The Box: Shift Doesn’t Happen, Ken Robinson, and the creative epiphenomenal imbroglio

++++Warning: contains references to Twitter memes+++++

The Box Mark II: Now, made from blancmange.
The box, the box, the box; the much maligned box. The box has been getting a pretty rough time of it lately- I think it needs to hire Max Clifford to do some PR. The poor bloody box. Thinking outside of it has become such a dogma that it almost begs the question, what did we ever need a box for? Stupid bloody box, why don’t we just get rid, and herald a golden dawn where boxes are remnants of a decadent past, and we all....oh, hang on. Where am I going to keep my bananas? I have no box. Perhaps I can build one out of some paper clips, made of foam, a hundred feet high.

Actually, does anyone have one of those box things?

Shift Doesn't Happen

Have you seen Shift Happens? Of course you have, when you’re not twittering about Hugh Grant. Around five million people have seen the 2006 viral PowerPoint by Karl Fisch that describes how scary and weird the future will be, and how we’ll all have to learn Esperanto and live in tree houses to cope with it all. I saw it years ago at a staff meeting, where it was used as a starter. Very stirring, full of portentous predictions about the future, and terribly big numbers about how many geniuses China had and so on; and the music was terrific. But even then I had my doubts, despite the ontological certainty it possessed.

Then I realised what gave it potency; it was the music- the music made it, in the way that good music can often rescue poor drama (see: the ending of any Holby City) or imbue any situation, however trivial, with pathos (see: X-Factor’s horrific misappropriation of Carmina Burana whenever some strung out twinky gets to the last round) and gravity. The excellent piece (The Gael, by Scots writer Dougie Maclean, and adapted by Trevor Jones) is used to great effect at the end of The Last of the Mohicans- a perfect example of music and motion working  in synchronicity, multiplying each other.
Shift Happens is an empty, brainless rant- it takes a stirring piece of music (which Fisch’s collaborator said he added ‘to keep people awake’, which is telling) and treats the viewer to a mixture of mundane statistics and spurious observation posing as deductive syllogisms. Try watching it with the sound down and you’ll see exactly how knuckle-headed it all is. I’ll summarise:

  •        Gosh, aren’t there lots of people in the world?
  •        The world is changing
  •         Everything we think we know will be useless in about five minutes.
  •         Shift Happens!
And this is meant to be a good thing?
And that’s it. It’s the video that popularised the mantra ‘According to the former Secretary of Education Richard Riley’- dramatic pause- ‘The top 10 jobs that will be in demand in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004!’ Now that is the stupidest thing I’ve heard for a long, long time. For a start, it assumes a knowledge of the future that I normally associate with the Delphic Oracle or St John of Patmos. Really? How the hell do you know? Add to that the Marx-Brothers logic of what it actually says: the jobs don’t exist yet? Where does he think that jobs come from? As many other commentators have noted, sure, maybe’ Iphone App designer’ didn’t exist as a career option in 2006, but the job didn’t spring out of nowhere- it emerged from existing careers and disciplines; design, programming, etc. To say it’s a ‘new’ job that ‘didn’t exist’ before is moronic- the job of sweeping up after the 2012 Olympics doesn’t exist yet, but when it does I suspect no one will faint in terror at the modernity of it all.

‘We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet...using technologies that haven’t been order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet...’

And so it goes on, serious as a chastened child, sticking it’s bottom lip out and frowning. If anyone has the time and energy, could you put this video up online, but this time with the theme from Benny Hill on behind it? Then we can all have a good laugh. Although it’s not all giggles; there’s even a slightly ominous ‘If we don’t get our shit together we’ll all be gobbled up by Indo-China’ thread running through it, which seems to be a rather gauche piece of fear mongering. We don’t want those f*cking brown and yellow people catching up with us, do we?

