Sir Ken Robinson at the Celebration of Teaching and Learning

These days Ken Robinson is all over the place giving talks and being interviewed. He can do that because he knows how to tell stories, and has a wonderful voice that is sheer pleasure to listen to. He also has a compelling message that resonates with educators. I must have listened to or read just about every online Robinson interview that exists. Here is yet another one, text only, from earlier this month on wharf.co.uk.

The interview focuses on Robinson’s latest book, The Element. A few Fridays ago I had the pleasure of hearing him talk about this in person at the Celebration of Teaching and Learning conference in New York City. Thanks to Google, I had a  free pass to the conference, and attended solely to hear Ken talk. 

I spent the morning roaming the aisles collecting goodies to bring back for my colleagues, and being reminded how large, loud and sometimes overwhelming a major conference can be. Lunch was delicious and included in the admission, and it was where I was told there were some 8,000 attendees at the conference. 

With a pleasantly full stomach, I settled into a center aisle seat in the third row, filled with anticipation for Robinson’s one o’clock talk. Even though I figured his message would be similar to the one online at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (it was), that did not deter me in the least. 

What did I gain from seeing Sir Ken in person? He is not as tall as I expected. (My son thinks it’s silly that I thought he’d be taller, or that I even noticed this aspect.) He has a wonderful smile and the outside corners of his eyes crinkle when he smiles wide or laughs. (A long time ago I read that smiles of this nature release endorphins that make you feel good. It’s the power we have to uplift our own moods, as long as those corners get crinkled :-)) He introduced Terry, his wife, though I didn’t get to see her as she was somewhere at the rear of a very large ballroom.

But mostly what I gained was seeing a marvelous story teller in his element, sharing a tale about which he is passionate. The result was an attentive audience that was rapturous over many of Robinson’s proclamations. His message has made the rounds of independent and public school teachers alike.

He riffed on the concept of standards versus standardization, saying that “standardization only ever gives you the lowest common denominator”. He previously stated that great schools, of which there are many, are different from one another because they are “personalized and customized”, not because they are standardized. 

Robinson went on to share statistics from an experiment designed to demonstrate that we are born with the capacity for divergent thinking, but get educated out of that capacity. The highest scores in this experiment were earned by the youngest participants – kindergartners! The students were retested every five years, and there was a control group of a slightly larger number of adults. 

Continuing on, he asked for a show of hands to see how many in the audience wore wrist watches. His point, on which he elaborated further, was that we in education need to anticipate the life that the kids we are teaching will be living, and teach to that future. This is a common theme I have heard voiced elsewhere, particularly from those of us responsible for facilitating the use of technology in schools. He behooved us to “enliven the minds of learners.”

He also had the audience belly laughing over his hypothesis of tonsils (the pulling of which Robinson likened to a baby boomer epidemic in the U.S. from the 1960s) and chicken nuggets, but you don’t want me to share that here, as the punch line really requires Robinson’s voice, smile, and arched eyebrow.

So what comes next? My wish list of what I’d like to hear more of…

  • the specifics regarding the program he helped design in the UK for systematically approaching creativity
  • more of his ideas for changing schools, which he has said need to undergo transformation rather than reformation
  • his ideas on how to make the arts more prominent in education 

Robinson’s book tells many tales of people who found their element, many of them after spending dissatisfying years in school, but…

  • what about those students who do not find their element

If any of you are aware of Robinson’s responses to the above, or know more about the program in the UK, please share below in a comment. Thanks!

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