How to change education from the ground up

Here are some excerpts from a recent talk (published July 18, 2013) by Sir Ken Robinson. Wanting it or not, this speech made me think about our new, ridiculous national curriculum, composed by the government “up there”, untouched by the actors of education themselves: teachers and learners – and how we can actually change them from the ground level. Schools are not factories that print certificate to rank children’s “intelligence”; they should be a pleasant place where children maintain and discover their love for learning.



The basics of education: science, technology and math, are necessary, but not sufficient.

The basics of public education, or why we invest in a system of mass public education, has the following purposes (not labeling, just as a reference, and not in particular order):

(1) Economic.

Education has powerful economic purposes. It does and it should. But the economic system of that day was industrialism, which is why the system looks the way it does. It is not that system anymore for us.

If we are to meet the “economic” requirement of education we need to have a system that promotes creativity and adaptability.

Adaptability: Organizations are not like machines, they are like organisms. They are living entities, made out of people, feelings, motivations, roles, aspirations, passions, and ambitions. And if the organism doesn’t respond to changes in its natural environment – just as in the natural world – it dies.

Creativity: We need companies that are consistently and systematically creative.

Students coming out of college find it difficult to come up with something new. That’s because they are educated on the standard routine of routine testing, multiple-choice tests.

(2) Cultural.

It’s a small enough planet as it is, but it has becoming more and more populated. But in any case, the ethical reasons as well as strategic ones, we formed education that enables people to understand how they came to think as they do, why their values are as they are, why their patterns of lives are as they are, and why other people are different. We need reformed education that helps people to understand their own cultural identity and what formed it and those of other people.

Now for that we need a broad education… the arts, the humanities, to social studies, not just to technical subjects.

(3) Social.

We need a form of education that engages this generation in the processes on which communities are organized and governed. And there are a lot of evidences on disengagements, that people are pulling away from those roles.

“Every generation has to discover its democracy” (on election)

It is very important that we take parts in these civil discourses. You don’t do that in education by giving people lessons on civics. You do it by having a culture which embodies these processes of participation, and great schools do that.

In the end, education is personal. It’s about people. It’s not about components or machines.

And if we know about people: they are different. They’re driven by different talents, different abilities, different passions, different interests and different motivations. One of the signature features of humanity is Diversity. Of course it contrasts sharply with one of the organizational principles of education, which is Conformity.

But if we don’t understand that education is about People and Individuals in all their diversity and multiplicity, then we keep making the mistakes that we make. If we’re treated as a machine… rather than a human process, then we’ll run ourselves into a cul-de-sac.

When we’re talking about changing education “from the ground up”, that’s the “ground” that I mean. Most political strategies start from the top-down: “if we can get people to conform, everything would improve”. And the evidence is quite the contrary: the more the government go in the “control” mode, the more they misunderstand the level of teaching and learning, the more they misunderstand the process of education.

So we have a situation here in the UK now, where most of the major teaching units have passed a vote of “no confidence” of the government’s education strategy. That shouldn’t promote a smug expression of satisfaction on the government. That should keep them awake all night, thinking, “How badly have we got this wrong?” You cannot improve education by alienating the profession that carries it out.

Recognizing that education can be encouraged from the top down is one thing. But it can really be improved from the ground up by the people who do the work. Because in the end it’s not ministers or states who’re teaching all of our children.

“The Empty Space” by Peter Brook: if you’re really concerned to make theater the most powerful experience that can be, we have to decide what we mean when we say “theater”. We have to get back to basics and focus on what is fundamental. And he answers that question in a brief passage in the book by performing a thought experiment. Essentially he says, “If you take a theater performance, what can you take away and still have it? What’s the core? What’s the irreducible minimum?”

You could take away the curtains, you could take away the script, the stage crew and the lighting, you can get rid of the director, definitely, you can get rid of the building. You don’t need any of that. The only thing you can’t get rid of, and still had “theater”, is an actor, in a space, and somebody watching.

