Tom Bennett

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The Second Coming of Ken Robinson- but he’s not the messiah

Brace yourself

Ken Robinson, godfather of unusually-used paperclips, is back. He’s famous to millions of educators as the author and speaker behind the RSA animation ‘How schools kill creativity’, which among other awards, is also winner of ‘the most superficially convincing but ultimately brainless education clip’- joint winner with Shift Happens. You might have seen him at a TED conference, if you’re extremely rich, or on Youtube if you’re not. I’ve never really understood the Cult of Ken. He’s affable, intelligent, charismatic and passionate about helping children. But unfortunately he’s also quite wrong in many matters regarding them.

This week Ken has descended from TED Olympus to lecture Michael Gove on the National Curriculum. In an interview with The Guardian he says:

‘[The] current plans for the national curriculum seem likely to stifle the creativity of students and teachers alike.’ 

 This does sound bad. Creativity is one of those abstracts so nebulous that it could mean a million things to a million ears. Most people would consider it a good thing, broadly, without being able to reify it. That’s what makes any discussion about it so slippery.

‘The important issue here is that when he talks about creativity, Gove seems to mean what he says but to misunderstand what he’s talking about. His views also suggest some serious misconceptions about teaching and learning in general.’

 That last bit made me sit up. I am neither the Secretary of State for Education, nor a Professor, but I am a teacher, which Sir Ken has never been, so I feel entitled to comment. Incidentally, that’s an odd thing, isn’t it? People are never been shy of expressing their opinions about education, no matter how little experience of it they actually  have. Many spurn Gove for his inexperience, but are more forgiving of Rosen or Robinson. I suspect it’s simply affinity towards whomever says what we already believe, more eloquently. 

I also have some dark views on people with PhDs in education and beyond who have built a life in education without ever doing the damned thing itself. It is rare to find an emeritus professor of mathematics who has never added anything up in his head. Robinson’s wisdom springs from a well of theory, compounded by distinguished service, garnished with laurels. But I’ll tether that beast for now.

His main objection is that the new National Curriculum will stifle creativity. I confess, I’m left scratching my head as to how this will happen. In what subject? Has he even read it? This is the same National Curriculum (draft, of course) that contains compulsory Music…and Art….and Design Technology, right? And that’s just the subjects that most obviously lend themselves to interpretation as creative endeavours. Yes, I can see how having all that art and music will just strain the creativity out of kids. Christ, it’s like Mao’s China.

Will this harrowing happen in English, with its creative writing component? Where forming a critical assessment of texts studied is central to the whole enterprise? Perhaps he means in History, that much debated echo chamber of neurosis, where everyone is appointed because their favourite inspirational figure has fallen off the table? I have no idea. All I know is that the proposed curriculum as it stands can barely bear its own weight, so heavy with creative pursuits is it saddled.

Robinson’s Barely

In his piece in the Guardian, Robinson explains what he defines creativity as. He also tackles Gove over his claims that creativity requires mastery before it can properly flourish, but this is a straw man (© Old Andrew) argument. Children- and all of us- are naturally creative. We create all the damn time. Every time we imagine anything that is beyond our immediate senses, we create. When we day dream, we create. When we fear, or hope, or plan, or imagine, we create. We are the architects of galaxies within our minds. Creativity is not some skill by itself; it has no substance. Creativity is the description we give to actions, events and objects once they have been created. It cannot be taught by itself. It can only emerge, unbidden, through the material we attempt to master. It reveals itself continuously through the way we design and solve problems.

What we can do to help kids practise creativity is to give them something to create with. In a potter’s hands this is clay. In the realm of our minds, the matter is ideas: knowledge is the atom of creativity; comprehension and understanding are its molecules. A child can be creative, as can a Master of Arts. But which one has the tools to create more extensively, constructively?

A masterpiece, apparently

Robinson also uses an odd argument when he discusses Hans Zimmer, the near omnipresent scorer of every other blockbuster movie this decade. Apparently he was so troublesome as a child he was kicked out of seven schools. SEVEN. Only a teacher can appreciate what an arse Hans Zimmer must have been as a child to get kicked out of so many schools, and I say that as a fan. School eight had a more unusual approach, however, which Robinson applauds:

‘The headmaster took him to one side on the first day and said: “Look, I’ve read all these reports. How are we going to avoid this sort of trouble here? What is it you really want to do?” Hans said that all he really wanted to do was play music. With the head’s support, he spent most of the time doing exactly that. Slowly he became engaged in other work too.’

