How to escape education’s death valley | Sir Ken Robinson


Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Morton Bast Thank you very much. I moved to America 12 years ago
with my wife Terry and our two kids. Actually, truthfully, we moved
to Los Angeles — (Laughter) thinking we were moving
to America, but anyway — (Laughter) It’s a short plane ride
from Los Angeles to America. (Laughter) I got here 12 years ago, and when I got here,
I was told various things, like, “Americans don’t get irony.” (Laughter) Have you come across this idea? It’s not true. I’ve traveled the whole length
and breadth of this country. I have found no evidence
that Americans don’t get irony. It’s one of those cultural myths, like, “The British are reserved.” (Laughter) I don’t know why people think this. We’ve invaded every country
we’ve encountered. (Laughter) But it’s not true Americans
don’t get irony, but I just want you to know
that that’s what people are saying about you behind your back. You know, so when you leave
living rooms in Europe, people say, thankfully,
nobody was ironic in your presence. (Laughter) But I knew that Americans get irony when I came across that legislation,
“No Child Left Behind.” (Laughter) Because whoever thought
of that title gets irony. (Laughter) Don’t they? (Applause) Because it’s leaving
millions of children behind. Now I can see that’s not a very attractive
name for legislation: “Millions of Children Left Behind.” I can see that. What’s the plan? We propose to leave
millions of children behind, and here’s how it’s going to work. And it’s working beautifully. (Laughter) In some parts of the country, 60 percent of kids drop out
of high school. In the Native American communities, it’s 80 percent of kids. If we halved that number, one estimate is it would create
a net gain to the U.S. economy over 10 years,
of nearly a trillion dollars. From an economic point of view, this is good math, isn’t it,
that we should do this? It actually costs an enormous amount to mop up the damage
from the dropout crisis. But the dropout crisis
is just the tip of an iceberg. What it doesn’t count
are all the kids who are in school but being disengaged
from it, who don’t enjoy it, who don’t get any real benefit from it. And the reason is not
that we’re not spending enough money. America spends more money on education
than most other countries. Class sizes are smaller
than in many countries. And there are hundreds
of initiatives every year to try and improve education. The trouble is, it’s all going
in the wrong direction. There are three principles
on which human life flourishes, and they are contradicted
by the culture of education under which most teachers have to labor and most students have to endure. The first is this, that human beings
are naturally different and diverse. Can I ask you, how many of you
have got children of your own? Okay. Or grandchildren. How about two children or more? Right. And the rest of you
have seen such children. (Laughter) Small people wandering about. (Laughter) I will make you a bet, and I am confident
that I will win the bet. If you’ve got two children or more, I bet you they are completely
different from each other. Aren’t they? (Applause) You would never confuse them, would you? Like, “Which one are you? Remind me.” (Laughter) “Your mother and I need
some color-coding system so we don’t get confused.” Education under “No Child Left Behind” is based on not diversity but conformity. What schools are encouraged
to do is to find out what kids can do across
a very narrow spectrum of achievement. One of the effects
of “No Child Left Behind” has been to narrow the focus
onto the so-called STEM disciplines. They’re very important. I’m not here to argue
against science and math. On the contrary, they’re necessary
but they’re not sufficient. A real education has to give equal weight to the arts, the humanities,
to physical education. An awful lot of kids, sorry, thank you — (Applause) One estimate in America currently
is that something like 10 percent of kids, getting on that way, are being diagnosed
with various conditions under the broad title
of attention deficit disorder. ADHD. I’m not saying there’s no such thing. I just don’t believe
it’s an epidemic like this. If you sit kids down, hour after hour, doing low-grade clerical work, don’t be surprised if they start
to fidget, you know? (Laughter) (Applause) Children are not, for the most part,
suffering from a psychological condition. They’re suffering from childhood. (Laughter) And I know this because
I spent my early life as a child. I went through the whole thing. Kids prosper best with a broad curriculum
that celebrates their various talents, not just a small range of them. And by the way, the arts
aren’t just important because they improve math scores. They’re important because they speak
to parts of children’s being which are otherwise untouched. The second, thank you — (Applause) The second principle
that drives human life flourishing is curiosity. If you can light the spark
of curiosity in a child, they will learn without any further
assistance, very often. Children are natural learners. It’s a real achievement
