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"Learning is always a personal process; it’s a personal act, and great teachers understand that."
1 April 2012

Sir Ken Robinson is an education reformer

Interview by Patrick Pittman
Photography by Michael Czerwonka

Patrick Pittman on Sir Ken Robinson

School is broken. Like health systems perpetually “in crisis”, it is a reliable truth of the Western world that our education systems will always fall short. Despite a century and more of Steiners and Montessoris and Unschoolers scratching at the edges for new ways and better ways, we in the mainstream remain stuck not more than a few feet from the Three Rs.

As it was true in Victorian times, as it was true in the 1950s, so it is true now—they fuck you up, your English teacher and your Maths teacher. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you.

Sir Ken Robinson has never been much of a one for accepting the status quo, either of the system or of the self. There can be no more popular evangelist for the place of creativity in education than he. Though I’m speaking to him in Los Angeles, the passion, velocity and wicked humour of his speech betray his Liverpudlian roots. In his decades of vocal advocacy, through Britain, the US and across the globe, he’s picked himself up a knighthood, published several bestselling books, including The Element and Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, and had over 200 million people watch his 2006 and 2010 TED conference talks.

Imagine, if you will, a room full of depressed teachers, long-since broken by the system, suddenly compelled to jump on their desks and shout ‘O Captain! My Captain!’, and you’ll have some idea of the energy and direction Sir Ken brings to any conversation on education reform.

I was one of those rare people who received a radical education in a government school long-since torn down. For me, the idea of passionate teachers and liberated students seemed normal. I remember the English teacher who would walk into class, waving street press at us, listing the gigs we weren’t old enough to get into. The computing class where we were allowed to drink coffee while coding elaborate games of Hangman. Kids with torn jeans and electric-blue hair sneaking out across the oval in their Jane’s Addiction t-shirts, the blind-eyes of teachers turned to the ziploc bags peeking from Smashing Pumpkins-emblazoned canvas satchels. The stupidly high marks we all got in our exams.

As with many things, it’s not until you reach adulthood and compare notes with the others who made it through that you realise that was not how it was supposed to be. The older I get, the more often I find the conversation returning to the schoolyard. To the people that shaped us, to the teachers that stifled us, to the teachers who liberated us.

When we speak, Sir Ken and I are both in Los Angeles, though on opposite sides of the city. He doesn’t get much time to stop at home, and he jokes of needing to wear a name badge for his children, what with the life spent on the road—he is worried that if we were to do the interview in person, it would involve too much wine, and he wouldn’t be quite in the right state for the hundreds of people he had to speak to in the afternoon.

This story originally ran in issue #31 of Dumbo Feather

PATRICK PITTMAN: You say that education dislocates people from their natural talents. How did you come to believe that?

SIR KEN ROBINSON: I’ve always been struck by the fact that all people have amazing natural abilities and talents. To be a human being at all is to be an example of tremendous diversity, of tremendous ability.

I’m from a large family; I’m one of seven; I grew up in Liverpool, in a large working-class area of the city; we have a large extended family—my mother was one of seven, my dad was one of six; we had dozens of cousins. The house was always very busy and full and very funny. People are very different, very, and that diversity is a key principle of human life.

There were more specific things I suppose. I’ve only recently begun to think about it—I tend not to psychologise these things, as it’s very hard to draw a straight line between one event in your life and your overall dispositions—but there’s a cumulative effect. I got polio when I was four, and I went to a special school—a school for the physically handicapped, as you used to call them—from when I was five until I was eleven. I was surrounded by kids with all kinds of physical issues—people with polio, people with cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus, all kinds of things. But, as children, we never dwelt on anybody’s disability. It wasn’t a matter of any interest to us. We were drawn to people if they were interesting, by their take on what was going on around them. If they were funny, if they were into something that you found intriguing; it’s just the natural way that you get to know people in a way that the teachers don’t necessarily get to know them, or even their parents don’t get to know them when they’re a kid. You learn about other people’s interests, the hobbies that fascinate them, their different lines of inquiry.

I’ve always thought of people as being multidimensional, and the more that I think about it, I know that’s the case. Formal education can only ever really touch a bit of it. Of course, a lot of education is very uniform and organised to get particular things done, and

This story originally ran in issue #31 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #31 of Dumbo Feather

I was always struck by the fact that a lot of people I knew, who were very smart and bright, didn’t enjoy being at school and didn’t do very well.

