Why We Should Mistrust Ken Robinson


Sir Ken – A knight amongst educationalists the world over.

A couple of weeks ago, like millions of other teaching professionals, I watched the latest iteration of Ken Robinson’s celebration of creativity on TED. It reminded me of the first Sir Ken talk which I had the pleasure of watching in Athens…whilst working! Yes, you heard right – I trained to be an International Baccalaureate teacher in the blazing sun of Athens; watching Sir Ken celebrate creativity in a fan-filled Greek classroom for part of that time (those heady days for comprehensive school teachers are long since gone!). Great work if you can get it! Perhaps it was the heat of the midday sun, or the heady scent of sun tan lotion, coupled with the wit and charm of Sir Ken, that made me feel like his words were a sort of watershed for me as a teacher, or education the world over.

I was entranced. I felt determined that a whole new paradigm for schooling was required: the ‘factory model’ of schooling was dead. I felt what I was doing in the classroom was hopelessly ill-fitting for the needs of my students. I was enraptured by his stories of creativity and enriching personalisation. I bought the book (his talks usually precede a book – fair enough, I’m sure he has to pay the bills). I felt myself nodding along with the book, only once I had read it the trance had been broken. I was looking for something like answers for systematic school change, yet all I found were charming individual examples and beguiling prose. I watched the video once or twice more in various professional scenarios and at home. I still laughed. I was still taken by his persuasive argument, yet I had lost the initial spark – like a drunken first-sight infatuation spoiled by the cruel clarity of daylight. The watershed had become little more than a barely perceptible watermark.

Recently I read this article from a link by Geoff Barton entitled ‘Is This Why TED Talks Seem So Convincing?‘. The article was based on the enlightening scientific evidence that a fluent speaker can acutally fool us into thinking we have learnt more than we actually have in comparison to a less fluent speaker – see here. It brought all my frustrations with Sir Ken to the surface. His skilful words and rapturous call for change under warm lights and at the beck and call of a willing crowd had wilted. I was left without any real watershed at all. In fact, it wasn’t Sir Ken who was to blame at all – I had been seduced by the cult of personality – by the promise of change led by such a guru and I was culpable for blame. I had forgotten that the reality of education is a more gritty and compromised state of affairs: with politicians, Unions, teachers and the public all vying for their respective interests, often creating a maelstrom of muddled education policy. Compromises, fractured systems and vested interests abound. No call for creativity by Sir Ken would provide a universal panacea to the grey, ambiguous reality of schooling – whether in sunny Athens, the field of dreams that is California or wet and windy England.

Having recently written a well received blog post on teacher explanations – see here – I began to unpick the fact that Sir Ken’s latest speech was another barn-storming performance. But beyond the frilly knickers of the performance we are left searching for the less aesthetically pleasing undergarments that are the practical answers for change. He includes the memorable analogies – Death Valley in bloom. His charming anecdotes and well-timed wit abound. Only this time I was distinctly less enraptured. The Death Valley image was striking, only the analogy was a little more of the same: a pleasing picture but not an answer. Perhaps Sir Ken just takes the beautiful photo to inspire and that we have to go and work the land, toiling to create the conditions for betterment?

Death Valley in bloom – hopefully not some Hollywood CGI!

On reflection, creativity appears to me a grittier, tougher process than such talks imply. Thousands of hours of ‘deliberate practice’ enable creativity. It is not all ‘flow’ or organic personalisation. For example, repeating the rules of grammar with sometimes deadening repetition can actually create the mastery required for playful creativity and rule breaking. Sir Ken likely scripted and practised his apparently spontaneously witty talk over and over to create his seeming carefree confidence and fluency. The pleasure of finding ‘flow’ is replaced by the dull but reassuring knowledge that perseverance could help make a difference, in a ‘factory model’ school or not.

