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?
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.
“A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on a cold iron.” Horace Mann
Recently I came across a beautifully written ode to creativity written by @RealDavidCameron – see here. Please read it in all of its resplendent glory. The article, appropriate for our austere times, and rather bankrupt political leadership, is not all sweetness and light. Birth weight and poverty are recognized as near intractable factors that inhibit learning, but the driving force of the article resides in the transformative power of education. This was connected to another article by an inspiring school leader, Tom Sherrington – the @headguruteacher – with this article on creativity here: Teaching for Creativity and Innovation. Now, let me admit, when I sometimes hear the term ‘creativity’ used regarding education I wince slightly. ‘Passion’ and ‘creativity’ have become easy labels used across public and private sectors, becoming appropriated by advertisers, regardless of whether those qualities are exhibited or not, like some empty corporate mantra. When people laud Sir Ken Robinson I cannot but agree with his inspired speeches, but without action those words ring hollow. What leaders like Tom Sherrington and people like David Cameron do is put meat onto the bones of the creativity mantra in a real and valuable. They shine a light on creativity in practice and thereby encourage us to bask in the glow and feed the flame.
What is being proposed in the Ebacc is a reactionary and regressive response to the dynamic needs of our students, our communities and our wider economy. A ‘traditional’ curriculum, with a finishing post solely marked by a terminal three hour exam, is being lauded at a time when we must shape our society into a dynamo of creativity. I am not proposing we shun Modern Foreign Languages, Mathematics, Science and English for a playful curriculum of Dance, Drama and computer play (valuable though each can be in their own right); but if we are to once again devalue the Arts and the vocational aspects of our curriculum we are immediately performing a creativity and innovation lobotomy! As identified by the aforementioned David Cameron, much innovation and creativity derives from the dynamic conflation of different disciplines – such as a fruitful combination of science and literature for example – see here. To deliberately laud one discipline over another simply shows a lack of understanding about how creativity comes to life. We are not all a budding Leonardo da Vinci, but our curriculum should provide a breeding ground for such genius to exist and flourish – why aim for less? Gove lauds the supposed ‘freedoms’ of his systematic shift of our state school system from LEAs to Academies and Free Schools; yet, at the same time, by retaining reductive league tables with narrow measures of success, he distorts those freedoms of curriculum and school structures by narrowing the goal posts for what is deemed acceptable success. The current league table measures of success are widely deemed as insufficient, even by Gove himself (sagely expressed in this article by Chris Husbands) so we must make a thorough job of changing accountability systems for the better. What we have at present is a centralized system that serves the needs of absolutely no-one, perhaps except those Academy chains who stand to benefit from the ‘saving’ of schools being stuffed below floor standards. Creativity becomes dulled by expediency, central diktats and a repressive inspection regime. Innovative curriculum models will be circumscribed, particularly for the students in our society most in need of skills that will help them rise from their limited social circumstances. Many schools under pressure will regress into a conservative safe zone of exam driven teaching that is demotivating for students and teachers alike.
Where courageous leadership starts is a turning away from the threatening drum pounding of the DfE and turning towards our own students. We need a shining of a light upon what many of our schools are doing brilliantly and we need to spread that light. For me, our curriculum is the kindle for that flame. The very best teachers will be dulled and stunted by a limiting curriculum, no matter who we attract into our profession. We must scale up our creative endeavors if we are to inspire our students with a desire to learn. Our creativity will be found when we shine a light existing in our own schools (we will find the feeling needed for change all around us if we look properly), but we should also seek inspiration from elsewhere. Therefore I have compiled the following list of inspiring websites and blog posts that shine a light on the great creativity existing in schools all around us (in no particular order):
A movement to stimulate enquiry based learning over our content driven exam fuelled culture. Examples include schools schools taking leave of six hours per week of English, Humanities, Science and Technology lessons at KS3 to undertake enquiry based learning. A clear manifesto for the approach can be found in this document: Learning Futures
A national campaign by SSAT to coral leading thinkers and practitioners to define the core purpose of education and to synthesise the needs of our learners, now and in the future, with a curriculum which is fit for purpose. Hopefully this programme can synthesise and define many of the projects and thinking I go on to identify.
An excellent idea for project based learning from an English curricular perspective that draws in the Arts and the Humanities, transforming the whole school to energise interest and bring the war to life for students.
An outstanding use of Web 2.0 resources. Edutronic is brilliant platform to share communication and resources between teachers and students; for students to blog themselves and to record learning with a global audience. This open source approach is clearly going to supplant VLEs as the future method for communicating and learning online.
More project based learning, this time originating in Science, inspiring learners with a range of real word problems and projects and including blogged learning to help ongoing progress and reflection.
A project based learning approach with an Art focus – with a great example of a public critique involving the local community.
An inspired approach to expeditionary learning and a student centred approach to learning. Tait’s ‘Punk Learning Manifesto’ is a brilliant synthesis of ideas to convey an original and exciting approach to Science teaching and learning.
A brilliant national collective of expert teachers sharing pedagogy to keep getting better. A brilliantly simple alternative to national initiatives like the long-since defunct National Strategies approach in England. Now reading beyond its Scottish origins, I can see this collective and cooperative approach being the future for innovation in pedagogy, alongside Teachmeets and other such ground-swell approach.