I don’t mean none of them did, I knew some people at school who aced everything and were brilliant people at what the school wanted them to be good at. It was an accumulating impression, that schools often missed entirely what turned people on and what made them who they were. In any case, they were only, and necessarily at that time, focussed on a very narrow band of ability and intelligence. I didn’t formalise any of that until much later on, but it was just an impression I had, that there was much more to people than schools revealed.

I would imagine you had an informal need to vocalise that somehow.

Some of it was quite personal. My brothers and my sister were very interesting and smart people, but they didn’t like the particular schools they went to. My eldest brother Keith passed the exam called the thirteen-plus, which took him to a grammar school, but he didn’t pursue it, because there was a whole culture at the school—I’m not blaming teachers by the way, but there was a culture around at the time—that if you drilled down into academic work, you were thought to be a bit nerdy. That’s the case in the part of the Liverpool we were in, so he left school quite early. He could have gone on, and absolutely these days he’d have gone on to do something else.

My brother Derek, my second-oldest brother, he was absolutely brilliant at car mechanics. Brilliant. As a twelve-year old, he was always stripping engines down. And putting them back together—that’s the smart bit.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure I could take one apart.

We can all take them to bits, but he could put them back together again. And they worked beautifully. He was fascinated by them—he was always drawing pictures of engines, and our back yard was full of dismantled bits and pieces. He was hopeless at school; he didn’t like it at all, and he was in trouble constantly with the very teachers who used to bring their motorbikes around at the weekend and have him fix them. He was also a very talented natural musician—he played the ukelele, he played the banjo, he played piano. He never had any lessons, but he made his living for years as a professional musician. None of that was picked up at school nor seen to be relevant to us.

This was the general backdrop that you take in as a kid, that here were very talented people who weren’t particularly flourishing at school. It was only later on when I took a more formal interest in these things. I got particularly interested in the place of Drama in schools; we’d done some plays at school but they were all extra-curricular. I’d rather enjoyed them—I’d been in a few of them, I’d stage-managed, and at one point, I actually directed a play at the suggestion of one of the teachers. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life—I hadn’t any idea at all—but the one thing that did interest me was putting plays on; my head teacher suggested I might train to teach English and Drama, and I hadn’t even thought about it. Anyway, that’s what I did: I went off to a great college called Breton Hall, and while I was there, I just got interested in the place of Drama, and started to do a bit of research around it. Eventually, when I left that, I did a PhD in that field.

It was really as I started to study education that these largely incoherent, half-formed impressions started to come into sharper focus.

I thought that there were reasons why it was like this—state education is an artifice; it was put together by people with intentions at a particular time in history, within a particular context; it was never intended to develop everybody’s talents. It was a massive piece of social engineering based on certain economic and class assumptions. I started to separate out some of these strands and began to see, in my own mind at least, that some of these divisions and disadvantages weren’t accidental, they were structural. There was a form of education for people who were intended to go on and do professional or administrative work, and a different sort for people who were meant to be doing manual and blue collar work, and it was a plan. The loss of talent, the oversight of talent, was not accidental. It was deliberate.

What you were talking about with your brother pulling apart the engine, that innate instinct to do these things, is a recurring theme in your work. I was talking to a composer the other day, and he recalled that he was composing before he even knew what that was, before there was a word for it; from as young as he could remember, he was moving things around in his head and creating compositions. He hadn’t been told what that was, and had no technical knowledge of what he was doing, and yet this one talent was there, and it was clear.

We all do have these talents and abilities that may show themselves, often quite early on. But it isn’t always the case. Very many people go through their lives not knowing at all what they might be capable of, and maybe never discovering what their true talents or interests might be.

That was the theme of The Element, that some people live lives where they feel that they’ve absolutely discovered their own authentic purposes and talents, and love what they do, and very many people go through their entire lives feeling more-or-less disengaged; they endure their lives rather than enjoy them. You would hope that education would be one of the means by which people would discover their talents, but it’s not generally true, and it’s partly because of the way the systems originated, but it’s also because of the way they now operate in practice.

I’m not trying to offer a simplistic view of this; there are all kinds of ways in which the best intentions get befuddled in practice. The signal gets weaker, the further it travels from the centre.

There have always been wonderful schools, and there have always been fantastic teachers, but what I’m pitching against is the dominant culture of education.

