A Conversation with Sir Ken Robinson

Recently, I sat down with world-renowned creativity expert and New York Times Best Selling Author, Sir Ken Robinson. We discussed a range of issues including the impact of that talk, as well as the impact on education of standardised tests and the rise of the no excuses approach in schools. We also explored that whilst many subscribe to Sir Ken’s views, there are many who don’t.  We recorded our chat and it is featured in my semi-regular spot in this week’s TER Podcast.

You can listen to our conversation by clicking here, or by using the player below.

Education Social Commentary

[SNEAK PREVIEW] Chatting with Sir Ken Robinson

Last week I presented at the Future Schools event in Melbourne.

As well as speaking across the program, I also facilitated a panel discussion with former Templestowe College principal, Peter Hutton; the CEO of AITSL, Lisa Rodgers and creativity expert and New York Times best selling author, Sir Ken Robinson.

After the event I sat down with Sir Ken for an interview that will feature in next week’s TER Podcast, but until then, here is a sneak preview of what to expect.

Link to the Sneak Preview

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Education Social Commentary

Do Schools Kill Learning?

Ten years ago, a talk by Sir Ken Robinson was published on TED. Having being viewed over 41 million times on TED alone, it has become one of the most – if not the most – viewed TED talk ever.

It was provocatively titled: Do Schools Kill Creativity? 

The popularity of Ken’s talk catapulted him into the Public Speaking Stratosphere, not only in education, but also more broadly with many corporate and multinational organisations engaging him to present to their communities.

Clearly his message resonated. But as his message spread, many took issue with him. Such as Tom Bennett – the UK Government’s Behaviour Tzar and founder of researchED – who in his review of Robinson’s latest book Creative Schools dismissed his TED talk as “a lie” and dismantled pretty much every argument Robinson has made about the shortcomings of education. The reader is left in little doubt that Bennett is not even on, let alone driving the Robinson Bandwagon. And he’s not alone. A quick online search will turn up plenty of others who take issue with Robinson’s stance.

And I’m all good with that. I have no problem with open debate about ideas.

But the vast number of people who do resonate with Robinson’s message indicates to me that for some, schools did kill their creativity. Or at least that’s how they perceive it. However, for this to be a debate worth having we first need to agree on whether or not creativity is core business for schools, and even if we assume it is, it then begs the questions, “What is Creativity? How do we measure it? How many kids’ creativity is being killed, and is it enough for us to worry about?”

Again, an online search will demonstrate that these questions perpetuate a merry-go-round of arguments, the proponents of which seem disinclined to learn from each others position, and to be honest, the more I see of these arguments, the less inclined I am to engage. And this isn’t a defence of Sir Ken. I doubt he needs me to fight his battles for him.

Rather I’m interested in what might happen if we changed the question.

What if the question was: Do Schools Kill Learning? 

I’d hope that most would agree that learning is core business for schools. And I’d also hope that most would agree that we wouldn’t want too many of our kids leaving in the manner reported by Eryk Bagshaw in the Sydney Morning Herald after the first of this year’s HSC exams:

Rote learnt or not, for the thousands of students who walked out the door on Thursday, many would rather not think about the poetry of Robert Frost ever again, just as those who buried Clueless and Coleridge’s Kubla Khan before them.

I contacted Eryk over Twitter to see how he had come to this position, and his response was:


Imagine, for a second, if that really is the case.

Imagine if, after 13 years of learning the skills required to read, interpret and appreciate poetry, you never wanted to read poetry again.

Now I appreciate that wanting to read poetry is not synonymous with learning, but it must provoke thought about what, why and how we teach and assess – surely?

But imagine if, after 13 years of being in schools that aim to encourage life-long learning, our “best” students who entered tertiary education, felt compelled to cheat – rather than learn – at one of the countries most prestigious medical schools. Can you imagine? Well, you don’t need to.  

A couple of years ago I witnessed first-hand the lack of learning in tertiary education. I was a casual tutor on a Graduate Diploma of Teaching course and I was struck by how many of the 200+ post-grads were focused solely on whether their assessment task was a Pass, Credit, Distinction or High Distinction. Rather than discuss how they might improve their understanding of pedagogy or teaching in general, feedback sessions were dominated by “Yeah, but why did I lose marks?” or “What do I need to do to get a Distinction?” and even occasionally, “Doesn’t matter, I only need a Credit on this one.”

I do wonder if this attitude might be the by-product of the emphasis placed on grades by teachers, parents and students in school. It seems to me that such a focus on performance can sometimes diminish the focus on learning. As Dylan Wiliam suggests, grading work results in students not reading the teacher’s feedback (which one assumes would enhance learning). He argues:

“Students who get high marks feel they don’t need to read the comments, and those who get low marks don’t want to.”

Imagine if one of our most common practices in school was actually diminishing learning.

And can you imagine if students with learning differences believed they were dumb and lazy?

How many of our students leave school feeling they do not need to learn, or in fact they are incapable of learning?

I acknowledge that all the examples I have used in this post – with the exception of Wiliam’s quote – could be described as anecdotal, and I agree that a series of anecdotes does not necessarily an evidence base make. Indeed, one of the arguments made against Ken Robinson is his over-reliance on anecdote.

But, look through the anecdotes I have highlighted.

Do you know anyone who might have a similar tale to tell?

How many readers of this post would have to say, “Yes” before we deemed it appropriate to at least consider the question: Do Schools Kill Learning?

Or perhaps, whilst it might be more confronting, it might be more appropriate – assuming we’re willing to act on the answers – to focus on particular groups of kids in our community and ask, for these youngsters:

Does Our School Kill Learning?


Change Education Leadership Tech & Social Media

When teachers say they’ve not heard of Sir Ken

A couple of weeks ago, I asked a room full of Australian teachers if they’d heard of Sir Ken Robinson. Sir Ken - Do you know who I am

One person tentatively raised their hand – and even then, he didn’t seem too sure.

I was seriously taken aback, not least because I use Sir Ken’s name in some of my promotional material!

Dan has appeared alongside the likes of…

But it got me thinking…  these teachers really haven’t even heard of him?

And just to be clear, I’m not saying we should all be kneeling at the altar of Sir Ken. Whether you agree or disagree with his arguments, hang off his every word or are a bit over the whole creativity thing is really beside the point.

The point is you’ve probably heard of him. But what about your colleagues?

If you’ve landed on this post courtesy of Twitter, I’m betting that you think I’ve made this up – after all Sir Ken has over 200,000 followers, most of them teachers. As if a teacher – let alone a room full of teachers – wouldn’t have heard of him. That’d be like Luke Skywalker not being au fait with Yoda’s body of work. luke and yoda

But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Twitter can be something of an echo chamber – that is – pretty much everyone is saying the same things about education over and over. With the constant reinforcement it’s easy to start thinking that this is how all educators think.

I believe that Twitter and other social media forums are the real drivers of professional learning – for those who connect – but what about the vast majority of teachers who aren’t connected in this way?

How do you spread the word to your less connected colleagues – in a way that genuinely influences the practice of your organisation?

And just in case you don’t know Sir Ken, check out this talk. And by the way, I’ve just been confirmed as a keynote speaker alongside him next year! 🙂

Change Education Engagement & Motivation

Sometimes “successful students” fail themselves…

Last month the Sydney Morning Herald carried an article that suggested that perhaps students chose university courses based on the prestige associated with such courses, rather than what was most appropriate for the individual.

Personally I don’t think this is so surprising… do you?

After all, since Year 1 they have been categorised as either good, average or below average learners, although in Kindergarten, it was probably, butterflies, caterpillars or bumblebees. In the upper echelons of primary school we have the much sought after “Opportunity Classes”. Is this to say the rest have no opportunity?

Get into high school and the distinction is a little less ambiguous. Streamed classes are portrayed as the answer to engaging students… by pushing the smartest, and giving extra assistance to those who need it. And at the peak of the  schools academic mountain we have the 2 Unit, 3 Unit or 4 Unit courses, each with added power to secure that top ATAR, with which to access the hallowed halls of university.

But here is the flip side… by streaming kids, we give them a status. Anyone who has any understanding of adolescent behaviour will tell you that status is the defining currency in the teenage years. In fact it’s not just teenagers. There is a wealth of evidence that says that a lot of adults would prefer an upgrade in their job title (no change in duties) over a pay rise! It seems the need to retain or improve our status is hardwired into us.

But at this particular time in life, to give a child a status that must be protected at all costs (no-one wants to be moved down into the middle set!) is inherently dangerous. In her book “Mindset”, Carol Dweck suggests that some students who are identified as being smart early on in their school careers develop a fixed mindset and do all they can to avoid failure, and maintain their status in the smart group.

Whilst this may appear harmless, what they are doing is working to avoid failure, rather than working to achieve brilliance – and there is a subtle but important difference. No-one achieved anything great by being right all the time.

The PFR Model of Education

Teachers may see such students as being engaged but in reality many are being subjected to an all to common educational model: what I call the “Pressure – Fear – Relief model.”

Pressure from parents, teacher, peers and themselves to perform (maintain their status)

Fear of failure and losing their spot in the smart group.

Relief when the pass the test and gain the accolades that come with maintaining their status.

I touched on this in a post last year (inspired by the work of Tal Ben Shahar) and will continue to explore this further in 2011.

So is it any wonder that after “succeeding” in this system, students will choose university courses based on the highest entry requirements? Isn’t it just a further reinforcement of their status? Add to that the prospect of a high paying job, and all the trappings that come with that… the house, the car, the latest technological gizmos…

But as Sir Ken Robinson often says, “Being good at something, is not a good enough reason to do it.”

I believe that one of the reasons that the incidence of depression continues to rise is that too many people are doing jobs they do not enjoy… sure they are good at them (and they may well pay extraordinarily well), but fundamentally they do not like what they do. And you spend a hell of a long time at work! They simply got on the conveyor belt in Kindergarten and couldn’t get off…

How much time at school is devoted to students learning about themselves, their passions and strengths? Other than academic strengths of course. If schools are genuine in their claims that they “Prepare our students for life”, then there is a moral imperative to start framing our education system (again paraphrasing Sir Ken) not around the question of “How intelligent are our students?” but “How are our students intelligent?” and work with them to discover ways to truly engage in their passions and strengths without fear or favour of labels such as; academic, vocational, non-academic, arts etc…

I argue that if we got this part of education “right” we would see a decrease in the rates of depression in the next decade, and not the actualisation of the World Health Organisation‘s prediction that our current crop of students will face as greater risk from depression as from any other disease by the time they are in their thirties.


I’ll finish with a thought about engagement. It is a word bandied around in education, often without much thought. Teachers will comment on whether students appear engaged, and will often base their evaluation of a lesson based on the students’ level of engagement. Think about what an engaged student looks like… what are they doing?

And then think why do they look like that, and why are they doing what they are doing? Is it because they are under the influence of the PFR model of education? Or are they doing it because they want to do it? Would they want to do the work, even if they didn’t have to?

Now I’m not naive enough to think that every piece of work a class is set would inspire them as such, but it would be nice if more often than not, it did… wouldn’t it?

Think about your own habits at work… are there things you do even though you don’t have to?   I would hazard a guess that it is these activities you truly engage with, and that engagement carries though into other areas of your work, making you a better employee… or employer!

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Education Wellbeing

Study Tour | Week 1 Wrap

                                           It has been a wet, cold but brilliant first week of my tour. I started off in Scunthorpe, one of the most socially deprived areas in the UK. I went to visit two primary schools, Henderson Avenue and Frodingham Infants to see first hand Jenny Fox Eades’ Celebrating Strengths program in action. Having a fairly good theoretical knowledge of the program, I was amazed to see just how well it had been embedded into these schools. In the past I have debated with teachers whether primary aged kids would be able to comprehend the language and concepts that make up the program. In the past some teachers have said to me they felt that Year 5s may struggle with it. Well that was blown out of the water as I witnessed Year 1 and 2 children describing each other as persistent, or courageous and speaking confidently about their own strengths. At Frodingham in particular the program was front and centre of what they did right from the first day of Nursery (UKs equivalent of Kindergarten). If this program can work in Scunthorpe, then I believe it has the potential to work anywhere. If I had been teleported into the school, with no idea of its location, I would not have thought I was in an area with one of the highest levels of crime and unemployment in the country. Any primary teacher interested in a strengths based approach in schools should get in contact with Cath Lloyd (Henderson Ave) or Judith Gray (Frodingham Infants).

Another area of social deprivation is Gateshead in the country’s north-east. Here Bede Community Primary School run a “Creative Curriculum” which Headteacher Nick Anderson wrote in order to make the curriculum as relevant as possible to the students under his charge.

Sir Ken Robinson

Today I had the privilege of meeting and listening to Sir Ken Robinson. As well as listening to an inspirational talk, I was able to chat with him for a few minutes. I put to him my belief that; an education system based on children being able to identify, explore and enhance their passions and strengths (regardless of academia) would help address the depression epidemic that the World Health Organisation is predicting will be the biggest threat to the health of our current Year 7s by the time they are 30 years old. Sir Ken agreed with me… “Absolutely, without question.”  The writers of the Australian national curriculum must ensure that there is room to move within its framework so as to meet the needs of this century not the past two! And if they don’t listen to a Knight then who will they listen to?

What’s next?

Tomorrow I will return to the school I graduated from in 1995.  I have been invited to present an assembly to the current Year 11s on how to find and use their strengths. I’ll also use the opportunity to personally thank one of the teachers who had the biggest influence on me during my time at school.

Next week I’m off to the prestigious Wellington College to see their acclaimed wellbeing curriculum,  as well as meeting Jenny Fox Eades and seeing her work with a school in London and I’m going to a school that is run like a town… I’ll tell you more next week !

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