Trusting in a Different Story About Education

In Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, (co-authored with Lou Aronica), Ken Robinson makes his most compelling case yet, not just for what is wrong with many of our school systems today, but, also, what we can do about it. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with the work of Robinson to hear him re-state his conviction that the standards culture is harming students, teachers, and schools and that education needs to be customized creatively and urgently to meet the passions and needs of young people. He continues to stridently question the purpose of education and the imperative need for a learning revolution to reflect our current societal realities.

It is his ability to succinctly make the complexity of our schools’ challenges seem commonsense and rational that is Robinson’s hallmark. Here, in this instance, for example, on the problem of the standards movement: “If you run an education system based on standardization and conformity that suppresses individuality, imagination, and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does.” His analysis of why the industrial revolution created the school system that is largely unchanged today is hugely insightful and points to newer, current, societal revolutions requiring an equivalent, contemporary educational response. Hence, he suggests,  simply tweaking our current school systems, is resolutely doomed to fail:

“Digital technologies are transforming how we all work, play, think, feel, and relate to each other. That revolution has barely begun. The old systems of education were not designed with this world in mind. Improving them by raising conventional standards will not meet the challenges we now face.”

The central story of Creative Schools is simply this: if the current, standardized approach to education has failed, how can we activate the changes necessary to best support learners? There is room, Robinson contends, for radical innovation within the existing education system to create the visionary conditions in which students will flourish. The task, he suggests, “is to invigorate the living culture of schools themselves.” He reminds us that, In 2008, “IBM published a survey of the characteristics organization leaders seek and value most in their staff. They spoke with fifteen hundred leaders in eighty countries. The two priorities were adaptability to change and creativity in generating new ideas. The unspoken implication would seem to be that these two qualities are absent in many school systems or, to be more precise – at the very least – they are grossly undervalued, if not underrepresented in dialogue on the future of schools.

Perhaps the greatest value in this book lies in the refreshing sense of possibility, of hope. Most schools are looking to change and many are doing an exceptional job. While the noisy clamour for revolution still obtains, Robinson is at pains to point out that incremental change can be achieved and that the key to all educational endeavors lies not with policymakers, so-called thought leaders, or the usual suspects, but with teachers and the critical culture they work within:

“Many of the problems in raising achievement in schools are rooted in how school is done and the extent to which the conventions conflict with the rhythms of natural learning. If your shoes hurt, you don’t polish them or blame your feet; you take the shoes off and wear different ones. If the system doesn’t work, don’t blame the people in it. Work with them to change it so that it does work. The people who are best placed to make the change are those who, in the right conditions, can have the most impact on the quality of learning: the teachers.”

The author makes clear that creativity and interdisciplinary thinking are what the world demands. He sees renewed optimism in grassroots movements from homeschooling to design thinking and encourages school leaders to provide teachers with the permission to hack the prevailing approaches to teaching and learning. His definition of culture as the giving of permission to enact change is a particularly thought-provoking concept. Robinson makes clear that if the role of teachers is to create the conditions in which students will flourish, then principals must give teachers the necessary permission to take risks in order to achieve this objective. The essential challenge to school leaders and policy makers is a vision of schools that few can argue with:

“What if a school’s curriculum is built from children’s questions and wonderings about the world, built on our human and natural desire to create and do? What if we develop educational practices that foster— instead of hamper— creativity and innovation? What if, freed from the what-has-always-beens that hold some schools back, and from the standardized testing that has paralyzed our nation’s discourse and practice, a school launches the inventors, artists, and changemakers who will act boldly and courageously in the face of a changing world? What if we align learning in school with the kinds of lives our children are likely to lead? The kind of lives we hope for them?”

Drawing and building upon previous well-documented philosophies and beliefs, Robinson details specific examples of what great schools can and do look like. The core thesis seems to be that a leap of faith is required, a relentless conviction to do what is right for students that, at least initially, teachers, parents, and even students themselves may not embrace with any degree of belief. While Robinson is frequently admonished as a critic of teachers and the work that dedicated educators do, I have never encountered this argument or tone in his work.

Because society continues to evolve and technology develops exponentially, we are in for an exciting, if not highly challenging time for schools and the people that work within them. Creative Schools reminds us that many schools are organized as they are because they always have been, not because they must be.

Robinson, Ken & Aronica, Lou. Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. Viking, 2015.

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