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.
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