Ken is undoubtedly a gifted speaker – like most teachers I can’t help but like him- but my infatuation is sadly over. I will take his glamorous TED talks with more than a pinch of salt. I won’t look to edu-gurus like Sir Ken to provide watershed moments. I will prioritise the ideas of my peers at the chalkface. I will attend a TeachMeet or two. I will read a blog or three. But I won’t expect a TED talk to change the world. I will conquer my finite disappointment in finding that Sir Ken’s speeches are nothing like promises and maintain my infinite hope invested in an education system that improves marginally day by day, by gritty perseverance. I will look spend more time looking for answers for teachers by teachers – being healthily wary of the words of eloquent speakers under the glow of cinematic lighting.


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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

35 responses to “Why We Should Mistrust Ken Robinson”

  1. David Didau (@LearningSpy) says :

    Nice analysis. I share your frustations with SKR and wrote this last year: http://learningspy.co.uk/2011/12/01/what-is-it-exactly-that-we-are-supposed-to-be-preparing-pupils-for/
    On reflection, I think I may have been charitable then than I would now! it’s always interesting to see the evolution of my own views and lovely to have an insight into yours.


  2. nikkigilbey says :

    Interesting, the call for change in any area is always inspiring, but it seems that there few who can really create that change at all the levels necessary. It’s right that education should be driven by teachers and not just administrators, but who is going to do something about it? Not SKR…

  3. suecowley says :

    I’m really interested to read that you have also taught the IB – what did you make of it? I loved the breadth of the programme, and I think we miss a trick here by not looking more closely at it, particularly at the MYP.

    I can see what you mean to an extent, and to be honest I haven’t watched the TED talk, but i do also think that sometimes teachers need to be inspired to think differently. That you have done so, and then challenged what this means in reality for your own day-to-day practice, is surely a good thing. Or would it be better if you hadn’t had that original ‘could it be like this?’ moment? What do you think?

    I would suggest that perhaps we need the poets and the dreamers, alongside those who help to run the real world, or surely we lose a bit of colour and texture? The mistake is surely in believing that there is any silver bullet, whether it’s creativity, slog, learning styles, evidence led teaching, whatever you care to call it.

  4. Crispin Weston says :

    Hi – I completely agree with your analysis. I wrote a similar piece on one of Sir Ken’s earlier talks at http://edtechnow.net/2012/01/20/sir-ken-robinson/. This attracted a guest post from Scott Goodman in California, at http://edtechnow.net/ken-robinson-rebuttal/.

    As you say, creativity is great – it is just that it is a lot harder than Sir Ken makes out. It is also predicated on knowledge and skills. Sir Ken’s notion that knowledge and skills “crowds out” creativity is therefore nonsense. Crispin.

  5. Adil Jaffer says :

    Alex, here’s my blog response! Ken Robinson, creativity and wanting more: http://mathswithadil.com/?p=996

  6. Geraldine Carter says :

    But the overwhelming majority of poets, dreamers,novelists,dramatists,children’s writers did have a rigorous education in the first place. Some – Angela Carter and Michael Morpurgo, for instance- hated their ‘traditional’ schooling but as with most creative people, it does not seem to have underlined their creativity – quite the opposite.

  7. suecowley says :

    ‘overwhelming majority’ – evidence please?

    Don’t tell Gove, he’ll want to get rid of all this rigour in case he breeds a generation of poets and novelists 🙂

    In any case I’m not arguing against discipline – it’s vital for creativity, but so too is a willingness to take risks and make mistakes and a breadth of experience. Can’t we have both?

  8. mkteachingandlearning says :

    I agree with Sue Cowley’s comments. It’s crucial to nurture creativity and develop the individual as well as maintain academic standards and rigour. I believe inspirational teachers do this. Some lessons don’t- I listened to Sir Ken’s original talk with my 9 year old in the room. It chimed with her- her comment was that endless worksheets don’t help her imagine although they do help her learn.

  9. forgotmypenmiss says :

    Reblogged this on Forgot my pen Miss..

