Sir Ken Robinson has made a career of claiming that public schools are too structured. He thinks they should be creative and fancy-free.
Robinson is the star of a famous video with more than 10 million views. This huge number tells you that Robinson’s ideas are a hot trend. They are what the Education Establishment wants everyone to believe. (This embrace is of course an excellent reason to be suspicious. Our Education Establishment does not have a good track record at picking successful educational ideas. On the contrary.)
In the video Ken Robinson asserts that: “Public schools were not only created in the interests of industrialism—they were created in the image of industrialism. In many ways, they reflect the factory culture they were designed to support. This is especially true in high schools, where school systems base education on the principles of the assembly line and the efficient division of labor.”
Robinson complains: “Schools divide the curriculum into specialist segments: some teachers install math in the students, and others install history. They arrange the day into standard units of time, marked out by the ringing of bells, much like a factory announcing the beginning of the workday and the end of breaks.”
After many such laments, Robinson soars to his QED: “Creativity is as important now in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.”
Listening to Robinson you might think he wants to chuck textbooks out the window and keep kids busy all day with paintbrushes. Many education bureaucrats will hear that message and use it to justify cutting back on academics. In Ken Robinson’s world, traditional subjects are a problem. Our devotion to academics was born in the Enlightenment, he claims, a quaint and distant time that has nothing to do with us now.
Robinson sets up an unhelpful opposition. Do we pick food or water? Should we prefer literacy or creativity?
Let’s come back down to earth. For almost everybody, literacy has to come first and by a mile. You learn to read, write and count while you’re quite young. No kid 5 or 10 years old creates anything of importance. It’s when you’re 20 and 30, and you have filled up your brain with lots of interesting knowledge and experience, that you start to be a really creative person.
The danger in all of Robinson’s glib speeches is that he gives the Education Establishment cheap ammo for taking shots at schools which are well-organized and efficient. These are increasingly rare and we don’t want to lose them.
Furthermore, Robinson pretends that orderly, disciplined schools are an anachronistic response to industrialization. Really? What about schools in Europe 500 years ago, or in India 1000 years ago, or in China 2000 years ago? Probably we would see the same orderly children sitting at the same desks or tables. A teacher is teaching. Children are learning. Lots of tidy structure, no creativity.
The Education Establishment now proclaims that children don’t need to know much. Instead, they must be able to engage in sophisticated activities such as critical thinking, 21st-century skills, and of course creativity. Be dubious, be very dubious. Children still need to know facts and knowledge. From that foundation they may rise to creativity.
The big problem in public education is that many classrooms, no matter whether they appear organized or creative, are dysfunctional under the surface. The schools use dozens of inefficient methods. Children don’t even learn to read, write or do arithmetic. Robinson’s emphasis on creativity can serve to hide the crucial deficits.
Creativity may be a wonderful thing but there is a genuine issue as to whether you can even teach it. John Saxon, textbook author, said you cannot teach creativity. We do know that we can teach literacy. Let’s take care of our essential job first. Along the way we can also have outlets for creativity.
For example, public schools now disdain the teaching of cursive. But in learning to form beautiful letters and shapes, children encounter aesthetics, art, design. Children should be encouraged to draw and sketch. They can study the history of art.
In an ideal world, Robinson’s trendy comments would not be a threat. But in this world, where the Education Establishment seizes every opportunity to degrade traditional education, Robinson’s views can be a catalyst for destroying the good we have inherited from the past.
"The Creativity Question" (It's dubious that creativity can even be taught.)
“Reading is easy" (Short video shows how to teach literacy.)