The Education Revolution: Sir Ken Robinson TEDx London Intro
TEDx, London: The Education Revolution (September 17, 2011)
Transcript of the Introduction by Sir Ken Robinson
Well, good morning and welcome to TEDx London and ‘The Education Revolution’. I’m Ken Robinson and, firstly, let me say I’m sorry not to be with you today at the Roundhouse; I would have loved to have been there. I have a great affection for the Roundhouse and for London. Unfortunately I have to be in Los Angeles which, of course, has its own benefits! This event has been organised by TEDx London, and I wanted to thank all the people who’ve put it together, and who have worked so hard over the past few months to make it work as an event in its own right. But I also wanted to say a couple of words of thanks because the event, to some extent, has been triggered by the second talk that I gave at TED in Long Beach. I spoke at TED originally in 2006 and talked about ‘creativity’ and Chris Anderson asked me to go back and talk again, four years later, and I thought that was the sequel; and I called then for our efforts to be redoubled to revolutionise education. So, today is an opportunity to develop some of those ideas through all the speakers that you will be hearing, and in the conversations you will be having between the sessions. So I wanted to give a few thoughts about the direction that these conversations might go, and why I thought it was important to talk about a revolution in education in the first place. It’s actually very appropriate that you should be meeting at the Roundhouse. The Roundhouse, if you have not been there before, has a long history in cultural policy and agitation; it was the centre for Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42, which was named after a proposition that the trades unions put together to promote cultural access and cultural equity. I also saw a lot of productions at the Roundhouse in the 60s and 70s; that would be the 1960s, by the way, and the 1970s; and one of them was by Peter Brook, and I am going to come back to that just before I wrap these comments up. But, I wanted to firstly congratulate and welcome the other speakers; I know of their work. I particularly wanted to mention Jude Kelly, who will be speaking shortly. Jude and I have worked together for a very long time; Jude does wonderful work at the Southbank Centre; but we also worked together 10 years ago on a report for the British government called All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education; and Jude’s work, like mine, crosses over from the professional arts into education and beyond. So, I wanted to say that you are in good company today for this conversation and that there is great expertise in the audience.
The reason I think we need a revolution is really captured in a phrase you hear politicians often misuse. They talk about the need to ‘get back to basics’ in education; and, I think, we should. The problem, I think, is that many politicians, when they say “get back to basics”, seem to believe the basics are a group of subjects that they did when they were at school; and in particular, they tend to emphasise literacy and numeracy and science. Well, of course, they are fantastically important; but the basics of education are not a group of subjects. The basics in education are fundamental purposes; and I’d hope that you’d bear these purposes in mind during the day’s conversations, and the debates on issues which I hope will flow from today.
There are three basics, as I see it … not in particular order of priority; though I have a reason for putting them in this sequence. The first one is economic. Education has powerful roles in economic growth, development and sustainability, and any conversation about education that doesn’t take account of the economy is really, in some respects, detached and naïve from the world that we live in. The problem is that the economies that we are now generating around the world are quite unlike the economies in which people, certainly of my generation, grew up in; and completely unlike the ones in which public education was conceived. The economies of 21st century demand that we develop our skills of creativity and innovation, and the great multiplicity of human talents. Our education systems don’t do that. So, one of the reasons for a revolution is to meet economic purposes.
But the second is cultural. Education has fundamental roles in enabling our students, of whatever age they happen to be, to understand their own cultural backgrounds; their own histories and traditions, their own identity and what shaped and formed it. But, it has equal responsibilities to encourage them to understand other people’s cultures. The great challenges that we face on the planet just now are partly environmental; but they are also partly cultural. The great conflicts around the world are borne out of cultural mistrust and misunderstanding. So, the cultural roles of education are fundamental. And that has real implications for the curriculum. But, the third, and I come to it last because it’s, to me, the bridge into everything that matters to me in education, as we start to build for the future.
The third of them is personal. Education, in the end, is about people; it’s about individuals, it’s about their hopes and aspirations; it’s about their talents and their abilities and their passions. A lot of people are dropping out of education; a lot of people are staying in but detaching from it; and they all have personal reasons for doing that. Education is not a mechanistic process; it is a process that depends upon the imaginations and interests of students being properly engaged. So, at the root of my call for a revolution is the need to personalise education; and I say it because, particularly over the last 10 or 15 years, education has in a way become more and more impersonal. The more that the governments have driven to standardise education, the more they have driven education towards a narrow view of conformity, the less personal it has become. So, the root of the revolution, to me, is the need to reverse our priorities and focus on the students and the teachers.