  10. Will Burn (@gingerburn) says :

    Ken Robinson is to education what Stephen Fry is to linguistics: a gifted entertainer who sometimes illuminates significant truths. Let’s treat him as such.

  11. Bramble Head says :

    Ken Robinson is good at getting people to want something – but I agree he doesn’t deliver on the *what* or the *how*.

    I’ve been thinking about how the abstract idea of creativity interrelates with the more pragmatic aspects of technique and expertise, and two books I’ve found useful are Richard Sennett’s ‘The Craftsman’ http://amzn.to/16acsCT and a much shorter book, Matthew Crawford’s ‘The Case for working with your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good http://amzn.to/159ujX3.

    Both get into the nuts and bolts (in Crawford’s case very literally) of making things, as well as the modern undervaluing of expertise, and the mind-emotion-body aspects underpinning the channeling/application of otherwise abstract ideas of ‘creativity’. A creative practitioner will pretty much always say, I think, that technique is vital to the execution of an idea. The view that creatives do it without effort is just the result of a couple of centuries of the romantic genius myth.

    I also think this interview with Thom Yorke is really interesting in relation to the technicalities and indefinables of creating something http://bit.ly/117QnNO. Especially since Radiohead got together at school and he talks about that.

    Hope that all makes some sense!

  12. Ron Crump says :

    What is the learning? Mistrust Sir Ken or our own judgements past or present?

  13. Jim Noble says :

    I enjoyed this thank you! I think you express reactions that are familiar to a lot of people. I am pleased to see some balanced responses. I have struggled to make any articulate challenge to SKR because so much of what he says is worthy and appealing. What has always bugged me about his talks though is

    1. Sweeping statements about education often based on anecdotes – a fallacy we teach our students to be aware of

    2. I am not aware of any significant time SKR has spent in primary or secondary education either working or observing (little is referred to in his talks as far as I recall) I am always wary of those who are not intimately acquainted with the professional being held us as experts or visionaries.

    This doesn’t mean that I am not inspired by many of the things he says or that I disagree. My colleagues and I spend a good deal of time pursuing solutions to the issues. I was trained 51 years ago to bring creativity, flexibility and openness to mathematics classroom and have been trying to do so ever since. Such things are rarely mentioned.

    • Crispin Weston says :

      The general trend of this conversation (which I am very much enjoying) seems to be that SKR is an amiable old buffer with some great ideas but a bit woolly on the detail, a bit susceptible to anecdote rather than evidence-based argument.

      I think the problem is more substantive than that – I think SKR’s message is fundamentally mistaken. It is not that he is wrong to promote creativity – we are all in favour of that. The problem lies in his suggestion that creativity is being “crowded out” by an emphasis on facts and skills. My contention (and Michael Gove’s, incidentally) is that knowledge and skills are the foundation of creativity and that it is facile to portray the two as antagonistic. Without knowledge and skills, creativity is worthless.

      On the other hand, if you just teach facts and then leave it at that, then clearly you have a pretty dull and unhelpful sort of lesson – but the relationship between facts and higher order skills (analysis, evaluation & creativity) is not an either-or but rather an and-also.

      The problem we are all discussing is about the curriculum and what can be specified. If you use the curriculum to say “thou shalt be creative”, then there is no criterion of performance. You can meet the objective by smearing your excrement on the wall.

      A curriculum that specifies knowledge and skills sets a performance criterion. By specifying knowledge it also lays the basis for people developing programmes of study that create factual data sets that are ideally chosen to promote higher-order thinking, particularly because everyone in the group will know the same facts and be practicing the same skills, so social learning is also enabled.

      The basic aim of the old ICT curriculum (which I think was deeply flawed) was that “we will teach you the skills that will enable you to find out the facts for yourself (they are all out there on the internet) and become a lifelong learner”. The right approach IMO is much more along the lines of “we will give you the facts (and some enabling skills like literacy) that will enable you to acquire the higher-order, subject-specific skills”.

