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With the news over the weekend of Sir Ken Robinson’s passing, it seems fitting to revisit his 2017 Art Ed Radio interview.
Sir Ken was a world-renowned expert on creativity and innovation, and his TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, is still the most viewed TED Talk of all time. In this wide-ranging, nearly hour-long interview, he and Tim covered a plethora of topics. Listen as they discuss the evolution of Sir Ken’s career and his move to the United States, testing culture around the world, the role of creativity in preparing students for the future, a possible way forward for our schools, and how teachers can affect change from their own classrooms. Full episode transcript below.
Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. I am lucky enough to be here in Los Angeles, California to record a very special episode of the podcast with the one and only Sir Ken Robinson.
The opportunity for this interview came about because Sir Ken will be our featured presenter at the Art Ed Now summer 2017 Online Conference. What I think is really special about his presentation at Art Ed Now is just how specific it will be to art teachers. We’ve heard Sir Ken talk about schools, about education, about creativity, and we were always able to apply it to what we do.
At Art Ed Now, this is the first time he’ll be talking directing to art teachers and talking about art teachers. It’s going to be incredible. So you can check out everything about the conference at ArtEdNow.com. About this podcast, Sir Ken is an amazing storyteller and an incredibly intelligent and inventive man. So this podcast is gonna run on for quite a bit longer than regular listeners are used to.
Like I said, I have a handful of questions that I really want to know about, some things that go beyond just his ideas and his writings. I want to talk to him about his life, his story, how he got into education, and what continues to inspire him.
Beyond that, we’re just gonna see where the conversation takes us. I’m definitely excited to see what transpires. Let me go ahead and bring in Sir Ken Robinson. I am here with Sir Ken Robinson. I thank you so much for joining us. How are you?
Sir Ken: I’m very well.
Sir Ken: Good. Pleasure to be here. Thanks.
Tim: Now, people everywhere have seen your Ted Talk. They’ve read your books. They’re very familiar with all your ideas, but I want to ask a little bit about you personally. Can you tell a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, where the love for the arts was established and, I guess kind of what inspired you to get into education and specifically arts education?
Sir Ken: Well, thank you. I was born in Liverpool in England. I won’t take you through the whole business, you know, but I was born there. I’m one of a large family. There are seven kids. Five brothers and a sister. I’ve wondered what that was like for her.
Sir Ken: I got interested in the things that I’ve been doing, as people do, unpredictably. When I was in school, I had no idea what I was going to do. Absolutely none. I had some interest at school. I got involved in putting some plays on. When I was in what’s the equivalent in the UK of the junior year. Here we call it the 6th form then.
In the UK then, it’s still actually largely true, when you get to be 16 you take a school exams in a whole range of different disciplines. Then you get to choose three maybe four that you want to study in a bit more depth for the next couple of years. They used to be called A Levels. There are different versions of it now.
So I chose to do English, Latin, and French. We all did something called General Studies, which is loosely liberal arts and politics. They were the areas that interested me most and because of my interest in English, we’d also read a lot of plays in school, but we hadn’t put any plays on. I and a group of people, friends at school, thought, “We should.” It’d just be interesting and enjoyable to produce some plays. So we asked one of our teachers if he would direct the play.
If I remember correctly, he was a geography teacher, but we just liked him, and he had an interest in drama. So he did. He directed a play that we were all in. We did all the heavy lifting. It was an after school thing. He printed the tickets, sold the tickets, made the brochures, selling the brochures. Went door to door getting all the things organized and it was very interesting. We like this so much that we did another one. That one was I think it was called She Stoops to Conquer by Goldsmith.
Then we decided to do another one, but it was very indulgent. At that point he gave up and he said, “You know, I can’t really direct the next one, but I’d be happy to cast it.” So we all sat around in a circle, but by then we’d enlisted some girls from the girl’s school. Like actual girls because we didn’t really want to be doing the female parts in drag. It was an Oscar Wilde play called The Importance of Being Ernest, and he sat round the circle, we all did, and he handed out the parts.
I was hoping, you know, for a decent part in the play. I’d been in a couple of them before. Acting’s not my thing, truthfully. I don’t particularly want to have the lead part, but I’d had a part in the other ones and I’d stage managed the first one. He got through all the parts and I didn’t get one. I thought, “Oh well, here we go. Probably stage managing again.” He said, “You know, I don’t have time to direct the play this year, but I have a suggestion. I think Ken should do it.”
Well, I nearly fell through a hole in the floor. I thought, “That can’t be true. I mean, I can’t direct a play. That’s ridiculous.” I confidently expected everyone else in the room to agree and say, “Are you serious?” You know? They didn’t. They all nodded and said, “Well, yeah, that would be great.” So I thought, “Well, if they think I can do it, then I’m not going to back off it,” so I did and I really enjoyed doing it.
It was a great success in our terms and it was partly because of that I went to college to do English and drama. At college I got interested. It was a wonderful place called Breton Hall in Yorkshire and it was because of that that I got interested in the place of drama in schools. I thought, “This was such a good experience. Why isn’t there more of it in schools? Why do we spend so much time reading plays in lessons, but very little performing them? It’s a bit like spending your time in music lessons reading music scores, but never picking up an instrument.”
