Sir Ken Robinson is Transforming not Reforming Education

Originally published in print and online by Washington Parent in August 2015.

In his new book, “Creative Schools,” esteemed educationalist Sir Ken Robinson calls for a grassroots overhaul of education from early childhood through the end of high school. This revolution, he pleads, must happen at the hands of teachers, administrators and parents, who bear the responsibility of uniting on Robinson’s mission to transform, rather than reform education.

“Parents and teachers and schools should see themselves as collaborating partners rather than opposing interest groups,” Robinson says.

Too often, Robinson claims, parents take a backseat when it comes to education, as many recognize its problems – over testing, high standards, poor curriculum structures – but wait for someone else to take the lead in igniting change. Instead, parents should be at the forefront of the movement he is calling for, since a parent’s active involvement in their child’s education can lead to higher achievement and more motivation to learn. He even calls parents and families the “most important partners with schools.”

“There’s a lot they can do in the home to create an atmosphere of encouragement and support, but I also think it’s important for parents to get involved with the school in a positive way,” Robinson said, since their intimate understanding of their own children can be a huge asset to schools.

As the book’s title suggests, Robinson’s ultimate goal is to inject creativity into all levels of learning by rethinking how the education system works. Yet, he maintains his suggestions are not new or eccentric or theoretical. He is not the first to berate the standards-culture that has become the hallmark of western education, nor the first to criticize high-stakes testing. He says he is “simply waving a flag” in support of a transformative and creative way of thinking about education.

Creativity, he said in his interview, is often misunderstood as a form of self expression that exists in a realm outside the more serious work of academic pursuits. But all of that, he noted, is wrong.

“I think for historical reasons, creativity is tended to be seen as just an arts activity, something a bit marginal that only applies to special people,” he said. “Creativity is a fundamental part of what education should be concerning itself with, and the way to do it is by understanding how it works. It has implications for the curriculum, for methods of teaching and assessment.”

Thus, he offers the creative school system – an alternative method of personalized schooling, multi-age classrooms, flexible curriculum, highly trained and respected teachers, and teaching that pertains to students’ individual learning objectives.

“What we really need to do now is to help schools become more customized to their communities and to offer a more personalized approach to teaching and learning,” he said.

First, Robinson writes, schools should teach to students’ priorities. He explains that a teacher’s main purpose is to inspire and facilitate learning, but in order for that to happen, the teacher must understand students’ motivations both in and out of the classroom. For example, a basketball-loving middle schooler who feels bored off the court may need more engaging lessons that motivate him to make education a means to his love of sports.

“In the end, education is about students learning,” he affirmed. “The job of a teacher is to help them to learn, and that means understanding them as people, it means understanding their communities, as well as the things that promote them all to learn in common.”

Creative schooling, therefore, is all about the personalization of education. In order for this to happen, Robinson suggests schools adopt a flexible curriculum which includes core pieces of knowledge that all students should know, but also allows opportunities for students to pursue their interests and make new discoveries. The curriculum should also include interdisciplinary subjects, so that students are learning as they would in life outside the classroom – it is important for students to comprehend how each subject can cross paths in everyday experiences.

For some students, these opportunities may not come in the form of a traditional classroom. Rather, Robinson writes, we need to search outside school walls for other experiences and institutions that can be sources of learning.

Throughout the book, Robinson proposes multiple strategies for transforming learning and the spaces that facilitate it. He writes about the “flipped classroom” method, where students do most of their learning at home via online videos that can cater to their strengths and weaknesses, while allowing the teacher more time in the classroom to help each student one-on-one with individual issues. He advises communities to get involved and build community centers where kids can explore their passions in a project-based learning environment.

“[Education] is tremendously important to the health and vitality of our communities, locally and nationally,” he said. “Great schools can energize an entire neighborhood.”

With these suggestions, his overarching belief is clear: traditional academic studies are an essential part of learning, but they are not a sufficient end in education.

All of Robinson’s examples of successful schools and calls for new programs are backed by what he calls the four basic roles of education: economic, social, cultural and political. That is to say, as parents and educators take on this grassroots transformation of the education system, those four principles should guide their decisions in making schools more successful.

Nevertheless, Robinson recognizes that there will be challenges to his critiques and obstacles to implementation of such wide-ranging reconstruction. He points to political agendas, risk aversion, cultural traditions and a lack of ambition as some possible adversaries.

In the end, Robinson’s ideas are ambitious and have been met with varying criticism and praise from political leaders, policymakers, educators and parents throughout the world. However, he says with vision, skill, incentives, resources and a plan, the people closest to the issues in education – namely, parents and families – can spark the revolution needed to end continuous reforms and begin a transformation.

“It’s essential that education systems do change because the world is very different now from the one in which they were designed, and we do need to develop a very different way of thinking about education,” he said. “I think people are ready for it. All I’m trying to do in this book is to inspire the changes that are needed and to encourage them.”
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