      What I think is missing from the current system are really well designed, activity-based learning materials with the software tools to manage progression, differentiation, reporting and remediation. These are not things that teachers can develop, they need an education-specific supply industry which still barely exists at the moment. This was the subject of my post “Education’s coming revolution” at http://edtechnow.net/2013/01/26/industrial-revolution/.

      Thanks, Crispin.

      • Ian Lynch says :

        “My contention (and Michael Gove’s, incidentally) is that knowledge and skills are the foundation of creativity” Interesting how the assessment of GCSE is all moving to the former and marginalising the latter them.

      • Crispin Weston says :

        Ian, Can you give some examples that illustrate such a drift away from creativity? Or are you referring to the National Curriculum document itself? Given that the final version of the National Curriculum will not be available until the autumn, it is clearly too early to judge what effect this particular document will have on assessments.

        I think the problem with assessing creativity is in doing so with a consistent sense of quality. Smearing one’s excrement on the wall may be a sign of an infantile creative urge – but is hardly useful.

        The other related problem with assessing creativity is that it is inevitably less predictable than more prescribed forms of assessment and therefore requires more expertise and expense (e.g. in moderation) to assess fairly.

        I would challenge the idea that creativity could be usefully assessed without knowledge and skills – though I would accept that you could do it the other way round – testing knowledge and skills without creativity. This latter type of assessment might still be useful if it played the role of a pre-qualification for the more open-ended creative assessment.

        To give a concrete example, as a History teacher I would generally aim to give a straight knowledge test before setting students a essay that required students to construct a complex argument. What is the point of going to all the trouble of writing and marking a creative essay, if the student does not know the first thing about the subject?


      • David Cameron says :

        I think that there are ways of assessing creativity and we should make use of them. In science we can ask students to design experiments to test a hypothesis. Or give them the opportunity to create a hypothesis based on information presented. In hospitality, it could involve the opportunity to create new recipes. Music should be relatively straightforward as should a number of other subjects. History is an interesting example and, like other subjects, must involve an underpinning of knowledge and understanding, as do science and music. Creativity is often most effective when focussed within disciplines. However there are surely options of using unfamiliar source material which get closer to the investigative and more creative aspects of the subject than we often do at present

      • Crispin Weston says :

        Hi, this is a reply to David Cameron – sorry for the delay.

        I strongly agree you that the testing of creativity is very important and is generally subject-specific. I think that all your examples are good ones. I also agree that you do not necessarily have to have all the information at your finger tips, but investigation can play an important part. People making an argument often go out to find the information that will support their case, rather than formulating the case based on the information they have to start with.

        However, I think that it is difficult to create an original hypothesis unless you have quite a lot of information to start with – the critical mass required for ignition as it were. It is the cross-referencing of information – the comparing and contrasting and pattern forming – that real analytical ability stems.

        Dylan Wiliam made an interesting tweet on 8 May:

        Due to limits of memory, humans infer patterns better when given idealized rather than real data: http://bit.ly/109Y3l8 —not so for machines

        to which I responded:

        @dylanwiliam Which is why “internet research” is often such an unhelpful foundation for teaching how to process information.

        i.e. if you want to “seed” creative responses to information, the teacher should provide sets of data specifically calculated to seed such “ah-ha” moments and not rely on students to go collecting their own.

        Though I think Dylan Wiliam is wrong to attribute this to the lack of human memory. It is the lack of anlytical skill that is relevant. The machine has been provided with an anlytical method in its algorythm. But the student does not have such an analytical method and that is what the teacher is trying to induce the student to develop.

        As observed by a very good OFSTED report, ICT in Education 2001, current uses of the internet in education tend to re-enforce the student’s naive assumptions (not having acquired an analytical capacity) that education is just about the collection of large quantities of unprocessed information.

        Once the student is on an analytical roll, then by all means gather information-as-evidence (and indeed, information-as-counter-argument).

