For decades the expert’s razor-sharp insights into the problems marring the sector have been met with loud applause from those hustling at the coalface in schools across the globe.
His revered TED Talk Do schools kill creativity? has amassed more than 50 million views in more than 160 countries since it launched 12 years ago, making it the most watched TED Talk of all time. His books, peppered by titles such as Out of Our Minds: Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, and his latest offering You, Your Child, And School have further spread his bold views to the masses.
Yet interestingly, the crux of his message is an unsettling one: our attachment to an industrial model of education is crippling our kids’ potential. It’s stifling creativity, innovation and joy with its narrow conception of what real “intelligence” entails. It’s locking educators in a ruthless cycle of testing. It’s a system where schools are mere puppets to the agenda of politicians and policymakers.
And it needs to change, the University of Warwick professor emeritus argues.
His views are disruptive and challenging, and deliberately so. So why has Robinson gathered the admiration (some might say fandom) of educators world-wide?
“Because they are true I think, truthfully” Robinson tells EducationHQ during an intimate media briefing at this year’s FutureSchools Expo and Conferences in Melbourne.
He’s just escaped from an intense ‘book signing’ exercise; picture hoards of enraptured delegates armed with paperbacks milling round their hero.
Despite the fanfare, Robinson is calm, considered and decidedly matter-of-fact, although one gets the feeling this is not an unusual state of affairs.
“I don’t think of what I say as being complicated or it’s not deliberately provocative, I am just trying to set out what seemed to me to be some obvious things, obvious truths about kids, about how they learn and how we should create conditions where they want to,” he continues.
“…And the thing is, I am not promoting some ‘theory’, this is what works – and I’ve been in education a very long time and when I got into it I was immersing myself in the ideas and practices of people who had been in it a lot longer than I had…”
While Robinson might claim he’s just one in a long conga line of experts who’ve touted the pitfalls of our thinking, there’s something about his message that just sticks. Perhaps it’s the witty injections of humour he plugs into his spiels. Or the personal anecdotes he draws on to illustrate a point. It could simply be the unnerving conviction in his voice.
Robinson has another idea.
“I’ve had sometimes people say to me ‘you’re being critical of schools or teachers’ and in fact it’s the exact opposite, and that’s why I get head teachers and teachers coming up to me and saying ‘thank you’, because they know I’m on their case,” he says.
“I am really trying, as it were, to speak truth to the panel here. And saying that ‘actually you are going about this the wrong way here and its counterproductive in just about every aspect’.”
His ability to harness the hearts and minds of so many is not something Robinson dismisses as a by-product of his lofty position.
“It’s a lovely thing when people come up – and they do,” he reflects.
“People come up in the street, they’ll come up in airports and say really warm, lovely things like ‘you’ve changed my life, I saw this talk, I read this book, you made me re-think the way I raised my kids or … think about a different route through a career’.
“…[I’ve] had principals lining up with me to say ‘we’ve changed our entire school based on this … it’s been wonderful, it’s been transformative for the kids, the parents.’”
The system at a glance
Since around the turn of the century, Robinson has observed a distinct sequence of educational reform – and he’s not impressed by what he’s seen.
“Every country is trying to improve education – over the last 20 years there’s been a pattern of reform, and for the most part it’s been a catastrophic failure,” he tells FutureSchools delegates.
Far from bettering the educational opportunities for children, reforms have established a system that’s created a culture of conformity, compliance and competition – principles that are, according to Robinson, “misconceived and hostile to human development”.
“We have created a system that actively stops people wanting to learn,” Robinson argues. “If you get the conditions right, kids will learn…”
Governments’ blinkered focus on testing, rankings and academic scores is literally “driving educators up the wall”, he contends.
“One of the big drives, latterly, has been these international league tables, PISA league tables,” Robinson says.
“The thing is, education has been recognised as a strategic issue, governments scrutinise the education policies of other countries like they scrutinise their economic and defence policies because they know it’s about trade and competition and all of the above. But they think too simply about it … they look for useable data and it’s a well-known phenomenon, it’s referred to once as McNamara fallacy … which is to make the measureable important, rather than the important measureable. So if it’s tested, it’s important.”
According to Robinson, singling out maths and literacy skills as the only ones deemed worthy of assessment has established a “closed loop of reason” which only squashes kids’ enthusiasm and delight to learn in these fields.