Anyway, over that period, I became interested in that and through that, the interest in the whole idea of a more holistic approach to education, and I qualified as a teacher of English in theater. I want to do some research of my own, you know, before settling down. There were all kinds of unanswered questions I had and so I got up the research path quite quickly and I became involved in the National Research Project.
Then the more interested I got in drama, the more also I was interested in talking to other people who worked in the arts. I’d talked to a lot of art teachers. I hung out with musicians. I was living in London by then and I went to a lot of cultural and community arts programs. There was a lot of very interesting stuff happening in London at the time. There was a big arts lab movement and there were people who were using theater in fairly radical ways in their community and schools.
Yeah, but none of that was a plan, you know? It wasn’t that I was thinking that back then if it all worked out well I’d be hanging out with you doing this podcast or something like that. It was just the thing that was interesting next to me. I found as I got interested and got to talk to people more. My interest in it deepened and I was living another life as well as all this. I mean, that’s the thing. I was now trying to earn a living and hold body and soul together like you do when you’re in your 20’s.
Just over time I was asked to run courses about the things I was finding out about. The first job I got, a proper job, was for National Research Project on Drama, which coincided with my interest and was being run out of the same university where I was doing my degree. So I had a paid job for a couple of years and then it was extended for a year. We were required to run courses as part of the contract and I had to go and talk about it.
We wrote a book and had to go and talk about the book. It never crossed my mind to give talks to anybody about anything, you know? It’s not my natural mode. It’s not like I wake up in the morning, “Who can I give a talk to now?” On the contrary, I’m actually rather withdrawn from various social … I don’t go looking for it, but I found I could do it and I rather enjoyed it when I did. Running the courses was interesting and that was very fulfilling.
So it went like that and then I got involved in the arts programs, and you know, I due course, it turns out you look backwards and you realize it adds up to some sort of career. It’s been driven by a couple of interests. One of them is a deep interest in talent, and creativity, and the nature of it, and how people make their lives on the one hand. I’ve always felt that a lot of people have not discovered those things in education or when they have, they’ve often felt that they didn’t matter.
That’s not the fault of teachers or school principles. I’m not pointing the finger at anybody. It’s the way the system works and it’s a system. People have got to know that. It’s a system with its own features and characteristics. It doesn’t prioritize these things. That was the second thing. Well, why not?
I know there were a lot of people in education who think these things are important too. A lot of them work in the arts. Not all of them, but many of them. So as well as being an interest, it also became the focus of research, and advocacy, and campaigning.
I think it really matters and I’ve tried to advance the case for it mattering and to show how this can be better provided for. So suddenly you look back and it’s 40 years and then you think, “What happened? I should have started running restaurants. At least I’d have eaten regularly.”
Tim: As part of your career, I know you moved here to Los Angeles in I think 2001 you said. You were working as an education advisor at the Getty and I guess my big question for you is, “What made you want to leave the UK and come to the United States?” Then I guess as a consequence of that, what kind of differences have you seen, you know, living here in the United States? Whether those are educational, or cultural, or whatever, what has been the biggest change for you living here?
Sir Ken: Well, yeah. I moved out here in 2001. I’d had some connection with the Getty Center in Los Angeles in the 90’s when I was a professor working at university because the Getty at the time had a very big program in visual art education. It was called Discipline-Based Art Education and it applied to other fields as well, but the Getty being a visual arts organization, it had a particular focus on the visual arts.
Because I was involved in arts education, I was a professor of arts education at Warwick University and ran a large department there. I of course was aware of the work the Getty did and some of the people there were aware of what I was doing and I was invited in the mid-90’s to speak at their annual conference at The Art Education Institute in Washington, which I did. Then subsequently I was asked if I would be interested to spend some time at the old institute for art education at the Getty. Which I did and I also did a tour of some of the regional institutes they were supporting.
I spent about six weeks in America. Then in 2000 I was asked to go the Getty to speak at a conference of philanthropists who were involved in education. By then, the Getty had a new president and they had an internal review and they had closed down the whole art education program. The separate institute. That had caused a real tremor in the art education world in America because the Getty, as they often said, was the 800 pound gorilla in the room where they not only supported DBAE intellectually, they funded a lot of DBAE work.
People were very anxious and concerned about what that meant that they had pulled out. Well, I got to meet the president at the time and I was invited back after this conference in 2000 to help do a review of the education work at the Getty Museum. At the end of that, I met the president and we talked about ways in which they were trying to merge education. I said, “So why did you close down the education institute?”
He said, “Because we felt after a while that the DBAE, as important as it was, wasn’t the only way to do this. We’ve become very associated with it, but there are other ways of approaching art education and we thought we should be open to support some other approaches as well. We’ve supported this for 15 years and, you know, we’re a private institution. We thought should move on and in any case, you know, we’re a cultural organization and therefore we are an educational organization. We thought it was time to infuse education across the whole system that we have here.”
So I said, “What are you going to do next?” He said, “Well, we don’t know yet. We’re going to try and work that out.” So they asked me over and I had joined a series of think tanks the following summer and I helped them to think about what they could do in education and a few months later, they contact me and ask me if I’d be interested to come and help them do it.
Truthfully, Tim, you know they asked me on the right day. I’d completed a whole cycle of work in the UK. I’d done a lot of work in Northern Ireland as part of the peace process. I’d been running a national commission in the UK at the request of the government to look at promoting creativity in education across the school system. There would come moments in your life where you think, “I’m ready for the next thing now.” If they’d asked me the year before I couldn’t have done it. The following year, I would have been into something else.