It doesn’t help that it chips in lines like:
‘If Myspace were a country, it would be the 11th largest in the world.’ 
Really? *clutches heart* And if the streets were made of trifle we’d all have to buy Wellington Boots. Lucky they aren’t, eh? And funnily enough, MySpace isn’t a country, so that’s that then, and neither are: ‘all the left-handed people in the world’, ‘all the people who watch Torchwood’, or ‘all the people who missed the tube on the way home last night’.  For God’s sake.
‘It is estimated that a week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in his entire lifetime in the 18th century.
I have absolutely no idea how you would come about a statistic like that- what is information? How can you quantify it? As I sit here at my desk, I am bathed in a constant stream of experiences, from the light entering my eyes, to the feeling of the chair on my righteous ass. Is that information? How do I break that down into quantifiable units? Does a fact about the weather in Madagascar count as information, but the sound of a crow outside my window escape quantification? 

Or my favourite:
‘The amount of new technical information is doubling every two years.’
Really? How on Earth do you know that? What’s the measurement? It gets better:
‘For students starting a four year technical or college degree this means that half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study.’
Elmer Fudd could knock this one down. Outdated? If you mean ‘learned at a previous date,’ then, sure. If you mean ‘irrelevant’ then, er...not sure. So if I go to Uni and study the laws of thermodynamics because I want to become a scientist, they no longer apply by the time I leave? Boyle’s Law? The laws of motion? Yes, I remember when we had to throw them out the window and start again, after all ,they’re hundreds of years old, surely annihilated by the paradigm shifts that have taken place several hundreds of times, according to Shift Happens. Oh, wait, they’re still applicable. Funny that.
It goes on; apparently Nintendo spent a jillion dollars on R&D, but in the same time, ‘the US government didn’t even spend half this much on research and innovation in education.’ Oh no! Barricade the pet shops! Frankly, that last stat delights me- the idea that innovation is the transformative key to our industry, or the idea that research will act as its salvational mechanism, is appealing but dangerously wrong.

And it would be easy to ignore; but this type of thinking, fuelled by this sort of sexy, brave new world advertising has infected the way we view education, and harmed how we view the role of education, and the most effective ways of education. For a start, it generates the myth that what we teach children (content, facts, etc) is less relevant; because everything’s changing so frightfully fast, isn’t it, why bother teaching them anything? This leads to the second danger; the idea that if content is irrelevant (we can Google it after all) then what we should be teaching children is versatility, the ability to think on their feet, the ability to think creatively and adapt to the chaotic culture and fluid job market that our children will enter. Why, it’ll be barely recognisable! Who needs history, or formulae, when the inheritors of tomorrow will need all their wits about them just to inhabit the cyber sphere.

The creator of Shift Happens
Balls. Shift Happens came out in 2006, and some of its predictions could be tested in 2010 (in a manner not dissimilar to Back to the Future, which predicted a variety of dystopian/ utopian crypto-cultures that would be with us by the staggeringly distant...2015. Great Scott! Hover boots any day now). And having lived through the specified eras, I can confirm that...well, it’s not all that different, really, is it? The News of the World is still the biggest selling weekly rag, and Will Self still appears on Newsnight under the influence of Heroin. Even Sooty is back. Hello, Sooty *waves*.

The idea that we live in a radical, fluid epoch in history where nothing is certain, and the future is impossible to predict....well, isn’t that how it’s always been? That’s the problem of inductive inferences- you’re never certain, and we rely on the reassuring semi-certainties of past experience and the Einstellung effect to paddle our canoes into the future, or back to the future, perhaps. Kids need to be educated just as much in maths, English, humanities and arts as they always did. The minute we stop doing so is the point at which we will be de-educating our selves back to the Stone Age. Let’s not do that, eh?

Sir Ken Robinson, slayer of educational paradigms

Connected to this is the noble Sir Ken Robinson the spokesman of revolutionising the educational paradigms, which he does before breakfast, after which he moves on to inspiring, I don’t know, children on the Moon or something.

