Re-Inventing School: A Tribute to Sir Ken Robinson

A few weeks ago, on a hot sunny afternoon in mid-August, as I sat writing at my desk, an email in my inbox announced Sir Ken Robinson’s untimely passing. I was stunned. In late July, as part the Alternative Educational Resource Organization [AERO] annual conference, this year held online via zoom technology, I had listened intently as Kate Robinson and school Dr. Michael Hynes, superintendent of Port Washington public schools, shared some of their thoughts about the purposes of education, and the principles that might drive school design. Quoting E. Deming, Hynes stated, “Every system is designed to get the results it wants.”  Hynes responded that each semester he starts off the school year asking teachers and staff two questions: “Why are we here?” “What is the purpose of school?” If we don’t know the answer to these to questions, then how are we building experiences for students? When asked, Kate Robinson shared that for her dad, whom she referred to as “SKR,” education should help students to “understand the world around them,” and develop their capacities “to engage with the world.”

At the time that I received this tragic news, I was involved in a weekly online discussion on the topic of school transformation and a shared reading of book with the same title. We were fortunate to have the book author Wayne B. Jennings as part of the reading discussion. The group had been discussing the goals and purposes of schools, the topic of Chapter 1.  I was sketching out my thoughts about what Vito Perrone, another personal hero, mentor and dare I say colleague, termed the “larger purposes” of school. Having spent my entire professional career in education, first teaching secondary science in the public setting, then as a teacher educator, and most recently as a college administrator, clarifying the larger purposes of school, for specific purpose of building experiences around those shared purposes, is something that I think about a lot. Indeed, As the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland points out, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” Lacking consensus on the larger purpose of schools, makes it challenging at best to provide a rationale for certain instructional choices. And so, during the quiet of “lockdown” brought about by COVID 19, I revisited the question, What are schools for?  

I had watched Robinson’s now famous 2006 TED talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? I recalled chuckling out loud at his humor, but as an educator also with some awkwardness, as I quietly considered the premise of his arguments. “Creativity,” he declared some fourteen years ago, “is as important as literacy.” (It is important to understand Robinson’s definition of creativity. For Robinson, creativity is the process of having an original idea about something of value–(not in the dollar sense!) Moreover, creativity applies to all subject matters, science, technology, not just music, art, etc. And, the idea should be original to the person who had the idea, not necessarily to the world. Others may have had the idea before, but it is the first occasion on which the person/child had the idea.) “Education will take us into the future,” a future he reminded us that given the rapid changes in technology is both unknowable and unpredictable. With the audience, I laughed as Robinson shared stories of talents left behind and depicted schools as places which educate students from “the head up, and to the left-side,” with “the body as transport for the head.”  Would schools today recognize the talent of a young William Shakespeare? Schools, said Robinson, himself a former teacher, provide students a “disembodied” experience. Schools are “educating people out of their creative capacities.” What our children and society needs is an education that thinks “radically differently about intelligence,” seeks out and values the diversity of talents that students bring into the classroom, and which nurtures creativity, imagination, and innovation. We need to “rethink the fundamental principles on which we educate our children.” I agreed then. I agree all the more so today.

In a short videotaped message, recorded while in “lockdown” from his home in London, just three months before his untimely passing, a message that would be his last public address,[1] Robinson drew on the metaphor of a movie camera.   As a result of COVID-19, he reflected, we have “pressed pause” on most of our social systems, including education. For a while “the whole education system has been turned off . . . the treadmill has stopped.” Dropping the humor to which we had become accustomed and now steeped in deep sincerity, Robinson, perhaps aware that his time was short, spoke earnestly as he addressed an unseen audience. As we prepare “to press the reset button,” and “look ahead to a time when we get back to normal, the question is: What is the normal that we want to get back to? Is it the normal that we left behind us?” For Robinson, and for so many others, myself included, the answer to this question is a resounding, no.

Born into a working-class family in Liverpool, England, Robinson was well aware that for the majority of children and adolescents, public education is “not the best option, it is the only option.”  In a conversation with the yogi and mystic Sadhguru, in which they explored their visions of “The Ideal Education,” Robinson described public education as “a jewel in the crown of America’s achievements.”[1] Robinson was a staunch advocate of free public education and immensely proud of the years he spent as a teacher, declaring, “I am a teacher.”  Teachers and public schools everywhere, he observed, perform miracles… teachers and public schools are “in the miracle business.”

Robinson left this earth all too soon. He did so, however, leaving us his insights into what makes for successful schools, and by successful he means both for the students who attend them and for the future of humans on this earth. Robinson drew on a parallel which he had developed over the years between industrial agriculture and the design of schools. Industrial agriculture with its mechanization and use of pesticides and fertilizers, is not sustainable, is unnatural and short-term, and “wreaks havoc” on the health of the earth, leaving topsoil eroded. In much the same way, today’s educational system, which also focuses on outputs and yield (of test scores, graduation rates, etc.), does not allow students to flourish. Like fruit in poor soil, students wither on the vine. There is, Robinson declares, an “alternative system.” Organic farming, on the other hand, values crop diversity and natural development. With an emphasis on the soil, no pesticides or fertilizers are needed. Principals of successful schools, Robinson noted, know that “we flourish when the culture is right.” These schools create a culture of compassion, collaboration, and empathy. This culture values and sees the strength in diversity and individuality and joint participation. In Creative Schools, Robinson identified eight capacities that all schools might nurture: curiosity, creativity, criticism (critical thinking), communication, collaboration, compassion, composure, citizenship. I would add community and civic engagement. Successful schools “re-ignite learning” and nurture curiosity. In closing, Robinson reasserted a long-held belief. The problem is not school itself but “how we do school.” A firm believer in our “boundless capacity, creativity and innovation,” Robinson reminded us: We created school. We can reinvent school. “As we get back to normal, we need to re-imagine what that could look like.” Let’s continue this work.

It is with this same spirit that I undertake these blog postings.

As we press the metaphorical reset button and re-invent school, What might school look like when it is grounded in the principles that we know help all students to flourish and thrive?

[1] Sir Ken Robinson with Sadhguru. The Ideal Education. March 6, 2017.

[1] Sir Ken Robinson, My thoughts on the Call to Unite. May, 7, 2020.

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