“…I mean holistic doctors call it a ‘septic focus’, like, if there’s a problem in mathematics ‘let’s just do more mathematics’, and actually it can be the wrong way to do it because you sick people of it, you kill the impulse to learn that is required for people to do very well at it.”
Essentially, we’re on the wrong track.
“I just did a talk in the UK about why dance is as important as mathematics in schools, because it is, there is no question, we can absolutely substantiate that,” Robinson says.
“Of course, some people just start to haemorrhage at that point – ‘this is too much’,” he laughs, “but actually if you look at it, the case is very strong.
“It’s strong from every point of view, and often people who criticise it know nothing about dance.
“I remember someone saying … ‘so you are saying that salsa is as important as calculus’, and I said ‘just grow up’. I mean if you want to have a discussion about it let’s have it, but don’t make silly points.
But as it turns out, yes, [dance] is as important.”
A message to politicians and policymakers
When it comes to politicians and their agenda in education, Robinson is openly sceptical.
“Some politicians, they don’t know much about education, any more than a heath minister may be an expert on the health system – it’s the way the political system works,” he states.
“They get moved into these roles according to availability and other strategic decisions that governments make. They try and get their head around the brief, they get advised by civil servants who hold their own agendas, and they have a short shelf life normally in these roles, so they try to make some impact in the first six to eight months, 12 months, which they can brag about.
“And some of them are full of integrity and well-intentioned, and some aren’t. But it’s a lottery really at that level.”
To flesh out this ‘hit or miss’ theory, Robinson brings up the US’ No Child Left Behind strategy, which, while full of “good intentions”, was ultimately “the wrong remedy” for schools and their children.
“It’s unleashed this massive testing monster on the schools which has been entirely counterproductive... But also [politicians] have other things on their mind, they are doing a different sort of calculus about [education initiatives], and they are playing to their constituencies and their funders and their base…” he concludes.
Robinson understands that his subversive views might be hard for governments to digest, yet he says he will not dilute his message; making things palatable is not what he is about.
“… some people think when you are talking about these things that you are attacking the fundamental academic values in schools and it’s destined to bring the government down or turn the country into a cesspit. So there are all sorts of reasons why people, politically, can have difficulty with the message, but there is no good reason to modify it for them.”
“I mean, you need to put it in a way that it’s politically sound, and well-informed, but there’s no reason I think to water the message down; it’s too important to water down,” Robinson states.
There's room for innovation
It’s one thing to agree with Robinson’s defiant conceptions of what education should entail, but a burning question remains: how can educators in schools actually put his visions into action?
He says it’s all too easy to conform with a model that’s familiar.
“There is more room for innovation in the system than people recognise ... there is a lot more wriggle room than people seem to think.
“A lot of the things that go on in schools [aren’t] the result of legislation, [they’re] the result of habit, and habits of mind; it’s a little like opening the caged door and the bird still sits there, and you think ‘go now’.
"People find change difficult, even beneficial change sometimes, because they find the system comfortable – not everybody wants to make a change…”
And yet Robinson sees the rumblings of change. People in different pockets of the world are starting to revolt against the model that values academic virtues above all else.
“The thing is, my impression is that here [in Australia] as elsewhere, it’s kind of in spite of the political culture, not because of it,” Robinson notes.
“People are pushing back. There is a still a tendency for the governments to stick with the old model because they understand it, and the model on the whole is command and control – ‘we’ll tell you what to do, we’ll lay out the guidelines, you conform to that and we’ll test you to make sure you are conforming to it’ – but I do see a change going on around the world…”
Finland, Singapore, South Korea and China have all recognised the need to move away from the “conformist culture” of education to foster more diversity in the types of school graduates they release on society, he adds.
“…for example South Korea, a year or so ago announced that they needed to focus much more on developing students’ talents. I know that might be for strategic reasons, but it’s an interesting development,” Robinson muses
“Singapore has been thinking that way for some time, China has been talking about ... [moving] away from this conformist culture, for all kinds of reasons. One of them is they have this enormous oversupply of university graduates, they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing with them…”
More than a decade has passed since Robinson told the world that “we are educating people out of their creative capacities” in that seminal TED address. When he threw up the idea that dance was just as important as literacy and there are multiple and diverse forms of intelligence that don’t have anything to do with academic capacity.
His message today, for the most part, has not deviated from his parting words uttered back in 2006:
“The education system has mined our minds in the way we strip-mine the earth; for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us.”