He is enormously popular, one of the new academic supercelebs created by the unifying power of the internet, and proving it’s not all LOL cats, schadenfreude and perversion.
He exists as part of the brainy internet elite created by the information superhighway; famous for his inspirational speeches and TED conferences, he has achieved a fame and influence that would have been hard to imagine prior to the web- which IS  one of the game changers that we can recognise as culturally significant.

It is impossible not to like Robinson; like Daniel Willingham in his excellent article for the Washington Post I have also been sent his 2010 RSA lecture (put to excellent animation by this video) by well-meaning friends who know that I am interested in all matters pedagogic. He is charming, erudite, quick witted and has a wonder sense of timing that makes him a rarity- an entertaining academic. But like Shift Happens, I’m worried about the content behind the music, and while I agree with him on many things, there are many dangerous ideas he promotes that, while well-meant in root, bear dangerous fruits.

He talks about our educational system as having emerged from the cocoon of industry, and being based on a factory model, which he says like it’s a bad thing. The image of schools as factories is a powerful one, and –correctly- makes us recoil to imagine children as drones in a hive, divided in their labour and alienated from their produce. So far, so Marxist. 

But we also need to consider the question, ‘What is a better way to educate millions and millions of children?’ The only answer that can be provided is ‘in large numbers, together, in schools. Those schools will require classrooms. And in those classrooms they will study subjects taught by specialists, because while all knowledge is undoubtedly interrelated, it is hard to find people who understand more than one specialism.’ Hence, the modern education system.

Welcome back
There is nothing nefarious or soul destroying in accepting this: yes, it would be great for children to receive genuinely personalised learning.  But what nation could afford this? And besides, who is to say that such a way of educating wouldn’t bring its own attendant problems. Until everything becomes free, the best, the most efficient way of teaching children is in the context of the class, in the school paradigm. Of course, Ken correctly identifies that there are lots of ways we can play with this model- why do we teach children in chronological cohorts( apart from the obvious reasons), when many countries allow progression only after ability has been confirmed, for example?

The claim that modern education was designed for a different age is wrong- for a start, the education system hat we know is frighteningly modern; the curriculum, some of the subjects, most of the qualifications, a lot of the teaching practise, and even the varieties of schools, are almost entirely the product of the post war era, and even formal state schooling itself was only instituted in any meaningful way right at the end of the 19th century. This isn’t an old system- this is a child, and pretending that we’re simply slavishly following the paradigms of the ancients is an absurd claim, absolutely at odds with the truth. Therefore the claim that it isn’t fit for purpose (for many of the reasons that Shift Happens claims) just isn’t true,. There are many things wrong with education, but that’s not the same claim as ‘the whole thing needs to be tipped on its head and made to limbo dance.’

One of his principle objections is that creative thinking has historically and currently been marginalised in society and education, and there’s some truth in that (although not when you consider that the top earners in society, discounting media moguls and businessmen, are often entertainers, artists and creatives). But I digress. It’s true that education is tilted heavily towards English, Maths and Science, and the structural appreciation of those faculties. But the last time I looked, the curriculum was also stuffed with drama, music, dance, writing essays, poetry, design, textiles, expressive arts, and on and on and on. If creativity is being given a raw deal I think it could be a hell of a lot worse.

Shift Happens's greatest fear.
And even in the so called academic subjects, where on earth is the prohibition on creativity? I don’t know of any subject in any of the academic disciplines that don’t cater for, or require a creative component. All humanities subjects need the student to synthesise ideas and promote their own arguments; English appreciation and literature involves the systematic reproduction of the creative process in order to criticise it, and that’s when the students are themselves not writing essays or poems. The suggestion that the contemporary curriculum is somehow the death-knell of creativity is nonsense. It's a bona fide saviour; millions of children exposed to a spectrum of art and opportunity that our grandparents would have drooled over.

