Saturday, 2 May 2015

I'll be back: TEDinator 2. A review of Ken Robinson's 'Creative Schools' Part 1

 

Do you Ken Robinson? Of course you do. The poster child for TED talks, and animated explosions of factory paradigms is back, and he's loaded for bear. In his latest book 'Creative Schools- revolutionising education from the ground up', Robinson answers some of his critics who applauded his past glories (specifically acting as a northern, avuncular Cassandra, Polyanna to a generation of people who believe schools crush creativity, and stifle the buried genius within) but felt that he didn't specify enough what needed to happen next. As criticism goes, it wasn't particularly mortal. It was more like the mob of zealots who pursued Graham Chapman's reluctant messiah in Monty Python's Life of Brian. 'f*** off!' the desperate and unwilling Chapman shouts at them. 'And how shall we f*** off?' they shout, undeterred. So, this is Ken telling everyone how they should f*** off.

 

Except Ken is far too nice for that. I confess, I have form as one of his critics, and a real one at that. You can read my previous love letters here and here. I cannot fault the man as a concerned voice, someone who deeply cares about children and education, and who understands the value of both. In that we are of a piece. (The only reason I include this is because some readers find it impossible to separate criticism of ideas from criticism of identity; too often we personalise things that we like, and dehumanise that which we do not. I like Ken. He's my favourite TEDinator. Every time he says, 'I used to be one,' I crease).

 

Swizz Homily Robinson


But to the last I will grapple with the ideas. Bertrand Russell used to have two complaints about religion: one, that it wasn't true, and two, that it wasn't useful. The same could be said about the Cult of Ken. Forget his mellifluousness; his charm; his surprised, twinkly curious man/ child persona. What does he say? I think what he says is often not true, and frequently, can be quite harmful. His influence as a representative of an overlapping family of educational ideologies is bigger than you might think. He's quoted and stroked all over the shop. Forget the 29 jillion views on Youtube: so what? Teen Youtube celebrette PewDiePie has 36 million subscribers and no one gives a monkeys what she thinks about standardised testing. But he has made the almost impossible leap from obscurity (educationalist) to celebrity (I'm still being sent his video to watch by people who love me but don't know me).

 

What's the appeal? I think Ken represents a constituency that is ripe for exploitation (or edsploitation, if you will. I thank you): the compassionate adult seduced by the transformative promise of modernity. For many people of a certain age, school was characterised by hard work, and little autonomy. Generation X wants more for its children than it had-which generation doesn't?- but for the first time in history it's within our capacity to give it to them. Rising standards of living and economies that generate surpluses of time and income, have produced societies capable of contemplating more than survival. Thoughts turn to rights, and goals, and values and visions, and wants rather than needs.

 

And what Ken does is point out that in many educational ecosystems, things are far from perfect. Life, too is far from perfect. And he does what all great politicians, circus barkers and medicine men have done for centuries: tells us he knows how to fix it. The map to Canaan is his. But pointing out to people that they're slaves in Egypt doesn't mean you're Moses. Sometimes it can make you Pharaoh. His appeal lies in part on the solutions he offers, which is a patchwork quilt of futurism, innovation and hypercompassion.

 

Let my people go

 

In many ways this book is more of a greatest hits than a new album. Some people don't mind that. If I like an artist, I'll gaily spend ages hunting down remixes and rare cuts. When I was a kid that meant actual hunting; now it's a sloth's game of Googling. This book will satisfy existing fans, I think, more than new listeners. He'll sell out his concerts with this, of course, although the audience will be more faithful Robinsettes and corporate VIP seats.

 

But I came here to bury, Caesar, not praise him. His ideas are particularly popular with a certain kind of policy maker, as well as troops on the ground who want a better world. You would be amazed, dear reader, by how much the educational discourse at a national and international policy level is dominated by his axioms and assumptions. In my odd career of teaching, commentary and rentagobbing I sometimes brush elbows with people at decision making levels who assume, without a heart beat of a pause, that new technologies are driving innovation and quality of education; that project work, discovery learning and flipped classrooms are the natural next step in education; that testing and sanctions and knowledge rich curriculums are relics of the past, hindrances to the golden dawn of Khan Academies and Sugata Mitra's magical holes. Ideas are powerful. Before a grenade exists, it has to be thought of.

 

In the next part of this review I'll look at why his diagnosis of education's ills is wrong, and why his prescription is even worse. And why it really, really matters.



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