There are great schools often despite the system; there are great teachers in spite of it all. There aren’t enough incentives in education to encourage the big cultural shift that I believe we have to see if education is to do the right thing by the most people.

If you’re thinking about the structure of scientific or educational revolutions, eventually the good idea or the better idea will be so compelling as to win out. But I want to talk practically about what that does mean, to turn education on its head. It’s not, as you say, that we need better teachers—we could always do with more, but there are great teachers, and they work within systems that are bigger than them. Don’t systems, by their nature, encourage mediocrity?

No I don’t think they necessarily do. I’m not arguing against systems. You need them in the end; things need to be organised. In a book I wrote called Out of Our Minds, I quote the work of a theatre director called Peter Brook, who published a book a long time ago called The Empty Space. Peter Brook is one of the world’s leading theatre directors, whose interest is in making theatre as compelling as can be, and his experience is that most theatre productions are not that. They pass the time, they pass the evening, but it would have passed anyway. He says they are entertainments, they are not really sources of transformational experience, and that’s what he’s interested in. He says, if we’re to make theatre the most powerful experience it can be, what would that involve?

Well, he says, let’s begin by defining what we’re talking about; to try to say what theatre is, he performs a very brief thought experiment. Essentially, he asks, what could you take away from a theatre production and still have theatre? You could take away the curtains, you could take away the script, you could certainly get rid of the director, the lighting crew, and the costumes—you don’t need any of that stuff. You could get rid of the stage, you could actually get rid of the building; you don’t need any of it. There are very successful theatre productions with none of those things. The only thing you can’t get rid of and still have theatre is an actor, in a space, and somebody watching. And it’s that relationship of an audience with an actor that is theatre. The actor performs a drama, but the relationship is theatre. You can have that in the middle of the street, and you often do. That’s what we’re talking about, that relationship, and we shouldn’t add anything to it unless it improves it.

The analogy to education is very strong, because at the heart of education is the relationship between a teacher and a learner. Over time, all kinds of things have been added to it, as it’s become systematised, so we have timetables and curricula and syllabuses and political policies and standardised testing regimes in the interests of publishers, in the interests of unions, in the interests of architects—it goes on, and on, and on. All these different interests have accreted around the process of education and become mistaken for it, so people, when they talk about education, talk about the system, as if that is education. Well, education is what happens between teachers and learners, and if that isn’t happening, then there’s no education going on. There may be something else happening, but it’s not education. You could get rid of all of it and still have great education.

One of the key things for me is that all education is personal. It’s a very simple point to make, but every student in the system, from kindergarten through to adult education, has a life and a biography and a set of motivations and interests and values and possibilities, and each one of them is observing the system they’re going through and deciding to be in it or out of it—part of it, close in, far away from the centre—they’re just like you and me. They are constantly evaluating their relationship with what’s happening to them. You can’t engage the talents of individuals if you’re distracted by other interests. I’m not saying that we should only teach things that are in the heartland of each person’s individual passion; there are all kinds of things we all need to learn anyway, which may or may not be of passionate interest to us. There are cultural things we need to know about, and things we need to know about how the world operates, about living in communities, and all of that.

But learning is always a personal process; it’s a personal act, and great teachers understand that. They look into students’ eyes, they see who they are and how they think and they tailor what they’re doing to that individual.

The reason so many people disengage with education or pull out of it is, precisely like my brother Derek, they don’t work from where he is, they educate from the outside in rather than try to work from the inside out. That’s where the system starts to break down. It becomes impersonal. It becomes a great processing system, and that’s particularly been exacerbated by this culture of standardised testing that you see everywhere now. It’s all about getting through the test, getting the numbers up.

I was at a meeting a while ago in Los Angeles about alternative education. I always find it intriguing, because alternative education schemes are schemes aiming to get kids back into school who’ve dropped out or fallen through the cracks, and they all have common features. They are based on a personalised curriculum, they’re based on fairly small class sizes to encourage close relationships between the teachers and the students, they’re often based on group work, collaborative work, links with the community and so on. It interests me that this is called alternative education, because that’s education at its best, because it’s personalised. If education had been personalised in the first place, a lot of these kids wouldn’t have dropped out. It’s not the fact of a system that’s the big issue, it’s how the logic of a system starts to pull away from the interests of individuals.

I guess it’s important to note with that that you’re not just talking about the individual as in the student, but also the teacher.