On the day they asked me, which was the early part of January 2001, my wife and I had been thinking about maybe spending some time in America. We liked it here and we thought that it would be interesting. Maybe we had something to bring to it. Plus it was England and it was raining and the question was, “Would you like to come and live in California?” We left immediately. I don’t think I even asked who was calling. I just said, “When do we get the tickets?”
We came out and it was a good arrangement. It was to help, you know, to be part of their policy making process. To look at the future of their role in education. I was also involved in lots of other projects and our arrangement included me carrying on with a lot of those things and so we were delighted. We’ve been here ever since. It’s been 16 years now. I was at the Getty for about five years, but by then we’d moved on to other things.
You know, it’s similar and it’s different to what’s happening in Europe. There was some very similar issues that confront education here. One of them is that this period of my being here has coincided, in fact it started a bit before that, with this growth of the testing culture through No Child Left Behind, which had its own prehistory. There had been a so-called reform movement in the UK, or in England I should say, for a number of years as well.
I wrote a report with others in the early 80’s called The Arts and Scores and that was in the context of an attempt to reform education, which was made manifest in some legislation in 1988. The arts were being marginalized there. It was the beginning of the big testing culture in the UK. Other countries have joined in since. There’s a wonderful man called Pasi Solberg, you know, who had written a lot about what’s happening in Finland and he talks about GERM, the Global Education Reform Movement, and it is contagious as it’s turned out.
In America, it’s been a period of intense testing. Billions of dollars have been spent on the testing culture here. So, you know, it’s not just the arts. I’m very keen to say that. I don’t want to associate creativity exclusively with the arts. You can be creative in science, in technology. Anything that involves human intelligence is a scene of creative possibilities.
The arts are not the creative bit of the curriculum. They need not be. They shouldn’t be seen that way. They are also creative, but they are other reasons why the arts matter as well. They’re to do with the development of sensibility, of self-understanding, of cultural literacy and cultural knowledge. Of having a sense of human community and engaging with some of the greatest works that human consciousness has ever produced.
There are all kinds of reasons for the arts. Intellectual, social, cultural, and they include the fact that these are also areas of creative activity. Science is deeply creative too and so is engineering. So it was to look at those sorts of areas of synergy that it seemed to me very important. So there are some common themes.
If you’re on Earth and involved in education, you’ll find it cropping up everywhere. In Australia, across Europe, in Asia. I’ve spoken at events, worked in institutions in Southeast Asia, in Australia as well, and across Europe. You’ll find yourself at home in a lot of these debates no matter where you go. Of course, there are local cultural variations as well.
I think in America one of the distinctive things … I would say it’s more the case here I’d say than in some other places. Certainly in parts of Europe. The politicians here are bought in in a very big way to testing and have spent extraordinary amounts of money on what is a failed experiment. Billions of dollars and the effect has not been to improve standards in the areas that are being targeted. It’s not been to improve motivation. It’s not been to improve the economic performance of the country. It’s not satisfied the employers or parents and it’s done nothing for the non-graduation rate.
There has been a faith in it combined with the release of market force across education, which I think on the whole has been counterproductive. It’s a funny thing you know when you think about British culture because there are all kinds of quirks about British culture. Don’t get me wrong. I know what they are. I mean, I live here, so I feel qualified to say something about it. It’s interesting to me I guess things people take for granted because they’re in their face all the time. They don’t even think that’s a thing.
One of the things that strikes me coming into America is how numbers-driven the culture is. Like for example, if you go to the cities, all the streets are numbered. You know, it’s like 42nd Street, 43rd Street. That doesn’t happen in European countries. You know, it’s called Pudding Lane or Edgware Road. We don’t walk about West 58th Street. On the whole in America, because the way the cities evolved when they did and with the motor car, and they’re built on these grid systems, they’re all numbered.
I mean, there are some cross streets, which have names, but you know what I’m saying. Schools are all numbered. The districts are numbered. You know, so it’s like, “School Number 1 and School 32.” They’re all numbered. The presidents have all got numbers. The 44th. We refer to the president as Number 44. That doesn’t happen anywhere else. We don’t know what number our prime minister is at the moment. We have no idea. We do know who is George III. Kings, yes. Queens, yes. Elizabeth II, yes. It’s easy to keep track of that and it’s just a way of distinguishing it, but we don’t talk about the queen as 42. It’s just because there was an Elizabeth before that.
Now it’s in the bloodstream to quantify. To number things. It’s neither good nor bad in itself, but you can see how easily it crosses over to ideas of reform. That it’s the numbers that matter. Like the grades. The numbers. Now other systems, other school systems, do have grades and numbers, but I’d say the reliance on standardized testing and the amount of money and faith that’s been invested in it is probably more characteristic here than most other places that I know of.
Now I don’t mean the pressures are less intense. I mean, in Southeast Asia, there are intense pressures on kids. I think politicians kind of just go there, you know? It’s a numbers game. It’s everywhere, but I think it’s particularly intense here. It’s therefore a bit more difficult to get people to think differently about it and get them off it.