I applaud the Head for his unorthodoxy. But what do we take from this? That schools should only let kids study what they like? That they can tell all the other teachers to fuck off? That may work if you have bottomless resources, and are dealing someone as predisposed to pursue music as Hans Zimmer (who attended Hurtwood House, a private school in Surrey incidentally) but we don’t just teach children what they like, because they are children, and what they like may not be what they need.

People like Robinson seem to believe that our jobs as educators is to uncover the talents and aptitudes personal to each child, and then to elevate them. This assumes that such aptitudes exist, uncovered, undiscovered, like statues of David buried in cold lava, and our jobs are to be archaeologists of character. Who buries these statues? What fairy hand blesses each child with gifts, and then challenges its guardians with discovering them? What immortal hand or eye?

Two problems: firstly, its doubtful such talents exist intrinsically. They must be generated, not revealed. Zimmer was the son of two musicians, who grew up in a music studio and played by himself for countless hours. I wonder if that’s where the aptitude came from? I’m just guessing. Take a child into ten different lifetimes and watch as ten different lives grow from each path. DNA isn’t destiny, and experience carves us into the shapes that it will. We’re not just archaeologists; we’re sculptors.

Secondly, it is the entitlement of every child to the legacy of their culture’s heritage, whether they bloody like it or not. Universal education has at its heart this concern: that no matter what your background, you are entitled to a broad and rigorous exposure to the best that culture, science and thought has produced. To do anything else is to deny children- and it will be poor children especially- worlds beyond their experiences, and entire universes of opportunity. Allow a child, even a parent, to decide what children should learn, and we risk a regress towards cultural solipsism. Lucky Hans Zimmer; but no culture could, or should, build an education system on his experiences.

Is Robinson serious when he suggests this? That we should allow children to find their heart song and never mind all that beastly sums and Norman Conquest rubbish? Or that we should make lessons as entertaining as possible, and ensure that children are engaged at all times? Only a man who has never taught could think this. Or do we accept that learning, like anything worthwhile, is often hard work? That opinion won’t draw applause at a TED conference populated by believers and acolytes, but it’s the truth.

Here’s to you, Mr Robinson

Robinson is a kind and articulate man, but he’s as much a credible educational revolutionary as Paolo Coelho is a plumber. He may hold the LEGO Prize for international achievement in education ( and I am NOT making that up: best award ever) but his theories of what creativity is, and how it must be taught, are sophistry and illusion. There isn’t a shin-bone of evidence to support what he says. Creativity cannot be taught directly. We’re just not that powerful, or precise. Our medicine is not strong enough. We can demonstrate how others have been creative. We can give them an anvil, a forge and a hammer. We can show them swords, and shoes, and breastplates. We can let them try for themselves more and more as they learn.

But the rest is up to them. And the National Curriculum in its draft form does nothing to deter this.I really like Sir Ken. But he should stick to stand-up.

The interview in the Guardian:

Shift doesn’t happen. My earlier thoughts on Ken Robinson’s RSA Animate video

The Tiger Teachers of Hong Kong: a warning, not a lesson.

‘I can’t wear the same thing twice.’- Kelly Mok

I turned down a job teaching in a Hong Kong school a few years back. If I’d seen Tiger Teachers (Unreported World, Channel 4) before I responded, I might have thought twice. The Chinese island has seen such an explosion in after school tutoring that celebrity super tutors have emerged, some of them earning millions of pounds every year.

Tutors like Richard Eng, the founder of the Beacon College, an extra curricular institute that sees 40,000 students walk politely through its doors, sit quietly and say f*ck all as Tutor Kings and Queens like Richard apparently do little other than lecture to them for an hour and a half. The students are prepping for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE), the ultimate arbiter of University entrance. If you thought our exams were high stake, take a look at JJ, the student the program followed through his time at Beacon College. I’ve seen hydraulics on Tower Bridge under less stress. JJ was wound tighter than a mousetrap as he prepared for the Rubicon of the exams. Access to Uni would open opportunities of salary and occupation that would be closed if his grades didn’t cut it. But if you expected his parents to be awful Tiger Tyrants, they were surprisingly low key. Mum was brutal when poor JJ opened his mock results; ‘You’re not going to pass,’ she said, in her best Mum-of-the-year impression. Dad was more sanguine. ‘As long as he’s happy,’ he said. ‘I just don’t want him to have to drive a cab like me.’ And I thought, you didn’t do so bad, mate.