        Coming back to the original point made by Ian, this is all about Bloom: how do you relate information to higher-order skills such as evaluation, analysis and creativity. The assumption made by Sir Ken Robinson and much of the ICT community that too much information clogs up the brain and forces out these higher-order skills, is desperately naive.


  14. Jim Noble says :

    This whole thing has rather messed with my morning and leaves me with lots of thoughts and I am not really sure I can articulate them well, but here goes…..
    I am not sure that SKRs message is ever put in a concrete enough context to be fundamentally mistaken. I can only really only approach this from the point of view of a mathematics teacher and for me, I agree that the fact based and creative should neither be antagonistic nor mutually exclusive. For mathematics, so much of the debate is about the order in which they come as the last post exemplifies with ICT. There should be a huge interplay between the two. So much mathematics is intuitive and as much as possible progress should build on this intuition. A good mathematical task will invite students to draw on this intuition and thus blend creativity with the either the acquisition of basic facts or rather their discovery. Two examples that are far more articulate than me are…

    http://prezi.com/aww2hjfyil0u/math-is-not-linear/ and http://www.maa.org/devlin/lockhartslament.pdf

    Again my biggest beef with the message is that it is not based on and significant school experience

  15. Tim Taylor says :

    I’m not convinced by the ‘amiable old buffer’ argument either. I’ve listened to the various TED talks many times, read several of his books on creativity in education (which are fundamentally the same book, written several times) and even seen him speak live (someone else paid).

    Fundamentally, he’s arguing the school system as it exists now and has done for the past 100 years or so is organised towards the needs of factory-based industry. This puts less emphasis on individual freedom/expression and collaborative endeavour and more emphasis on a relatively narrow skill set and bank of knowledge (the canon).

    In this analysis I think he’s right and he explains it with humour and clarity.

    Where he is much weaker (in common with many non-teaching academics, for example, Kieran Egan, ED Hirsch etc) is in the matter of practice. His examples, are generally individualistic or based on schools outside the system. For example, when I saw his lecture he showed a 30 minute film of an independent school founded by the Blue Man Group http://blueschool.org , which was lovely, but a billion miles from the inner city primary I was working in at the time.

    Incidentally, I did feel short changed by having to sit through a film ‘in the company of Sir Ken’ when I had come to hear him speak and someone had paid a lot of money to give me the privilege.

    Nevertheless, SKR’s report to David Blunkett, “All our Futures”, had a significant effect in primary schools in the early years of the Labour Government and set in motion a period of experimentation and openness in some schools. Admittedly not everything that was trialled was great (Brain Gym, which I always hated) but there was an earnest and concerted effort to create the right pedagogic practices and environmental conditions to help children develop the necessary skills and dispositions to be creative as well as literate and numerate.

    Twelve years later there appears to be something of a backlash. The literacy and numeracy strategies failed to deliver on the hoped for sustained gains in improved SATs scores and some commentators, including Mr Gove, have interpreted this as the fault of a curriculum which wasn’t ‘rigorous’ enough in the application of basic skills. As a result we have a new curriculum, which in the matter of primary schools, is far more prescriptive and content laden than the current one.

    When Gove talks about creativity in schools (his Question Time answer) he’s not talking about developing creativity as a part of the main curriculum, he’s talking about ‘extra curriculum’ activities, mostly I suspect in secondary schools. Creativity in this sense is something you do after you’ve done your chores. And in terms of the way the new curriculum is laid out, most children’s experience of primary school education is going to be seven years of doing chores.

    Once they’re done (and only once they’re done satisfactorily) then students can be given opportunities to be creativity. Playing in the school band, dancing etc.

    This sounds like a terribly cynical view, but if I’m wrong then show me where in the new primary national curriculum creativity is encouraged or enshrined as an important part of young children’s education? I can’t see it. The new curriculum is, as Tim Oates (its chief architect) once said at a conference, “As dry as dust”. There is very little inspiration or encouragement for schools to be creative or to develop creativity as a significant outcome for children.