Theater describes the relationship between the audience and a performance. That’s the relationship that we mean. So if we want to make theater the most powerful experience that can be, we have to focus on that relationship between the performer and the audience. And, he said, we should add nothing to it, unless it helps. And of course a lot of what we add to theater distracts the relationship and substitutes for it.

It is an exact analogy with education: the heart of education is a teacher and a learner. And we have, overtime, obfuscated that relationship with every type of distraction. We have testing regimes, testing companies, political ideologies, political purposes, subject loyalties, building codes, all of these timetables and schedules.

That’s why we can spend all day long discussing education and never mention teaching or learning. But if there’s no teaching or learning happening, there is no education going. So if we’re going to improve education, we have to improve that a bit. And everything else has to not getting in the way of it.

So the focus on teaching and learning to me is vital.

Now what we know about learners, about children, is that children are learning organisms. Children don’t need to be helped to learn, for the most part. They’re all born with a vast variation of appetite for learning.

You don’t teach your child to speak. Most kids get to learn to speak in the first year and a half or so in their life, but you don’t teach them. They just pick it up. You nudge them, you encourage them, but you don’t teach them to speak. We do teach them to write. That’s a different thing. Writing appeared much later in human evolution than speech.

But my point is: children have a vast appetite for learning. And it only starts to dissipate when we educate them. That’s to say, when we put them in buildings, designed for the purpose. And put them in charade ranks and start to force-feed them information in which they may or may not have interest.

But learning happens anyway, and with the new technology it’s happening more and more. If we really want education to be more effective, we have to focus on the process of teaching and learning. And teaching has become reduced, in the political discourse, to a kind of delivery system (“your job is to deliver the national curriculum”). Teaching has become a kind of delivery system and teachers have become a kind of functionaries in the administration of cash.

Actually, teaching is an art form. It’s not enough to be a good teacher to know your stuff, though you need to know it. But more than that, you need to excite people about the material. You need to engage them. You need to pick their imagination, to feel their creativity. You need to drive their passion for it. You need to get them to want to learn this. You need to find a point of entry. That’s the gift of a great teacher.

One of the ways that we improve education is by recognizing it happens at the point of where teachers and learners meet. If it doesn’t happen there, it doesn’t happen at all, in formal, organized education systems.

So you can’t improve education by ignoring that relationship, or demeaning it. But it also means, if you are in that relationship, you hold the tools of powers right in your hands. You can change the system yourself. You don’t need to wait for anybody to do it.

A school, just like a child, or a teacher, is not a component. They are living organisms. Living, breathing entities. A school is a community or reciprocating individuals who develop their own culture, their own way of seeing things, their own habits and rituals, and so on.

There isn’t a single point of influence. The teachers in the system, the head teachers, are just as influential in their own world as the policy makers. If you are a teacher, if you are a school principle, if you’re a superintendent, if you run a school district, so far as the kids are concerned who go to your school, you are the education system.

If you began to change your practice, if you began to change the environment of the school, if you – in other words – concentrate on your   in the school as a part of the larger climate, eventually you start to affect the whole. That’s how our social movements happen.

Human culture is essentially unpredictable. But it accumulates over the creative activities of individuals feeding off each other. That’s how organic growth happens.

When I said that revolution is needed, and it should start from the ground up, it’s already happening. The system is already adapting. The part of the system that is not adapting is the high level of government policy.

The real role of leaders, when it comes to education: whether you are a teacher, or head teacher, or head of a district – your proper role, if you have a loving relationship with education – is not to try to command and control it, but to recognize your place in climate control. And if you can help to change the climate of expectation in education, if you can change what’s happening at the ground, then you’ve changed the world.



Related posts in this blog:

Passion, Creativity, Element, Energy

Imagination, Creativity, Innovation

One thought on “How to change education from the ground up

  1. Pingback: How to change education from the ground up | Le...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *