Ottawa Child Friendly Community Day, Nov. 20, 2020

A few remarks on Sir Ken Robinson and the “new normal”

Posted December 10, 2020

Note: This 8-minute Zoom talk was accompanied with a powerpoint presentation. The talk draws on previous postings. Parts identified with an asterisk were omitted due to time constraints.

Hello. I hope everyone is safe and well. It is a great honor to support this community event, scheduled to coincide with Canada’s National Child Day. My thanks to Richard Fransham, organizer of this event, both for his efforts to advance democratic education and generous invitation to participate on this panel to reflect on Sir Ken Robinson’s insights into how we might “do school” in the “new normal.” Thanks to Michael Wilson for serving as moderator. First, I give some context that make this project more urgent today than ever before.

We are in unprecedented times. Our children and youth are “living and learning” amid storm clouds that threaten our very existence and which present challenges that are simultaneously scientific, environmental, ethical, and moral in nature.

  • Covid-19. We are meeting via zoom because Covid-19, a virus so tiny it is invisible to the eye, has upended our social and economic- systems, unveiling in its wake deep pockets of racism- injustice, inequity. As we build for the new normal, we MUST construct systems that ensure justice for all people of the world.
  • Ecological Degradation: The world’s glaciers are melting, water bodies are polluted, oceans are warming, wildfires are raging. Our most vulnerable populations are affected. We have a new term: “environmental racism.”
  • Rapid Technological Change: We are subject torapid technological change, characterized by AI, automation, robotics and computerization, a time period that the World Economic Forum presents as the fourth industrial revolution. Jobs of the future are unpredictable.

The most in-demand jobs of today did not exist 5-10 years ago. . . 65% of children in school today will end up in jobs that don’t yet exist. [World Economic Forum, Jobs Report 2016]

As Ted Dintersmith, author of What School Could Be, observed in 2018:

Machine intelligence is racing ahead, wiping out millions of routine jobs as it reshapes the competencies needed to thrive . . . Absent profound change in our schools, adults will keep piling up on the side lines jeopardizing civil society.

  • Democracy is under fire, under threat of destabilization.
  • Social and Racial Unrest. Across the US-we witnessed the unjust killings of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor and so many others. Across the nation and around the world there are justified outcries of social and racial unrest. As the poet Langston Hughes asked,

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it explode?  (Harlem)

Our children inhabit a world fraught with issues and challenges they did not cause but are theirs to solve.  To grow to their full potential, to live fulfilling lives, to be stewards of earth and democracyhumanity-we must create an education that nurtures mind-body-spirit-and acknowledges all our children as thinkers, inquirers, collaborative problem-solvers, creative innovators…     as change agents.

By 2022 no less than 54% of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling.” However, the “skills” of creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion and negotiation are projected to retain or increase their value, as will attention to detail, resilience, flexibility and complex problem-solving.  [World Economic Forum, 2018 Jobs Report]

*We must go beyond preparing students to meet academic minimums.We must transform our schools into environments which promote “deep learning.” Environments which, in the words of Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine,  

help students to flourish-to think critically, to become engaged in their learning, and, in a variety of ways, prepare for the demands of twenty-first century life. [Mehta and Fine, 2019, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School]

Of utmost importance, we must create an educational model that helps youth and children to develop their full humanity, to see themselves in others-as neighbors.

As Martin Luther King said so many years ago and echoed more recently by Pope Francis in March 2019, our youth must be peacemakers, builders of “bridges not walls.” As the late John Lewis said in 2009,

 “We are one people -one family. We all live in the same house….”

*Or, as Haim Ginott put it in a “Letter to Teachers

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. . . .So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become more human. . . . Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

Disruption can be a constructive force. Real change and development is never smooth.  How we respond and adapt to change is a matter of survival-think of the dinosaurs! Through disruption, amid the dust and ash, new life and new ways of thinking emerge. We are ourselves built from stardust.. forged in the shockwaves of a supernova!   So, now is the time to imagine a better more just world, to create and innovate for a new consciousness-a new realityfor our children and for the whole of humanity.

