Along with several hundred others, on Monday 19 March I attended Sir Ken Robinson’s ‘Revolutionizing Education From the Ground Up’ lecture at Sky City, Auckland. Sir Ken’s central message—engagingly and entertainingly delivered—still relates to the need to rethink the education system. The current model has become unbalanced: too much value is placed on achievement criteria that are too narrow, schools are engines of conformity, and the education system is antipathetic to creativity. The need for change, we were told, is more urgent now than ever, and Sir Ken assured us that it is possible to make the necessary changes if we follow the simple three-step plan he outlined. We need to identify the problem, recognise a vision of the possible alternative, and develop a plan to achieve the desired end. Anticipating a talk that broadly followed this path, I listened with interest to learn how schools should be refashioned.

There was so much to like in Sir Ken’s speech. His summary of the essential function of education (“to enable students to understand the world around them and their talents so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens”) is hard to dispute. His criticisms of the effects of over-weighty summative assessments—the squeezing-out of devalued subjects, leading to an unbalanced curriculum—were refreshing to hear. His diagnosis that great teaching ultimately depends on dialogic teacher-student relationships found common assent. Why then, after listening to Sir Ken for almost three hours, did I leave unenlightened and disappointed? Humorous and fluent though it was, this address was unsatisfying.

Repeatedly, but without the argumentation we might have expected from such a proficient orator, Sir Ken referred to the problems with modern schools. Some criticisms—the linearity of school systems, 40-minute teaching periods, and traditional subject disciplines—received regular mentions. He described the way organizational conventions such as the ringing of bells dominate the functioning of schools, and showed footage of halls full of schoolchildren jumping out of their chairs (the anachronism of such practice was emphasized by the comically jerky black and white images). At no stage, however, did Sir Ken elucidate why these aspects of modern education were so problematic. Indeed, the weaknesses of the school system were never defined with precision, or with reference to real schools. We were told that the conditions under which young people learn best aren’t present in most schools, yet those waiting to hear more about those conditions, or the schools which are failing so badly to provide them, were disappointed. Recognisable though it was, the picture of education he presented was little more than a caricature or a straw man. There seemed to be no research evidence to highlight either the main issues demanding attention or the efficacy of any proposed solutions.

Indeed, for those keen to experience Sir Ken’s vision of the alternative model of education for the 21st Century, more than a little imagination was required. We were shown photographs proving that the pace of technological change since 1900 has been increasing. We watched videos predicting that mechanization will revolutionize the world of work. Sir Ken’s industrialized agriculture analogy for modern education was revealing, and the contrast with sustainable farming methods was helpfully explicated at the end of the second session. Too often, though, the audience was presented with anecdotes about the lives of exceptional individuals, and parables with implications for education that could only be deduced after leaps of logic. Modern education has become warped, with its focus on a narrow conception of intelligence, we were told. In the next breath, Sir Ken highlighted rising rates of youth depression and even suicide. Were we to infer a causal relationship between these two sad facts? The strong implication was that they were connected, and this flawed approach typified the development of Robinson’s argument.

Best practice, and how to achieve it, according to the few examples Sir Ken did provide, looks surprisingly similar to the way a great many schools already look. We saw examples of cross-curricular, practical projects of the kind already seen in countless schools around the world (the essential difference being the very high teacher:student ratios). High Tech High, in San Diego, was the subject of one of Sir Ken’s video clips, as was the Mind Drive project in Kansas City. Soundbites from both projects in fact suggested that the value of such enterprises is that they motivate and inspire students to achieve highly within the current school system, rather than offering them an alternative to it. Indeed, such paradoxes were typical of the message being implied throughout. For all his talk about the importance of curriculum breadth, and the role of the humanities and dance, Sir Ken’s choice of projects to highlight was very STEM-centred. His definition of creativity, based on the criteria for the award of a PhD, is a wholly inappropriate yardstick by which to measure schoolchildren’s achievement.

The message with which we were left, nevertheless, was that the conditions for a ‘ground-up’ revolution are present, and that teachers have the capacity to enact such a change. On the evidence of Sir Ken’s recent offering, however, they’re going to have to work out quite a lot of the details for themselves.

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