The competition for Uni entrance is so intense that it creates a Malthusian pond: 80,000 students compete for 17,000 places, and there are no illusions about the value of coming second in this race. In a culture where certification is a matter of status, failing to get into tertiary education is a badge of caste.

Which is where the Tutor Kings and Queens appear. There’s always a profit to be made in any circumstance: in war, munition stocks rise; in peace, mortar. In any market, where there is demand, there is supply. If extra tutoring conveys an advantage, then in order to flourish, that advantage is desired. The problem with advantage, as any giraffe knows, is that once everyone has it, it no longer represents an advantage, and the extra tutoring serves to simply prevent falling behind. And the spring tightens further.


Richard Eng is one of the most famous of the new wave of Tutor Kings. Richard wears Louis Vuitton, drives a Lamborghini with the number plate RICHARD, and is clearly somewhat of a dick. Although he’s 49, he looks half that; some of the other teachers on his Beacon College website look like they could be heart throbs and pin-ups. The documentary showed us the fruits of his trade: a penthouse apartment and a privately educated daughter with ambitions of Stamford University in the USA. She won’t have to sit the HKDSE, of course, as she doesn’t attend state school.

What does this show us? Eng himself admitted that the Hong Kong system of examination was a ‘factory for creating losers.’ His decision not to send his own daughter to state school (a habit, coincidentally, apparently common in Hong Kong educationalists) is a bitter signal of its perceived weaknesses. It’s an odd mirror for us in the UK: the Hong Kong system was, until recently fairly closely modelled on the British system. In primary school, many children regularly have two hours of homework every night. Behaviour is famously excellent, although even I have my limits as to how much is too much. It’s one thing for pupils to do exactly as a teacher asks. It’s another for this to allow the teacher to become little more than someone dictating from a powerpoint. With the little we were shown, I was deeply unmoved by the quality of the cramming sessions: sitting in silence as someone drones at you wouldn’t be my preferred activity for remedial learning. Still, maybe we didn’t see it all. Compared to this, I felt practically progressive. THAT’S how drilled it looked.

Timetables…taught by a dick

And what about state schools? What do they think? Here’s a quote from the Slate:

‘Not for nothing do most of this city’s rank-and-file teachers despise the tutorial industry. Educators at Hong Kong’s heavily subsidized local schools earn about $60,000—roughly half of what a tutor who’s just becoming a public figure brings in. Very few tutors have teaching backgrounds; cram chains like Modern Education are more likely to scout out young, charismatic lawyers or former beauty contestants. And in the contest to capture students’ attention, plain, hardworking professors simply can’t compete with miniskirted billboard personalities. In a strange irony, regular teachers often find that their lack of glamour makes them less credible as educators: Parents and their kids tend to believe that since mainstream schools are free and all teachers paid the same wage, the instructors have no real incentive to adequately prepare pupils for the public exams.

The truth is that formal schools simply don’t have the resources to pore over old tests, spot trends, develop shortcuts, and predict questions. Tutors deal in quick tricks proven to boost results. Their extracurricular sessions may not relay much in the way of real knowledge, but they deliver what they promise: high scores. “We’re a supplement to day school, like a vitamin,” says Eng.’


There is a danger, always, to easy adoption of international examples as evidence for improvements at home. Hong Kong is often lauded as an international jet rocket in the literacy and numeracy rankings, but with such a vast culture of docility in the classroom, and cramming after school (believed to be 85% of the school population), it’s little wonder that we should see variations between Jimmy Lau and Jimmy Law. Given that behaviour in the UK is still a significant problem, and that after school tutoring is still a minority sport over here, I can’t see parity any time soon. The worry is that we look at other aspects of the Kowloon model and mistakenly assume that aping them will benefit the children of Motherwell and Chester. Ironically, reformers in Hong Kong have looked to Britain for ways of driving improvement, settling on, among other things, project work, creativity and discovery learning, which just goes to show that it’s possible to go backwards as well as forwards in educational reform. Give it a decade, and you’ll see a Chinese Old Andrew or an Oriental Behaviour Shogun banging on about synthetic phonics, assertive discipline and the good old days.  

