolkit.

When it's put so baldly, this story may seem like too much of a caricature. But when you look at what goes on in many schools, when you listen to what many parents expect of and for their children, when you consider what so many policymakers around the world are actually doing, it seems they really believe that the current systems of education are basically sound, and that they're not working as well as they should only because standards have fallen. Consequently, most efforts are focused on raising standards through more competition and accountability. You may believe this story too and wonder what's wrong with it.

This story is a dangerous myth. It is one of the main reasons why so many reform efforts do not work. On the contrary, they often compound the very problems they claim to be solving, such as the alarming drop-out rates, the levels of stress and depression - even suicide - among students and their teachers, the falling value of a university degree, the rocketing cost of getting one and the rising levels of unemployment among graduates and non-graduates alike.

Mass production

Politicians scratch their heads over these problems. Sometimes they punish schools for not making the grade. Sometimes they fund programmes to get them back on track. But the problems persist and often get worse, because many of them are caused by the system itself.

All systems behave in ways that are particular to them. When I was in my twenties in Liverpool, I made a visit to an abattoir. (I don't remember why. I was probably on a date.) Abattoirs are designed to kill animals. And they work. Very few escape and form survivors' clubs. As we came to the end, we passed a door that was marked "veterinarian". I asked the guide why the abattoir had a veterinarian - wasn't it a bit late for that? He said that the veterinarian came in periodically to conduct random autopsies. I thought, he must have seen a pattern by now.

If you design a system to do something specific, don't be surprised if it does it. If you run an education system based on standardisation and conformity, which suppresses individuality, imagination and creativity, don't be surprised if that's what it does.

There's a difference between symptoms and causes. There are many symptoms of the current malaise in education and they won't be relieved unless we understand the deeper problems underlying them. One is the industrial character of public education. The issue in a nutshell is this: most developed countries did not have mass systems of public education much before the mid-19th century. These systems were developed to meet the labour needs of the Industrial Revolution and they are organised on the principles of mass production. The standards movement is allegedly focused on making these systems more efficient and accountable. The problem is that these systems are inherently unsuited to the wholly different circumstances of the 21st century.

Creative Schools: revolutionizing education from the ground up by Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica is published by Allen Lane. www.penguin.co.uk


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