The Second Coming of Ken Robinson- but he's not the messiah

Brace yourself
Ken Robinson, godfather of unusually-used paperclips, is back. He's famous to millions of educators as the author and speaker behind the RSA animation 'How schools kill creativity', which among other awards, is also winner of 'the most superficially convincing but ultimately brainless education clip'- joint winner with Shift Happens. You might have seen him at a TED conference, if you're extremely rich, or on Youtube if you're not. I've never really understood the Cult of Ken. He's affable, intelligent, charismatic and passionate about helping children. But unfortunately he's also quite wrong in many matters regarding them.

This week Ken has descended from TED Olympus to lecture Michael Gove on the National Curriculum. In an interview with The Guardian he says:
'[The] current plans for the national curriculum seem likely to stifle the creativity of students and teachers alike.' 
 This does sound bad. Creativity is one of those abstracts so nebulous that it could mean a million things to a million ears. Most people would consider it a good thing, broadly, without being able to reify it. That's what makes any discussion about it so slippery.
'The important issue here is that when he talks about creativity, Gove seems to mean what he says but to misunderstand what he's talking about. His views also suggest some serious misconceptions about teaching and learning in general.'
 That last bit made me sit up. I am neither the Secretary of State for Education, nor a Professor, but I am a teacher, which Sir Ken has never been, so I feel entitled to comment. Incidentally, that's an odd thing, isn't it? People are never been shy of expressing their opinions about education, no matter how little experience of it they actually  have. Many spurn Gove for his inexperience, but are more forgiving of Rosen or Robinson. I suspect it's simply affinity towards whomever says what we already believe, more eloquently. 

I also have some dark views on people with PhDs in education and beyond who have built a life in education without ever doing the damned thing itself. It is rare to find an emeritus professor of mathematics who has never added anything up in his head. Robinson's wisdom springs from a well of theory, compounded by distinguished service, garnished with laurels. But I'll tether that beast for now.

His main objection is that the new National Curriculum will stifle creativity. I confess, I'm left scratching my head as to how this will happen. In what subject? Has he even read it? This is the same National Curriculum (draft, of course) that contains compulsory Music...and Art....and Design Technology, right? And that's just the subjects that most obviously lend themselves to interpretation as creative endeavours. Yes, I can see how having all that art and music will just strain the creativity out of kids. Christ, it's like Mao's China.

Will this harrowing happen in English, with its creative writing component? Where forming a critical assessment of texts studied is central to the whole enterprise? Perhaps he means in History, that much debated echo chamber of neurosis, where everyone is appointed because their favourite inspirational figure has fallen off the table? I have no idea. All I know is that the proposed curriculum as it stands can barely bear its own weight, so heavy with creative pursuits is it saddled.

Robinson's Barely

In his piece in the Guardian, Robinson explains what he defines creativity as. He also tackles Gove over his claims that creativity requires mastery before it can properly flourish, but this is a straw man (© Old Andrew) argument. Children- and all of us- are naturally creative. We create all the damn time. Every time we imagine anything that is beyond our immediate senses, we create. When we day dream, we create. When we fear, or hope, or plan, or imagine, we create. We are the architects of galaxies within our minds. Creativity is not some skill by itself; it has no substance. Creativity is the description we give to actions, events and objects once they have been created. It cannot be taught by itself. It can only emerge, unbidden, through the material we attempt to master. It reveals itself continuously through the way we design and solve problems.

What we can do to help kids practise creativity is to give them something to create with. In a potter's hands this is clay. In the realm of our minds, the matter is ideas: knowledge is the atom of creativity; comprehension and understanding are its molecules. A child can be creative, as can a Master of Arts. But which one has the tools to create more extensively, constructively?

A masterpiece, apparently
Robinson also uses an odd argument when he discusses Hans Zimmer, the near omnipresent scorer of every other blockbuster movie this decade. Apparently he was so troublesome as a child he was kicked out of seven schools. SEVEN. Only a teacher can appreciate what an arse Hans Zimmer must have been as a child to get kicked out of so many schools, and I say that as a fan. School eight had a more unusual approach, however, which Robinson applauds:
'The headmaster took him to one side on the first day and said: "Look, I've read all these reports. How are we going to avoid this sort of trouble here? What is it you really want to do?" Hans said that all he really wanted to do was play music. With the head's support, he spent most of the time doing exactly that. Slowly he became engaged in other work too.'
I applaud the Head for his unorthodoxy. But what do we take from this? That schools should only let kids study what they like? That they can tell all the other teachers to fuck off? That may work if you have bottomless resources, and are dealing someone as predisposed to pursue music as Hans Zimmer (who attended Hurtwood House, a private school in Surrey incidentally) but we don't just teach children what they like, because they are children, and what they like may not be what they need.

