Al Jazeera America

Sir Ken Robinson talks to David Shuster

Creativity and education expert Sir Ken Robinson argues that we need to radically rethink the way we are educating our children. Robinson is a leading scholar known for teaching people how to recognize intelligence and find their talent. He has been called one of the world’s elite thinkers. His books include “Finding Your Element” and “Out of Our Minds.”

David Shuster: [The] culture of education was in part formed by the industrial age, and you’ve talked a lot about how we’ve now moved beyond that.

Sir Ken Robinson: Mass education is relatively recent. In the last 150 years, it’s become more commonplace in the industrialized countries, but 200, 300 years ago, there were no such things as mass public schools paid for by taxpayers. These school systems are the product of the Industrial Revolution, which began in the middle of the 18th century, and they were designed for particular reasons. They were designed in order to produce a workforce for the industrial economy. That’s not just a theoretical point. If you look at how schools work, you can see it. They’re designed like production lines. Kids get educated by age group. Now, that may seem, if you don’t think about it, to be perfectly natural, but it’s a rather odd thing to do, to put all the 5-year-olds on the same conveyor belt, and all the 6-year-olds and all the 7-year-olds. We don’t do that outside of schools. We don’t keep all the 5-year-olds in a separate compound and all the 11-year-olds somewhere else. It’s an efficiency idea. It’s a very linear model. You see that in the curriculum. The curriculum gets very narrow, particularly these days, I have to say, in America. 

I’m arguing for a much bigger conception of intelligence and ability, and not just of economic need, but of social benefit.

Sir Ken Robinson

And in America, the usefulness is math and science. For the country to move forward, we need people who are strong in those areas.

We do, and the trouble is, we need people who are strong in all sorts of areas. And as soon as you start to just talk about those disciplines — the slogan that’s used now, it’s the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and math. They’re really very important. But this administration, the previous administration, really talks about little else except the importance of those disciplines. But the economy of America depends on talents in every sort of field. I’m not saying that science and math aren’t important. I’m just saying they’re not all-important. There are other disciplines which matter as much. If you just talk about those disciplines, the signal it gives to people who are particularly good at those things or into those things is that “You can just sit this problem out.” You know? “We’ll leave it to the mathematicians and the scientists to solve the economic problems, and we’ll call you if you’re needed.” It’s a foolish thing to do. The other thing is that, even people who are good in those areas have many other talents as well. I’m not arguing against the STEM disciplines. I’m arguing for a much bigger conception of intelligence and ability, and not just of economic need, but of social benefit.

How do you foster that richer understanding of talent at a young age, in 5- and 6-year-olds?

Kids are born with tremendous talents. It’s always important for adults to remember they were once children themselves. I mean, I was. I have to admit to this. I spent my early life as a child. I know that kids, up until they go to school, have a voracious appetite for learning. Think of what children achieve. From the moment they’re born, most kids, in the first two or three years of life, learn to speak. Well, that’s an extraordinary thing. They go from being mute to being articulate human beings. You don’t teach them to speak. We’ve got two kids. Nobody teaches you to speak. You couldn’t. I mean, you wouldn’t have the time, and they wouldn’t have the patience. A kid doesn’t reach the point of 2 and a half, where you sit the kid down and say, “Look, we have to talk.” Or rather, “you do,” more to the point. “And your mother and I have been using all these sounds. You’re probably wondering what all that’s about. Well, these are words, and then we’re going to talk about verbs and tenses.” It’s nonsense. Kids absorb this stuff. Kids at a very early age will learn to play musical instruments. Kids are endlessly curious.

What happens is, we then put them in school and we shut down a lot of their outer curiosity and we start to teach them. It’s very interesting to me that a lot of people, by the time they get to the age of 7 or 8 or 9 or 10, are suddenly bored and get listless at the idea of going to school. It’s not because they don’t want to learn. It’s because the way we teach them doesn’t speak to them. Now, that’s not true of all teachers. I’m talking about the system as a whole. And currently — this is, to me, the big irony — America is trying to meet all the challenges it currently faces through a system that’s kind of anathema to how people learn. It’s based on this deadly culture of standardization, of testing. You can see the light going out of children’s eyes. You can see the blood drain from teachers’ faces. It’s because it’s being confused with an industrial process and not a human one. So you have to start on the idea that people have all this talent to begin with. You have to cultivate it. 

David Shuster asks about revamping our approach to education and how people can discover their talent at any age
Al Jazeera America

Do you find that most people who love what they do have an element of creativity that is tied to part of it?

Yes. I should define creativity, because there are a lot of myths about creativity. One of them is that creativity is about special people. The reason for that is we have a culture where we celebrate people who are very innovative. The irony is we discourage most other people from discovering what they can be innovative at. There’s a myth that it’s just about the arts. I think it’s a catastrophe, by the way, for American education that so many school districts have cut arts programs back. There are kids now in many schools across the country who go through their entire experience of education without ever lifting a paintbrush, without learning to play a musical instrument. I think it’s catastrophic. But it’s because of this narrow view of utility. Creativity isn’t just about the arts. You can be creative in mathematics and science and all the rest. The third myth is there’s not much you can do about it, and my argument is you can do a great deal to help people be more creative, but you have to understand how it works. So “creative,” to me, is the process of having original ideas, and that’s as relevant in every part of the curriculum as it is in any particular part of it. 

It’s not really where you start. It’s about what’s inside of you. It’s about where you set your sights.

How do you teach creativity?

