Creative Schools by Ken Robinson

I got this book some time ago (probably bought by my dear husband who knows I’m a big fan of Ken Robinson!) but hadn’t gotten down to writing about it. Until today – this cool, beautiful wet morning – after a healthy and satisfying breakfast.

After his 3 earlier books, The Element, Finding Your Element, and Out of Our Minds, Creative Schools is a logical and much-needed book following all that vision and high ideals set by its predecessors. And I devoured it like a very hungry 🐛 gnawing at its every word and idea!

First of all, one can gather that it’s not an easy book to write. Even for someone like Sir Ken Robinson. For he is up against the entire world of schooled and highly schooled professionals (many of whom are professors and doctorate scholars I’m sure) who are highly likely to be slighted by his views – especially the ones that involve the much-touted Schooling system that was the work and pride of the early Industrialists who had created the system to fulfil one important task: to keep the industrial wheels going smoothly and efficiently, which it did marvellously. During the Industrial Age. But we’re fast leaving that age behind, and are embracing the Digital Age with a speed never before seen.

The authors covered the problems very early in the book in Chapter 1: Back to Basics, and there are lots to cover here! From standards to standardisation, from competition to corporatization, college, unemployment, the pressure to perform, and the anxiety.

Everything has changed – from the computers and telecommunications (thanks to the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, maybe) to the music and film industries (thanks to new digital technologies) to new jobs that are springing up (e.g. zero-waste consultants, sustainability consultants, digital artists and animators, just to name a few). All except for our schooling system. And there are reasons for it: Mindsets – difficult to change. Government policies: restrictive to change. Political climate: not always conducive for change.

And so, it is an extremely courageous effort to attempt to critique the system and to offer solutions to the problems of schooling and suggestions for changes so as to create a new and better learning opportunities for the future. And this, I must admit, Ken Robinson and his co-writer, Lou Aronica, did a marvellous job by covering all grounds – from history to posterity – and putting forth all their arguments for and against a system that had its place and function in the world but is now the ripe time to change and evolve for our current and future needs. Best of all are the stories of real people making real changes that are truly impactful on the young and hopeful generation of future-learners.

“Education is about living people, not inanimate things. If we think of students as products or data points, we misunderstand how education should be.”

in Chapter 2: Changing Metaphors, Ken Robinson goes beyond comparing education to manufacturing- he thinks that the proper analogy for industrial education is industrial farming. Bingo! And I think he hit the nail on the head with that! The revolution from small, self-sufficient farming, to mega, mass production of mono cultured, chemical-laden crops for the consumption of millions. Compare that to the schooling system. It too started out as small, self-directed home school approach, and metamorphosed over a few decades into stream-lined, government-controlled mass education for the world, but not without a price – the advent of a new generation of medicated children for better efficiency at schooling.

Now, society is turning to alternative systems of organic farming. “In organic crop farming, the emphasis is not primarily on plants but on nurturing the soil itself.” And so with the education of children. We need to take care to nurture the learning and growing environment. “Education is really improved only when we understand that it too is a living system and that people thrive in certain conditions and not in others.” And he goes on to recommend the 4 principles of organic farming, i.e. Health, Ecology, Fairness and Care, to be incorporated into our current education. It makes sense. It makes a great deal of sense when we look at it this way.

“…the task we face is not to increase yield in schools at the expense of engagement; it is to invigorate the living culture of schools themselves. That’s what these principles are really about.” And he goes on to answer the question of what the purpose of education is, by giving four: economic, cultural, social, and personal.

Education should enable students to become economically responsible and independent; to understand and appreciate their own cultures and to respect the diversity of others; to become active and compassionate citizens; and to engage with the world within them as well as the world around them. In other words, we need to educate our citizens to be self-reliant and self-aware for the benefit of others.

“Making education personal has implications for the curriculum, for teaching, and for assessment. It involves a transformation in the culture of schools.”

And that is what Chapter 3: Changing Schools is all about.

Some of the examples given are: The Minddrive project, where kids build cars and go cross-country in them, the Grangeton project where every “job” was done by students in a “town” that they had created which transformed the whole school. Then there is Northstar – a self-directed Learning Center for teens, that acts as a haven for kids who found school frustrating, alienating, and uninspiring – started by Ken Danford. “I read The Teenage Liberation Handbook, and that book described homeschooling and unschooling as the land of nonconformist school people who just said, ‘I’m gonna do something with my life. I don’t have another day to waste. I’m not waiting until 18 to get started – I’m going.’ It turns out that people who do that and embrace living thrive. So I started wondering what it would take to not go to school?”

