Reach for Michelin stars, not McSchools

19th June 2009 at 01:00
A decade after his inquiry into creativity in education, Sir Ken Robinson fears innovation is still being stifled

I believe most adults have no idea they are creative at anything, and in many cases it is because of how they were educated. I don't say this as a criticism of teachers. There are many wonderful teachers who do extraordinary work in great schools everywhere.

The problem lies in our education system, which was developed in the 19th century to meet the needs of industrialism and is based on the organisational principles of manufacturing and the intellectual culture of universities.

And all attempts to reform the system are doomed. It is like trying to improve the steam engine. We need a radically different sort of education for the 21st century, as our children face challenges that are without precedent.

Ten years ago, a group of us tried to address those challenges and take the Government's clear interest in creativity a step forward. I felt that if the Government was serious about creativity, it should have a strategy. We have had strategies for literacy and numeracy - it's not as if the national policy is to parachute a lot of calculators outside schools and hope somebody takes an interest in maths.

The problem, I think, is that many policymakers have an ambivalent attitude to the concept of creativity. They think it's important, but they are worried about it because it sounds untidy; it sounds like people running around knocking down the furniture.

At the invitation of ministers, our team was composed of an interesting and eclectic group of artists, scientists and business people. We were set the task of devising a national strategy for creativity in education. This became the All Our Futures report.

Our starting point was that everyone is creative. All human beings are born with immense creative capacities; the problem is how to develop them. In just the same way, all children are born with immense linguistic capacities. If a child is born into a house where six languages are spoken, they just pick them up. They don't reach a point at the age of three where they say: "Keep grandma out of here. I can't handle one more regional dialect."

But these extraordinary capacities tend to atrophy as children get older if they are not cultivated.

Our second contention was that creativity isn't just about the arts. You can be creative at anything - science, maths, technology - anything that involves your intelligence.

Third, it is a misconception that you can't teach people to be creative; there is a lot you can do to develop people's creative capacities.

We defined creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. But it is hard to have fresh ideas if you grow up in an education culture that is obsessed with standardisation.

Some standardised tests are necessary, such as medical check-ups. If I have a cholesterol test, I don't want my doctor to give me the result in a scale he just made up in the car on the way to our appointment: "Your cholesterol is what I call level orange."

There are standards in all disciplines and it is reasonable to test against them. But that doesn't give you an effective pedagogy. It simply gives you diagnostic information to show you what your next move might be.

We had a lot to say about assessment because, in the end, you can't promote innovation and creativity in a culture that values a single answer.

Think of catering as analogous to education. In catering, generally, there are two models of quality assurance. One is standardisation. This is the model that underpins the fast food industry. Wherever you go on the planet, your favourite fast food chain serves the same burger, the same bun, the same chips, the same chicken nuggets. It's all standardised, it's all horrible and it's contributing to the worst epidemic of diabetes in the history of the planet. But the quality - such as it is - is guaranteed.

The other method of quality assurance in catering is the Michelin Guide. It doesn't tell the proprietors what to put on the menu, when to open, or how to decorate. It just says: "These are the criteria for a great restaurant. If you meet them, you'll get in." As a consequence, every Michelin restaurant is fantastic and different because each one is customised to local circumstances.

All the great schools in Britain are great for that same reason, not because they are standardised, but because they are customised to their children, their circumstances, their teachers and their community. This is really important.

Not just in Britain, but internationally there is a terrible tendency to confuse reforming education with bailing out the motorcar industry. It is seen as a manufacturing process that has to be streamlined; we have to cut the waste and standardise everything. The difference is cars have no interest in the means of their production, but children do. It matters to them how they are educated and if anybody looks into their eyes to see who they are and if they understand what is being taught.

And for that we need a curriculum that's full and rich and diverse, with high standards - not a curriculum focused on only certain types of achievement because that inherently marginalises many kids who would benefit if we only had a different view of intelligence and ability.

We weren't arguing for tinkering with the system; we were arguing for long-term, transformative policies. Because the old system is locked into an old culture - and we need a new culture for the 21st century. Kids starting school this year will be retiring in 2070.

I think it's a real concern that every time something like Sir Jim Rose's report on the primary curriculum comes out, the old battle lines get drawn up immediately. I find it interesting, when I come back to Britain [from the United States], that almost every conversation is code for some class argument - for grammar schools versus comprehensives. As a generation of educators, we owe it to children to change the conversation.

And somebody needs to take another look at creativity in education. If I were to republish our report, the main change I would make would simply be to put the whole thing in bold, add some more exclamation marks and say "Can we please DO this!"

This is an edited version of a speech marking the 10th anniversary of All Our Futures. For further information, visit

Sir Ken Robinson led the All Our Futures report and is the author of 'The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything'.

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