People like Robinson seem to believe that our jobs as educators is to uncover the talents and aptitudes personal to each child, and then to elevate them. This assumes that such aptitudes exist, uncovered, undiscovered, like statues of David buried in cold lava, and our jobs are to be archaeologists of character. Who buries these statues? What fairy hand blesses each child with gifts, and then challenges its guardians with discovering them? What immortal hand or eye?

Two problems: firstly, its doubtful such talents exist intrinsically. They must be generated, not revealed. Zimmer was the son of two musicians, who grew up in a music studio and played by himself for countless hours. I wonder if that's where the aptitude came from? I'm just guessing. Take a child into ten different lifetimes and watch as ten different lives grow from each path. DNA isn't destiny, and experience carves us into the shapes that it will. We're not just archaeologists; we're sculptors.

Secondly, it is the entitlement of every child to the legacy of their culture's heritage, whether they bloody like it or not. Universal education has at its heart this concern: that no matter what your background, you are entitled to a broad and rigorous exposure to the best that culture, science and thought has produced. To do anything else is to deny children- and it will be poor children especially- worlds beyond their experiences, and entire universes of opportunity. Allow a child, even a parent, to decide what children should learn, and we risk a regress towards cultural solipsism. Lucky Hans Zimmer; but no culture could, or should, build an education system on his experiences.

Is Robinson serious when he suggests this? That we should allow children to find their heart song and never mind all that beastly sums and Norman Conquest rubbish? Or that we should make lessons as entertaining as possible, and ensure that children are engaged at all times? Only a man who has never taught could think this. Or do we accept that learning, like anything worthwhile, is often hard work? That opinion won't draw applause at a TED conference populated by believers and acolytes, but it's the truth.

Here's to you, Mr Robinson

Robinson is a kind and articulate man, but he's as much a credible educational revolutionary as Paolo Coelho is a plumber. He may hold the LEGO Prize for international achievement in education ( and I am NOT making that up: best award ever) but his theories of what creativity is, and how it must be taught, are sophistry and illusion. There isn't a shin-bone of evidence to support what he says. Creativity cannot be taught directly. We're just not that powerful, or precise. Our medicine is not strong enough. We can demonstrate how others have been creative. We can give them an anvil, a forge and a hammer. We can show them swords, and shoes, and breastplates. We can let them try for themselves more and more as they learn.

But the rest is up to them. And the National Curriculum in its draft form does nothing to deter this.I really like Sir Ken. But he should stick to stand-up.

The interview in the Guardian:

Shift doesn't happen. My earlier thoughts on Ken Robinson's RSA Animate video


  1. Thanks for another great piece. What worked for Hans would not work for very many of the disruptive kids I've met:

    How are we going to avoid this sort of trouble here? What is it you really want to do?" Connor said that all he really wanted to do was play on his iPhone and call other kids gay. With the head's support, he spent most of the time doing exactly that. Slowly he became engaged in throwing pens too.'

    1. For every shining inspirational anecdote, there's a real world parallel!

  2. Great post, but:

    "There isn't a shin-bone of evidence to support what he says."

    There hasn't been much evidence for pretty much anything that's worthwhile that's worked outside 'hard science'. :-/

  3. Tom
    The latest DfE 'Secondary Training Pack' being handed out this month
    ( then number 17 in module 1) tells us the best way to deal with pupils who have problematic behaviours. 'The single most effective strategy in most cases is to work with the rest of the class on ignoring the behaviours.' I have been there and done that (although it is hard to go head to head with a child determined to draw attention to themselves by shouting out obscenties, the teacher just can't top that for interest value...) as it was the only option left, but I'm not convinced it is any sort of answer, or indeed that it is fair on the rest of the class, who might conceivably want to learn about fractions, rather than learn how to ignore their classmate, again. Obviously I should put my 'Creative' thinking hat on next time. Wouldn't it be great if Ken popped in and took a lesson or two? He could get hyped up creating spinning plates and stop them dropping to the floor, it would be easier.

  4. It's easy to dismiss Robinson's reference to the Zimmer story as showing his complete out-of-touchness with the challenges of the classroom. Turn it into a question and it becomes more interesting. The disengaged child is not interested in what you are teaching because he cannot see the point. Enable him or her to find the smallest grain of a passion for something within their constricted worldview and they might start to see the point. Enable the grain of passion to grow and they might start to embrace the whole of the curriculum they are being offered. I am reminded of the story told me by someone running a collaborative project between a youth club and the library service in Leicester. They took a bunch of kids to buy a book at Waterstones. Some of the kids wanted to be rap artists and were very interested to discover that there were things called rhyming dictionaries. Only problem was they hadn't learned to read. Now at last they could see why that might have been a good idea.

  5. As parent of a child who has managed - (with firm support to improve what he is "like"), I believe Ken is right in a lot of what he says BUT my son also needs to learn to improve and address his behaviour not have it accomodated all the time. I have long harboured the ambition to come to one of Sir Ken's talks and behave the way my son used to (and still does to an extent, but he is really working on it) - asking questions that have NOTHING to do with the subject in hand, constant fidgeting, - and when he gets nervous or stressed he has various verbal tics he throws into the mix. I'm posting this on the guardiarn article when I find it too - in the hopes he might read it - I'd love to know his response...

  6. I spent the last 18 months of my primary education in a 1970s "progressive" school. They let the pupils do what they wanted (it seemed like *such* a good idea at the time). Most of us spent our time painting, making stuff, building treehouses. You know -- being creative. None of us became "more engaged" in other work: we were too busy doing what we wanted. The occasional flash-card-maths session and enforced reading became a punishment. In the meantime, my ex-classmates from my old three Rs school were getting a solid education. It took me years to undo the damage and I was one of the bright ones (my poster painting skills, on the other hand, are legend).

    Sir Ken *really* needs to get in the classroom (Sal Khan and Sugata Mitra could be his TAs). Start off easy with a mixed ability class of 27 kids (only three statemented), let them do what they want and then see what creativity *really* means. Good luck with the kids who like making sculptures with their own shit; and the ones who just like punching stuff; and the ones who *really don't know what they want to do*. Parables, soundbites and wishful thinking won't help you there Ken.

  7. I think you do Sir Ken an injustice but lumping him in with 'shift happens'. While Ken, perhaps rather regrettably, uses headline grabbing examples such as Zimmer to get attention, there is significantly more substance to his actual research. But you know that because you've read it, right?

    Take for a moment Sir Ken's broader point that the educational paradigm is wrong and needs changing. Imagine, if you will, that Sir Ken is right. Who would be best placed to notice this fundamental corruption, those on the inside helping create the paradigm or those on the outside looking at it?

    We teachers are a large part of the very paradigm that Sir Ken disputes. Of course you disagree with him!

    Just because you struggle to define creativity, doesn't make it nebulous. Sir Ken defines it as 'original ideas that have value.' This doesn't mean 'do what you like' - a gross over-simplification. It means 'create original ideas that are worthwhile, and to do that you'll need to build on the sum of existing ideas.'

    What Sir Ken is calling for is an agent-centered approach to education, in which the abilities and interests of students (think virtues) are developed. Virtues aren't developed in a vaccum, they are developed in the context of the best ideas that have already been created. If only I knew an education blogger who'd written a book on a virtue ethics approach to teaching...

    1. What I took from this comment:

      "You disagree with Sir Ken because you're a teacher. If the system were broken, being a part of the system would make you unable to see that it were broken, or why."

      So, I disagree with this. I don't feel the need to justify it much; it feels fairly a priori false: an extreme and preposterous supposition. For the sake of adding at least a little backbone to the statement, though, disagreeing with Sir Ken's view of what should change, and how it should be changed, does not automatically preclude the possibility that one believes change of some sort is desirable. Mr Robinson's perspective on education is not the only one.

      Other than that, I couldn't see what point was struggling to make itself here.

    2. Michael J Russell23 May 2013 at 22:34

      I think what the poster above is saying is that if a complex system really is broken it might take someone outside the system to identify it. Think Billy Beane or Peter Palchinsky depending on your flavour.

      I.e. just because Ken Robinson isn't a teacher doesn't invalidate his argument. If the steak is burnt you don't need to be a chef to send it back.