    Which brings me back to SKR and why his ideas are still important and still resonates with many teachers. It is our job to continue (perhaps in-spite of Gove’s curriculum) to create engaging learning experiences for children and to give them the chance to develop the dispositions, skills and knowledge needed to be creative. Perhaps SKR’s view of how this can be done sounds a little old fashioned, even naive, to our ears after more than a decade of teacher research and classroom application, but we must not loose sight of his central message which reminds us of the importance of giving teachers and children the scope, time and opportunity to learn how to be rounded human beings.

    • huntingenglish says :

      Thanks for the thorough and thoughtful reply Tim. I wanted to spark debate (made clear by the overtly provocative title!) about the bitesize and reductive nature of TEDtalks, of which SKR has become the quintessential representative. I also think his ‘rockstar’ appearance is effectively the same as his last, again with little real depth beyond the rhetorical frills. I also do think SKR appears long since distanced from the crux of actual practice and you are right in saying his book is the same one rewritten – frustratingly so. Hence, his latest examples, like Hans Zimmer, frankly have little resonance with my daily context. People have argued that we need people like SKR to provoke debate and challenge the likes of Gove, but I would much rather practitioners stood up for themselves, working with expert educationalists very much with their hands still dirty in the midst of working education. ‘All Our Futures’ was at least relevant, but I don’t think Sir Ken has presented a workable, scalable curriculum models and school models since then – he is like an ageing rock star retiring to the Las Vegas strip to trot our some performances. Does he have to do that job ? Perhaps not. People have argued that is our job and I agree with this, but he is not beyond criticism.

      At the root of my issue is his simplified idea of creativity that is so loosely perpetuated without challenge. This isn’t helped, again, by the bitesize nature of the TEDtalks, but if you live by the sword…

      • David Cameron says :

        I think you are being a tad harsh. I don’t think Ken Robinson makes any claims to doing the whole job of inspiring and motivating and then providing the handbook for implementation. He has a role and I think he tries to support those who complement it. I share your reservations. He has the timing of a comic God, some brilliant lines and a capacity for recycling material without exhausting the tolerance of most of his audience. He has had a phenomenal impact and you have to respect someone who has put Creativity at the forefront of so many discussions.
        I also accept that he is the Stone Roses of educational thinking and debate – one great album, a few classic songs and some memorable performances, but no worthwhile progression and only echoes of the initial greatness. Where I think he remains really powerful is when he on television or the radio where he engages with a wider audience and can start people thinking. He is a populist rather than an original thinker, but there is still a huge place for him in the educational debate and he still helps to create momentum for improvement and he is cool!
        You, and others don’t need what he has to offer any more, but that doesn’t mean others don’t.
        One of the heads that I worked with in Northern Ireland summed it up for me. He works in a community which is divided and challenging in many ways. It faces issues that would create demands anywhere, but it then has an overlay of sectarianism and a history of division. What he said was that he would love to have Ken Robinson as a speaker, but not in his school – “He couldn’t talk to my teachers”. I got the gig and talked about improvement and offered practical strategies and “takeaways” that teachers could use. It worked and I was delighted, but I still can’t do what Ken Robinson has done and, to some extent continues to do, even if he appears to be on a never-ending Greatest Hit tour much of the time. He is an ally with power and access to important areas. We should trust him, support him and engage with him but we need to supplement what he talks about and find ways to get to implementation and impact. It is a common cause.

      • huntingenglish says :

        I was harsh and was aiming for some provocation to spark debate. The ‘mistrust’ aspect was a hook and I tried to convey that the whole TED styling, with our mental inclination to be persuaded by smooth speakers, should make us distrust our perceptions as much as anything and any one person. I do hold to the fact of feeling underwhelmed by the rhetoric due to the sheer repetition -recalling my disappointment at reading his book and finding sound and fury and not much practice and implementation. I agree – it is up to us to walk the walk.

