Robinson became famous worldwide in 2006 with his Ted Talk “How Schools Kill Creativity,” which now has more than 32 million page views on the TED Web site, with millions more views on YouTube videos of the same talk. His life’s work has been based on the belief that schools can and should nurture creativity in kids through instruction that is personalized and customized for the communities where students live. I talked to Robinson (who, incidentally, is very funny) about his book and his views of U.S. education reform. Here are excerpts of that conversation:
Q: Tell me about the new book.
A: I’ve been concerned about education obviously for a long time now. A lot of people know me best, I should think, through the TED talks I started giving in 2006. I remember I was actually at an event at a university in the Midwest last year, in Michigan I think it was. And I was there to talk to all the students in the basketball stadium, and over lunch one of the faculty, as I mentioned in the [new] book, said to me, “You’ve been at this a long time, haven’t you?” And I said, “What?” He said, “Trying to change education. What is it? Seven years now?” Since the TED talks. I said: “Yes, I’ve been alive before that. I’ve been doing this a long time.”
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… Now people keep asking me this: Supposing we agree with that — and a lot of people do — then what do we do about it? This book is my summary of what I think the sort of education I am recommending looks like and how we can make that happen for more kids, for all kids.
Q: What kind of education are you talking about?
A: It’s to make education more personalized for students and more customized to the communities in which they are part of. The reason I say that is that education has become, over the past 20 years particularly, increasingly seen as kind of a strategic issue for governments. Years ago, countries didn’t pay much attention to what was happening in other countries in terms of education. People in France weren’t much interested in what was happening in Germany and Italy …. Nowadays people compare the systems like they are defense policies or economic policies, and it is because people all around the world recognize that education is absolutely fundamental to economic growth. In fact, it is fundamental to the social fabric, fundamental to cultural development and so on. And the interest in all of these things has been driven very hard by the publication of these league tables by the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] and PISA [the international test]. You now, seriously, have secretaries of state in America wringing their hands that we are 17th or 18th or 20th, whatever it is this time around [on PISA] in science and math and so on. Education has become a big strategic issue.
Secondly, therefore, 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.
Q: What does a school that does what you advocate look like? Are there traditional classrooms? Students sitting in front of teachers? In front of computers? Learning through projects?
A: Yes to all of that… There is a philosopher who talked about essentially contested concepts. He meant things like democracy and justice. These are ideas which seem to have a commonly shared meaning, but when it comes down to it people mean very different things by them, and they mean different things by them because their cultural values are different, their personal perspective are different. You can’t quite define freedom and justice in the sorts of ways that you can define some other ideas which are less controversial.
And education is like that. What I argue is that we really can’t talk properly about education unless we are clear about what we have in mind and what we are trying to get done. It’s a cultural process… I define in the book what I think it should be about. On the one hand is that education should be about helping kids discover talents and interests that lie within them. I think that is absolutely critical. Secondly it should be about helping them understand the world around them so they can become compassionate and productive citizens. I think all of that is important. So, the question is, What kind of education do you want? It’s not a high-falutin’ thing to say, I’ve got kids, you’ve got kids. By the time they are educated I want them to come out knowing what they are personally good at and interested in, what their strengths are and where they might like to go after school. I want them to feel confident that they can face the challenges that life will throw at them and they can begin to make their way to become productive members of the community.
So, you say, “How do you get to that?” The essence of it for me is that all children, all of us really are kind of unfinished business. We are born with tremendous natural talents. Sometimes we discover them, and sometimes we don’t. I wrote a whole book about it called “The Element,” about talent. … How did you get to be a journalist? Why that and not something else? What you become is very much about what you discover inside yourself and the opportunities you take or the ones you don’t. Human lives are like every other form of living creature: We are organic. We grow in certain circumstances. We prosper in certain circumstances. So the premise is that education should be about helping people to learn about themselves and about the world around them. So what do you need to make that happen? Formal education is an organizing exercise. There is the curriculum, there is teaching and there is assessment. What governments tend to do is focus on curriculum and assessment. But if we know anything, it is that the the most important factor is the quality of teaching.