And here, on Page 65 in Chapter 3, Ken Robinson cautiously but cleverly mentions homeschooling and un-schooling, as possible alternatives for parents who are opting out of the system.

Chapter 4: Natural Born Learners dwells on how children learn naturally – something that adults need to understand before they should try to make them learn! And here he talks about the idea of academic ability and its connotation, and how important it is in a student’s education: necessary but not sufficient; essential but not totally. Very cleverly put, I must say!

In Chapter 5: The Art of Teaching, he dwells on the role of teachers and what they ought to be teaching, and give examples of good teachers and why they are considered to be good in their vocation. One of them was an accidental teacher who was helping his cousins with math. His name is Salman Khan who created the Khan Academy – an online learning platform used by millions of people around the world! The other was an accidental music Teacher who used technology to inspire creativity and skills in students and using music workshops to share them with students and teachers all over the world.

Chapter 6: What’s Worth Knowing? Deals with content of teaching. What should we teach? Ken Robinson gives a simple suggestion in the form of the letter C: Curiosity, Creativity, Criticism, Communication, Collaboration, Compassion, Composure, Citizenship. Lots to chew on!

Chapter 7: Testing, Testing is all about Testing of course. The debate is fierce in this space, and it can get rather emotional for the layperson. But as usual, Ken Robinson lays them out in a clear and systematic fashion, and gives real examples of those who do good work to negate the Testing obsession, yet coming up with encouraging results from the projects.

Next, he targets the principals – the leaders who can make or break a school system or culture. And here, he talks about habits and habitats and how they affect leaners, and how the various initiatives for change had worked and why.

Then in Chapter 9: Bring It All Back Home, he zooms in on self-directed, individualised learning, and argues meaningfully for greater parental and community involvement in the education of children, but cautioned against over-parenting and micromanaging kids – a sad reality that these kind of parents exist in our midst to the detriment of children.

“The highest level of parental involvement in a child’s education is homeschooling, a practice that has gained traction over the past several years. Where once it was considered the domain of eccentrics, it is now entering the mainstream.” And just as he has done previously, he leaves no stones unturned in any of his arguments. In the last paragraph of the chapter, he sounds out some common concerns about homeschooling, namely the issues of socialisation, the cost and the time involved, which he cites that many parents consider the pros outweighing the cons!

And the final chapter: Changing the Climate, Ken Robinson tackles the most challenging factor – the policy makers. But he does it by giving examples of schools that changed for the better, and what their success factors were.

“One powerful way to change is to change how we’re talking about public education. We’re trying to emphasise the bright side, and maybe the naysayers will say, ‘You know what, maybe this isn’t so bad’ or, ‘Maybe we can do this.’

And he goes on to highlight successful changes spearheaded by individuals in various countries who dare to do it differently.

Silvina Gvirtz, a researcher on education who later became minister of education of Buenos Aires, who amongst many projects, started a program linking Argentinian students with technology.

‘For me, you have 3 kinds of kids,’ she said. ‘You have passive consumers of technology. Then you have intelligent consumers….then there are the kids who are also producers. If you want a kid who’s creative, you have to teach them how to program. When you give a kid a computer who never had one, you reduce the digital gap. This is an incredible device for other disciplines and for making them more creative.”

Then there’s Jiang Xueqin who saw a problem in China, in the gaokao system – China’s college entrance exam, which, in his opinion, was bad for students due to its excessive emphasis on achievement and goals above process and attitude. China is changing. The middle class is expanding, and it is less reliant on manufacturing – and it needs to produce a different kind of student. “It needs entrepreneurs, designers, managers – the sort of people China doesn’t have.” And so in 2008, he started working on a new kind of school, in the city of Shenzhen. “The students didn’t take the gaokao. They spent more time writing. They helped run a coffee shop and a newspaper. They learned to be entrepreneurs, and how to emphasise. They participated in social service.” In his book, Creative China, he talks about his experiences teaching creativity and offers a platform for broadening his approach.” A very novel and noble approach indeed!

There are a few more examples highlighted in this final chapter and they are all very inspiring indeed!

All in all, an essential book for essential reading by everyone who has vested interest in education – which, more or less involves every single one of us!

and finally, here’s a great video to sum it up!

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