I mentioned Peter Brook. I used to go to the Roundhouse in the 70s and I saw a number of productions by Peter Brook. Peter Brook, if you don’t know, was a theatre director … still is. He was involved with the National Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and then he moved to Paris to set up the Centre for Theatre Research. I remember seeing his production of The Ik at the Roundhouse when the Roundhouse was a centre for innovative theatre in the 70s. Peter Brook wrote a book, a number of years ago, called The Empty Space; and in it he talks about his interest in making theatre the most powerful experience it can be. And his argument really is that a lot of theatre experience is not terribly powerful; it passes the evening, but it would have passed anyway … and that theatre has transformative potential. So, his interest is in plumbing that potential and he says, to do that, to make theatre the most powerful thing it can be, we have to focus on what it really is; and he suggests a kind of thought experiment. He said, if you were to take an average theatre performance, what could you take away from it and still have ‘theatre’. This is a way of getting to the irreducible minimum of theatre. Well, he said you could take away the curtains, you could take away the scripts – a lot of theatre doesn’t have scripts; you could certainly get rid of the director (a lot of theatre didn’t have directors), you could get away with the lighting, as long as you can see it (actually, even if you can’t), you could get away with the stage crew; you could, in fact, you can get rid of the building. He said you don’t need any of this, really, for theatre. What you do need; all you need for theatre is an actor, in a space, and somebody watching. It could just be one other person; but an actor with an audience … that’s it. The actor performs a drama; the fact of it being witnessed by an audience, that relationship is ‘theatre’. And he said, if we are interested in making theatre powerful, we should focus our efforts on that relationship and on making it the best it can be. And, he said, we should never add anything to it unless it improves it. If it is a distraction, get rid of it.
Well, you see, the parallel with education to me is absolutely exact. In education, in the end, what we’re talking about is the relationship between teachers and students; between somebody learning and somebody helping. Sometimes it’s self help, of course; but it’s that relationship that matters and, over time, what’s happened is that relationship has become obscured and encrusted and obliterated, in some respects, by every type of distraction: national policy, sometimes; by testing regimes where they don’t contribute to the process; by bargaining rights, by subject loyalties, by building codes. It’s like an old painting that has disappeared under layers and layers of varnish; and I find it interesting; people can talk all day about education, but never mention ‘learning’. And, therefore, what I’m arguing is that the education revolution has to be based on a radical commitment to improving learning, however that happens. It’s not about curricula in themselves; it’s about the quality of that. And you can have all kinds of things going on, in education, around it; but unless learning is deep and improved, and that means making it personal; then nothing really else matters very much. So, it leads me to suggest some core principles for taking the revolution forward.
The first is that education has to be personalised. Every student has their own story; every student has their own menu of interests and of talents; it has to be about them. It has to be about improving the motivation and opportunities for creativity of teachers. Teaching is an art form; it’s not just a delivery system. Great teachers are people who know how to mediate their material in a way that really does inspire the imaginations and ignite the creativity of their students. Secondly, education has to be customised. Wherever students learn, that is the education system for them. It’s not the committee rooms of our parliament buildings, it is not the boardrooms of our examinations boards; education happens in the schools or learning communities that students attend, and that for them is ‘the system’. So, customising education to those students, to this place, these needs, this community, is absolutely critical.
And, the other key principal to me is ‘diversity’. Our current drive towards standardisation offends the principle of diversity on which human life depends and flourishes. If you’re a parent, or a sibling, and you have a couple of children, or a couple of siblings, I’ll make you a bet … if you have two or more children or siblings, I bet you that they are completely different from each other, aren’t they? I mean, you would never confuse them, would you … and say, well, which one are you? I am constantly muddling you up … And the reason is that human life is inherently diverse and we need to celebrate that in our school systems. Instead, too often, we subscribe to a rather bland menu of conformity. And the final principle here is about ‘partnership’. Education isn’t just what happens in formal school buildings; it should involve great institutions like the Southbank Centre, like the Roundhouse, like our great museums, our great science institutions; it should be a genuine partnership with the community more generally. So, to me, these principles open up a whole menu of issues for debate; about the curriculum, about the balance of it. I think it’s appalling that we ever contemplate a national system of education, for example, which doesn’t give equal weight to the arts along with the sciences, the humanities and physical education, as well as literacy and numeracy. It has big implications for pedagogy, for who teachers on how we help them to learn how to teach better. It has big implications for assessment, and it has big implications for the structure of education. I think we should be talking today not just about formal schooling, but homeschooling; about all the different ways in which learning communities gather and how they are organised internally to make the job most effective.
In the end, I think there isn’t a more important conversation to be had, just now, than how we transform education to meet the needs of the 21st century; and I’m delighted that TEDx has taken on this debate, I’m delighted you are here today and I’m looking forward, with great expectation, to the results of today and where it might lead us. So, bon voyage in the conversations that lie ahead.
Sir Ken Robinson, September 17, 2011
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