I’m a huge fan of hard work; I also love the idea of kids slogging away to learn. But this Hong Kong market model is a beacon all right- it’s a lighthouse, warning us from the rocks. The point of school isn’t to get kids into university; the point of school is to educate children, because we view education as intrinsically valuable. University is an extrinsic end, and a very noble goal for anyone who wants to work hard enough to get in. But this miserable dystopian world of pass or fail is the death of both education and social mobility, as advantages are only conferred to those already enjoying advantage. Add to that the celebrity world of image-driven after-school tutorials, and it seems to make an educational culture more cruel for those at the bottom, not less.

Actually, maybe I made the right decision after all.

For the whole program.

Slate article by Hillary Brenhouse

The Royal College of Teaching. Open doors and Games of Thrones, but this engine runs on hope.

The last GTC ad campaign

One of my deeper shames is that I possess a certificate for NLP (see below). Worthless, utterly without value. Everyone at the course got one, which means that it’s as precious an accolade as the sensor that toots when I walk into my local newsagent. You turned up? Congratulations, welcome to the Star Chamber. It’s like getting a ‘Yes’ from David Walliams.

But imagine if teachers could be certified in a way that you’d be proud to hang on your wall. I bring this up because an idea has broken the surface that’s been submarine for several years: a Royal College of Teaching (RCOT). I wonder how many teachers are aware that there already is a College of Teaching? Well, there is, and what’s more it’s been around so long (since 1846), I’m surprised Dan Brown hasn’t written a part for them as the shadowy overlords of education across the centuries. These days it’s based in the Institute of Education, London, no doubt in some crepuscular underground ossiery. Plotting.

Support for the idea of a RCOT has been very broad indeed. In fact, it might be the most omnipopular suggestion since Bank Holidays or pudding. An unlikely Justice League of Education has put its mighty shoulders to this: the NUT, the NAHT, the ASCL, the NASUWT, Michael Gove, Labour, the Council for Subject Associations, the Education Select Committee, have all dropped their white balls in the bag. With that kind of political will, it feels like pushing against an open door, or perhaps jump-starting a speeding train.So who’s shovelling the coal?

Michael Gove indicated his support for its inception last week, although he stressed that it would be independent of the DfE, perhaps aware that his patronage would be considered by some to be as welcome as Julia Burchill helping Suzanne Moore win an argument (‘Here, let me put your ashtray fire out with this bucket of petrol’). He’s right to do so. The establishment needs to stand very still and quiet if it wants these deer to come closer.

A blue print for the RCOT is already being drawn up by the Prince’s Teaching Institute, one of the Heir Apparent’s charitable trusts formed in 2006 to promote the work of a series of Summer schools, themselves designed to ‘bring together voices in education’, which is a gloriously aristocratic ambition. Its provenance might suggest it might embody a somewhat homoeopathic attitude towards education. But an examination of their website reveals distinctly independent DNA: teacher training based on subject knowledge; professional development aimed at revisiting core knowledge, sabbaticals and so on. Now that makes a refreshing change.

Before we are teachers, we are subject experts, otherwise we aren’t fit to instruct anyone else. And yet, once we become teachers, how often are we encouraged to revisit the fuel and the flame that fired us in the first place? Most CPD consists of anodyne INSETS that are endured rather than enjoyed or embraced. Try telling your line manager you want to go on a training day specific to your subject, and watch the blank stare. Tell them you want to explore ‘Displaying progress in 20 minutes for Ofsted’ and their saddles will ululate like an Afghan widow.

First session of the proposed Royal College

The PTI’s aims are interesting. They advise teachers to take a step back from the centrifuge of the school once in a while to re-evaluate and reignite their passion and raison d’etre for teaching. I took a teacher fellowship sabbatical a few years ago and it sharpened- possibly saved- my career vim. Priests do, and I suggest that we should too.

Everyone *Hearts* the RCOT. Why?

