In defense of Ken Robinson – sort of

According to Sir Ken, “schools kill creativity”. At the time of writing, Robinson’s 2007 TED talk, which started the whole schools-kill-creativity train rolling, has been watched by an incredible 42 million people. But the thing is this: Robinson does not provide a single shred of evidence to support his arguments about creativity, just a few witty anecdotes. He ignores the thousands of highly creative people (himself included?) who have had a conventional, knowledge-rich education and instead picks out a few outliers who have excelled despite their lack of formal education. He wants to revolutionise an education system that I, and many others, don’t recognise. Robinson annoys a lot of people who work in education, especially those whose view of education is more traditionalist.

For a long time, I saw myself as part of an online ‘pack’ that would seize on the utterings of people like Robinson, determined to rubbish them. And for the most part, I was happy to do so. But all the time, there was something in the back of mind, nagging away. I kept going back to those 42 million viewers. The vast majority of them were believers and many of those believers were teachers. So what was up?

Clearly, school has been a pretty unstimulating experience for an awful lot of people and although Robinson’s basic message might not appeal to those of us who had the innate intellectual curiosity to thrive in the traditional academic system, it clearly resonates with many. Therefore, while I could never agree with the idea that schools actually kill creativity, I would have to acknowledge that the highly-structured, controlled (as it has to be) atmosphere of school might be stifling for many. If you want to thrive in a knowledge-rich curriculum like we have in Ireland (for now), you do need to actually enjoy finding out new things. But, maybe there are a lot of youngsters out there who are not really interested in learning ‘stuff’; they prefer to live and act in the moment. Living in the moment and responding to prompts from our smartphones is almost the defining feature of modern life. As Bono says, an awful lot of us seem to feel that “we miss too much these days if we stop to think”.

So what’s the solution? It certainly isn’t to obsess about making the curriculum ‘relevant’ or to do what Finland is doing, or what I suspect we are going to do with our new skills-heavy, knowledge-light Junior Cycle. For me, there is only one solution and that is to make sure we have as many skilled and inspiring teachers as we can. And then let them get on with it.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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