Sir Ken Robinson spent a considerable amount of time at Monday’s ASCD’s Annual Conference General Session talking about Elvis (did anyone else realize The King wasn’t allowed in Glee Club?!), but his vision for the future was, by no means, lost in the past.
With the deftness of an experienced presenter confident with his subject matter, he developed and expanded his major themes (creativity, intelligence, and education) with humorous anecdotes. I think most of us left the session feeling inspired, uplifted, and persuaded, yet aware that amid the current tumult in education we also possessed something – a feeling, notion, or vision — both beautiful and fragile, perhaps even fleeting.
Was it because we marveled at his composure during the faux fire drill, his endless supply of witticisms, or his fantastic accent?
Or could it be we found hope in his Shangri-La, blue-sky musings of what education could be? Did we sense that his belief in the potential of each person (student or teacher) tapped into our own proclivity to value the uniqueness of each student?
“They are not trends. They are individuals,” he said, and we all clapped, hearing aloud the words we hear in our hearts, especially when we feel buried in numbers and data.
For him, the crux of the issue is that we have separated creativity from intelligence. Because of this we inadvertently limit the potential of many of our students. Here he analogizes our education dialogues and debates with the auto industry. We use terms like “efficiency, trimming the fat, and performance” when we talk about learning, and in doing so we misrepresent the nature of learning.
He suggests a more apt analogy: the agricultural industry.
(Though he did not clarify, we must assume he was not referring to feed lots and factory farms, where much of the same “maximizing gains” language dominates. Rather, his metaphorical portrayal of agriculture was more pastoral: the farmer tending the plants.)
“Farmers know they cannot make the plants grow — they have to create the conditions (the plants) need to grow. Put them in the wrong conditions and they don’t grow. Put them in the right conditions and they flourish. Every plant that grows looks like a miracle — same with children– give them a chance to grow, exercise their imaginations, and they flourish.”
So, what are those conditions? What universal truths can we use to provide a more meaningful and practical framework in our districts, schools, and classrooms so that all students will thrive?
On this question he maintains a big picture philosophical stance, claiming that we need to define, understand, and operationally implement creativity into our classrooms. Huh?
Sounds like he’s talking about some hippie dippie, granola-crunching, Deadhead utopian: Let’s free the children from the confining yolk of classrooms so they can express their deepest creativity, and the age of Aquarius will dawn. But he’s not. Far from it. (Full disclosure: I have attended Dead shows and I do eat granola regularly, with yogurt.)
Defining creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value,” he asserts it can be (and should be) cultivated in any field: science, mathematics, literature, etc. Our mistaken notion that creativity belongs to the arts alone has unintended and systematic consequences affecting how students learn and what they think of themselves. By redefining genius to include a broader understanding of students’ natural gifts we stand to transform schools, making them more relevant to students, to teachers, and to our communities.
“We must help everyone find that which inspires them. It is essential for a sense of personal fulfillment. It is essential for the health of our communities — we spend a lot of time trying to mop up problems that we create by not giving students the chance to be all that they can be.”
Here he maintains a need for an “ecological principal” in our to approach schools. “What we’re trying to do in education is much the same as what we’re trying to do with the environment. There is a crisis in how we use human resources — people are dislocated from their natural talents.” Essentially, the majority of us have no real sense of what we’re capable of or the conviction to follow our dreams.
Unfortunately, “applying creativity systematically”, as an educational strategy, just sounds like Schooling Lite when the rest of us say it. (Is it because we lack a polished British cadence?)
At this point he began to map out the larger, societal issues at play:
- False plague of ADHD
- An education system that moves slower than students learn, creating a linear experience for what is essentially an organic process.
- Being blind to potential. As an example: the music teacher in Liverpool who had half The Beatles in his class — students he characterized as not being musically talented.
- Three misconceptions about creativity:
- It’s only for special people. (It isn’t. It’s for everyone.)
- It’s only for special things, like art (It isn’t. It can be applied to any subject to increase innovation.)
- There’s not much you can do about it (Not true. There’s alot that can be done to improve people’s creativity.)
I asked him after his presentation what the main challenges were for instituting meaningful change toward this sweeping vision. He outlined three main hurdles:
- Policy makers who continue to use the same language. We need them to use language that leads to developing the unique talents of students, teachers, and schools. (I argued for the same in this piece.)
- Training of teachers – we have a number of teachers taught with old methodologies. They need retraining to become confident in their capacity to utilize new pedagogical norms. (As a rider, he included the idea that we need to stop pushing arts and civics to the periphery and bring them back into the fold.)
- A testing industry with less regulation than pet food companies. He suggests that we need to revise our assessment system to better reflect a holistic approach to teaching and learning.
These are huge challenges that few of us have any real power to shape and influence. So I asked him what we could do today, where can we start?
I kind of expected a grand reverie in which we organize as educators, unite our vision, and systematically work on these 3 fronts. I was surprised at the simplicity of his response.
“Change happens slowly. We need to start where we’re at – in our schools (elementary to university), front offices, and school boards with discussions and questions.” At first I felt a little disappointed. Upon reflection, however, I realized this response ran concurrent with everything he was saying.
Change, like learning, is a growth experience that cannot be predicted or driven in a linear fashion. We can barely foresee what lies just ahead, much less around the corner of a transformative metamorphosis. But if the development of our school system is to be an evolution, rather than a mutation, it must happen on the ground floor with the reworking of simple, manageable tweaks: language, perspective, and integration of new tools (he advocated again and again for the Whole Child initiative spearheaded by ASCD).
It was truly a perfect way to bring closure to the ASCD 2009 Annual Conference. The theme, Learning Beyond Boundaries, could not have been better translated. I left feeling a reinvigorated passion for my classroom as well as a sense that I too could both influence and drive change simply by being intentional in how I talk with students, parents, teachers, administrators, and fellow school board members.
In this way, I think cultivating an education beyond boundaries begins first and foremost with us moving beyond our own perceived boundaries. If we want our students to reach their highest potential we must be willing to reach for ours.