Why Ken Robinson Matters

Two hours before he was due to speak at BETT 2017, long lines had formed to hear Sir Ken Robinson speak. As it turned out, such was the overwhelming demand, the London arena couldn’t accommodate the crowd and many people – myself included – spent a couple of hours sitting on the floor. I last heard Robinson speak in Florida less than a year ago. On that occasion, there were thousands in the auditorium and I realised, listening to him then, that I had heard most of what he had to say before. However, it was clear that his message remains critically important. Ken Robinson matters.

Robinson’s views on education have been well-documented in his TED Talks. His most famous talk from 2006, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, is the most viewed TED of all-time. Yet, In recent years, one can discern something of a Robinson backlash. I have heard and read the following perspectives: (1) He’s not an educator. He has no idea what he’s talking about. (2) He’s just a performer. Have you any idea how much he gets paid for these talks? (3) It’s the same populist message, delivered the same way, every time.

Here’s a brief sample of some critical perspectives on Robinson:

  • “The fact is that people like Robinson have exercised an extremely corrosive and destructive influence on education while contributing almost nothing to its improvement.” 1
  • “Sir Ken’s ideas are incredibly seductive, but they are wrong, spectacularly and gloriously wrong.” 2
  • “Ken Robinson, now a recognisable brand, a great stand-up comedian who, in between the gags, can raise the revolutionary passions of a crowd without offending anyone.” 3

It is not my aim to present as an apologist for Robinson. My perspective is simple: as someone who has worked in education for three decades, I find his message inspiring as, evidently, do thousands of educators the world over. He speaks not of policy, but human truth. It is also true that he is a highly entertaining and disarming speaker – but this is hardly a negative for someone trying to convey an important message. His quick wit, narrative talent, and incisive perspectives are what make his delivery compelling and important. It’s the vehicle for his ability to connect.

Robinson appears to offend some who view his perspective as an affront to educators in the trenches, yet he makes it abundantly clear that this is not his objective. He seems to horrify those who envy his following and popularity. His ability to speak about schools and education in simple, layman terms that are at once easy to understand and relate to are a challenge to the world of Contrived Complexity. As I listened to him this week, three statements stood out:

  • Can we stop all this talk and just have a curriculum that works?”
  • “I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t have special needs.”
  • “A great school is about the relationship between teachers and students.”

If these three simple principles were applied to schools, what would the net impact be on learning?

My aching knees endured two hours on the floor at the BETT Arena, but it was worth the journey, the long lines, and the cramped space. Robinson reminds us of our obligation and – above all – the imperative to reach beyond restrictions to base everything we as educators do on the needs of individual students, not systems. His words are a rallying cry to action and this may make him an easy target for critics. Yet it is hard to argue with his final words on culture, which I filmed from the floor:

“If you get the culture right in the school … then everything grows and takes care of itself.”

For some, this may seem a simplistic vision. Students come first. The narrow conception of what schools have been about needs to be challenged. Saying this once is not enough. This message needs to be repeated, despite the detractors.

This is why Ken Robinson matters.