Review - Books - Flick the switch

13th May 2011 at 01:00

Out of Our Minds

By Ken Robinson



Back in 1998, the then plain old Ken Robinson (he did not receive his knighthood until a few years later) chaired a government-commissioned inquiry which found that England's prescriptive education system was stifling the creativity of teachers and their pupils.

His report outlined the paradox at the heart of most education systems in the developed world in the latter part of the 20th century. This was a place where companies and organisations were competing in an economic and technological climate that appeared to be moving faster than ever. These businesses urgently needed creative, innovative and flexible employees but all too often couldn't find them, despite the billions of public funds developed economies were spending on education and training.

Why was this^? The first edition of Out of Our Minds in 2001 was Robinson's attempt to find some answers. The updated 2011 version - in the introduction he is keen to stress that this edition has been radically revised - frames the debate about creativity and educational outcomes in a way that will resonate with many of Britain's education leaders and policy makers, as well as teachers, parents and pupils.

According to Robinson, instead of getting better, if anything the situation today is worse than it was when the first edition of Out of Our Minds was published. He argues that our approaches to education are stifling the development of the most important skills that young people now need to make their way in the increasingly demanding modern world: the power of creative thinking.

"All children start their school careers with sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think," he says. "Most students never get to explore the full range of their abilities and interests... Education is the system that's supposed to develop our natural abilities and enable us to make our way in the world. Instead, it is stifling the individual talents and abilities of too many students and killing their motivation to learn."

He argues that too many state education systems are trying to fix a problem that originates in schools and universities. Most people leave education with no idea of what their real abilities are. Rather refreshingly in my view, Robinson refuses to blame teachers for the lack of creativity in schools. He argues that the fault lies with the linear school systems adopted by most developed nations, systems that are all too often needlessly obsessed with rigid structures and hierarchies.

According to Robinson, we need to eliminate the existing hierarchy of subjects because the elevation of some disciplines over others only serves to reinforce outmoded assumptions of industrialism and offends the principle of diversity. He passionately puts the case that art, science, humanities, physical education, languages and mathematics contribute equally to an individual's education and development.

With echoes of the Rose review of the primary curriculum, Robinson questions the validity of teaching separate subjects at school level and makes the case for schools being allowed to base their curriculum on themes.

School curriculums should be more personalised, he argues, stating that "learning happens in the minds and souls, not in the databases of multiple-choice tests". He is tired of calls for education systems to be reformed. For Robinson, reform is not the answer. Only an urgent transformation of the present outdated systems will secure the changes necessary to equip young people with the skills that are required in the modern, digital age.

I found myself in agreement with almost all the content of this book and am confident that the majority of teachers and school leaders will enjoy reading this inspiring and witty volume. It contains excellent anecdotes and offers a critique of the English Baccalaureate.

Though masterly at identifying the problem, it seems to me that Robinson is less effective in proposing concrete solutions as to how we should set about changing the education paradigm. He challenges the decision-makers to move away from constantly seeking to "tweak the recipe" and challenges them to be bold enough to propose a whole new recipe instead.

This is fine, but he fails to articulate what this new recipe will contain. He hints at, but never states, what the key ingredients might be. In fairness, he might well argue that an overly prescriptive approach to education and to schooling in particular is what has helped to ensure the dearth of creativity in the first place. He seems keener on creating school systems that holds practitioners to account for outcomes but not for processes.

The new, revised edition of Out of Our Minds is a book with the potential to be a catalyst for system-wide change.

About the author Sir Ken Robinson

Sir Ken Robinson was born in Liverpool and completed a PhD in drama in education, before becoming director of the Arts in Schools project and then professor of arts education at Warwick University. His 1998 commission into creativity and education led to the report All Our Futures. He was knighted in 2003 and is now an international speaker and adviser on the arts in education.

The verdict: 910.

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