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

Sir Ken Robinson

Full text of Ken Robinson on How to Escape Education’s Death Valley at TED conference. 

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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.

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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 —

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