        I think the Stone Roses analogy is very apt and funny! I agree he reaches wider than most in education and he does ‘spread the word’ as a voice challenging political orthodoxy. I do disagree with him in terms of his depiction of creativity (which is his central tenet). I think he ignores the role of deliberate practice and grit and that he perpetuates a simplistic view of creativity. I appreciate he speaks in broad strokes for the very reason that he has a hugely broad audience. I have found each talk, his book, and no doubt his next book, all riffing from the exact same theme. I would much prefer that professionals and teachers, still right there in the mix of policy debate and practice, banged the drums louder about our case so that we didn’t need Ken’s star turn.

        I am completely in envy of his comic timing and will weakly imitate it at a TeachMeet at the weekend! I’d hope with the RCoT, HTRT, the TeachMeets and the Pedagoo’s of this world that we can emerge with a chorus that can out-sing Sir Ken! Right, that is enough of my poor attempts at musical analogies! Thanks for commenting.

    • Crispin Weston says :

      Hi Tim,

      I’ve been away from this thread for a while so excuse my slow reply.

      I am sympathetic to much that you say. But I do not agree in your interpretation of Michael Gove’s Question Time answer: he is talking about creativity as expressed in the writing of poetry and the creation of scientific experiments – these are all about the mainstream curriculum and not about after-school clubs. I think that you echo what I see as a problem with SKR’s perspective on creativity – that it is all about playing in the school band and dancing etc. Good as these things are, Gove is talking about creativity as a pinnacle achievement in core curriculum disciplines.

      The lesson of Bloom’s taxonomy is exactly that creativity comes after memorisation, understanding and application (or what I would call contextualisation). So the assumption that you start with the facts and only then do you use the facts is, I think, the right one. This does not mean that children should spend five years on rote learning before they get to the interesting bit. They can iterate around this circle rapidly: bite off some more information, then chew.

      I think Gove is right to address rigour, which is hopelessly lacking in education at the moment. But “rigour” is not the same as “hard” or “academically challenging”. Rigour is about the accuracy of your definitions.

      A key problem with skills and creativity is that it is terribly difficult to define accurately. The first national curriculum (was it 1989 or 1990?) was a catastrophe in following criterion referencing. IN History, my subject, it was full of statements like “can use a historical source as evidence”. But this can be done at all sorts of levels: to justify a platitude or to support a sophisticated and original insight. There was no “rigour” in the application of these criterion definitions.

      I agree that a curriculum defined purely in terms of knowledge is a bit limited (this does not apply to the Computing Curriculum, which is what mainly interests me at the moment, where most of the statements focus on skills). In part, I think the problem is that the last time the profession tried to define skills, it was done so badly that (a) teaching skills became identified (often rightly) with low standards and (b) it would now be very difficult to frame a meaningful curriculum in these terms. The second point is aggravated by the fact that our exam system has become so corrupted by the race to the bottom. Rigorous definitions of skills is closely related to common understandings about how those skills can be assessed and measured.

      So I would look at a fact-based curriculum as an opportunity. It is not bad thing to draw a line in the sand against the knowledge-free curriculum. Given that children are taught a certain canon of knowledge, the next step will be to reconstruct a consensus about what they should be expected to do with that knowledge: what is the standard of essay-writing, experimentation, computer programming etc. that can be expected, and how are you going to codify these skills in ways that are consistent and clear?

      So, having established the curriculum as a common starting point for everyone, the next stage will be a period of innovation in assessment, out of which will emerge the consensus that you will need if you are to draw up a more skills-based curriculum next time round. And of course the teaching strategies that will help deliver those skills.

      The proof of the pudding will come when we see the new Gove exams. I would be surprised and disappointed indeed if they were full of questions that required nothing more than factual recall. I would expect questions that required problem-solving, essay-writing and other challenging forms of creativity, like coding.


