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Creative Schools:
Sir Ken Got it the Wrong Way Round in his New Book

A Review and Commentary by Paul Henderson

A review and commentary of the new book Creative Schools by Sir Ken Robinson

After eagerly anticipating the publication of Ken Robinson’s new book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education (Viking, 2015) with expectations held high, I was sorely disappointed when I read it because, to me at least, the ideas put forward did not hold together very well at all. Within minutes of reading it on the day of its release, I was finding problems. However, it has recently occurred to me that with a few simple changes the book would have made much more sense. The two statements that I nearly choked on when I first read them were made in the introduction as follows:

“Education means organized programs of learning.”

“School, as I use the term here, includes homeschooling, un-schooling and informal gatherings...”

If the words “education” and “school” were to be swapped over in the above two statements then that would begin to resolve many of the problems I had with the book.

Sir Ken’s definition of school harks back to the days before state funded schooling when learned types would come together to develop philosophical schools of thought and ordinary people would come together informally through common shared interests in order to share and improve upon the best common practices of the day; but that was then, and this is now. Whether we like or not, nowadays school is institutionalized and predominantly state funded - that changes everything. If Sir Ken wants schooling to go back to the days before it was state funded then I’m perfectly happy with his definition, but I think we all know that that is not his intention. Consequently, any innocent and slightest unintentional whiff of a suggestion of bringing unschooling under the funding umbrella of schooling as we know it today is like waving a very large red rag to a bull, the bull, of course, being the world of unschooling.

"In favoring the use of a semi-prescribed curriculum, albeit split into disciplines rather than subjects, it becomes quite clear that the principles of unschooling and democratic free schooling, from which he draws examples of ways to enhance personalized learning, can play no part in his vision of either schooling or education."
The last thing unschoolers want is anything to do with state funding because state funding cannot be granted without some kind of mechanism for accountability, which means there are always strings attached, and you cannot practice the principles of unschooling with any degree of integrity when it is attached to state, or any other, imposed and prescribed curricular strings. It was probably not Sir Ken’s intention to suggest such a thing; it is more likely that his intention was to merely point out that informal gatherings and unschooling could be thought of as schools in the original sense of the word. And therefore his intention was probably to change the popular understanding of what a school is and can be, thus paving the way for a book which draws upon anecdotes and examples of personalized learning taken from both conventional schooling and alternative learning settings, all of which would contribute well towards his theory of change.

That’s all very well, but in favoring the use of a semi-prescribed curriculum, albeit split into disciplines rather than subjects, it becomes quite clear that the principles of unschooling and democratic free schooling, from which he draws examples of ways to enhance personalized learning, can play no part in his vision of either schooling or education. This is confirmed by his assertion that education means organized programs of learning. The learning in unschooling and democratic free schooling is organized by learners in consultation with significant others and by following organized heutagogical, andragogical, and invited pedagogical principles. But to describe it as an organized program suggests that it adheres to prescribed learning intentions, which it does not. The use of the word “program” in relation to education suggests something very different from the organic, gardening, and climate control metaphors that Sir Ken is fond of using. A plant may be biologically programmed to grow, just as humans are to learn, but its precise growing aims and objectives are not programmed by the gardener, therefore it is not following an organised program of growing, but is instead growing in a way that is shaped and determined by how closely its environment matches that of its optimal natural habitat.

Proponents of alternative learning have clearly demonstrated many times over that a conventional school classroom is not the natural habitat of human learning, no matter how good the teacher is. The gardening metaphor soon begins to serve a dubious purpose when you realize that the gardener’s job is to take healthy plants from all corners of the world and then grow them in a garden located in the Sahara desert without irrigation. The gardener might be brilliant, but no gardener is that good! It’s not better trained and higher paid gardeners that Sir Ken needs to fulfil his metaphoric vision, it’s magicians. Ah yes, but if we have policy makers who can change the climate of the Sahara to a more temperate one, it will allow the gardeners to do their job brilliantly. That’s all very well, but what about the plants from the Arctic tundra, and the alpine mosses, and the tropical orchids, and those cacti that just love the Sahara? What is really needed is a separate micro climate for each plant. How do we achieve that? By replacing our policy makers with magicians, of course! I’m glad that’s sorted out.

This might be a timely moment to note that in alternative learning environments, such as unschooling and democratic free schooling, you don’t have to be a magician to ensure that every learner learns in the most optimal natural learning environment that circumstances will allow. A vision of a future educational landscape which harnesses the power of intrinsically motivated autonomous learning, and consequently allows the maximum number of people to be in their element, would undoubtedly include these alternative settings, along with voluntary flexi-schooling and a liberal peppering of voluntary, convivial, all-age, no-strings-attached community learning centers. These centers would utilize a learner defined blend of catalogue and open source (natural) curricula as well as a free choice of certificated courses, available on and occasionally created as dictated by demand. Through the sterling work and true grit of the trailblazing pioneers of alternative learning, much of this vision has already materialized, although there is still much more work to do.

"For those, like me, who are interested in alternative learning, it’s a pity that Sir Ken’s praise of home and community-based learning comes with so many reservations, although some recognition is better than none."

Sir Ken gives “homeschooling,” as he calls it, a slightly supercilious pat on the head for its efforts so far, and puts its existence down to parents’ dislike of industrial style schooling and home education’s ability to facilitate true personalized learning, when in reality those are just the tiniest tip of the iceberg of reasons for the existence of home and community based learning. For those, like me, who are interested in alternative learning, it’s a pity that Sir Ken’s praise of home and community-based learning comes with so many reservations, although some recognition is better than none.

One thing that Robinson has consistently disapproved of is the hierarchy of subjects in conventional schooling and I was intrigued to find out how he would tackle this problem. It seemed to me that there are only two ways to tackle this within present day schools. Either you create a level playing field by abolishing the idea of core subjects altogether and let students study whatever they want, or you take a giant leap in the wrong direction by making all subjects equally compulsory. What Robinson suggests, however, is to have a curriculum comprised of disciplines, each of which has equal importance. I am uncomfortable with this suggestion because it implies more compulsion, not less; the knock-on consequence being more coercion, not less. Robinson says that a curriculum should provide “a framework for what all students should learn in common” as well as a balance of disciplines designed to meet personal interests. I’m not convinced that this arrangement would allow the maximum number of people to be in their “element.”

This leads to another of the book’s disappointments. Having been a fan of Sir Ken’s element books, I assumed that the narrative that these books started would be carried forward into this book. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case. I would have thought that this book would seek to arrive at educational solutions through which as many people as possible could be in their element. In the element books, success is defined by the extent to which people are in their element. There are examples of people doing stereotypically successful things such as gaining entrance to Ivy League colleges, or high status jobs, but then finding that their “element” lay elsewhere, and therefore they consequently change direction in order to facilitate a more self-concordant life. Things begin to look promising in “creative schools” when a dim view is taken of high PISA rankings and SAT test scores being taken as indicators of success, yet he occasionally cites those same things, along with such things as entrance to Ivy League colleges, as success indicators in the anecdotes and examples. Sometimes it almost seems as if Sir Ken has lost his own plot.

"There are interesting parallels between Ken Robinson and the late great Roland Meighan, in that both of them were professors of education, shared a similar critique of schooling, drew ideas from the world of alternative learning, and originally viewed education from a UK perspective, which they expanded to form a more global view."
A Tale of Two Professors

There are interesting parallels between Ken Robinson and the late great Roland Meighan, in that both of them were professors of education, shared a similar critique of schooling, drew ideas from the world of alternative learning, and originally viewed education from a UK perspective, which they then expanded to form a more global view. It is interesting to note that, in his contributions to the UK's Natural Parent magazine in the 1990s, Roland Meighan explored essentially the same territory that Sir Ken explores in his most recent book, however, not without clear differences in some of the most crucial issues. Sir Ken says that schooling can be distilled down to the most basic constituents of curriculum, teaching, and assessment. He also talks a lot about standards and standardization. Therefore, for the sake of clarity, I thought it would be useful to contrast and compare what these two stalwarts of the education scene have said about these, and other vital areas, in the table below.

A comparison of the (mostly condensed and paraphrased)
ideas of Ken Robinson and Roland Meighan

Important Issue

Ken Robinson

Roland Meighan

Conclusion

Standards/Standardization in Education

Standardization is useful when it applies to mechanical or industrial processes such as barcodes etc, but learning and life are non-linear and organic processes and there is no such thing as the standard person. The side effects of the over use of standardized methods in education are very bad for learners’ well-being. That being said it is useful to have standards when appropriate.

“...the idea of standards in schooling is both ambiguous and subjective.” “Training students to be good at this shallow learning of the selected mechanical tricks of institutionally imposed syllabuses, does not produce the more important deep learning, the kind we need more and more of in the future.”

Standards should be self defined in consultation with “guides on the sides” – not imposed.

Meighan’s message on standards and standardization is quite clear, however, Robinson’s is slightly vague, in that he says they are harmful but helpful when appropriate.

Curriculum

The curriculum should be divided into disciplines rather than subjects. “As well as providing a framework for what all students should learn in common, the right balance of these disciplines allows schools to cater to the personal strengths and interests of students as individuals.”

 

No imposition. The curriculum should be a “learner-managed 'natural' curriculum, with personal learning plans supported by adults providing a catalogue of learning possibilities. Our society has been information-rich for many years now, and we have even more possibilities than before through computer access to a kaleidoscope of websites. We have the technology and know-how, we can rebuild the natural curriculum. It is time to move on from the superstition of subjects.

Meighan slams any door that is open to imposition firmly shut, whereas, by saying that the curriculum should provide a framework for what all students should learn in common, Robinson leaves the door ajar just wide enough to fit the jackboot-clad foot of imposition. This is the poison in Robinson’s elixir.

Teaching

Progressive and traditional teaching approaches are both valuable when appropriate. Very well paid and trained teachers will know when it is appropriate to use these and other techniques taken from a wide repertoire inspired by flipped classrooms, holes in the wall, homeschooling, unschooling, democratic free schooling and spoon feeding over-teaching so intense that teachers don’t notice when they’ve set their hair on fire. Learning in the world of education may be seen as playing a similar role to that of growing in the world of horticulture and, consequently, teachers may be seen as expert organic gardeners who work in the best possible climate that policy makers can set.

Good teaching facilitates and encourages learning and research skills; it should not be primarily concerned with controlling and issuing diktats to crowds of children, or imposing compulsory learning intentions against the will of learners. Traditional teaching techniques are only appropriate when they are used as part of an education or training course chosen voluntarily or invited by learners, thus teachers or any appropriate kind of educational practitioner may use a repertoire of techniques drawn from heutagogy, andragogy, and invited pedagogy.

Meighan is clear that direct instruction or teacher-led pedagogy is appropriate only when it is invited. This caveat is conspicuously absent from Robinson’s thesis, again leaving the door open to compulsory imposition.

Assessment

We should veer away from high stakes summative assessments and meaningless grades towards much more continuous and portfolio type of assessments and use assessment as learning.

Personalized education results in learners whose outcomes are expressed in their character, personality, in the quality of life they lead... No imposition.

Ironically, it is Meighan’s approach which is much more likely to allow learners to find their “element.”

Critique

Industrial factory schooling is damaging children and the well-being of the entire human race.

Industrial factory schooling is damaging children and the well-being of the entire human race.

Snap!

Vision

Adapt conventional schooling in order to incorporate ideas from alternative personalized learning and the ideas of curriculum, teaching, and assessment mentioned above, as well as having more practical, pertinent, and relevant hands on classes and experiences.

Embrace a landscape of educational diversity or “edversity,” including home- and community- based learning, flexischooling and community learning centres recycled out of anachronistic, past-their-sell-by-date, schools.

Robinson’s vision is much more rooted in the past than Meighan’s. Like John Holt before him, Meighan came to the conclusion that schooling was already too good at doing what it does, and could not be significantly adapted or “improved” through reform. His educational vision required schools to be recycled into convivial, voluntary, all-age learning centres.

Theory of change

Encourage a ground-up revolution in which everyone involved with education embraces and acts to implement and promote the ideas put forward in “Creative Schools.”

Raise awareness through book publishing, the Internet, and other forms of media in order to bring about slow and positive grassroots change in all areas of educational practice by emphasizing the reality, viability and success of alternative learning environments, in the hope that these environments will become increasingly more attractive to greater numbers of people until a tipping point occurs which triggers worldwide change.

Similar in that both cannot envisage initial change coming from the top down, however, Meighan’s approach does not require teachers or policy makers to perform incredible acts of magic.

Compulsory learning and its associated use of coercion, resulting consequently in the inculcation of dependent learning and atrophied creative abilities.

Robinson acknowledges that compulsory imposed learning kills creativity but he still leaves the door ajar enough for imposition to flourish in his vision of a future learning system. His silence on rectifying this issue is a bewildering and disappointing mystery.

No imposition of prescribed learning intentions against the will of learners. Coercion en masse is a form of bullying fascism which should have no place in anyone’s life irrespective of age. Compulsory learning, and its associated use of coercion, results consequently in the inculcation of dependent learning and atrophied creative abilities, and therefore it should be consigned to the past.

Sir Ken’s silence on how to rectify this issue says more than his entire book does about his current attitude to education. His assertion that a curriculum should provide a framework for what all students should learn in common, as well as personalized learning, implies that he is in favor of an appropriate balance between compulsory learning, achieved through coercion whenever a diktat deems it to be necessary, and individualized personal learning driven by intrinsic motivation. This is the main difference between Meighan and Robinson. Meighan, like his friend and mentor, john Holt (who spent a good ten years trying to reform North American schooling along very similar lines to Robinson’s ideas and who also achieved comparable levels of mass popularity through TV appearances etc. as Robinson) ultimately came to the conclusion that an educational vision that sanctions learning through a balance of compulsory diktats and innate curiosity is ideologically incoherent.

There are a great many things that are learned in common by almost everybody. Those living in information-rich societies who have been educated by means other than school and without “organized programs” have shown that these things can be learned in the most optimal way for each individual according to readiness and context on a need-to-know basis. Of course, there are times where some unschoolers, but certainly not all, may elect to be schooled through a traditionally taught organized program of learning in a specific area when that is the most appropriate, convenient, or realistic way forward (which is very different from the compulsory imposition of an organized program of learning against the will of learners), but a great many have been very successfully educated without participating in any organized programs of learning.

"Since first viewing his famous TED talk, I have always thought, and still think, that Ken Robinson has a great book on education in him, but, sadly, Creative Schools is not it."

These successfully educated people are living proof that education does not necessarily mean organized programs of learning, and that a curriculum which provides a framework for what all students should learn in common is an entirely unnecessary imposition, one which has been shown to kill creativity and inculcate dependent learning through behaviorist conditioning. All of this plentiful evidence begs the question: If Sir Ken says that schools kill creativity, why did he not offer a solution that would have stopped the world’s most prolific serial killer when he had the chance?

Most people, including me, agree with Sir Ken’s entertaining exposition of the age-old critique of conventional schooling. However, his vision of a better, brighter, and realistically attainable educational landscape is well meaning but flawed. As far as his theory of change is concerned, while it may have the very useful spinoff of raising awareness of alternative learning environments, I’m afraid that it is in desperate need of legions upon legions of the most masterful magicians the world can muster in order to bring it about. This reminds me of a comment from Edward Fiske, former New York Times Education Editor, who concluded that getting more learning out of our present schooling system was “like trying to get the pony express to beat the telegraph by breeding faster ponies.” Roland Meighan put it like this; “Perhaps tinkering with the system is like getting the stagecoach to go faster by strapping roller skates on the hooves of the horses, when what is needed is a new type of transport altogether….”

Since first viewing his famous TED talk, I have always thought, and still think, that Ken Robinson has a great book on education in him, but, sadly, Creative Schools is not it. Perhaps in a few books time we’ll see something special – here’s hoping!

Paul Henderson is a home educating parent living and working in Scotland. He resigned from classroom physics teaching in 1994 after coming to the conclusion that learning ought to be experienced in a convivial, voluntary, and non-coercive environment. He has spent most of his working life performing music and teaching the guitar to students from beginners to honours degree level in primary, secondary, and tertiary formal learning establishments. His interest in learning is driven by his contrasting experiences as a classroom teacher and his current and much prefered professional work in one-to-one and small group voluntary, convivial, all-age, and non-coercive learning.

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