Tim: Yeah. So I guess if I can follow up on that a little bit, if you were able to, you know, see our educational system be reformed and, you know, concentrate less on numbers, on testing, you know, where would you like to see things go? What do you think would be most beneficial for students and for teachers if we were able to, you know, create a good way to reform our system?
Sir Ken: Well, I think the reforms are happening. Changes are happening. I published a book recently. It’s called Creative Schools. Actually, the English subtitle is Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up. The American subtitle, I mean, I didn’t choose the different subtitles. The publishers did, but the American one is The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education.
The thing is education is not monolithic. It’s not set. It’s not unchanged. On the contrary, it’s a human system, so it’s changing. It’s like cities are not set. Wherever there are people thinking, there’s change happening. There are changes happening in education. Some of them are from within because teachers, and kids, and parents, and superintendents are restless in all kinds of ways about the impact that this testing culture has had over the past 15 years.
I get to talk with people all across the country. I speak to school boards, administrators, superintendents. It’s very rare in my experience having people dig in and say, “No, no. Trust me. It hasn’t worked yet, but it’s going to. Just be patient.” People can see it’s not working. Even in Texas. Texas is really where the testing culture took root and from where it’s spread. I was recently with the Texas Association of School Administrators talking about these things at their annual conference and there’s a big shift away from it in parts of Texas.
We talk a bit about that in the book. So there are internal pressures for change. There’s a lot of unrest and a lot of educators know … It’s not even in their hearts. They’ve always felt it. I often say to parents, you know, the parents complain about all the testing and the narrowness of the curriculum that’s resulted in schools as if the schools want that. I keep saying to them, “You know, but they don’t. They are under as much pressure as you are. This isn’t how teachers want to work. They find it absolutely catastrophically suffocating. They don’t want to work this way.”
It’s not, by the way, to say, “Yeah, the data has no role in education improvement.” Of course it does. There are all kinds of ways in which diagnostic data are helpful. It’s like going for a medical exam. You know, “Give me some tests,” but you want more than just to be tested. You want people to use that stuff in the interest of improvement. The problem in the school testing culture is the sort of data that’s being collected and the use to which it’s being put.
If it were being used genuinely to help teachers understand better ways of teaching, ways they can improve their practice, if it was being used to help kids understand where they need to improve and how they could do that, that’s fine, but it’s become a sort of steeplechase in the interest of competition and funding.
So there’s a restlessness within the profession. I know that. I’m sure everyone listening to this is part of it and they know it too. That’s a big force for change, but there are also destructive changes happening outside of the K-12 school system. One of them is the explosive growth in digital technologies, which are making new forms of profiling, and also access to new tools for teaching available in schools.
Kids are on top of this stuff and teachers are beginning to see, some more than others, about how we can use these to greater effect. So, that in itself is disruptive. People are going online to learn who might otherwise have gone to college. I know that’s part of what art ed now is tapping into and quite rightly. Another big disruptive force is the value of college degrees is tumbling with an important percentage of graduates unable to find work in their field even though they have a degree. Many more of them being employed in areas where their degree is irrelevant.
You know, they just happen to have a degree. Well, that’s a big disruptive influence because it’s the university system that’s been the keystone keeping this system in place for a long time, and the growing costs of getting a university degree, and the mounting problems of student debt are turning people away.
People who might have gone to college think, “Well, is this really worth it?” So universities are having to change. Colleges are changing. New sorts of colleges are beginning to spring up. You know, MOOCS are an interesting evolution, but people haven’t quite figured out yet how to make them work properly. Some people have.
There are one or two that are getting into the hang of this, but that’s an evolutionary step as well. Then there are global shifts. Shifts in population. Shifts in the way the economies are working. The biggest disruption yet as I think in the job market is going to be artificial intelligence and robotics. That’s going to wipe out all kinds of jobs that people have had in the past.
It will also inevitably, because these things do, create new opportunities that we haven’t figured out yet. So it isn’t that the world is standing still or that education is standing still. Things are shifting and I’m just one of a number of people who are drawing attention to these changes and encouraging the schools to change with them and to be ahead of the curve, not behind it. It’s in our best interests, or the children’s best interests, that we should do that.
Inevitably when people work on their own in schools and feel isolated, they may feel these changes they’re the only people being affected by them and it’s important for them to see that there is a bigger movement here that they can be part of. It’s equally important that politicians understand as well that they’re holding important changes back in schools by this apparently unshakable belief that the testing system is the best way to get the changes brought about that they think are important and they’re not.
Tim: Yeah, that’s a really good point. You know, if we can dive into the idea of that external change a little bit and driving what schools are doing, you know, when you talk about the future, what our educational system should be preparing kids for. I guess a two-part question. What role do you think creativity is going to play in those sort of future careers and how do we get our kids ready for that? How can we use that creativity or use what we can teach them to prepare them for what’s coming?
Sir Ken: Well, I should say firstly that I’m not, contrary to all evidence no doubt, I’m not obsessed with creativity. I don’t think it’s the answer to everything. It’s not the only thing I’m interested in. It’s what I have been luckily been spending some time talking about. It’s what I did talk about at TED, but to me, it’s part of a much bigger set of ideas.
Just to talk about creativity for a moment, I’ve long argued this. That there are few things that set us apart from the rest of life on Earth. Very few when you think of it. You know, we are mortal creatures. Our lifespans are relatively short. We are perishable. We depend on the planet to be here at all and to survive in any form.
