How to Escape Education’s Death Valley by Ken Robinson (Full Transcript)

October 26, 2015 8:13 am | By More

Transcript – Ken Robinson on How to Escape Education’s Death Valley at TED

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Sir Ken Robinson – Author/educator

Thank you very much.

I moved to America 12 years ago with my wife Terry and our two kids. Actually, truthfully, we moved to Los Angeles — thinking we were moving to America, but anyway —

It’s a short plane ride from Los Angeles to America.

I got here 12 years ago, and when I got here, I was told various things, like, “Americans don’t get irony.”

Have you come across this idea? It’s not true. I’ve traveled the whole length and breadth of this country. I have found no evidence that Americans don’t get irony. It’s one of those cultural myths, like, “The British are reserved.” I don’t know why people think this. We’ve invaded every country we’ve encountered.

But it’s not true Americans don’t get irony, but I just want you to know that that’s what people are saying about you behind your back. You know, so when you leave living rooms in Europe, people say, thankfully, nobody was ironic in your presence.

But I knew that Americans get irony when I came across that legislation, “No Child Left Behind.”

Because whoever thought of that title gets irony. Don’t they? Because it’s leaving millions of children behind. Now I can see that’s not a very attractive name for legislation: “Millions of Children Left Behind.” I can see that. What’s the plan? We propose to leave millions of children behind, and here’s how it’s going to work. And it’s working beautifully.

In some parts of the country, 60% of kids drop out of high school. In the Native American communities, it’s 80% of kids. If we halved that number, one estimate is it would create a net gain to the U.S. economy over 10 years, of nearly a trillion dollars. From an economic point of view, this is good math, isn’t it, that we should do this? It actually costs an enormous amount to mop up the damage from the dropout crisis.

But the dropout crisis is just the tip of an iceberg. What it doesn’t count are all the kids who are in school but being disengaged from it, who don’t enjoy it, who don’t get any real benefit from it.

And the reason is not that we’re not spending enough money. America spends more money on education than most other countries. Class sizes are smaller than in many countries. And there are hundreds of initiatives every year to try and improve education. The trouble is, it’s all going in the wrong direction. There are three principles on which human life flourishes, and they are contradicted by the culture of education under which most teachers have to labor and most students have to endure.

The first is this, that human beings are naturally different and diverse. Can I ask you, how many of you have got children of your own? Okay. Or grandchildren. How about two children or more? Right. And the rest of you have seen such children. Small people wandering about.

I will make you a bet, and I am confident that I will win the bet. If you’ve got two children or more, I bet you they are completely different from each other. Aren’t they? You would never confuse them, would you? Like, “Which one are you? Remind me.”

“Your mother and I need some color-coding system so we don’t get confused.”

Education under “No Child Left Behind” is based on not diversity but conformity. What schools are encouraged to do is to find out what kids can do across a very narrow spectrum of achievement. One of the effects of “No Child Left Behind” has been to narrow the focus onto the so-called STEM disciplines. They’re very important. I’m not here to argue against science and math. On the contrary, they’re necessary but they’re not sufficient. A real education has to give equal weight to the arts, the humanities, to physical education. An awful lot of kids, sorry, thank you —

One estimate in America currently is that something like 10% of kids, getting on that way, are being diagnosed with various conditions under the broad title of attention deficit disorder. ADHD. I’m not saying there’s no such thing. I just don’t believe it’s an epidemic like this. If you sit kids down, hour after hour, doing low-grade clerical work, don’t be surprised if they start to fidget, you know?

Children are not, for the most part, suffering from a psychological condition. They’re suffering from childhood. And I know this because I spent my early life as a child. I went through the whole thing. Kids prosper best with a broad curriculum that celebrates their various talents, not just a small range of them. And by the way, the arts aren’t just important because they improve math scores. They’re important because they speak to parts of children’s being which are otherwise untouched.

The second, thank you —

The second principle that drives human life flourishing is curiosity. If you can light the spark of curiosity in a child, they will learn without any further assistance, very often. Children are natural learners. It’s a real achievement to put that particular ability out, or to stifle it. Curiosity is the engine of achievement. Now the reason I say this is because one of the effects of the current culture here, if I can say so, has been to de-professionalize teachers. There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. You know, you’re not there just to pass on received information. Great teachers do that, but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage. You see, in the end, education is about learning. If there’s no learning going on, there’s no education going on. And people can spend an awful lot of time discussing education without ever discussing learning. The whole point of education is to get people to learn.

An old friend of mine — actually very old, he’s dead. That’s as old as it gets, I’m afraid. But a wonderful guy he was, wonderful philosopher. He used to talk about the difference between the task and achievement senses of verbs. You can be engaged in the activity of something, but not really be achieving it, like dieting. It’s a very good example. There he is. He’s dieting. Is he losing any weight? Not really.

Teaching is a word like that. You can say, “There’s Deborah, she’s in room 34, she’s teaching.” But if nobody’s learning anything, she may be engaged in the task of teaching but not actually fulfilling it.

The role of a teacher is to facilitate learning. That’s it. And part of the problem is, I think, that the dominant culture of education has come to focus on not teaching and learning, but testing. Now, testing is important. Standardized tests have a place. But they should not be the dominant culture of education. They should be diagnostic. They should help.

If I go for a medical examination, I want some standardized tests. I do. I want to know what my cholesterol level is compared to everybody else’s on a standard scale. I don’t want to be told on some scale my doctor invented in the car.

“Your cholesterol is what I call Level Orange.”


“Is that good?” “We don’t know.”

But all that should support learning. It shouldn’t obstruct it, which of course it often does. So in place of curiosity, what we have is a culture of compliance. Our children and teachers are encouraged to follow routine algorithms rather than to excite that power of imagination and curiosity.

And the third principle is this: that human life is inherently creative. It’s why we all have different résumés. We create our lives, and we can recreate them as we go through them. It’s the common currency of being a human being. It’s why human culture is so interesting and diverse and dynamic. I mean, other animals may well have imaginations and creativity, but it’s not so much in evidence, is it, as ours? I mean, you may have a dog. And your dog may get depressed. You know, but it doesn’t listen to Radiohead, does it? And sit staring out the window with a bottle of Jack Daniels.

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