His subject: “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” His answer: Of course.
He said during that speech:
Our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there's a reason. Around the world, there were no public systems of education, really, before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas.Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? "Don't do music, you're not going to be a musician; don't do art, you won't be an artist." Benign advice -- now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution.And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities design the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can’t afford to go on that way.
Robinson’s career was focused on changing schools so that they nurture creativity in kids through instruction that is personalized and customized for the communities where students live. Education, he said, is a “human process” that takes into account who students are and what engages them. That, he said, “is the core of what education is,” but it is not most schools are focused on.
He was a professor, author, and adviser to governments and numerous nonprofit organizations around the world. From 1985 to 1988, he was the director of an initiative to develop arts education in England and Wales that involved a few thousand teachers and artists, and he served as the head of a national youth arts development agency in Britain called Artswork. Robinson was a professor of education at the University of Warwick for a dozen years, and in 1998, he was appointed by the British government to lead a commission to examine creativity and education. He wrote several books on creativity and learning, and in 2003, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him for his life’s work.
Robinson became famous worldwide because of his Ted talk, and his books became bestsellers. On Aug. 21, he passed away after a brief battle with cancer.
I spoke with him in 2015 and published a Q&A, in which he explained his education philosophy and why he thought that modern school reforms, such as standards-based learning and No Child Left Behind, were counterproductive. He said:
I’ve been involved in education all my professional life, since my early 20s, and I’ve done a lot with systems reforms, with governments, school districts, different countries. And it’s all been empowered by the same set of principles, which is reduced to the fact that I think our systems are outmoded. They make poor use of people’s talents. And we can’t afford that socially, culturally or economically anymore. We do need to think very differently about how we educate kids. …Governments at the state and federal level have taken the reins of education in a very significant sort of way. It began in this country with the  report in the Reagan administration, “A Nation at Risk,” when there was this massive concern that, as they put it, schools in this country were “drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity.” No Child Left Behind  was part of that, too. So everyone knows education is important and governments have got deeply involved in trying to fix it. My argument is that it is important to fix it, it is important for not only economic reasons and all the other reasons. But strategies the governments around the world have adopted for the most part, including this one, have been completely back to front, and have been actually entirely counterproductive.If you look at measures that No Child Left Behind was intended to be judged by … this whole standards movement has been at best a very partial success but in other ways a catastrophic [failure]. … We have got and have had appalling high levels of non-graduation, terrible rates of turnovers and resignations among teachers and principals, and a profession that has been in many ways demoralized by the whole process. … And what lies behind that is the standards movement. It’s well-intentioned to raise standards, but the mistake it makes is that it fails to recognize that education is not a mechanical impersonal process that can improved by tweaking standards and regularly testing. … It’s a human process. It’s real people going through the system, and whether the system takes into account who they are, what engages them, isn’t incidental. It is the core of what education is.
I also published an excerpt from a book he co-authored with Lou Aronica titled “Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Changing Education.” You can read the excerpt here.
Following is a tribute to Robinson by Ted Dintersmith, a venture capitalist turned education philanthropist who had been working for a few years with Robinson on an education project.
By Ted Dintersmith
Like millions of other people, I first encountered Sir Ken Robinson through his iconic TED talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” And like millions, my views on education instantly fell into two phases — BSKT (Before Sir Ken’s Talk) and ASKT (After Sir Ken’s Talk).
His talk — no matter how many times you watch it — challenges your views of our education model and draws you to an inspiring, aspirational vision. And you gain a measure of the man — an educator, a philosopher, a humanist, and, yes, a stand-up comedian. This brilliant talk has been viewed many million times (more than any other TED talk) and continues to transform schools … and lives.
But Ken was so much more than one 20-minute talk. He wrote many highly influential books on education and the human spirit — including “The Element,” “Out of Our Minds,” “Creative Schools” and “You, Your Child, and School.” He advised and inspired education initiatives all around the globe. He energized millions through his public speaking. He was a joyful beacon of hope, calling on us to celebrate and foster the creative human spirit.
And now he’s gone.
Sir Ken Robinson passed away on Aug. 21, peacefully, surrounded by his wonderful, loving family. Words fail to articulate the magnitude of this loss — for family, for friends, and for millions and millions of admirers. At a time when we’re sorely in need of uplifting inspiration, we lose a north star.
I began collaborating with him in 2013, when I asked if he’d be willing to be interviewed for the film “Most Likely to Succeed.” Given my anonymity and the deluge of requests he gets, I didn’t expect to hear back from him. But he instantly agreed.
His single 30-minute interview became central to the film, elevating its impact. I’ve done hundreds of community screenings and always watch the film’s final five minutes, when Robinson talks powerfully about education and human potential. For him, these were off-the-cuff remarks delivered without preparation. Yet his words soar.
For the past two years, he and I worked together closely on a new nonprofit seeking to accelerate the reimagination of education. This experience was a lifetime highlight for me. People often asked me, “What’s Sir Ken like in real life, not when he’s speaking from a podium?” Well, the answer is easy. Even better. Sir Ken Robinson brought insight, perspective, creativity and humor to every challenge he faced, every conversation he had, every initiative he embraced.
During this dark period for our nation and the world, Robinson and his compelling message are all the more important. Let’s draw on his deep sense of hope and optimism to help unleash the creative potential of our students and our teachers. Our future efforts will be the best possible way to honor the legacy of a man who fought for the future of every child on the planet.
Here’s Robinson’s famous 2006 TED talk: