Next week, the British educationalist Sir Ken Robinson will speak to audiences of educators and entrepreneurs at Sky City, Auckland. Attendees will pay (or their employers will pay) over $600 for the privilege. In order to save some tax-payers’ money, it might help to tell readers what Sir Ken will tell them, and why it is not likely to work.

John Morgan

We already know what Ken Robinson will tell audiences, since he’s been on the circuit for more than two decades, published a number of books, and, as the publicity for the event reminds us, presented the ‘most downloaded TED talk in history’. Unless he’s had a remarkable volte face, the message will be that advanced western societies such as New Zealand face a paradox. On the one hand the demands of an ever more competitive global economy mean that companies urgently need people to work in them who are creative, innovative and flexible. However, they often cannot find such people. The reason for this is that the supply of creative people is hampered by education systems that are stuck in the past, and based on a model that is more geared to the 19th century than the networked world of 21st century capitalism. Sir Ken’s presentation will be witty, provide lots of inspiring examples of people doing exciting things, and be laced with snippets of the latest research from brain science and learning theory. The aim will be to inspire a new cadre of school leaders to go back to their schools and further a learning revolution. And he will find a willing audience, since many school leaders are well-versed in this type of ‘transformation-speak’, with its lexicon of ‘21st century learning’, ‘classrooms without walls’, and ‘modern learning environments’.

There’s only one problem with this: it won’t work. The present drive towards creativity and innovation did not appear as if by magic. It dates from early 2000s, when governments noted that, even after the restructuring of economies in the 1980s and the dot.com boom of the 1990s, overall levels of growth were much lower than they had been in the post-war economic boom. In New Zealand this is the concern of the Productivity Commission, which reminds us that New Zealanders work longer hours and for less reward than any workers in any other OECD country.

This is a crisis of economy, not education. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Edmund Phelps notes that the conditions for creative innovation and widespread invention thrived between 1880 and 1960. Ironically, these were periods of relative job stability and welfare security. After 1960s Phelps says, workers are less satisfied and unsurprisingly, there is less innovation and creativity. Whilst Phelps is optimistic that things can be turned around, his fellow economist Robert Gordon warns that this is not likely, the period 1870 to 1970s was an exceptional time, and, although we live in a period where there appears to be lots of innovation (e.g. new apps), the economic impact of innovation is low (as someone quipped, you can see the effects of innovation everywhere except in the productivity statistics), and a series of headwinds mean that growth will be low and economies stagnant.

In this context, creative educators like Robinson are the modern day equivalent of snake-skin oil salesmen, offering quick fixes for problems that are deep-rooted. It is particularly worrying that Robinson is peddling his wares as New Zealand educators prepare for a wide-ranging review of the curriculum. Rather than rush off to Auckland’s Sky City next week, our school leaders should save the tax-payers’ money, stay in school and think about the reforming the curriculum from educational first principles.

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