I know people who live in the inner city sometimes think that McDonald’s is the main source of human flourishing, but people who live in agricultural areas, no, no, no. There’s a more intimate relationship with the planet than we get from IHOP.
Some things clearly do set us apart. We are sitting here in a hotel making a podcast. This is not an institution that’s run by cats and dogs who have allowed us in for the time being while they’re doing their own podcast. Human beings are intensely creative creatures. We built civilizations. We create technologies. Our cultural progress is constantly changing and shifting. We’ve always lived in a virtual reality long before Oculus and Facebook.
Human beings live in a world which is framed by our ideas, our languages, our beliefs, our value systems. Many of which we have because we grew up with people who have them. The word we have for that is culture, but we don’t just live in a world of sensory experiences. We live in a world of conceptions, and theories and ideologies. You know that.
You meet people in particularly rich communities, they see the world in a way that is different from other communities. You meet with people who live in a particular cultural tradition or community. They see the world differently. I don’t mean totally differently. I mean, if you see a table, they see one too. I mean, they might see some other purpose for it that we hadn’t thought about, but the thing that impels human beings is our commitment to ideas.
Whether they’re explicit ones or ones that are kind of marinated in our consciousness in some way. We invent. We turn our attention to things. We create technologies. We create systems of government. We create ways of living together. No other creature on earth does that anything approaching the level of sophistication that we do. It’s what makes us who we are.
For me, one of the wellsprings, it’s a catchall phrase to use it, but it’s not a single power, you know? It’s not like your hearing. We have a suite of capacities that are captured by the word imagination. It’s the ability to bring into mind things that aren’t present. To hypothesize, to suppose. I was in Paris recently at the Rodin Museum and in the garden, I mean next time you’re there in Paris, go and check it out. It’s fantastic.
In the garden is, you know, one of the casts, because he created bronzes, one of the casts of The Thinker. That iconic sculpture of a guy. It happens to be a guy who’s sort of bent over sitting with his elbow on his knee and his fist under his chin having a think. Well, you know, it’s more than a statement about one guy who is struggling with depression. That’s not what that’s about. What the image is about is the reflective consciousness of human beings. The way we ponder our circumstances and our possibilities.
Creativity is sort of the executive branch of that. It’s putting your imagination to work and it’s applying our imaginations and our practical powers to make things to either seeing new possibilities and to bring them about, creating solutions to problems we have already. It’s often fired by constraints, by a practical thing we’re trying to solve. Recently I was talking about this. About the moon shot.
When Kennedy said, “We want to put a man on the moon within 10 years,” he galvanized hundreds of thousands of people to work collaboratively to solve that problem across all kinds of disciplines. It had a massive effect on the education system and it was sponsored by Sputnik going up into the air. It was like a tremor ran through the country. You know, the Russians were getting ahead of us here. So it was a gesture. It was something to aim for.
It wasn’t that he was thinking, “What we could do is maybe have a summer home on the moon.” It was like, “If we can do that, think what else we could do.” It was a focus, but it was also a big constraint. Creativity is often spared by constraints like that. You know, the science community and the arts community you’ve got to engage in that process. They didn’t say, “Look, we can do this. Is there any way we can bring the moon a bit closer? Could we do that?”
It’s like, “We can get half way. Now, if we could do that in five years, if that’s okay, Mr. President.” The constraint helped and that’s what happens. Creativity is generated by our turning our attention to things saying, “How could we do that?” It’s in every field. I mean, getting to the moon is one thing, but it would be hard to say that when Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony he was solving a practical problem of some sort. It wasn’t like, “We can’t fix this without the Ninth.”
We turn our creative capacities to problems of sensibility. Problems of understanding. Kind of existential problems of our being in the world. So creativity, the concept of creativity to me is a portal into a much bigger conversation about what it is to be a human being and what education can do to cultivate the powers that make us human while not forgetting that we’re part of an ecosystem as well.
Now, to me, it’s essential because it’s a way of fulfilling our own human possibilities, but also we are now overcrowding this planet. We are 7 and a half billion people. We’re heading to be 10 billion people. More people than have ever lived on the earth at the same time before. We’re exhausting the planet in the way we’re behaving. I mean, the planet’s going to be fine by the way.
People keep saying we should save the planet. I’m not worried about the planet. The planet will be fine. It’ll shake us off like a rash. “Tried humanity, not so good. We’re sticking with bacteria. They’re fantastic.” We have created for ourselves existential challenges now because the way we have lived since industrialism and the way that we’ve related to the Earth, the way we’ve built our cities, the way we’re educating our children they’re based on impersonal artificial systems and the planet is reacting to them.
They’re being caused by our creativity and the only way we’ll fix them is to get more creative, not less creative, and to rethink some of the principles on which we function as a species. Education is how we’re supposed to deal with this task. So creativity is one of a suite of ideas to do with what makes us human and how we can create the conditions for our perpetual flourishing in our lives and together on the planet.
That is not anything to do with PISA and its lead tables or Pearson and its testing. There’s a bigger mission here for educators to be involved in and the reason I began in the field of arts education is because I think the arts are about what it is to be human. They’re not more important than the sciences, but they are as important. Until we understand they are as important we’re not going to have the education systems our kids need.
Tim: Yeah. That’s a really good point. You’ve mentioned a couple times now about, you know, how creativity is not exclusive to the arts and how, you know, disciplines can and should be working together. That’s reminds me of the chapter in Creative Schools about high tech high in San Diego where they’re sort of moving away from that bell schedule where it’s 50 minutes here, 50 minutes here, 50 minutes here.
They’re going for the much more like immersive experience where all of these inter-disciplinary connections are being made, subjects are being studied together. Do you think that, you know, that sort of format, that sort of framing of education, is a worthwhile way forward. Do you think more schools should be exploring that?
Sir Ken: Absolutely. Yes, I do. High tech high is a famous example just now. I think it’s a really interesting and clearly productive approach. It’s not the only way to do it. You know, there’s more than one way to write a rock and roll song. You know, there’s more than one way to be a band and do hip-hop.
The point is to be creative in how we do school. I also talk in creative schools about big picture schools who are having great results. Not just in terms of tests, but in terms of the engagement of young people in being educated and the opportunities education makes available to them subsequently. Their particular model is to work closely with businesses in the community and get kids out into the world beyond school while they’re at school.
There are lots of ways of doing it. There’s a democratic school movement in the Middle East that came originally out of the work of a wonderful man called Yaccov Hecht in Hadera in Israel. The schools are part of what are called education cities where the whole city is involved in sustaining and developing the school. There are examples of those in other parts of the world, including some here in America.
The thing I always want to emphasize is that the heart of it, a school isn’t necessarily what we think of as school. Not just the way we’ve become used to doing the schools. A school essentially is a community of learners. That’s it, really. That’s why, you know, you have a school online. It’s why art ed now will be a school while it’s happening. A school is a community of learners who come together with the intention to learn with and from each other.
It’s important because although learning is a personal process, much of what we do learn is social. We learn it from other people. I didn’t invent English, nor did you. We’re speaking it because we grew up with people speaking it. You know, if we all had our own language to speak, you know, this would be a very short podcast, wouldn’t it? In fact, we’d have another job entirely.
You know, knowledge and understanding is a fabric and we weave it together. You know, it’s why when kids learn to speak they speak the language of the people they’re with. It’d be very odd if some kid was brought up in the Bronx and suddenly spontaneously started speaking Romanian.
Sir Ken: Of course not. It’s aphorism to say it. That’s an important thing to remember when we think about a school. A school is a community of learners. So the question then is, “Well, what makes a great community work?” Over the past 150 years or so, schools have taken on a particular form. They’ve become certain types of institution. They’re in imposing buildings. They have separate rooms where separate subjects are taught very often. They have schedules and bells that ring and holidays.
Well, you know, these are all inventions that have increases over time to serve a particular set of purposes, but they don’t have to be that way. They can be any way that works. You know, we can have six people in here now and we do actually, but we can have school right here. So part of this is to encourage school administrators, and principals, and the parents, and the kids to think, “Are there better ways we could do school in the interest of everybody involved?”
I mean, for example, there are some schools where the parents learned alongside the kids. Absolutely. There are plenty of adults out there who missed out on education who would like to go back to school, but they’re going to have to go to another school. They could be in the same classroom with the kids and help the kids. I wrote about some of them in Creative Schools.
High tech high is an example of people doing that and saying, “Well, we could have science over there. We could have technology there. We could have art there, but what if they all got together and worked on the same sort of projects. It’s not at the expense of their disciplines. It’s not asking artists to give up being artists and become scientists or vice versa.
It’s seeing what can come when people bring their different expertise to bear on the same sort of issues. So yeah, there were lots of that. That’s the exciting part about this. There are lots of other ways of doing school. Part of the adventure here is not just to cultivate kids’ creativity, but to encourage creativity in how we think about school.
Tim: Yeah. I’ll say though as much as teachers love thinking about these things and are inspired by these sorts of ideas, I know a lot of them still kind of feel trapped by, you know, what’s going on in their own schools and their own classrooms. They feel a lot of I guess pushback even against creativity, or innovation, or just trying to do things differently.
So I guess what advice would you give those teachers that are feeling frustrated by kind of the pushback, or frustrated, or burned out by the system that they’re in? I guess do you see a pathway to kind of build teacher resiliency? To hold back against what’s going on but also help them to create a path for it and incorporate some of those different ideas into their classroom?
Sir Ken: Yes. They’re right to be frustrated. I don’t minimize that at all. I’ve worked at institutions and I’ve found them sometimes liberating, sometimes terribly frustrating. That’s the way of institutions. They set up boundaries. Some are good. Some are bad. They have habits, roles, and they vary in their internal culture.
Also, schools are working under intense external pressures. So I’m not for a moment, you know, being utopian about this and saying, “Come on guys, just shake it up.” Of course, it’s difficult, and people are working under intense pressure, and they have a life too on top of all that. You know what I mean? Teachers aren’t put in a cupboard at the end of the day. They go home and they’ve got all their other stuff to deal with.
They may have families. They may be in, you know, complex relationships. In fact, if you’re in a relationship, you’re in a complex one already. It’s the way of it, isn’t it? Some of them are just horrible. They’ve got their own lives, and aspirations, and the things they fall asleep worrying about and things they wake up thinking about.
