Ken Robinson's "The Element" gets launched in the UK this week. It's a superb tome, and one that every educator, employee or entrepreneur should read, if only to check that they themselves are in the right place personally and professionally. Do your natural talents and passions meet at the same time and place, or are you plugging away at the wrong thing completely? Ken's book contains no simplistic lists of things one must do to survive the 21st century - it's Johnny Bunko for the over-educated.
Update: The RSA have now featured a film of his Element Lecture from February 2009.
Many of the messages will be familiar to those who have viewed his famous TED talk which proclaims, rightly in this blogger's opinion, that schools kill creativity. Why? Here's some of the stimulus from Ken's book along with some of my own observations, thoughts and inaccurate takes on the world of education.
Schools are built for, and in the image of, the industrial revolution
Schools are not only built for an industrial revolution past but also in its image - my first ever teaching placement in the most deprived area of Scotland was marked by every period of learning being 53 minutes long, something more like a chicken processing plant's shifts than a stimulating learning environment, with students batched by age and subject to standardised tests for quality before shipping to the real world. Conformity has thus always had a higher value than diversity. Disciplines on offer are subject to a hierarchy (maths and native language, followed by the sciences with music and the arts chasing the coattails).
Creativity and standardised testing can't share the same bed
We know this set of unchanging givens is killing creativity not just in high schools, though generally to a much lesser degree in primary schools, but also in Higher Education establishments. As the number of school leavers not in employment, education or training (NEET) creates a political headache for governments around the world, they are failing to tackle the continued problem in universities and colleges where the numbers also falling into the NEET category are surpassing the figures for high schools.
From recent personal experience of the 'creative output' of some UK Higher Education institutions I can vouch for a killing of creativity, independent thought and entrepreneurship, as hoardes of undergraduates and MScs fight to conform to what university markers want to see and take advantage of the spread of 'cramming courses' at the expense of pursuing personal passions at their best effort. When working on personal projects that are put forward for commissioning (i.e. asking for several £00,000s from the likes of 4iP) or for national and international media and technology prizes, the constraints of the learning environment ("a one-month unit using only x or y software") are used to justify downright poor propositions. Where's the passion that makes them stay up until 11pm and be up at 5.30am to work on their Big Idea? (These are the times 11 year olds at the New York KIPP schools regularly keep to tackle their learning, something about which they, at least, are passionate).
I said earlier that elementary schools have largely escaped this struggle for conformity, but even this elevated position is being gnawed away by standardised tests and curricula. Nothing in the past three years has made me more depressed about the state of education in England than hearing a young Wolverhampton child, part of a PDA-in-the-classroom project, saying that his prime goal from learning was to "get a five" - I still have no idea what "a five" is, but I have a feeling that it's not something that inspires me.
The death of entrepreneurship
This desire to "get a five" or to gain the best possible SAT test result is based on a wrong assumption, both in the creation of such tests and their perceived value in the wider world, particularly in the growing creative sector (worth £50b a year in the UK). Malcolm Gladwell's (right) Outliers, which I read immediately after Robinson's Element, offers a great counterpart in where creative success comes from in the first place. It explores the element of chance, background and opportunity in one's success, but also the need for a serious superhuman degree of practice at something before you reach the beginning of your prime, somewhere, that is, in the region of 10 years or 10,000 hours of passionate practice.
In the schooling environment we still see in most countries' high schools and higher education establishments, it's rare that the personal passion of a young person is given the chance to steer activity, resource and time in order that they might get close to achieving that 10,000 hours quicker. But it's not all the fault of institutions' structures and strictures.
More often than not, the successful student pictures themselves working in the 'safety' of faceless institutions rather than taking their passions and ideas to market themselves. History shows more entrepreneurs who were not successful students making it in the relative unsupported privacy of their entrepreneurship. Most students fail to realise, as Robinson puts it so well, that a degree these days is not so much a passport to a good job and salary, but a visa, something that needs renewed on an ever more frequent basis. But institutions and Governments are not particularly vocal in promoting this fact, thus encouraging the self-perpetuating myth that going to univesrity is better than going to college which is better than following a passion that, while you're willing to spend every waking hour working on it, might not lead to anything.
