Feature Story

Farewell to a Visionary Educator: Sir Ken Robinson

On August 21st, we bid adieu to an educational trailblazer. Sir Ken Robinson was a famed British author and commentator who attempted to reinvent education with a fundamentally more creative lens. In his educational revolution, he sought to foster the trait of creativity with the same vigor as those of literacy, mathematics, or any other fundamental life skill our current systems attempt to develop. His argument was that originality and novel thinking would be the essential traits necessary for success, not just of the individual, but of us as a whole.
Among many novel ideas, he explored the concept of the mistake. To him, the process of making mistakes were a creative endeavour. Yet, our educational systems, accompanied by corporate world, have stigmatized mistakes to a degree that we effectively impose conformity over originality. He further points out that an educational system, rather than fostering and developing all of the traits of the individual are in effect, a highly hierarchical process in which we train students specifically for postsecondary education. He points out that this works fine for those so inclined for an academic aspiration, the so-called University professors (of which he was one), however this system quite unjustly devalues the talents and skills of those with different aspirations.

His ideas are perhaps uncomfortable for a lifelong educator to digest. After all, our current system, despite its flaws, has produced some of humanity’s greatest minds in the full spectrum of the human condition, from science to art and dance. However, it is worth thinking whether this is because of the system, or in spite of it. In yet another one of his famous talks, he points out the example of Gillian Lynne. She was, in the 1930s, a supposedly troubled student in the English education system. She was apparently less than diligent in her work, late with her assignments, and poorly attentive – a set of behavioral traits which would likely conform to a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder today. He points out that there were two effective responses to this behavior, option one would be to treat or medicate the young Gillian to ensure that she conforms to a predetermined view of success. Option two would be to approach Gillian’s apparently learning difficulties with a more fundamental reflection and assessment of why this might be. In her case, a school psychiatrist observed that Gillian was a natural dancer, and rather than enforcing education of science and mathematics, Gillian was instead allowed to educate herself in the artistic domains of movement and music. The story ends with Gillian founding her own dance company after an extended and highly successful career in the Royal Ballet of the United Kingdom, and co-producing multiple musicals with the famed Andrew Lloyd Webber.
What might have become of this student if she was instead forced into remedial studies of subjects to which she had no affinity or inclination to study? Were she a student today, and subject to a regimen of medications and behavioral therapy, suppose what might have been?

Sir Ken’s questions are challenging, perhaps even uncomfortable to think about for too long. However, as he so eloquently pointed out, with his inimitable smile and scintillating humor, failing to address these questions may fundamentally harm the very students that we are seeking to educate.
Or as he put it far better than we ever could:

“[See] our creative capacities for the richness they are, and our children for the hope that they are. Our task is to educate their whole being, so they can face [their] future. By the way, we may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it.”