February 07, 2009

Ken Robinson's The Element: reincarnating creativity

Ken Robinson 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.


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This is really an important post. Because educational reformers are always "tinkering around the edges" and that really accomplishes nothing. If you read books like The Struggle for the American Curriculum - http://www.amazon.com/Struggle-American-Curriculum-1893-1958/dp/0415910137 - you can watch this industrial processing model get built - for all the worst reasons. The "missionary" model it replaced (converting children into appropriate, compliant, white protestants) was not much better, but it was a touch less cruel (and at least it did not break children into age-graded expectation groups, or the day into processing sessions).

(The missionary model lives on in SEN intentions and heavily in the US, in programs like KIPP and TFA, though those often mix the worst of missionary attitudes with the worst of the industrial model.)

Anyway, thanks for writing this, for bringing it together. I've been trying in posts like "Insufficiently Transformative" - http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2008/12/insufficiently-transformative.html - and "Why Standards-Based and Accountability are Bad Words" - http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2009/01/why-standards-based-and-accountability.html - on my blog, and, of course I write my angry academic papers, but this said it all as well as anything I've read.

I always find this to be amazingly true, without exception too, "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."

I've ordered my copy of 'The Element'.

Ewan, you have again articulated very well many of the ideas that I have been writing and speaking about recently. See http://xpatasia.edublogs.org/2009/02/02/is-strong-leadership-in-education-coming-anytime-soon/
One thing that is almost depressing is that good books, blog posts and speakers are all saying the same thing and presenting good research and arguments for change yet I do not see much evidence of schools doing anything different.
I work with international schools, as you know. If there was ever a system that should lead change it is the well funded IS system with a parent community that are often representative of the leadership and entrepreneurial sector of a community. In spite of this, we see these schools rushing to put more examinations and standarised testing in place.
The clear indication of the heavy emphasis on testing and external examinations in this region comes from the large number of secondary schools in Hong Kong that have recently announced that they are going to offer the International Baccalaureate at the school, only to go on to say that they would only offer the "content and examination oriented" IB Diploma course for Year 11 and 12 but not the internally assessed and more inquiry-based Middle Years Programme of the International Baccalaureate which does not offer an external examination. Instead, 6 of the 9 schools I am aware of who have gone 1:1, or are going there in the next academic year are opting for the IGCSE so that they can report the results of a high-stakes external examination to parents at the end of Year 10.
I can't help but think we are going backwards rather than embracing creativity and supporting individuality as you say.
Maybe it is different landscape in other parts of the world.
For the sake of all of our futures, I hope so!

Great post, gave me excellent fodder for my own post. Let me play the devil's advocate and steer clear of the congratulatory tone of agreement you might expect after pouring your heart out in a passionate plea for educational reinvention.

I think the entire backlash against the current method of muffling creativity in the classroom may actually inspire even greater ideas! No, I personally don't think killing creativity is possible and I don't think entrepreneurship will disappear despite everything the state tries to do to limit an individual's right to flourish. Yes, I think this kind of repression leads to a healthy form of entrepreneurial rebellion and you happen to be smack dab in the middle of it.

I had just finished reading The Element when I saw your post. I loved the book, just as I loved the TedTalk.

There are two "bits" I want to share from my own reflection, and both connect with parents. First, I think we need to look upstream to post-secondary entrance requirements to understand the role of assessment, and more specifically marks. Post-secondary education is becoming more and more difficult to access (at least here in Canada) and marks have become the bar at the entrance gate. So parents focus on marks particularly as their children move closer to graduation. We have forced them into it - how else can their children be successful?

Second, we do not help parents (or the public at large) to understand the importance of pedagogy. It's a secret language, a secret club. Marks are understandable, a benchmark. Even curriculum can be communicated (we are going to learn about China in grade 5). Until we are able to communicate with our publics about learning, our schools may continue to be governed by policy developed by students of the past.

A professor recently challenged grades, and a parent to whom I related the story was aghast. How would the student know if they had mastered the content, he asked? Our parents don't realize that there are alternative assessment methodologies that are far more meaningful (and in your words Ewan, more passionate)to the learner than the "mark". This is the pedagogical shift required. Educate the parents. And fix the upstream entrance gates while we're at it.

Great post, Ewan. Thanks for your passion in support of kids everywhere.

Good to see you emphasise the teacher above the technology Ewan, and raise this issue, "Yet no national strategy - and I would love to be corrected - headlines pedagogy as the key factor." I can correct you... a little. The one strategy that does, and the only organisation in my view that is genuinely transforming education in the UK, is Teach First. which is why I persuaded my boss, among others, to support them. Interestingly too, the KIPPS schools you mention were founded by an ex Teach for America graduate, the organisation Teach First is modelled on.