to put that particular ability out, or to stifle it. Curiosity is the engine of achievement. Now the reason I say this is because one of the effects
of the current culture here, if I can say so, has been to de-professionalize teachers. There is no system in the world
or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood
of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived,
is not a delivery system. You know, you’re not there just
to pass on received information. Great teachers do that, but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage. You see, in the end,
education is about learning. If there’s no learning going on,
there’s no education going on. And people can spend an awful lot of time discussing education
without ever discussing learning. The whole point of education
is to get people to learn. An old friend of mine —
actually very old, he’s dead. (Laughter) That’s as old as it gets, I’m afraid. (Laughter) But a wonderful guy he was,
wonderful philosopher. He used to talk about the difference between the task
and achievement senses of verbs. You can be engaged
in the activity of something, but not really be
achieving it, like dieting. (Laughter) It’s a very good example. There he is. He’s dieting. Is he losing any weight? Not really. (Laughter) Teaching is a word like that. You can say, “There’s Deborah,
she’s in room 34, she’s teaching.” But if nobody’s learning anything, she may be engaged in the task of teaching
but not actually fulfilling it. The role of a teacher
is to facilitate learning. That’s it. And part of the problem is, I think, that the dominant culture
of education has come to focus on not teaching and learning, but testing. Now, testing is important. Standardized tests have a place. But they should not be
the dominant culture of education. They should be diagnostic.
They should help. (Applause) If I go for a medical examination,
I want some standardized tests. I do. I want to know
what my cholesterol level is compared to everybody else’s
on a standard scale. I don’t want to be told on some scale
my doctor invented in the car. (Laughter) “Your cholesterol
is what I call Level Orange.” “Really?” (Laughter) “Is that good?” “We don’t know.” (Laughter) But all that should support learning. It shouldn’t obstruct it,
which of course it often does. So in place of curiosity,
what we have is a culture of compliance. Our children and teachers are encouraged
to follow routine algorithms rather than to excite that power
of imagination and curiosity. And the third principle is this:
that human life is inherently creative. It’s why we all have different résumés. We create our lives, and we can recreate them
as we go through them. It’s the common currency
of being a human being. It’s why human culture
is so interesting and diverse and dynamic. I mean, other animals may well have
imaginations and creativity, but it’s not so much
in evidence, is it, as ours? I mean, you may have a dog. And your dog may get depressed. You know, but it doesn’t listen
to Radiohead, does it? (Laughter) And sit staring out the window
with a bottle of Jack Daniels. (Laughter) “Would you like to come for a walk?” “No, I’m fine.” (Laughter) “You go. I’ll wait. But take pictures.” (Laughter) We all create our own lives
through this restless process of imagining alternatives
and possibilities, and one of the roles of education is to awaken and develop
these powers of creativity. Instead, what we have
is a culture of standardization. Now, it doesn’t have to be that way. It really doesn’t. Finland regularly comes out on top
in math, science and reading. Now, we only know
that’s what they do well at, because that’s all that’s being tested. That’s one of the problems of the test. They don’t look for other things
that matter just as much. The thing about work in Finland is this: they don’t obsess about those disciplines. They have a very broad
approach to education, which includes humanities,
physical education, the arts. Second, there is no standardized
testing in Finland. I mean, there’s a bit, but it’s not what gets
people up in the morning, what keeps them at their desks. The third thing —
and I was at a meeting recently with some people from Finland,
actual Finnish people, and somebody from the American system
was saying to the people in Finland, “What do you do
about the drop-out rate in Finland?” And they all looked a bit
bemused, and said, “Well, we don’t have one. Why would you drop out? If people are in trouble,
we get to them quite quickly and we help and support them.” Now people always say, “Well, you know, you can’t compare
Finland to America.” No. I think there’s a population
of around five million in Finland. But you can compare it
to a state in America. Many states in America
have fewer people in them than that. I mean, I’ve been
to some states in America and I was the only person there. (Laughter) Really. Really. I was asked to lock up when I left. (Laughter) But what all the high-performing
systems in the world do is currently what is not evident, sadly, across the systems in America — I mean, as a whole. One is this: they individualize teaching and learning. They recognize that it’s students
who are learning and the system has to engage them, their curiosity, their individuality,