Right. When you say there are lots of good teachers, there are. I don’t think there are enough. I’ve been doing a lot of book signings for The Element. You get about a minute with somebody if you’re doing a book signing, particularly if there’s a long line, so I ask them what they do, and I ask them if they like it.

Very often, people, spontaneously, no matter what they do, will say ‘I love it’. And their face will light up. It could be teaching kindergarten, it could be being a fireman, it could be being a lab technician—it doesn’t matter what it is, but you can tell right away that they are genuine about that. Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s okay,’ then you know that they’re not doing what they should be doing, or they’re not doing it in the right place. I always encourage them to keep looking.

Often, with teachers, I get that—many will say they love it, but every now and again, I’ll get one that says, ‘Oh, it’s fine.’ And I always say, if you don’t enjoy teaching, don’t do it. You’re not a bad person, you’re probably just not a good teacher.

There is no more important role in education than teaching, of course not, and there are some people who just drift into it; they don’t particularly like it. We all know who they are; we feel it when they come in to the room.

When a teacher comes in who loves what they do and realises that the job is not just to teach the subject but to teach the students, then it’s a whole different dynamic. There’s no formula for that.

There’s no particular style of doing it. I had teachers at school who were chalk-and-cheese, they were so different. I had a teacher at grammar school who was, probably, the best English teacher I ever had. When he came in, he said that his aim was to make us understand that Shakespeare was the greatest writer who had ever lived. So I said, okay. And that Antony and Cleopatra was the greatest play he ever wrote. Okay, we can work with you on that. His name was Dr Bailey, and a few things struck me about him. One of them was that he was called Doctor—how do you become a doctor when you don’t practice medicine? Secondly, he always wore an academic gown—this is in the 1960s. Third, he was blind, so he couldn’t read books in any conventional way. He used to come in and give us long notes. We’d have conversations, but then as we got near exams, he’d give us notes. He had all his notes on rolls of paper, the sort of rolls that you have in a calculator. He’d have them on a wooden spool, he’d pull the paper under his fingers, and read out these copious notes and his observations about these different plays, and we’d write them all down. He’d do it at dictation speed. It wasn’t the most efficient way to do it—he could have just given a handout—but there was something compelling about seeing him do it, listening to his voice, and feeling his passion and depth of sensibility for these plays.

We had other teachers who were just a laugh a minute—they’d tell us jokes all the time, they’d be getting into knockabout comedy with us. There’s no one style of teaching that’s compelling, but what is compelling is when you sense that people love what they’re doing, and they’re keen for you to understand it too, and that they’re willing to connect with you. It’s in that respect that teaching is not a delivery system, it’s an art form; it is the principle way in which we can achieve what I’m talking about. It’s the main way that you personalise education, by having a teacher in front of you who is anxious to engage your imagination and your sensibility, and to excite you with the things that they find exciting.

And you don’t need to upend an entire system to show teachers how to do that within the frameworks that they have.

No, you don’t. You can have revolutionary movements which are focussed rather than comprehensive, and when I talk about a revolution in education, I’m not suggesting that we shut all schools down and get rid of all publishing companies and abolish every form of testing, because some of those things have, and continue to have, an important place. But it’s about readjusting the relationships between all of them, and certainly attacking some of the central tenets of the system, which are premised on an industrial model of education.

We need more of an agricultural model of education, one that recognises that we are dealing with people who are organic and that we should be applying principles of ecology into schools, and that we should be recognising the job of education is to create a climate in which people learn enthusiastically, and with confidence, and that the starting point for great education is to engage people’s imaginations, their talents and their passions. To do that, we need to start from the other end. We don’t go to the far end of standardised testing and say, ‘Well, the problem is that we need better tests.’ We have to go to where the action actually happens; we need better classrooms, we need better teachers, we need conditions under which teachers can be creative, under which they can organise the culture of their own classrooms and their own schools in a way that takes account of people who are actually there and present in it. That’s the kind of revolution I’m interested in.

There’s no one style of teaching that’s compelling, but what is compelling is when you sense that people love what they’re doing, and they’re keen for you to understand it too, and that they’re willing to connect with you.
Ken Robinson

There are so, so many things I want to talk to you about, and I’m going to avoid all of my questions on Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity, because you have no time, as tempted as I am, so I’ll keep us away from the rabbit holes as we finish up. Your TED talks have reached hundreds of millions of viewers, and your message is spreading rapidly through those videos. It seems in some ways that this success is a vindication of your philosophy of education—it’s you, in a room, with an audience. And it connects.