You don't think Glow and happenstance are compatible?

No, I don't. Not on the scale that the web in its widest sense offers. It could be argued that limitations in serendipity and happenstance that working solely within the interactions on offer within Glow are worth it for the safety of knowing who you are interacting with.

From a certain age, I'd say around 10/11, this payoff becomes less worthwhile as youngsters spend more and more unaccompanied time on the www. It is therefore time spent playing and working and interacting in this bigger more risky space that's required to make them resilient, and to help them see that once out of school (and out of Glow) there is plenty of worthwhile content and interaction to engage them on the wider web.

So, you still see Glow's authentication system as primarily about safety/security? Interesting.

Yes, I do, and so do many others. The collaborative tools on offer are great and overdue, but all are available elsewhere on the web for free use and provide often better quality, if only Local Authorities could be encouraged to act in concert (something Glow has, to some degree, managed). The content on offer is worthy, no doubt, but again, we are moving into an age where the expectation is that content is free, or at least payable by the Local Authority, not a central source (this, I realise, is the politic du jour and could change in the future).

For me, the future of Glow lies not in 2.0-ing it (the current spec is incapable of doing so for anything less than, I reckon, £7-£8m overhaul) but in open sourcing the bits where authentication still has worth, and www-ing it where it does not.

I could be wrong, *very well* could be wrong :-), but the debate's not happening in the open as people see an ever-increasingly expensive and politically weighty project get deeper down its course. All I am met with when I do raise this in conversation are meaningless "interestings" or "but Glow's about a lot more than that". I'd like to know what makes it more than that as the www develops at a screeching pace alongside and, I fear, beyond.

I've been teaching "at-risk" students for almost 25 years, and I honestly can say that what kids want are really good teachers that understand and respect them, and what teachers want is a system that respects the individuality of its students and its teachers and doesn't want everyone to fit neatly into little square holes. Ken Robinson raises important issues and offers solutions in "The Element". I hope the powers that be take note.

Hi Ewan

Long time reader, first time caller.

While I too enjoyed Sir Ken's talk and your post I am convinced more and more that the best advice for change is to forget about the world and its 'systems' and change one life at a time. That is what great teachers have always done (and something Ken touches on). Countless studies have shown that teachers are the biggest influence on student (love & respect of) learning.


I agree with you, Tomaz, and have often pressed this very point (http://edu.blogs.com/edublogs/2008/01/13-the-best-sch.html). The biggest issue is that many teachers themselves don't see that, and want curriculum and assessment or dictat to let them know "what this kind of learning looks like". Have years of having their hands held meant that large swathes of the profession find it hard to break free? Almost certainly.

Hi Ewan, Havn't passed by for a while but glad I did. Glad your back on track creating ingeniously instead of ingening creatively. Maybe we are now in agreement on the benefit of community pools pre 10/11 and not after, after all. Useful perspective on GLOW. I took my own from SLF08 and the question is. If your not on the payroll, how exhausted are you with it? What debates would you like to be more open about GLOW?
kind regards.

Andy, I was probably more vocal (or at least as much) when I was on the payroll. Now I have less time to get into the detail of what Glow is or is going to become, and I don't have a transparent view of where it's going from out here.

The pre-10/11 goal of an intranet is probably one I can see the point in, though not at the exclusion of working and learning about what it is to publish on the internet - that is, there needs to be serious leakage out to the web, still, to learn those lifelong lessons.

As for those over that 10/11 threshold, I think my views are quite clear from the above - we need to do more in the type of network (but not necessarily the same ones, their playgrounds) so that they can learn through their school work how one interacts responsibly on social and gaming networks online.

This is a timely and well argued article which puts people, not structures, at the heart of education. I like the metaphor of the "brains trust" in particular. You mention the lack of strategy directed at the art of teaching. I wonder, to be fair, whether there is not a significant emphasis on pedagogy embedded in ACfE and Journey to Excellence. If any given paradigm exists in Scottish education then surely it is Assessment for Learning which informs much contemporary teaching practice. I agree that the dilemma remains; how to reconcile the goals of formative assessment and creativity with those of an examination system which serves to recognise and validate a given level of educational attainment and competence.

Assessment for learning is the jewel in the crown as far as current strategic changes are concerned. It set out a change to pedagogy and and a realistic time (seven years) to see those changes be worked through, checked and rolled out in a peer-to-peer fashion.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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