Sir Ken Robinson
February 10th 2009
‘Now Sats have gone, what do they expect us to teach?” a teacher asked in an internet chatroom the day the national tests for 14-year-olds were scrapped. She was not alone. While staffrooms across the country cracked open the bubbly on 14 October last year, several teachers confessed that they were lost for what to do with their year 9s – short of going through practice exam papers.
Sir Ken Robinson isn’t surprised. A government-commissioned inquiry he chaired in 1998 found that a prescriptive education system was stifling the creativity of teachers and their pupils.
Eleven years on and things have only got worse, the former professor of arts education at the University of Warwick argues in his new book, The Element. Our approaches to education are “stifling some of the most important capacities that young people now need to make their way in the increasingly demanding world of the 21st century – the powers of creative thinking”, he says.
“All children start their school careers with sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think,” he says. “Most students never get to explore the full range of their abilities and interests … Education is the system that’s supposed to develop our natural abilities and enable us to make our way in the world. Instead, it is stifling the individual talents and abilities of too many students and killing their motivation to learn.”
Robinson, who now earns his living as a speaker on creativity, does not blame the teachers. “It’s the system – it’s too linear,” he says. Schools are obsessed with rigid timetables, for starters. “If you live in a world where every lesson is 40 minutes, you immediately interrupt the flow of creativity,” he says. “We need to eliminate the existing hierarchy of subjects. Elevating some disciplines over others only reinforces outmoded assumptions of industrialism and offends the principle of diversity. The arts, sciences, humanities, physical education, languages and maths all have equal and central contributions to make to a student’s education.”
In fact, the entire notion of “subjects” needs to be questioned, he says. “The idea of separate subjects that have nothing in common offends the principle of dynamism. School systems should base their curriculum not on the idea of separate subjects, but on the much more fertile idea of disciplines … which makes possible a fluid and dynamic curriculum that is interdisciplinary.”
In December, the Rose review, the biggest inquiry into primary schooling in a generation, also recommended moving away from the idea of subjects. Sir Jim Rose said a “bloated” curriculum was leaving children with shallow knowledge and understanding. The review proposed half a dozen cross-curricular themes instead: understanding English, communication and languages; mathematical understanding; science and technological understanding; human, social and environmental understanding; understanding physical education and wellbeing; and understanding the arts and design.
Robinson believes the curriculum should be much more personalised. “Learning happens in the minds and souls, not in the databases of multiple-choice tests.” And why are we so fixated by age groups, he asks. Let a 10-year-old learn with their younger and older peers.
We put too high a premium on knowing the “single right answer”, Robinson claims. But he says he is not in principle opposed to standardised tests, such as Sats. Used in the right way, they can provide essential data to support and improve education. The problem comes when these tests become more than simply a tool of education and turn into the focus of it, he argues.
All of this prevents the next generation finding its “element”. This is “the place where the things you love to do and the things you are good at come together”. The “element” is essential to our wellbeing, our ultimate success and the effectiveness of our education system, he says.
He suggests the education system needs to be not just reformed, but transformed – and urgently. In times of economic crisis, we need to think more creatively than ever, he says. “Just about everywhere, the problems are getting worse.”
Hang on a moment, says Dr Pamela Burnard, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Cambridge. She is concerned that Robinson may be characterising the notion of creativity “from a particular cultural perspective”.
She argues that the UK is actually doing very well in this field. “Creativity is centrally important to educational debates in the UK,” she says. “We have witnessed considerable initiatives aiming to put creativity into the curriculum.”
These include Creative Partnerships, the government’s programme to develop creative learning across England, which was started in 2002. It is about to be relaunched as an independent organisation called Creativity, Culture and Education and will invest £100m between 2009 and 2011 in cultural and creative learning. There has already been £150m spent on creative programmes for 1,500 primary and secondary schools in the past seven years. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has written extensively on creativity and the concept has now been included in the primary national strategy.
“There has been a raft of initiatives over the last five years in the UK,” Burnard says, “while the money spent on creative learning in the US has been reduced. We in the UK are world leaders in creativity in teaching and learning. It’s unfair to denigrate the initiatives of countries like the UK who are pushing forward new ideas on schooling and creativity.”
There are, of course, some fantastic examples of creativity in UK schools already. Grange primary school, in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, set up its own town, Grangeton, seven years ago. The then headteacher, Richard Gerver, said he wanted children to be learning to do things rather than learning simply for the sake of exams. The fictional town has its own craft shop, cafe, radio and TV stations, and newspaper.
In Scotland, students at Caol primary school near Fort William set up their own art studio, which they ran as a business. They raised funds to buy art materials and employed a professional artist to work with them.
But on the whole, despite all the money, initiatives and trendsetting, the concept of creativity is still not filtering down into the classroom, says Teresa Cremin, professor of education at the Open University and an expert on creativity in primary schools.
She believes many teachers still think being creative means they have to be flamboyant and extrovert. While many schools are creative, many others pay lip service to the creativity agenda, she argues.
This might mean a day off the curriculum to do “the arts” after pupils have sat tests. It’s a myth to call this creative learning, she says. Creativity must be embedded into everyday teaching and learning. “Many schools haven’t got a handle on the language of creativity and are reticent about teaching more creatively,” she says. “They are worried they won’t achieve standards in other things.”
She agrees with much of Robinson’s argument. “If you have a school system which rewards conformity and avoids risk-taking, then youngsters will be unable to cope with the world unfolding before them.”
Anna Craft, a professor of education at the University of Exeter and a government adviser on creativity, says: “There is an enormous willingness to embrace creativity in the classroom, but an increasing lethargy in the system too.” Robinson is right, she says; it’s not that we need to “tweak the recipe – we need a new recipe”.
Bringing this about might take a mass protest of pupils walking out of school because it’s just too irrelevant, she says. But in the end change has got to happen and, she says, Robinson’s book can “do nothing but good in getting the debate loud and clear”.