    3. Yeah, but teachers faced with difficult classroom situations week on week are some of the most creative people I have met in my life. They will try anything, and they will discuss it with their colleagues. With all due respect, the teachers of a school know what works for the kids at that school better than Mr Robinson, because they have a whole lot of communal experience of trial and error. And they will know those children as individuals with individual needs.

      Now I'm not saying that each individual teacher has the power to change an entire school single-handedly - a misguided or disrespected management team can make any teacher's life difficult. But where this is not the issue and there is a disengaged student, I can't see Ken's advice working in the overwhelming majority of cases. If Ken had some teaching experience, it would cause him to test and (I strongly suspect) rethink his ideas.

      Until HE tries them and they don't work, he will have no reason to change his tune. While he does seem to care about kids and education, I'm sure he enjoys being up on stage spouting popular ideas that get people talking. Why risk that..?

      If everyone's steaks that you reckon are burnt (having never tried cooking) how do you know your new method is going to fix anything? It'd be a shame if everyone got food poisoning.

    4. Great read from renowned scholars on the topic - In defence of school

  8. If you scratch the surface of so many popularised educational reforming voices like Sir Ken's, what you find is a worrying antipathy for schools. My favourite example is from the BSF world. Anyone who bothered to scratch the surface would have found that the leading researcher quoted ubiquitously by Partnerships for Schools and local authority staff, to the point where leading builders and architects really were trying to create (oh the irony) schools from his ideas, had written a PhD entitled "Schools as Prisons" and made no attempt to disguise his own awful school experience.

    For me, nothing I've seen even approaches the school (at its best) as a way of educating children to be independent thinkers, as well as positive contributors to society and adult life. I've long been concerned at the covert anti-schools agenda that lies behind so many "reforming" or "innovative" educational proposals.

  9. Just wanted to say that I have only just stumbled across your blog and I am loving every post--this one had me laughing out loud by myself in the middle of the living room! Keep the posts coming!

    TED is an enigma. There is some really, really good content on there, and some complete and utter bollocks. I've even seen some out-and-out pseudoscience on there from time to time, like alternative medicine-y crap.

  10. Thanks Emily, that's kind. I now blog every week on education on the TES website:

  11. Tom you are a fine writer, young man! You have a refreshingly witty and versatile style and I find your arguments convincing - as I seek to unpack the mystique of Ken.

  12. Tom you are a fine young writer!

  13. Sarah Olson and Stacey Johnson5 March 2018 at 14:26

    We agree that children need structure to their learning and that they may not always be able to make the best judgements as to the importance of their education. As teachers we are there to facilitate and challenge children's abilities to achieve.
    However Ken Robinson has a point that children will be more engaged in their learning if they feel they have a sense of ownership. Sir Ken states that 'Most children never get to explore the full range of their abilities, as the education system stifles the individual's talents and abilities, killing their motivation to learn'. This is supported by Wrigley's (2014) research into Finland's national curriculum involving age and stage in cognitive development and interests as well as emphasis on creativity and experience. They do not depend on an educational straight jacket. This results into one of the highest achieving counties in the PISA.

  14. Whilst we agree on Bennett on his behaviour outlook we feel that he has let his personal beliefs on Kens creative learning approach miss the point on using the curriculum to enrich learning for all children.
    A child needs to be engaged to participate and ultimately take ownership of their own education. There is a need for parents alongside their children to understand why and what is taught in schools so they can relate it to their world. Extending and enriching their knowledge can promote creativity but restricting GCSE choices to the core subjects can switch kids off if they can't see the relevance.
    The curriculam should be designed in response to an unpredictable evolving world in order to better equip children for their future. Heidi Hayes discusses a need for students to channel their creativity into creating technology,apps and websites and using different media such as podcasts and paddlet to engage kids and get them involved their learning rather than outdated book reports and essays.A focus of issues in the world around them and how to find solutions to environmental problems will develop problem solving skills.The educational paradigm needs to be evolving away from Gove's traditionalist views and embracing learner focused education as in the Finnish system where they are developing phenomena learning as a solution to a curriculum
    that needs updating as Damian Hinds is proposing,he endorses digital skills in order for students to succeed in a future workforce. Perhaps lessons can be learned from Sugar Mitra and Sal Khan instead of dismissing their ideas.


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