What is it that needs to change? Clue: It isn't curriculum or assessment
Nearly every country I've worked in for the past three years, from India to China, New Zealand to the states and provinces of Canada and the USA, from my native Scotland to our neighbours in England and Wales, is fiddling with two things: curriculum and assessment. Technology is often seen as the means of making teaching and learning better. I don't want to tackle here whether it does, but one thing is sure, as Arthur C Clarke (via Sugata Mitra) put it: "If a teacher can be replaced by a computer, then they should." This doesn't mean that all teachers should be replaced by computers, of course. It doesn't even mean that poor teachers should be, really. What it does highlight is that the myth an education system has no poor teachers or even a large hump of mediocre teachers needs to be met head on.
We also need to recognise that, largely, those teachers who use technology the most effectively and lead the way with its use are also, by and large, excellent teachers with or without the technology.
This helps us see what many of us appreciate already: the one biggest element of improving education, making learning more creatively inclined and entrepreneurial, is the teacher. It's not curriculum, class sizes (though smaller class sizes make the teacher's life easier) or even assessment. This is something I've been reporting back from research for two years (and which I've been blown out on more times than I can count). It's not about letting students lead the way with technology and "show us teachers" how it's done. Students are generally quite narrow in their knowledge of how to harness technology or creative venture.
No, it's how teachers and parents teach that is important. It is, to use a piece of edu-jargon, pedagogy, both at school and at home.
Yet no national strategy - and I would love to be corrected - headlines pedagogy as the key factor. Think about it: A Curriculum for Excellence (Scotland); No Child Left Behind (assessment: USA); New Zealand's curriculum is about values, competences, subject areas... Also, there's no large educational business à la Pearson that places its centre of gravity around pedagogy forcing the issue with superb pedagogy-based programmes of change, and with good reason - the business of standardised testing, where pedagogy must play second fiddle to cramming and passing the test, is worth in the USA between $1.2 and $5 billion per year per state. How much is teaching the teachers worth? Currently, a lot less.
Fundamental change through Brains Trusts
When I was having a post-panel-session chat with Clay Shirky (I was on the panel and he was the first question-asker of the day) he talked about my current place of employment not in terms of what it was, but in terms of who was in it: "What a brain trust you guys have there", he said. What did he mean? He meant that the organisation employed what it felt were the best people for the job of moving its business forward, and left them to get the hell on with it. The result of feeling that you're part of this brains trust is that you strive more than you ever have to be the best in the world. How many times has someone called the teachers in your school a "brains trust"? Or, for that matter, the management team? Or the parents? Or the students? How many times a day are you aware that you're goal is to be the best in the world?
When we were developing eduBuzz for students and teachers in East Lothian, we centred it around the people, not the platform or the politique of the education authority's management (who, in some schools and particularly in the early days, riled against what we were doing). In a LIFT talk last year, I made the point of saying that its success as a project was probably down to the fact that it offered an immediate change from the importance placed on the school - school boards, school achievement, school councils - and moved it instead onto a level where individuals - people - were the focus. People, not institutions and paper-borne structures, are the sole way to help individuals find their element, nurture it and take advantage of that for the greater good. It's just that most people who have ound their element have had to go and create their own institutions or projects to find a like-minded tribe - education institutions where one is packed away by age and ability, ability determined through standardised tests, are not the place to find fellow tribesmen and women who want to be the best in the world.
It's the nurturing of the brains trust in one's place of work or place of learning that counts the most if we are to improve learning. Schools are pretty poor at identifying talents that are not testable, yet alone nurturing it (this happens thanks to the actions of individual teachers rather than a systemic ability and framework to nurture talent, in the same way as, say, a broadcaster like Channel 4 does; there, the raison d'être is to nurture alternative voices and new talent, with a budget and infrastructure built more or less solely around this. My own department, for example, manages some £50m of public and private money to nurture new talent in online, mobile and gaming media alone.).
Making sure that our current and future students in schools and higher education establishments are capable of entrepreneurship in many areas of their lives, of coming up with solutions that marry new technology (bringing with it new possibilities we could not have before thought through) with strong understanding of design to tackle issues that really matter is the number one task to ensure that they can fully participate as citizens. Simply providing access to part of that equation is not enough: broadband for all without understanding for all, community without happenstance on a global scale, a child's creativity without understanding of the potential technology brings.