With his trademark humour, Robinson outlined the state of education as he sees it and the power that individuals have to make a positive change.
Now a grandfather, Robinson told the crowd about the limitless potential he sees in his granddaughter.
“[Being a grandfather] reinforces something I’ve always believed, which is that children … are full of boundless potential, astonishing potential, and my experience has long been that we only ever tap into a small amount of it.”
Children learn to speak, Robinson said, “because they want to and because they can”.
Indeed, children raised in bilingual households or cultures will pick up many languages, he said – as many as they need to.
While their capacity for learning is near-limitless, Robinson said that an education system that is “not fit for purpose” is limiting that potential.
A long-time critic of what he has described as the “industrial model of education”, Robinson is optimistic that things are changing for the better.
Our model of education is not static, he said. Things not only can change, but they are changing – and individual teachers can accelerate the change.
Robinson produced a chart of a typical school hierarchy to illustrate his point. Neat and orderly, the chart extended down from principals to teachers, maintenance staff and librarians.
Children, he noted, are curiously omitted.
While the school system is linear and inorganic, Robinson said, life isn’t. Life is a constant, un-anticipatable process of improvisation.
As an example, Robinson spoke about the legalisation of gay marriage. Over a relatively short period of time, the culture shifted. Politicians responded to grassroots pressure from the community and legislated change.
Teachers often feel powerless, he said, but they aren’t. Most teachers feel there is something wrong with the system, and by enacting change at a classroom level and applying upwards pressure to politicians, things can be reshaped.
A now model of education must be evenly balanced, he said. Different faculties should be given equal importance, moving away from a rigid hierarchy that privileges maths and English over the humanities, physical education and the arts.
Schools should also be able to respond to the individual capacities of students.
As a final analogy, Robinson compared schooling to agriculture.
In industrial farms, the focus is on output – bigger yields, fatter animals. To achieve this, farms use chemicals to create all sorts of unnatural conditions, eventually eroding the soil and the plants’ natural resistance to diseases.
Organic farms are different, he said. They understand that the focus must be on the quality of the soil, not the plant.
According to Robinson, schools, like industrial farms, have created unnatural conditions for learning in the single-minded pursuit of output, or test scores. Schools must re-examine the conditions that students learn in and restore them to something more natural.
In closing, Robinson offered Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer as sage advice for educators:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”