'I'm not pushing a theory'

27th September 2013 at 01:00
Sir Ken Robinson commands five-figure fees for appearances and inspires teachers around the world with his crusade to bring creativity into schools - but does he really have anything practical to offer them? William Stewart asks the outspoken education reformer to address his critics

What was the hottest ticket in London this summer? The Rolling Stones in Hyde Park or Sir Ken Robinson at the Royal Society of Arts? When RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor suggested, as he introduced Robinson, that the answer to that question was debatable, it was probably only partly in jest.

Since moving to the US in 2001, the Liverpool-born former theatre-in- education researcher has become a very big star indeed. Knighted in 2003, Robinson has authored a New York Times bestseller and now commands minimum public speaking fees around the globe worth thousands of pounds.

Demand for the wisdom of a man who once helped with the Northern Ireland peace process now extends far beyond the world of education. These days he advises governments, international agencies and some of the biggest firms in the US.

But his corporate work has only made Robinson more determined in his crusade to bring creativity into schools; to fight against the reforms in England that he claims are stifling it through an "obsession" with a narrow concept of academic ability.

"A lot of these pressures on education are being brought about in the interests of economic competitiveness," he says. "But when you speak to people in business they complain that kids coming out of schools can't come up with a fresh idea.

"They want them to be creative, they want them to be adaptable, they want them to be able to innovate and work in teams - all the things that these reflex policies in education tend to hamper. Ironically, people in business think it's all the fault of teachers who don't want to do it."

It was the internet that really shot Robinson into the stratosphere. The talk he gave at the 2006 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference on "How schools kill creativity" has been viewed online more than 250 million times, he notes proudly.

"I have had fantastic feedback from those talks, fantastic. I had a teacher come up to me the other week in Austin (Texas) and she said, `I saw your TED talks and I realised that what I was teaching was kind of dull and repetitive' - she was 55 - `and I was determined that I was going to try something different. I have changed my whole way of teaching.'"

That ability to inspire has given Robinson an influence that now reaches further than teachers and those running education, right into the mainstream.

A Vanity Fair profile this summer describes the uploading of his TED talk to the internet as the "moment when our crisis in education reached a critical mass". "In just 19 minutes, his wry but eviscerating presentation gave voice to what so many of us are living through," it says: "(That) we're failing to prepare the next generation for the challenges that lie ahead."

As if to confirm his status, on the morning of this meeting in a central London hotel, Robinson reveals he is about to record a yet-to-be-aired edition of Desert Island Discs for Radio 4.

Small talk over, he is swift to resume the attack on education policy in England that he began at the RSA, when he condemned the government minister in charge of it, Michael Gove, as dangerous and rude.

A newspaper story suggesting that ministers had plans to turn academies and free schools, independently run but not-for-profit state schools, into profit-making businesses - since denied - only confirmed Robinson's suspicions as to what the government is up to.

"There is clearly a strong agenda there but they haven't been clear about it. I think it is an election issue," he says. "If you are going to break up the state school system you ought to get the electorate's opinion because it is an untested proposition. There are private schools and consortia created all over the place but they are not necessarily any better than state schools. Charter schools aren't any better than public schools, in America."

Such views have made Robinson a target for the champions of a more diverse state school system, rapidly becoming the new educational establishment on both sides of the Atlantic.

One US supporter of charter schools tweeted this summer that "Robinson is nature's gift to lazy teachers and schools who expect nothing from kids of the poor".

British free school founder Toby Young used the same forum to claim: "Ken Robinson isn't a reformer. He's a creative defender of educational orthodoxy."

It seems a strange charge to level against a man who rails against the status quo which, he argues, is a factory model of education where the dominant culture is one of testing rather than teaching. "I am not pushing a theory," Robinson stresses. "I am reporting on what I know - and lots of other people know - actually works."

Watch or listen to him and it is easy to understand Robinson's success. He is funny, entertaining and insightful, using a powerful mixture of thought-provoking anecdote and analogy that leaves audiences questioning long-held mindsets and enthusing about how they might change things. He is, in short, a brilliant speaker.

But that has not prevented a backlash. And it goes deeper than simple political point scoring. Teachers initially dazzled by his lectures have later given thoughtful responses that question whether the witticisms and seeming insights amount to anything of substance that they could use in the classroom.

Robinson's RSA talk this summer is unlikely to have reassured such sceptics. After repeating his claim that schools are holding back children's natural appetite for learning, he ran through other well-worn concepts, including personalised learning, learning styles and teachers as facilitators.

It was all done with panache but it did occasionally leave you wondering, "And?" Particularly the seemingly obvious statement that: "If we really want education to be effective we have to focus on teaching and learning."

Fulfilling that role had made teachers as "influential in their world" as policymakers, Robinson told his listeners, and key to a "revolution" that had already started "from the ground up".

But the big question left hanging was: "How?" Robinson offered some examples, such as schools in Texas where students were being given iPads and tablet devices instead of textbooks. But when TES asks now how, exactly, he thinks that computers will change the way children are taught, Robinson admits: "The truth is that it remains to be seen."

And what about his central point that teachers should use their freedom and take control of education by creating their own "microclimates"? Isn't Gove encouraging just that through the autonomy being given to free schools and academies?

"Well, from what I understand, that is true of academies; and I think more than half of secondary schools have gone in that direction, haven't they, in order to become free of the national curriculum," he responds.

"It strikes me - and I almost look as an outsider these days because I live in the States - as very odd that you have these two groups of schools: one is completely under the constraints of the national curriculum and the second is let loose from it."

That outsider status can give further ammunition to critics who like to dismiss Robinson's views by pointing out that he has "never been a teacher".

"It is not true," he says. "I was trained as a teacher and went into drama teaching; I qualified for that. I got into research work quite quickly and that has always been school-based.

"I have worked with teachers in schools, worked with kids in schools, in lots of different settings. At Warwick (University), I was running a teacher-training programme, and I've spent most of my life running teacher programmes. And it is the fact that I worked so much in schools, and with teachers, that makes me feel so confident in saying that this isn't a theory."

School visits

So does his lecturing, writing and consultancy work leave him much time to continue visiting schools?

"It varies a lot. I try to do as much as I can." Robinson goes on to mention a Los Angeles school he visited the previous week - one of two in the US highlighted in his RSA talk.

So is he going to see any schools in England on this visit? "Not on this trip, no," he says, explaining that he is using his few days in the UK to have a holiday.

In person, the 63-year-old is every bit as affable as his talks would suggest, although he is professional as well, requesting a mention of his new book, Finding Your Element.

But occasionally he bristles: for example, at critics' suggestion that by encouraging schools to develop their students' creativity, he is downgrading their opportunity to be taught their cultural inheritance.

"This isn't some luxury," Robinson stresses. "What I am talking about are more effective processes of learning. It is not instead of. When people tell me what I think and it's bullshit, then I get impatient with that. Look at the internet - check out the stuff I have been writing for the past 40 years."

Look elsewhere on the internet and there is also plenty of evidence of the millions of teachers inspired by Robinson, and it is their testimony and comments that convince him he is still on the right track.

"If I had teachers all round the world saying, `What is this nonsense you have been saying?' then ." he says. "But, actually, I have had teachers lining up and saying, `Thank you for saying this because that is the reality of the life we're leading and the work that we do.'

"I am a passionate advocate for teachers and that is the biggest level of support I get."

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