I think the first thing to recognize is that creativity comes from imagination. Imagination’s slightly different from creativity. It’s the power that we all have to bring into mind the things that aren’t present. We take it for granted, by the way, but without it, we’d be like most other species. We’d be doing what we’ve been doing for eons. I mean, I love dogs, for example, but there’s no evidence that dogs are especially creative. Human beings are always coming up with new things, and it’s because we have this power to imagine, to suppose. Creativity is putting that to work. The two things I’d say about this are, firstly, if you want to encourage creativity, you have to cultivate the imagination. It’s like you can’t have an athletics program if you ignore physical health. You can’t just have people sitting around on sofas, drinking six-packs all day long, and say, “Well, we’ll turn up for the event in a few weeks’ time and hope it goes well.” You have to exercise and develop the thing that you depend upon. Schools need to encourage the development of imagination, the use of it, and to honor it and see it’s important. This dry culture of standardization tends to suppress and deaden imagination. The second thing is that being creative is about using skills. You can’t be creative if you don’t do anything. To be creative, to make something original, you also have to be able to develop the skills that the production requires.

How does an adult find their own element of creative genius?

It’s a very personal process. I think of it as a quest, not a straight journey. What I mean is, some journeys have a clear outcome. If we decide to go to San Francisco, we know where it is, and we won’t be surprised if we get there. But finding your element is much more open-ended than that. Some people know early on what it is. A lot of adults that I speak to have always known. There was this thing they wanted to do, and they may have got steered away from it by well-meaning parents or friends who looked down on it, or maybe teachers who said, “Well, I wouldn’t do that. You’ll never make a living from doing that.” It’s a very common thing that people will say to you — “You won’t make a living if you do that,” despite the fact that clearly very many people do. It’s a myth that life is linear. This is a very important thing to me. I mean, we subscribe to this myth when we come to write our résumé because we sometimes have to set our lives down on two sides of paper. Because we’ve put dates in and put certain things in bold, the whole impression is that this was a plan. Nobody can plan their lives forward. You can have intentions and purposes. You can’t know for a fact. What we do is we retrospectively knit it all together so it looks like it was some coherent strategy that we’d fulfilled, because the last thing you want to do is convey this process of chaotic improvisation that being alive actually is. No, you create your life. You have to look inside yourself and get to know yourself better, understand your talents and the passions that you may have, the interests. But then you have to get out into the world and try new things. If you spend all your time sitting, watching the television, it’s unlikely you’ll discover anything new about yourself. 

A lot of the problems in American education are not caused by kids. They're caused by the actual system. And if the system would change, a lot of these problems that we find so intractable would start to ease.
Author and education expert Sir Ken Robinson
Al Jazeera America

Is there still an opportunity, though, for people whose circumstances are difficult, perhaps because of no fault of their own?

I think life is very real and very serious to all of us. I’m not writing or working on behalf of people who are well off or live in comfortable circumstances only. I wouldn’t want to get too romantic about it, but my own background was like that. I was born to a large, working-class family in Liverpool in the 1950s, and our circumstances were pretty bad. We were living in a city that had been devastated by the Second World War, where the economy had collapsed, where my father, for no fault of his own, had been out of work for months and months. It’s not really where you start. It’s about what’s inside of you. It’s about where you set your sights. 

I think so many people would agree that the education system we have really doesn’t foster creativity in the way it has in previous generations. Are you optimistic, though, that at some point American society will realize this and be able to turn things around?

America is a tremendously resilient culture. And there’s always a reason to be optimistic here. But it would be wrong to underestimate the challenges. Education is the biggest investment we make in our futures. Individually and collectively, it has major economic purposes, but they’re also social, they’re cultural and they’re personal. It’s very important that we do pay attention to this. At the moment, on average across the country, it’s estimated that about 1 in 3 students who start the ninth grade don’t graduate in the 12th grade. Now, I hesitate to use the word “dropout,” because to call somebody a dropout implies that they failed the system. I think it’s equally plausible, in most cases, to say the system failed them. Everyone who leaves school has a reason for it. There are lots of programs — they’re called alternative programs — that are designed to help re-engage kids with education. They’re much more personalized. They often emphasize practical and creative projects. They give a lot of support to the teachers and to the institutions. And they work. What’s interesting to me is these are called alternative education programs. If all education were like that, we wouldn’t need the alternative. This is a very high-stakes issue. It’s an issue that’s affecting every country in the world.

It’s worth noting, incidentally, that one of the most successful education systems in the world has no standardized testing at all. It has a very broad curriculum. This is Finland. The country of Finland has a lot of responsibility given to students, a lot to head teachers, and teaching itself is a very well-respected and properly compensated profession. People will say to me, “You can’t compare America to Finland.” No, you can’t. Of course not. America has over 300 million people in it, and Finland has 5 and a half million. But actually, most of education in America is organized at the state level. And there are 32 states in America with populations similar to or smaller than Finland. And I’ve been to a lot of them. I do a lot of work in Oklahoma. That’s 3 and a half million people. Some of the best schools in America, by the way, are in areas of low income, high unemployment, but they all have in common a visionary principal, passionate staff, and a close connection to the community, and a willingness to innovate in how they do it. Now, I think it’s an old maxim, isn’t it — if you keep doing the same thing and it keeps going wrong, do something else. A lot of the problems in American education are not caused by kids. They’re caused by the actual system. And if the system would change, a lot of these problems that we find so intractable would start to ease.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

David Shuster and Sir Ken Robinson chat on the set of "Talk to Al Jazeera"
Al Jazeera America

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