So no, it’s real life and some schools are better than others. I’m always keen to say to people that, you know, “This is your life too and if the situation is genuinely as far as you can tell at the moment impossible or just so unappetizing you can’t deal with it, then do you have to?” I’m not telling people to walk out. I’m just saying think about it.
It’s the boiling frog thing, isn’t it? You know, the situation becomes bad over time, but so slowly you don’t realize it’s becoming possible. Some situations are actually impossible. I remember an old friend of mine used to tell this little poetic thing, I don’t know where it came from, but they said it was impossible, but he laughed and he got right to it. He tackled that job that couldn’t be done and he couldn’t do it.
There’s a certain truth. Sometimes you think that and in fact, I don’t know, or maybe I can’t deal with this right now. Anyway, I’m not preaching and asking them to spare anything, but teachers live complex and demanding lives. They can be tremendously fulfilling too, but it’s your life, so you have to give some thought to, “Is this more pain than pleasure?”
In terms of your own balance of things, just think of that too. It’s not all about the kids. Not all about everybody else. It’s also about you. So think about that. About your own internal ecosystem. That said, there’s often more room for change than people think there is. For example, you know, when … I was saying this in Creative Schools when the door closes on your classroom or your studio, for the kids in the room, what you do next is the education system.
It’s not what Betsy De Vos might be cooking up. It’s not what’s happening in Washington. For the kids who are sitting in front of you or standing in front of you, you are the education system and what you do next is that. So if you tell them all to sit down and fold their arms, that’s a choice you’ve made.
If you’ve said, “Let’s get rid of the desks for a minute. Let’s get into some groups.” If you say, “Here’s a worksheet. Start going through it.” If you say to them, “Here’s a question. I want you to get into groups of four and see how you can figure this out and we’ll come back together in 20 minutes and let’s share some ideas,” you have the discretion to do that.
Teaching, at its best, is a creative profession and it’s why most people go into it. I think it’s important for people to believe in their own creative paths, but to cultivate them. You know. It’s not easy to come up with fresh ideas. That’s why we’re making a fuss about it, but you have to practice at it. There is room I’m saying in most classrooms for most teachers to be able to move things around and try things differently.
Now obviously some classrooms are intensely difficult. It depends where they are and who’s sitting there in the room. That’s the point of wanting to empower teachers and give them the right professional development, and support, and backup. If you throw teachers into a kind of a cauldron of bad behavior, it’s hard to teach anything at that point. It’s deeply exasperating.
So it depends on your situation. You can take stock of your situation, but generally there’s room for improvement within what you do. There’s also room in any school for things to change, but it depends on the school leadership being willing to make a change. I’ve been to schools, which have been transformed from being dropout factories, as they’re sometimes called, into thriving hubs of engagement because a new head teacher came. A new principal came in and said, “Let’s do this differently.”
I’ve written about them in the book and there are plenty of examples out there. With the right vision, leadership, and support, things can begin to shift. I always want to say to principals too that you’re the system. What can you do to change this? If enough people change, the system starts to change. So it’s not fixed.
That’s really the point, but it does depend a lot on people feeling that they themselves are being fulfilled in the process. I know people that say that they just need to get on a program for a bit. You know, with art teaching, you need to talk to other art teachers. Share ideas. There’s a big movement in America just now. It’s just became a global thing and I think it’s fantastic.
It’s called ed camp and I just did a short introduction to one that was happening in the Ukraine. It’s interesting. I think Creative Schools it’s now in 23 languages and it’s just be published in the Ukraine. They’ve been having meetings all across the Ukraine about it. This is in a country that’s teaching on the edge of a terrible conflict and parts of it are already engulfed in it, but they can see that these are issues that are important.
I mean, I didn’t go to the Ukraine and say, “Let me sort this out for you.” They contacted me and said, “We think this book is important here and it’s an important conversation for our teachers.” They just had their second annual ed camp. Ed camp is basically a gathering of teachers with no keynote speeches. I mean, I did the show welcome to ed camp thing, but it’s an organic place where people just come together to learn from each other.
I think it’s what you’re doing, you know, through Art Ed Now. You’re putting teachers in touch with each other to share ideas and build strength from each other’s resources and a sense of corporate engagement. You know, collective engagement. That really matters because if you’re on your own laboring quietly, or maybe not even quietly, but you feel you’re neither loved by the administration or you’re the only voice out in the wilderness.
It’s very hard to keep yourself going on that basis. I think teachers need to be empowered. They need to know that there are other people engaged in this too and to make common cause and to connect with them. To learn from them. That’s been one of the problems with the testing culture. It’s encouraged a dynamic of competition.
Above all, education’s a collaborative process. So I think the more teachers can connect with each other and maybe just make some small changes. Try something different out, you know, that you’ve not done before. Just break the pattern a little bit and see if it helps.
Tim: Yeah. I think that’s some excellent advice. I just have one last question for you. Can you tell us a little bit about what we’re working on now and what you have coming in the future? I know that you are working on a new book about education for parents, so can you talk a little bit about what’s coming from that and what else you might be working on?
Sir Ken: Yeah. The book I’m writing now is a book for parents. It’s not about how to be a good parent, you know. I wouldn’t have the nerve, frankly. You know, I’m not self-confident that I know how to be a good parent. I’ve got opinions about it, but no I’m going to leave that to tiger moms and Doctor Spock.