  16. blueink21 says :

    Not sure I feel that well qualified to add my comments here amongst such knowledgeable educators but really wanted to defend Sir Ken a little.
    I don’t think it matters that SKR has apparently not spent decades in the classroom, or that he entertains us with anecdotes. In a way spending time in and around different educational settings allows an overview that may be more difficult for teachers who are busy focussing on teaching their classes in their school etc. When I first watched the TED talks (for the first time only last year) I too had that moment that Alex describes of ‘wow, of course this is what is wrong!’ shortly followed by ‘ah but, what is SKR suggesting is the answer? Did I miss that bit?’
    But to say, oh well, thats it then, lets carry on as before is to turn away from those first light bulb moments which suggest that there really is something outdated or out of step with the way we educate our children. For me, this goes beyond pedagogy and resources in the classroom, it really is about being as creative as we can with the idea of education. To start thinking about how our schools are designed physically and how we group children. How we get to know children as individuals and how we nurture and encourage that brightness and enthusiasm that children have. The problem for me is that very little has changed in high schools in a generation – my son going through high school just now is having pretty much the same education I had 25 years ago. It is exactly the same bloody format! Five years of one hour one subject lessons, fragmented days, time wasted in assemblies and form periods. Cramped classrooms, scruffy buildings, computer rooms rather than integrated tech, and the tedious obsession the UK has with uniforms etc etc. Even the work my son brings home is the same as I did – slab pots in art, metal keyring from design tech, wooden pencil case from woodwork. I’d like to think that we can improve on this.
    We have to start really thinking what the experience is like for our kids in high schools and not just what goes on the classroom, but how we still for example, expect kids to carry heavy bags around all day (ask yourself if you were to attend school again wouldnt you want to swap that bag for a laptop?), how the food is often poor quality or sold out, and how the canteens are often dirty and crowded. Someone on twitter recently said their son had complained of feeling like a prisoner in school, asking permission for everything, including going to the toilet. Isn’t it time we really considered these aspects of school?
    New buildings can help I think and probably have an impact on improving the way staff feel about their working environment too but we still need to hang on to that light bulb moment that many of us experience when we listen to SKR so that we can impact on the educational experience as well.
    I am also a fan of Will Richardson and recently enjoyed this video of his which does include some bold ideas for change.

    I think SKR has started a conversation not just about what and how subjects are taught, but about a bigger shift and if we don’t want another generation of kids to have exactly the same education that we had then I think we need to continue that conversation and find out what we can do to instigate some real change in our schools.

    • David Cameron says :

      I love this discussion and long for the moment when the choir outsings the celebrity soloist. In a complex world, that is where we need to be. Experience, understanding and what I would refer to as “tested knowledge” sits in the choir. Sometimes the soloist is what we need to draw the audience in. Ken Robinson is a crossover star.He gets bigger gigs. He is stadium and plays to a very mixed audience. We are “club” we play to the aficionados and the interested and we need both. As I argued, he can make people want to play, but he doesn’t teach them how. We need to do that.
      I love the differentiation and the fact that we can all play a role and move things on. And, yes, Sir Ken riffs on a restricted chord sequence, so he is maybe more Status Quo than Stone Roses and maybe dwells more on “liberate the curiosity and let them grow into creativity” than on the practice and graft demanded by meaningful creation and innovation. However, the enemy is Gove, a man who has taken oversimplification to a depth that Captain Nemo and the Nautilus would feel was beyond them. I suspect that depth and oversimplification sit ill together, but hope that people get the message. Gove mines populism, Robinson uses it as a springboard to some sort of ambition. Robinson looks to the future, Gove seeks the truisms of the past. I think he actually seeks the falsisms of the past, but he seems more adept than his ideas give him any right to be and has a credibility that defies both sense and research. Faced with this nemesis, Sir Ken seems a useful member of the Round Table, Headteachers or otherwise. We need all the help we can get! I know that you are being provocative and thank you for that. As you have argued, the voices of the chorus need to be released, even if they drown out the soloist. Thanks for that

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