I am of course devastatingly attractive, and that’s going to play into it in a big way. But that success comes down to a couple of things. One is the message itself, which resonates with a lot of people. I don’t think that what I’m saying is new at all; I’ve been in education my whole life, I was born in 1950, so I’m sixty-one now, and I was talking about this stuff when I was eighteen. The first book I was involved in was published in 1977, called Learning Through Drama.

I’ve worked with school systems, with schools, I’ve trained teachers, I ran a university department, I’ve helped set up academies, I’ve done a lot of of stuff. I’ve worked with educators, everywhere, all around the planet, all my life. These principles of having a more holistic approach to education, of personalising education, of needing a broad curriculum, of needing a more descriptive approach to assessment, and therefore needing to think about training teachers in particular ways, they’re not new ideas, they’re not new to me, and they weren’t new when I was getting engaged in them.

There’s a long history of people who have been arguing for this, ever since the beginning of state education, and earlier than that. It’s a pretty heterogenous bunch of people, but it would include the Progressive movement in education in the twentieth century, it would include Montesorri, Dewey, Steiner. I don’t mean to say they’re all arguing for the same thing, but back to Rousseau and beyond, they’re arguing for a holistic approach to education, which takes account not just of what we’re seeing of conventional academic ability, but of spiritual development, of emotional development, and how all these things interconnect.

I’ve been immersed in those discussions since I can remember and have been arguing for them for as long as I can remember, and I know that people who work in education at all levels recognise these ideas and they resonate with them. They’ve just become muted over the past number of years because of the politicisation of education and the standard of education, so I feel that I’m channeling a bigger argument on behalf of a large community of people. The response to the talks, particularly the first one, simply proves the point that these arguments resonate with people all over the world. Literally, the talks have been seen by over 250 million people in 150 countries, and I get emails all the time, I get them from kids, parents, I have parents contact me and say, ‘My kids showed me this, I had to watch this’, I have teachers saying that pupils showed them this, I have pupils saying the teacher showed them this. I think that one point is that it’s true. Just that. It’s true. What I’m saying is true, and people understand it. It resonates; they feel it personally. That’s the key thing to me about this Patrick—I so often get people saying ‘I feel like you’re talking to me.’ And I am. That’s the truth of it.

It’s a small argument in the sense that it’s an individual argument, but it’s also a global argument. These principles are not becoming less important; they’re becoming more important the more complicated and overcrowded and faster-paced the world becomes. This is a big issue, as well as an individual issue. There’s a quote from HG Wells—he said that civilisation is ‘a race between education and catastrophe.’ I think that’s true, and there’s a sense that catastrophe may be racing out in front at the moment, so I think that’s part of it—the message resonates.

The second thing is, it’s the style of the presentation. I’m sure that the talks are funny, and entertaining, and that’s not so much a strategy on my part, it’s just who I am. If I get in front of a room full of people, I want to interest them, and I find stuff funny, I grew up in Liverpool around people who are very funny, who are constantly taking the piss out of things. My family’s hysterical, and to survive in the city at all, you have to be quick. It’s just a sensibility, and my instinct. I take it all very seriously, but I don’t take myself terribly seriously in the middle of it all.

I’ve always been asked to talk about these things ever since I was twenty, when I started running projects of various sorts, and I was invited to talk about them. The thing about TED is, that thing about being an overnight success, you’ve been doing it for thirty-five years and suddenly it’s an overnight thing, but you have eighteen minutes, and I remember the first TED talk, I was wandering around asking what I could reasonably say in eighteen minutes. I’ve led government inquiries on these things, I’ve written books about it, I’ve thought about it, and not just me, but lots of others besides, but you think, well, in eighteen minutes, all you can really do is get three or four points over, and hope that people listen to you. You have to appeal to their hearts as well as their minds, but all that’s just instinct. I think it’s just those two things. It resonates and, if I can talk about myself objectively, they’re just engaging and entertaining presentations. And don’t even get me onto my profile, Patrick, and fashion sense. Don’t even start talking to me about that.

Patrick Pittman

Patrick is a writer, editor, broadcaster, former editor of Dumbo Feather and one-time nightshift carer of a supercomputer. More at patrickpittman.com

Photography by Michael Czerwonka

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