We talk about Finland. Finland, by common consent, is across-the-board by a range of measures the most balanced and most successful education system there is right now. But 40 years ago when “A Nation at Risk” was [published], they were pretty much in the doldrums, too…. So America and Finland started out on the same journey, roughly at the same time, but they have got to completely different places. Finland has a negligible dropout rate [and is] consistently at the top of these international league tables. They have no standardized tests, with one exception, the end-of-school exam. They don’t prescribe in detail what has to be taught in schools. They leave that to the schools to organize. They don’t say how the curriculum should be organized. It’s almost the opposite of how America’s gone about it. It’s about standardization, testing … And the results have been remarkably different… The reason is they are individualized, and they have invested heavily in the training and policy of teachers as a profession. In America the profession of teaching, if anything, has been downgraded over the course of the past 15 years in all sorts of ways. So you have two sorts of systems that have ended up in differently places entirely.
So people say, “Well, you can’t compare Finland to America.” Well, in some ways you simply can’t. Finland is a small country; America is a continent. There are 300 million people in America, just over 5 million in Finland. But I think you can compare them. Education in America is organized at the state level, really. There are 30 states in America equal to or smaller than Finland … so it’s the principles that you can apply and cross over.
The schools that we have in the book are having great success. They recognize the job is to cultivate passion and interest in learning in kids. And if they don’t do that, then nothing else works. If nothing else, if you can get kids interested and engaged, if you can excite their curiosity, if you can get teachers to see that teaching is a collaborative activity… then you can get people working in teams, you can get people cutting across false boundaries of subjects, you can get people working in different age groups. You can get remarkable results. There isn’t a single way of doing it. There is no one way to do rock ‘n roll. No one way to decorate the house. That’s where the creative stuff comes in. You want to personalize it, you want a community of learners. You want to engage with the broader community, of parents, businesses, local organizations so it becomes a collaborative, curiosity-driven process.
People say, “Does it work?” I say, “Actually, nothing else does.” I say that at the beginning of the book. People ask about my theories. First of all, they aren’t theories. I’ve been in education for over 40 years. I’m just reporting on what actually works. You can see it work. I’m not making this stuff up…. The question is how to get it into the mainstream. The strategy of the [United] States has been to force a standard model through standardizing, and it hasn’t worked. If you allow people to bring their own creative energy to bear in schools, and if you respond to them as a profession and support and train them properly, that’s where the real growth starts to happen..
Q: One of your books talks about teaching people to be creative. You can teach someone to be creative? How do you do that?
[At this point, Robinson discusses the commissioner on creativity, education and the economy for the British government, to which he refers in the following response.]
A: When people say, “Can you teach creativity?” Absolutely, you can. First we have to define creativity. A lot of the confusion people have around creativity comes from thinking they know what it is, but not really. Someone said, “The trouble is, you can’t define it.” I think the trouble is that YOU can’t. Fortunately, we can. I mean, people think that creativity is all about the arts and doing what you want to do whenever you want. You ask people if they are creative, and they very often say they aren’t. They mean they are not artistic. They don’t write poetry. People are not wrong to say they can’t if they can’t. I can’t play the piano, and I can’t claim I can. But creativity is much thicker than that. You can be creative in anything — technology, math, anything.
We [the report] defined it in a particular way, as the process of having original ideas that have value. All that’s important. It’s a process. We know quite a bit about how it works. We haven’t found all the mysteries, but there is enough experiential evidence and now some science, as well, to help people understand that there are typical phases in trying to generate new ideas, and how that works. It’s about originality. It’s about values, about critical judgment…. There have been brilliant ideas that weren’t valued at all at the time because people didn’t see the point in them. Original ideas have to be subjected to some sort of critical judgment, whether crafting a poem or plotting a business plan or developing a scientific experiment. It is always a process. I talk to scientists about creativity, and they talk about it in the same ways as musicians or poets.
