Sir Ken Robinson, creativity expert globally-known for TED, Ideas Worth Spreading, and educational reform, challenges how we teach our students. His book, the Element, began with classic humor: do you think this chocolate is overdoing it…I smell of chocolate…milk chocolate. Quickly seguing into his keynote, he notes that he lives in America, in Los Angeles, thinking he has moved to the United State. He says that having been to Venice, The Venetian in Vegas is more authentic, but Los Vegas represents something integral about human beings. Things that go on there are representative of human consciousness. Los Vegas represents the power of the imagination to a range of possible futures, the ability to go outside of a place.Our species has the capacity for the power of imagination which will take us into the future, if we do not suppress imagination. We suppress creativity and imagination through education. Most adults have no sense of what their real talents are, what they could be, and they don’t enjoy what they do. They get on with it and endure rather than enjoy their lives. Yet some people love what they do, and describe it as what they are. If you love something, you achieve much within your life because you are fulfilled. They are in their element. They are doing something they are made for, and too few of us are.
This concept is important, because Robinson believes that in education, we divert students from their creativity, their human resources. Kids are dislocated because the system, i.e., schools do note meet and nurture their human resources because we are in a system of education. The system needs to shift in a new direction; not reform but transform it into something else. The hierarchy of subjects are the same almost everywhere. The system is driven by high-stakes testing, rewards, and students and teachers are driven and disaffected. Improving and raising standards does not necessarily improve education, but you need to know what standards to raise and how. Time pressures have been put on schools to narrow the curriculum and perform well in high-stakes tests, and we are told to do this for the economy, for the future. The disconnect is between education and business.
The system has been burdened by others’ agendas. Peter Brook on theater said most theater isn’t worth watching, yet is among the most powerful sites of imagination. He said that if you are interested in theatre, ask yourself what you are talking about–is it entertainment or something else. He performs a thought experiment: what could you subtract from it and still have theater? Actor and audience are the two things needed, and nothing should get in the way of that relationship. The analogy works for education; it has become barnacled and encrusted with testing industry, building, architects, and in the middle of it are kids. If we could throw it all away, we would still have kids trying to learn and teachers who want to help them. We shouldn’t throw any distractions in their way.
Educational reform confuses students with manufacturing systems. You would start someplace else. Transformation of education involves something difficult: questioning what we do. But we live in a world that is transforming every day, a time of revolution unlike anything before, things that are at loose ends like none before. Human life is never straightforward, calm. To meet the tumult, we have to think differently about human talent, think differently about ourselves and education. We need to change our minds about education
Abraham Lincoln in 1862 said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise high with it, not to it. As our case is new we must think anew, act anew, …and then we shall save our country.” When we are enthralled with what we take for granted, we cannot change. We need to get over ourselves.
Teenagers don’t wear wristwatches; they choose not to; they see no reason to. Yet everyone in this audience (save one or two) wears a wristwatch. It’s a thoughtless act; we do it because we have always done it. For kids, time is everywhere on every digital device and kids have grown up with that. As Marc Prensky said, they are digital natives; we are, at best, digital adults.
Our kids grew up in a fast and insistent world. Sir Ken said his daughter asked him why he would wear a one-function device. But the interesting question is what do kids take for granted. On the great scale of things, most cmputers are calculators; they don’t think in any way we find compelling. They are just fast, but within 5 years, computers will have the processing power of a human baby at 5, and we will have crossed the threshold. Computers will be able to rewrite themselves like a human brain. They will eventually be smarter than the entire human race. And it’s coming. Remember the mimeograph machine; how far we have come. Now Google just doesn’t work fast enough, and we get techy about speed of searching.
In education, we are still coping with the Industrial Revolution, and our kids are digital. Population demographics are shifting rapidly, with 6 billion people, doubling exponentially. We have never had such an agglomeration of human on this planet, and the strain on the earth’s natural resources is completely unprecedented. We have new economies emerging, America is being challenged, and the world we knew is changing (almost gone). The Industrial Revolution began in Scotland, but by beginning of 19th century, (Great) Britain dominated the planet, militarily, culturally, educationally, in every way, apart from food. In the court of Queen Victoria, if you had told her that the Empire would finish in a generation, no one would have taken you seriously. Now, by end of WW II and the 1950s, it was gone, finished in a generation because it became complacent. All empires are receding and no one has a guaranteed place at the table.
One of the things that will underpin America’s place in the world depends on education, on the people coming through energized and enabled, but with a 30 percent dropout, we have people who are disengaged. And the problem is global. What can we do? How will we change? In Western cultures, we are drawn to the subject of a thing, because we are drawn to the individual; in Eastern cultures, they are drawn to the collective, the community. There’s a difference in the holiday photos between/among cultures. These habits of mind are unconscious, predating conceptual.
On education: going to school does not mean going to college. We have to stop that idea. Many people should go if they know why and what for, but they should go where they can follow their occupation? Some people want to go to work, or train for something in a practical way. There is a division between academic and vocational, yet what we depend on in our culture is people doing other things, the practical, the vocational. Spending four years wondering about is not a good idea, and kids go to college too soon, before they know what they want.
Our communities depend on a diversity of talent for the vibrancy of lives we lead. People who want a different pathway almost have to resist the opinion of those who move toward being a doctor, lawyer, or professor. Education is linear and tracked by age. like a date of manufacture. That’s what education is: a manufacturing system. “College begins in kindergarten” is the modern philosophy, but Sir Ken reminds us that kindergarten begins in indergarten. Give three year olds a break and don’t interview them at three for the right track kindergarten. What are these parents looking for–scientific infancy?
The (educational) system is designed to meet the needs of manufacturing; we send them to separate facilities. We confuse standardizing with raising standards, the chicken nuggets approach. The food industry is pillaging our natural resources, a standardized manufactured industry. The education is increasingly standardized by all the testing accountability. Zagat restaurants have a set of standards for what a good restaurant should be by criteria, but they are all diverse, not standardized. They are different. In human life, we celebrate diversity, but in education we accept the fast-food model.
In spite of policy, some schools are different (and great). And they are different from each other. Significant differences. The reason so many students drop out is because they are passionate about other things the system does not value, so they drop out. We need to customize education to students, schools, teachers, parents, place. If you succumb to the need to be the same, you succumb. If you are in your element, you are doing something for which you have a natural capacity, the Terrance Towe of UCLA, the Mozart of Math.
Do we find what what we do intoxicating? To be in your element, you do things for which you have a natural aptitude.
- It could be anything, so long as it is your passion and you get it.
- You must love what you do. Being good at is isn’t enough. You won’t enjoy your life.
- Have your own criteria for success; find things that give your life meaning and purpose. If you love what you do, it isn’t work.
- Human talent isn’t always evident; often you have to go looking for it. (Paul McCartney hated music at school and no one thought he had any talent; he was denied the school choir. George Harrison was his schoolmate; no one thought he had any talent. One teacher had half the Beetles in Liverpool in a class and saw no talent).
Human talent turns up in different circumstances and conditions. The job of education is to find and cultivate that growth of talent. You cannot make a plant grow; plants grow themselves. A gardener creates the conditions for growth. Human life is like that. Imagination sets us apart, and we flourish in certain circumstances and conditions. It’s about knowing what turns them on. A healthy organism nurtures itself; in schools we need to re-instate a broader curriculum. NCLB reduced curriculum and testing pressure has impacted science.
Administers need the courage to reinvent the curriculum, and standardized tests only have a role, they are not the end of education. Tests are not the purpose of the assessment; real learning is personalized, and so it the testing. You can throw everything out, but teaching is at the heart of education, and professional development is part of making teachers great. Can we do things differently? We think the answer is yes. There are no facts about the future, but what we can do is invest in our imagination.