Today’s Challenges require [radically] New Solutions. As the authors of Ontario’s 1965 Living and Learning report wrote:

Like the men who make the initial landing on the moon, our children must be thoroughly prepared for a destination whose features no one knows at first hand. . . . The achievements of the past are there to orient our youth; the vision, the speculation and the prediction for the future are there to challenge and excite their minds; it becomes a function of the school to provide that orientation and foster that excitement.

Sir Ken left us too soon. Yet, his many talks provide insights to guide us as we create and innovate. First and foremost, we must

  • “Reimagine that learning can [and does] change the world.”
  • We must act on the notion that “Education [is the vehicle that] will take us into the future.”
  •  And we must “Educate whole person.”  All great teachers know that at its best, true education, education that results in new ways of thinking and acting involves not just our minds but engages our Head-Hands-Heart

As SKR noted,  “We flourish when the culture is right.” Focus on the conditions of growth-the soil of learning–not test scores and the like.. and our children and youth will flourish and thrive; they will be healthy and strong. Great teachers know that many things go into that soil: compassion, creativity, empathy, collaboration, care, choice… the freedom to question, the freedom to explore.

For Sir Ken, creativity is not a synonym for the arts…rather it is

  • “the process of having original ideas . that have value. .”

The idea need not be new to the world (it likely will not be) but it should be new to the child.

From this perspective, true learning is a creative-constructive act; it is joyful; it begins in and develops from play and self-initiated explorations. As my mentor Eleanor Duckworth, a former student and colleague of the Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget, has said, intellectual development is “the having of wonderful ideas.”

  • Finally, declared Robinson, “we have a national plan for literacy. We need a plan for creativity.”

 Sir Ken also offered thoughts about Teaching, Learning and Curriculum.

  • Teaching is facilitating knowing [and meaning].” It is NOT the delivery or transmission of information.

From this perspective, Learning is what learners must do for themselves. We cannot do it for them.

  • Curriculum is where students discover themselves most fully.”

 That place is the world beyond the classroom- where they encounter phenomena and subject matter in all its fullness and complexity-providing student explorers with opportunity and possibility! Curriculum must be learner-centered, project and community-based. It must engage students with real-world challenges that responds to and builds on their interests, their questions, concerns…It must acknowledge students as leaders, thinkers, doers-who explore, create and innovate with head-hands and heart. Think Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and Pakistan’s Mala.

Having faith in our “boundless capacity, creativity and innovation” Robinson, provided guideposts – but not the solution. This is what we know: All true learning is rooted in experience

It involves play-messing about-free exploration, observing, questioning, imagining, creating, inventing.  Bell Labs and Google know that innovation requires free exploration. They pay adults to play, explore-“to mess about”! As water rat/vole “ratty” said to mole,

“There is nothing, absolutely nothing more worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” (Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, 1908)

For these reasons, I see great promise and potential in the principles and practices of Self-Directed Learning and Democratic Education which though connected are not mutually inclusive.  And believe that these practices must be scaled up to the greatest extent possible in our public schools-at all grade levels.

Now is the Time to Unite as one “village,”  one “ecosystem,” one people to build a better world for the well-being and future of children, our communities, society, and humanity. 

As John Dewey reminded us more than a hundred years ago at the advent and dawn of the first industrial revolution,our schools are engines of democracy and social progressengines of hope and keepers of “dreams.” 

All that society has accomplished for itself is put, through the agency of the school, at the disposal of its members. All its better thoughts of itself it hopes to realize through new possibilities thus opened to its future self. [John Dewey, School and Social Progress, 1990/1900]

How we do school reflects our collective aspirations for humanity-our view of what it means to be a democracy.Social change for a new and more just world begins with how we do school.

We must write a new story. We must have courage and a sense of urgency. If not now, when?

As Sir Ken reminded us:

We created school. We can reinvent school. We are the system-what we do next is the system.”

3 thoughts on “Ottawa Child Friendly Community Day, Nov. 20, 2020

  1. You really have captured the urgency of the situation. I wish that there were more people like you in education, especially the 8 and under where patterns of learning are often laid down.
    I couldn’t be more proud of you speaking out on such a hugely important issue.


    1. I so appreciate that you read these posts and take time to comment. You put thoughts into action and practice..that is you let your life speak! This is the gap that so many like myself are attempting to reconcile.


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