So yes, you can define what creativity is about. Can you teach it? Well, you can if you understand that teaching is more than direct instruction. It can include that, too, but sometimes people think of teaching as just about something I am going to tell you. A professor says, “I’m going to tell you something, and here it is.” Well, that is a part of teaching. Most creative processes depend upon knowing certain things and having certain skills. But teaching is more. It is about encouraging, mentoring, coaching…
Teaching is a process, and it is complex. And the thing is that you can get better at being creative. I am a big fan of the Beatles. I met Paul McCartney.. and we were talking about how the band got off the ground. When he and John [Lennon] got together they didn’t know many chords…. When they started out, they weren’t the accomplished musicians they became, but they were ferociously committed and passionate about what they were doing and did the very best they could with what they had. And then what happens is that your ambition starts to drive your ability. You want to be able to do this, and you want to be able to do that, so you get more sophisticated, you learn more. You practice more. It isn’t that the work becomes inherently more complicated; it becomes more poised…
So when I say you can teach it, what’s implied is that you can also learn it. You can learn to get better at being creative. People who already have expertise can help you get better.
Q: Have you had occasion to read the Common Core State Standards? If so, what do you think of the initiative, of standards and of U.S. school reform in general?
A: I have read the Common Core. I am not against standards. I am not against some level of guidance for what kids should learn in common. I’m not arguing about a free-for-all where kids can do whatever they want whenever they want and simply follow whatever their line of interest takes them. I mean some people do argue that — and there are some very successful schools that have pioneered those approaches. But what tends to happen is that kids eventually start shaping up their own sort of curriculum. They are freed from the pressure to conform, and they do start to get around to eventually organizing their own learning.
Education is a massively funded public system, and I’m not arguing against the need for accountability. I’m not arguing against the need for some agreement on things that people should hold in common. I’m not arguing that kids shouldn’t read and write. It’s a vastly important cultural skill, and they should. And in every culture there are things they want to understand, and get some sense about where they came from and forces that shape their culture and the rest. I think having some broad guidelines for schools, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time, is a good idea. I’ve never opposed broad national curriculum in the United Kingdom. It’s the form these things take….
I’m not against standardized testing in all of its manifestations. I say in the book, if I go for a medical examination, I want some standardized tests, not some idiosyncratic scale my doctor made up. Tests can have a very important diagnostic function in respect to some things we want kids to learn in school. It’s not the fact of it. It’s the nature of it — it’s the fact that testing has become the predominant culture in schools. It’s taking multiple tests all the time. They reel from one test in preparation to the next test. Jobs are on the line. In the UK, they are saying that if this government is returned [in an election], they will introduce legislation making it mandatory for all kids at age 11 to be able to do their times tables mentally up to 12, that they will be required to write grammatically correct sentences and demonstrate their ability to read a novel. I could do that stuff, I think, when I was 11. I could do my times tables up to 12. I could read a novel. I don’t object to those things, but mandatory? Where you take no account of circumstances in a community? And more than that.. in schools where this not the case, principals will face possible dismissal and schools will be taken over. That’s just draconian nonsense.
It’s not the need for standards. It’s the way they play out. One of the points we make in the books is that testing is not some benign educational process. It is a multibillion-dollar industry that is absorbing massive time, resources and cash that could be used for other things. Its a massive profit-making machine.
So it’s not that these things are wrong in principle. I’m not against there being some kind of common standards. You can look at the value of there being some sort of commonly agreed standards and some core content that could be helpful to schools. That’s one conversation. You can look at some value of some form of diagnostic testing. But when you look at it cumulatively and lay the politics on top of it, its just a mess…. People are just exhausted by this whole enterprise…. If you don’t implement reforms, then you don’t get the cash. It’s just trying to whip people into line. And it doesn’t have to be that way, as other countries are showing, looking for more creative approaches to education…. This is a global conversation.
This book really comes from a lifetime of work in education. We do keep fighting the same battles, but it is important to keep hammering the drum on this. Kids are being educated right now. We can’t afford to throw kids under the bus like this. … When politicians look at the reorganization of No Child Left Behind, they scratch their heads about how to solve all these vexing problems in schools. One of the best ways is just to stop causing them.
(Earlier version had errors in transcription; sentence should read: “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.”)