Also, the idea that schools somehow drive creativity out of a child is laughable; Robinson’s hypothesis is this: a ‘study’ (ah, studies, my favourite. Ultimate Truth Alert!)  shows that if you ask a kindergarten child what a paper clip could be used for, 98% of them achieve ‘genius level’ number of answers. But as they get older, the % reduces, which proves, according to Robinson, that the dastardly education system turns creative geniuses into simple-minded, mouth-breathing morons. Or ...perhaps as children get older they realise that there’s a fabulous use for a paper clip that really, really makes sense: to bind loose sheets of paper together. Oh yeah, sure, it can be used as a miniature radio receiver for Stuart Little or some bloody thing, but frankly, there are better things out there that do that too. A paper clip makes a great paper clip. That’s not a deficit in the imagination of a child; it’s an asset for them to quickly associate intended function with form. That way they get their papers sorted out much more quickly. If you spend all your time trying to figure out a novel way of making fire, we’ll all freeze to death while the innovators rub their heads together furiously.

Sir Ken Robinson is a fantastic speaker and passionate advocate of the creative arts, and he deserves enormous credit for standing up against a good many inequities in education. But I tire of someone who has never been a classroom teacher telling me what classroom teaching is like, or how children should be taught. If I can paraphrase- I suspect- Christopher Hitchens, being told by a non-teacher with a PhD in education how to teach is a bit like being told by a virgin how to get laid. His good intentions and intuitions can't replace the real experience of teaching children. Well meant aphorisms about arming children to engage with the new learning society are easy to find inspirational; but they’re empty. It’s far harder to inspire someone with concrete and practical ideas. And abstracts, though they sound beautiful, are harder to both prove and disprove.

The Box

And that brings me back to the Box. 

There has been an assault on the box. Thinking outside the box is the by-now clichéd way of expressing an ability or tendency to think in new, unusual or creative ways, bringing surprising solutions to old problems. It assumes that existing paradigms (ie conventional conceptual schemes, or ways of perceiving something) are inadequate for dealing with unusual or new challenges. And that is correctly perceived as a good thing. Like Alexander, mythically cutting through the fabled knot at Gordus, lateral thinking has become the new orthodoxy for intelligence.

But it assumes that existing paradigms are inadequate, and that the original box wasn’t fit for purpose. And it fails to take into account the wisdom of tradition; it assumes that the new paradigm will be a superior solution, when it is not. Or it may be a partially superior solution for one aspect of the paradigm’s problems, but not for others. 

Calling education ‘unfit for purpose’ is simply a statement of opinion, and an ill-informed one at that. There is a reason why a bowl of custard makes a poor key ring- that’s unfit for purpose. But a small circle of metal with overlapping ends that require you to lose a thumbnail to access? Well that works quite well, actually. Children and adults already think creatively- that’s something axiomatic about human nature. I imagine that every card carrying genius level designer, artist and innovator- the Dysons, the Fosters, the Sinclairs, the Einsteins that we so admire, had an education that was in many ways traditional- the box was a perfectly suitable start for them; providing a framework, a structure, a skeleton of the best of previous generations’ thinking, creating a springboard from which they could...well, spring. 

Isaac Newton’s famous quote ‘If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants’ is a perfect expression of this art. No thinker exists in a state of solipsism; we all lean on the achievements of our predecessors, and the most inventive of us will adapt and improve that work, often in surprising ways, but rarely in a manner that is literally entirely new. 

The internet is the product of prior discoveries in telecommunications, which can be traced back to the tinkering of Marconi and the embryonic machinations of Edison, Faraday, and a million other explorers. Rap, grunge and garage can all be traced back to common ancestors of thought and ingenuity. We are a culture in a stream of cultures, and the biggest mistake we can make is to fail to discern that this is so. Creativity is a quality in the human spirit; it can, and should be encouraged by bold experiments and grand failures, both in schools and in the greater world. Of course it should. But innovation isn’t all, and paradigms that have existed for thousands of years might not benefit from constant, and foundational innovation. Sometimes, like the shark, they have remained in a stationary state of evolution because they are exactly fit for purpose. Old ideas are not always bad ideas, and the endless advancement of novelty and the shock of the new is a poor reason to overturn everything. Revolutions must serve a purpose.

'First Owl Trend ever. Win.'
Take the chair I’m sitting on; as we speak it has four sturdy legs supporting its valuable cargo, tapping away. But hold! There’s nowhere to put my Irn Bru. What a crock of sh*t. Thinking creatively, I give one of the chair legs a stiff tug, and attach it to the back rest with some sellotape I have handy, in case the creative muse grips me. Oh dear, I now appear to be on my ass.

The chair, you see, was a pretty good shape for the purpose it was designed to fulfil. Now it’s an unusual paperweight in the middle of my floor, and I’m wearing a soft drink.

In a vague but determined attempt to shoehorn some contemporary news into this post, I could mention that Joel Klein, News International’s head of Educational Resource Development and Child Sacrifice, and now a prominent figure in the face saving antics of NI this week, is part of this push for unnecessary progress; his aim, and NI’s aim (which therefore makes it Satanic) is to develop (i.e. push, like cocaine) software and educational packages deeper and deeper into the curriculum, with an eye to students learning for themselves from educational software, devaluing the role of the school and the teacher. Who needs teachers, anyway? What do they actually do? Nothing that a computer program couldn’t, it seems. At least, that’s what this implies. And of course the ideology that informs this (apart from self interest and profit, which are the real motivators) is the idea that the teacher is essentially a delivery mechanism, replaceable by something kids can stick into the back of their Playstations. Innovate, innovate, innovate. If it’s new, it’s good.

Every time I hear about someone saying that kids learn in different ways these days, and that we teachers have to get on board or get off the bus, I despair. No they don’t. People are the same as they’ve always been. And they learn in the same ways. And no amount of expensive software or digital popcorn will alter that fact. This isn’t being reactionary- this is me trying to fight off the vultures that want to commodify education, and turn it into something they can sell us. It isn’t. Education takes place in a space where the teacher and student exist in a relationship; where the learned instructs and guides the learner. It isn’t a software package; these things are tools, strategies, but not replacements.

And every time I hear people calling for a revolution in the curriculum, or a brand, brave new world of education, where pupils turn up and give the lessons in semi-circles, using the medium of the Haka to describe their physics homework, I roll my eyes and wonder when the bad noises in my head will stop. 

Innovation is fine. And sometimes a paperclip is a paperclip.

Washington Post article

OldAndrew's blog on similar issues; like mine, but with better research and references.


  1. Twitter memes indeed!!

    But another well argued and undeniably sensible blog post. It's nice to see someone standing up for the current system.

  2. Your post spells out why it's all the more frustrating when you get some moron who's made their way up the school ladder dictate how you're a crappy teacher for not embracing crap like learning styles.

  3. Do you work in the same school as I do?

  4. A3: My pleasure, thank you!

    A2: No one owns teaching. And as I will never tire of saying, no one knows anything. Learning styles will, hopefully, fade away one day.

    Omega Anonymous: I don't know. Do you?

  5. Thank you for your articles shining a very bright flashlight on some of the problems with Sir Ken's glorification.

    I have linked several of your posts to my own *RSA Animate Indeed,* taking him to task for poking fun at Attention Deficit Disorder, quickly sliding his ill-researched personal conclusions as if they were established fact into a presentation positioned as transformational knowledge -- out of integrity with what he claims to champion.

    As I say in the post, "I have always found it offensive when people attempt to sway others by poking fun rather than proffering truth" as well as, "misinformation in my area of expertise makes me question the sincerity of his quest as well as the validity of the rest of the items in his presentation."

    Today, in response to a pin supporting his new book, I have also pinned several graphics from your site to my ADD Coach Wisdom board on Pinterest. I hope that at least a few people will take the time to read what you have to say.

    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie - ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    - ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder -
    "It takes a village to educate a world!"

  6. Great writing again. Have u written a book?


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