Wednesday afternoon saw Sir Ken Robinson deliver the opening keynote for the 38th Annual Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC), extolling the need for more pressure from the bottom up if a creative revolution is to continue forcing change in schools.
But before he got to the meaty bits of his address, Robinson — who's responsible for TED’s most-viewed talk of all time in 2006, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2003, and wrote "Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education" — warmed up the packed crowd in Orlando's Orange County Convention Center with a healthy dose of British wit. After joking that his stage during a presentation at a conference in Los Angeles a few years ago was “five times larger than this one ... like a proper conference,” he poked fun at his green card status.
“I have a green card, so I’m officially a resident alien," he said. "And yet I move among you, and I’m taken as one of your own.”
And while he just applied for citizenship, he added, “I might have picked a better time. We’ll see how that works out. If need be, I can go back to the old country.”
The problems facing education, however, are very serious, he noted. Identifying what he described as an issue of a reform movement that favors conformity, compliance and competition versus the natural inclinations toward diversity, creativity and collaboration, he compared America's $16 billion testing industry to 2013 figures of a collective $9 billion for the NFL and an $11.2 billion cinematic box office.
“And none of it has led to an iota of improvement in schools themselves, or in the motivation of kids or the morale of teachers,” Robinson said, wondering what an additional $16 billion could do to improve education via professional development, cultural programs, community programs and more.
While competition is at the center of these testing programs, Robinson said human life thrives on collaboration: “Very few of us know much, but collectively, we know a great deal.”
Robinson sees hope in increasing pushback from administrators, teachers, parents and students against the standardization driving the focus on conformity, compliance and competition. Much of his speech can ultimately be broken down to two key points.
If you design education to resemble a factory, don't be surprised when it behaves that way
The current "industrial" system of education was designed to produce graduates ready for factory jobs and other industrial work where creativity and individualism aren't a necessity. But that very attribute has also made those traditional blue-collar fields ripe for automation in the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics.
Complicating the matter, nations worldwide have been in the process of "reforming" their education systems as education has become a strategic economic issue over the past 30-40 years. As a result, governments have arrived at competing views on education’s purpose in a global, knowledge-driven economy. This has bred even more pressure for high-stakes testing, as nations compare their students' results to each other.
Robinson suggested that this "insane pressure" has been detrimental overall to student morale, educational quality and the self-respect of teachers.
He showed a Dutch video of people having trouble solving a problem where a tube with peanuts in it is bolted to a table, which is bolted to the floor. Each person is tasked with getting the peanut out of the tube. Most participants framed the resources available as only being those on the table — until they were shown a video of an ape solving the same problem by filling the tube with water and fishing the peanuts out. At this point, the participants realized the water needed to raise the peanuts was available on a table in the back of the room. If it had been placed next to the tube, would they have solved the problem quicker?
More creative and critical thinking would have encouraged people to look at all of the available resources in the room rather than just the table. Education, Robinson said, has a problem of not recognizing all of the resources available.
Students love to learn and are "curiosity embodied.," he said. Education must reframe the resources available, reconfiguring schools to make the most of students’ and teachers’ curiosity and enthusiasm.
Play wasn't discovered yesterday
Play is also important in feeding collaboration and creativity, but Robinson noted the conformity, compliance and competition reform approach, interwoven with digital culture, has seen play fall by the wayside to the point that some experts act as if there's been some sort of breakthrough when it's reintroduced and improves performance.
A news report he played for the audience showed educators in a north Texas elementary school noting how additional recess time had increased students' collaboration and focus while lowering distracting behavior in the classroom. This led Robinson to joke that it's "as if play was just discovered" by these schools.
“What’s happened to us that we’ve had to rediscover play in children’s lives and the importance of running around and making up games in free, unstructured time?” Robinson asked.
If you get children playing and collaborating in a way that makes connections to what they’re learning, you get a culture in which students are enjoying learning, and the system changes. It’s urgent to make this change because the world is changing faster than we can keep up with, he said.
We’re spending so much time reinforcing boundaries that restrain growth rather than investing in that innate talent in ways that improve our communities and students’ lives, Robinson suggested, using an Anais Nin quote, "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."