A brilliant school that embraces project based learning at the core of its entire curriculum. Using the principals of Ron Berger’s inspired vision of excellence in education, this school is a gold one of highly skilled and engaging pedagogy.
This brilliant Physical Education project based learning approach brings together inspiration from British cycling together with sessions with local journalists to make literacy and the project real. The prospective public critique looks like another fantastic opportunity for students to share their brilliant learning with a real audience.
Surely these engaging and innovative approaches to pedagogy can be combined with a traditional focus upon core literacy and numeracy, and Gove’s beloved rigour, that would be more fitting for our complex and inter-connected futures. The selections I have made combine project based learning; a turning away from an obsession with terminal assessments; a skilled use of technology to leverage pedagogy; real audiences and so much more. We would do well to synthesise these principals of great learning. We must stick to our task – as the ‘real‘ David Cameron stated in his article:
“That reminded me that our task is to give our young people 1000 futures regardless of their past or their present.” David Cameron
Watching the Olympic ceremony yesterday evening was one of those rare moments when people in Britain could collectively, and shamelessly, flaunt their national pride and passions without fear of social unease and our famed British reserve. What was so inspirational, and emotional, was how the ceremony combined the passions of a nation – national pride, a fierce love of sport and sporting competition, a pride in our great literature, with a timely celebration of perhaps our greatest invention – the National Health Service – all presented with charm, humour and a peculiarly British originality and genius. The tweets and hash tags heralding the NHS were particularly poignant given it is in a precarious position at this time, as the core universal freedom of access is under threat from privatisation and market forces, masked by the ConDem government under the chimera of ‘choice’. My thoughts turned appropriately to our state education system – under similar threats to the NHS – on the very day when the status of teachers, and our very professionalism, was undermined with the announcement that QTS status is no longer required in Academy schools.
The very concept of passion is something we all recognise as a crucial quality that we understand is central to our vocation. Yet, I think that many of us would struggle to articulate exactly what this essential passion is when asked. I know it is the first description I would want my students or colleagues to use to describe me as a teacher. I know it is the first quality I look for in a colleague. I know that in my own previous job interviews I have tried to articulate my best qualities, with passion being first and foremost in my mind – but I am pretty sure my descriptions and definitions have met with mixed reviews! I then read what I consider to be the most important and best book about education, and teaching and learning – ‘Visible Learning: Maximising Impact Upon Learning‘, by John Hattie, and I was enlightened. Hattie brilliantly articulates the concept of passion better than I could. Not only that, he explains how passion has a huge impact upon learning by linking it to a vast wealth of evidence. Passion for Hattie wasn’t some amorphous quality, but a more deliberate act. It was actually a deliberate act that could be subject to mastery through skilled and informed practice. The description was so powerful I have decided to quote it in full:
“As I noted in Visible Learning, we rarely talk about passion in education, as if doing so makes the work of teachers seem less serious, more emotional than cognitive, somewhat biased or of lesser import. When we do consider passion, we typically constrain such expressions of joy and involvement to secluded settings not in the public space of being a teacher (Neuman, 2006). The key components of passion for the teacher and for the learner appear to be the sheer thrill of being a learner or a teacher, the absorption that accompanies the process of teaching and learning, the sensations of being involved in the activity of teaching and learning, and the willingness to be involved in deliberate practice to attain understanding. Passion reflects the thrill, as well as the frustrations, of learning; it can be infectious, it can be taught, it can be modelled, and it can be learnt. It is among the most prized outcomes of schooling and, while rarely covered in any of the studies reviewed in this book, it infuses many of the influences that make the difference to the outcomes. It requires more than content knowledge, acts of skilled teaching, or engaged students to make the difference (although these help). It requires a love of the content, an ethical, caring stance deriving from the desire to instil in others a liking, or even love, of the discipline being taught, and a demonstration that the teacher is not only teaching, but also learning (typically about the students’ processes and outcomes of learning). In the current economic climate of many countries, property values have plummeted, leading to fewer resources available for the education budget. As Doug Reeves pointed out to me, passion may be the only natural renewable resource that we have.”
Another great mind, Ken Robinson, is rightly famed for his brilliant treatise on passion in ‘The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything‘. The title is self-explanatory and very true. If you haven’t read it already, I would recommend you read it. I would also strongly recommend you then read Hattie’s ‘Invisible Learning: Maximising Impact upon Learning‘ to understand how passion can be channelled in education. Then use your passion to continue to master your craft, to hone your skills as a highly trained teacher and ceaseless learner, and with slightly less grandeur than the Olympic Opening Ceremony, to celebrate being a teacher in our marvellous state school system! Ignore that seemingly ceaseless torrent of negativity surrounding our schools as best you can (remember, politicians are ephemeral and most appear only to pursue individual vanities of little intrinsic value, being quickly forgotten and little mourned when they depart their stage). We in state schools have a much more important and valued job than career politicians – we are passing the flame onto the next generation. We will endure and succeed through a collective spirit that outlasts any political career. We will succeed because of our driving and transformative passion for the education of the next generation.
Here’s to passionate public sector workers across our great islands – keep flying the flag high!