The reasons are obvious: in the Guild of Teachers mirror, everyone can see their ambitions reflected. To understand it further, look at where such a body places itself. For the immediate future, it’s likely that its ambitions would be to provide a supplementary certification process to existing qualifications like QTS. It would be, in effect, a value-added supplement to the minimum height requirement of profession entry. Membership (in increments of mastery) could confer upon its participants the kudos of having achieved a certain level of acumen, CPD and evidenced attainment, which would then be redeemable in the job market.  That, so far, is as uncontroversial as custard.

It’s what comes afterwards that makes this a Game of Thrones. What if such a body started to appropriate QTS itself? Or certified approved CPD linked to job development? It could provide a magnetic north for teacher standards; it could define and prescribe the Shibboleths of good practice. In short, it could transform the way that teachers are trained, hired, evaluated and indirectly, promoted, retained and distributed. It could help to define what a teacher is. Add to that powers of excommunication and sanction, and you have three hotels on Mayfair.

No small prize. No wonder people are- for the best of reasons- queueing up outside in their sleeping bags waiting for the doors to open.

The fine print

One of the main challenges in its emergent phase will be dealing with the Manichean cage fight occupying education for some decades, which might be broadly characterised by the child-centred and knowledge-centred approaches. Of course, depending on the mood and balls of the RCOT, they could simply pick a lane and race it like a dragster, but that would cleave a profession in two like Solomon’s baby. If it were to assume powers of registration and accreditation it could be a powerful force one way or the other, and culture change would happen anyway. A wise body would accommodate both poles wisely.

My shame. Luckily I escaped.

So what should it be? What shouldn’t it be? We don’t need another union; that pitch is as crowded as a conga in a coffin. We certainly don’t need another General Teaching Council, unlovely, unloved and missed by no one, which by its death rattle had become, to teachers, nothing more than an annual debit on their bank statement for which they received…well, nothing really. It’s greatest failure lay in what it didn’t do rather than what it did. It didn’t map good teaching- it merely punished the bad, and not always wisely, as a number of odd, high profile cases showed. It was meant to regulate the teaching profession- membership was compulsory in order to teach in maintained schools, and by its demise it had 500,000 teachers on its register- but the bar it set was so nebulous and so shallow that its impact was cursory.

So what could a RCOT be? It could be what the GTC was meant to be, but wasn’t.

  1. A regulatory body. Membership could be seen as a badge of credibility, something to be striven towards. At first, an aspiration. Later on, perhaps a minimum bar.
  2. A body of advocacy- not for pay, conditions, the profession of teachers- but for the practice of teaching. It could observe, analyse, dispute or promote the very best thinking in education- from both research and the collective well of experience, and take a lead in promoting and disseminating these treasures.
  3. A critical friend to itself. Teaching is not nursing or medicine. It is far more prone to dispute than either, because even the building blocks of educational debate are disputed. Because of this an RCOT needs to be a fluid, genuinely introspective body that welcomes, absorbs and accommodates the inevitable challenges from within and without that such a large and broad church will entail.
  4. A guarantor of CPD- or even a provider.
  5. An independent voice for teaching and teachers, liaising with all of the satellites that orbit our heavenly bodies. At present the press turns to a handful of names in its Rolodex when they need a quote. We need a body that can meaninglessly represent teaching, not merely telegenic partisans.
  6. A certifier of teacher development- what Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment calls an ‘advanced certifier’. Doctors are required to evidence continued commitment to professional development; imagine if teachers had to do the same, not by ruinous days spent in mid-price conference hotels scooping up pens and shortbread, but revisiting their subjects, and learning skills they genuinely want and need.

I’ve frequently written with frustration at how, in education, we have student voice, stakeholder voice, parent power and Westminster voice- but never teacher voice, which is odd when you consider that we are the professionals most affected by it all. What an odd omission. Who would think it logical or fit to exclude such an important community? Yet here we are. There is room, of course in any discussion, for those not blessed with the scars and spoils of the classroom, but for too long the room has been missing an elephant: us.

The RCOT needs to be constructed by teachers; populated with teachers; run by teachers. The iron, right  now, is red hot. The need has rarely been greater. The will is there. If we succeed, we can fix teaching from within, without waiting for someone else to do it for us. We can transform from many quiet voices into one authoritative one- not the moronic bellow of a crowd, but the careful proclamation of experience.

Get this wrong, and it’ll take decades to clear up the mess. Get it right, and we could change the lives of millions of children for the better. This engine runs on hope.