What the book is about is education for parents because parents are, of course, deeply invested in education. They often don’t know more about education than the education they had, what they read about, or the school their kids go to. I’m constantly asked by parents as I travel around. I mean, I get asked about the big questions and more often than not, you know, “What about Michael or our Susan, or Britney?” or, “You know, I’ve got this problem. Can I come and talk to you about it?”
Well, you can’t. I don’t have that kind of consultancy or organization to help people like that, but I know because I’ve been a parent, and I am still, and I hang out with other parents, and a lot of people I speak to in whatever capacity the teachers are parents too. Well, you know, parents they’re everywhere. I think it’s important that they get some information, advice where I think it’s possible to give it, on the sort of education their kids need these days because often against their will, parents can become parts of the problem they’re trying to solve.
For example, to take the particular theme of our conversation, often parents don’t see why their kid should do art at school. They think it’s a waste of time. Nice, but I think they don’t all think that, but you know some of them do think that. They can’t see why a kid should do music necessarily at school. “Isn’t it important they just get their results? Get the GPA sorted out?”
They can be pushing hard for their kids to go to college and do a law degree when their kid might be configured to do something else entirely and might be better off doing something else entirely. So part of the purpose of the book is to set out a bit what the landscape looks like. What they have every right to expect from education and what type of education might be best for their own child.
The book is provisionally called You, Your Child, and School. It’s offering advice and a kind of road map for how they can get the best education for their child in their circumstances. Also, the situation’s complicated now because of the way charters and private corporations are getting involved in education.
It used to be that every parent sent their kids to the local public school. They still do mostly. It’s still well over 90% of kids go to public schools, but for a growing number there are alternative schools, online schools virtual schools. There are charter schools, magnet schools. For the average parent, it’s just a maze, you know?
So we’re trying to just, you know, give them a guide to that stuff as well, but along the way to get them to think about education a little differently. So, you know, it’s been an interesting book for me to write because it means you’ve got to step outside your own patois and not take for granted things that for people who work in education they seem to be obvious.
So I’m doing that. That’s due to come out next spring. I’m doing a third edition of Out of Our Minds because the publisher asked me to do that. It’s always a mistake to open up a book you wrote 10 years ago because it’ll make you want to rewrite the entire thing. Not because I’ve changed my mind about anything in it particularly, but other things have happened since.
The last edition of Out of Our Minds came out I think in 2011. Well, a lot of things have happened since then. So I’m just updating it. Clarifying it here and there. So, that’s going to come out in the fall. The other thing we’re working on at the moment is taking the ideas, and principles, and practices that in Element books, The Element and Finding Your Element, and creating some digital platforms and materials for them because people ask me about that.
Some people like to sit and read book and some people don’t. Some people learn better more actively and there are ways in which those ideas can be made more accessible I think in digital form. So I’m working actually with a team that work on that. A company called Nevergreat. I’m hoping to get that stuff out next year as well.
Tim: All right. That sounds like a lot of really really good stuff that we can look forward to.
Sir Ken: I hope so.
Tim: Well, thank you so much for your time. It’s been great talking to you and, yeah, I really appreciate you taking a few minutes to sit down and chat.
Sir Ken: Well, thank you, Tim. I appreciate it. I enjoyed it. Thank you.
Tim: Thank you. Wow. So many good ideas and just an amazing conversation. Now my guess is you may have to end up listening to this interview a couple of times to get it all, but I will not fault you for that.
Just a couple of things that I noted while I was talking to Sir Ken and wanted to point out from the interview. The first one was when he said, “When the door closes on your classroom, for the kids in the room, what you do next is the educational system.
I think that’s something that as art teachers, we all need to remember. What we do as art teachers is special. It’s unlike anything else that’s going on if the school and we need to celebrate that and we need to share that experience with our kids. Then secondly, Sir Ken that, you know, as an art teacher, you need to talk to other teachers and share your best ideas.
We talked about that a little bit more, and he said, “You know, just as an example, with Art Ed Now, you’re putting teachers in touch with each other to share ideas and build strength from each other’s resources and engagement. So if you’re a part of Art Ed Now, you’re able to experience all of that. If it’s not this conference, you know, maybe it’s one of the future. Maybe it’s another way that you’re connecting with art teachers, but we are at our best one we are sharing our best ideas.
So be willing to put yourself out there. Be willing to learn and, you know, that is a reciprocal relationship. Somebody’s going to get something out of it from every angle. I said, “Make sure you are willing to put yourself out there. Share your best ideas. Connect with your other arts teachers.”
Then I’ll leave you with just one last quote from Sir Ken because we had a good conversation about, you know, how we’re able to change things from the inside out. We were talking how creativity manifests itself in schools and how we as art teacher can impact our students and how we effect change.
I think this is a good way to close it. He said, “It’s not easy to come up with new ideas, but you do have the power to move things around and try to do them differently.” Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Remember that you can sign up for our email list at ArtEdRadio.com.
Make sure you check out ArtEdNow.com to see even more from Sir Ken Robinson, the details of his presentation, and sign up to enjoy the conference. We really do hope to see you there. Again, a big thank you to Sir Ken Robertson for being so generous with his time and giving us such a great interview. Thank you to everyone out there. As always, thank you for listening.