and their creativity. That’s how you get them to learn. The second is that they attribute
a very high status to the teaching profession. They recognize
that you can’t improve education if you don’t pick great people to teach
and keep giving them constant support
and professional development. Investing in professional
development is not a cost. It’s an investment, and every other country
that’s succeeding well knows that, whether it’s Australia, Canada, South Korea, Singapore,
Hong Kong or Shanghai. They know that to be the case. And the third is, they devolve responsibility
to the school level for getting the job done. You see, there’s a big difference here between going into a mode of command
and control in education — That’s what happens in some systems. Central or state governments decide, they know best and they’re going
to tell you what to do. The trouble is that education
doesn’t go on in the committee rooms
of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it
are the teachers and the students, and if you remove their discretion,
it stops working. You have to put it back to the people. (Applause) There is wonderful work
happening in this country. But I have to say it’s happening in spite of the dominant
culture of education, not because of it. It’s like people are sailing
into a headwind all the time. And the reason I think is this: that many of the current policies are based on mechanistic
conceptions of education. It’s like education
is an industrial process that can be improved
just by having better data, and somewhere in the back of the mind
of some policy makers is this idea that if we fine-tune it
well enough, if we just get it right, it will all hum along perfectly
into the future. It won’t, and it never did. The point is that education
is not a mechanical system. It’s a human system. It’s about people, people who either do want
to learn or don’t want to learn. Every student who drops
out of school has a reason for it which is rooted in their own biography. They may find it boring. They may find it irrelevant. They may find that it’s at odds with
the life they’re living outside of school. There are trends,
but the stories are always unique. I was at a meeting recently
in Los Angeles of — they’re called alternative
education programs. These are programs designed
to get kids back into education. They have certain common features. They’re very personalized. They have strong support for the teachers, close links with the community
and a broad and diverse curriculum, and often programs which involve students
outside school as well as inside school. And they work. What’s interesting to me is,
these are called “alternative education.” (Laughter) You know? And all the evidence
from around the world is, if we all did that, there’d be
no need for the alternative. (Applause) (Applause ends) So I think we have to embrace
a different metaphor. We have to recognize
that it’s a human system, and there are conditions
under which people thrive, and conditions under which they don’t. We are after all organic creatures, and the culture of the school
is absolutely essential. Culture is an organic term, isn’t it? Not far from where I live
is a place called Death Valley. Death Valley is the hottest,
driest place in America, and nothing grows there. Nothing grows there
because it doesn’t rain. Hence, Death Valley. In the winter of 2004,
it rained in Death Valley. Seven inches of rain fell
over a very short period. And in the spring of 2005,
there was a phenomenon. The whole floor of Death Valley
was carpeted in flowers for a while. What it proved is this: that Death Valley isn’t dead. It’s dormant. Right beneath the surface
are these seeds of possibility waiting for the right conditions
to come about, and with organic systems,
if the conditions are right, life is inevitable. It happens all the time. You take an area, a school, a district, you change the conditions, give people
a different sense of possibility, a different set of expectations,
a broader range of opportunities, you cherish and value the relationships
between teachers and learners, you offer people
the discretion to be creative and to innovate in what they do, and schools that were once
bereft spring to life. Great leaders know that. The real role of leadership
in education — and I think it’s true
at the national level, the state level, at the school level — is not and should not be
command and control. The real role of leadership
is climate control, creating a climate of possibility. And if you do that, people will rise to it and achieve things
that you completely did not anticipate and couldn’t have expected. There’s a wonderful quote
from Benjamin Franklin. “There are three sorts
of people in the world: Those who are immovable, people who don’t get it, or don’t want to do anything about it; there are people who are movable, people who see the need for change and are prepared to listen to it; and there are people who move, people who make things happen.” And if we can encourage more people,
that will be a movement. And if the movement is strong enough, that’s, in the best sense
of the word, a revolution. And that’s what we need. Thank you very much. (Applause) Thank you very much. (Applause)

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