Tag Archives: Sir Ken Robinson

Ken Robinson, motorcars, and eva2

Ken Robinson continues to move his message along in this 5 minute interview with Bonnie Hunt (who I have since discovered is an actress as well as talk show host).

Feel free to also visit this 3 1/2 minute CNN interview with Ken, Why Teaching is ‘not like making motorcars’, posted March 17, 2010.

If you are a regular reader of Neurons Firing, or you happen to notice the size of the Sir Ken Robinson text in the tag cloud at the right, then you know I am a fan of his talks and ideas. Robinson has informed the ongoing discussions that my husband and I, both educators, have as we think about how education can be transformed. My husband, who is the Director of Information Technology at a local K-12 independent school, continues to explore the ideas of school transformation using the eva2 wiki as a place to compile ideas. I invite you to come along for the sharing of ideas!

Back to School

Technically, it is still summer. The weather seems to be a little bit ahead of the solstice switch, though, with open-windowed evenings cool enough for down comforters. I find this time of year energizing, perhaps due to the weather but also because my body rhythms are so tied in to the school calendar. It’s September; we start again. And one way to start is by looking back to the end of the last school year.

Back in early June, Sir Ken Robinson gave the commencement talk at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). His name has appeared here enough times that it almost feels like he’s been a guest blogger. Robinson was invited to talk at RISD by John Maeda, RISD’s President. Maeda gave a TED Talk back in December, 2008, and you can watch it below. It’s been many years since I’ve been in college, so perhaps Maeda’s page on the RISD site is not that unusual for a college president, but it sure impressed me.

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!

Sir Ken in his element


Being “in your element” is an idiom that UsingEnglish.com defines as feeling “happy and relaxed because you are doing something that you like doing and are good at.” In his latest book, Sir Ken Robinson describes “the Element” (which is also the name of the book) as “the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together.”

An earlier post describes the book, but how much better if you can hear Sir Ken talk about it in his own words. Here is his February talk at the RSA, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

It’s Elemental, my dear Robinson!

theelementI have been anticipating the publication of Ken Robinson’s the Element since it was first announced, which seems like over a year ago. I was also hopeful that the author’s voice would mimic his presentation style, unlike the last book of his I tried to read, Out of Our Minds (which I could not get through). Happily, despite the many typos (around 12!) in the Element, Sir Ken’s humor, narrative and story telling expertise all came through.

This is a book about not only finding your passion, but also about the importance of doing so – both for yourself and for the benefit of moving society along. It is also about how the nature of education has to not only change, but actually TRANSFORM in order to better serve those who engage in the process (and perhaps open up pathways for those who drop out of the process).

One of Robinson’s points, made with co-author Lou Aronica, is that in way too many instances our educational systems discourage students from pursuing their passions, or worse yet, do not provide environments that foster finding one’s element. He shares a slew of stories about prominent people who found their elements despite their “education”, in some cases choosing to forego finishing their formal education.

A number of ideas resonated strongly with me, two in particular.

The future for education is not in standardizing but in customizing; not in promoting group think and ‘deindividuation’ but in cultivating the real depth and dynamism of human abilities of every sort.

Finding your element, especially if it is NOT your job, will probably enhance how you do your job.

Getting back to the first idea – Robinson suggests we need to

  • transform curriculum, and “eliminate the…hierarchy of subjects”
  • instead of “subjects”, curriculum should be based upon disciplines
  • curriculum should be personalized


The Notes section of the book provides URLs for a number of topics and ideas referenced. Not all of the sites are pertinent to what I tend to write about, but below are those which complement this post.

Another look at the five senses – perhaps we have more than just five? Exploding the five senses by Andrew Cook

Audiblox is a worldwide company that has put together “a system of cognitive exercises, aimed at the development of foundational learning skills” and seems to focus on those who have learning difficulties. The founder of Audiblox, Jan Strydom, along with Susan Du Plessis, has authored IQ Test; Where Does It Come From and What Does It Measure?

A conversation about The Future of the SAT in The Chronicle of Higher Education 

Tony Buzan talking, in a number of short videos, about the use and benefits of Mind Mapping

The Rules of Mind Mapping 
Use both sides of the brain 
The rest of the videos are available here

Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Mentoring Project Who Mentored You? 

International Telementor Program – “facilitates electronic mentoring relationships between professional adults and students worldwide”

Public/Private Ventures “creating and strengthening programs that improve lives in low-income communities” 

The UP Experience – a one-day, less expensive version of TED 

Pulling Rabbits out of Habits

Earlier in May of this year, Janet Rae-Dupree wrote an article about the impact of habits on creativity. Published in the New York Times, Can You Become a Creature of New Habits? mentioned a number of issues that I have touched upon in Neurons Firing. Rae-Dupree does an excellent job of making her points, so you might want to read her article before reading the rest of my post.

Mel Levine has always championed finding out what you like or what you are good at, and then forging ahead in that area. He  has written, “All students should have experience savoring true expertise, having one or more areas of deep knowledge and passion/obsession.” In his book A Mind at a Time, Levine states that “The young have a basic right and a need to develop their affinities over time.” He is “convinced that many students who appear to have significant learning problems (and in a real sense they do) in reality have highly specialized minds, brains that were never designed to be well rounded.” Levine sums up the importance of affinities and strengths:

Parents and our educational system must provide opportunities for kids to utilize and strengthen their strengths and their affinities–no matter what those assets happen to be. To deny a developing mind access to its specialty is cruel. To judge one’s worthiness in the specialties of others is equally inhumane.

Sir Ken Robinson makes very similar points in his oft-referenced TED Talk. He has suggested that schools squash creativity, in essence that we “educate people out of their creative capacities.” I’ve written extensively about Robinson, and you can summon up all the posts from the tag cloud at the right.

This brings me back to Rae-Dupree’s article. She talks about developing new habits, indeed, that it IS POSSIBLE to develop new habits, and there are benefits to doing so: “…brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks.”

She concludes with a quote from one of the authors interviewed. “You cannot have innovation,” she [Dawna Markova] adds, “unless you are willing and able to move through the unknown and go from curiosity to wonder.”

Pour all of these complementary ideas into a hat, and you increase the likelihood of being able to pull out the metaphorical rabbit.

Sir Ken, Riz Khan, Creativity & Schools

If you’ve been here before, the name Sir Ken Robinson may sound familiar. Here is a two-part interview of Sir Ken by Riz Khan, host of the Riz Khan show on Al Jazeera English. Each segment is 11 minutes long. The topic of the interview – Schools killing creativity? I found both segments worth listening to, but if you are only going to listen to one, please make it the second one. By the way, I’ve pre-ordered Sir Ken’s book The Element, due out in early 2009.

Let Your Creativity Soar

This post’s title comes directly from the June/July Scientific American Mind print article of the same name. (The online version is named How to Unleash Your Creativity.) Mariette DiChristina interviews three artists to spearhead a discussion of how they get their creativity soaring. The artists are Julia Cameron, poet, playwright and filmmaker; Robert Epstein, author and visiting scholar; and John Houtz, psychologist, professor and author.

As stated by others, including Sir Ken Robinson, the consensus among these folks is that “creativity is shut down in most people by early socialization.” And like Robinson, they believe that risk taking and failure are important components of creativity. Indeed, “the creative individual thinks of failure as a new opportunity.”

While Cameron, Epstein, and Houtz do not all use the same vocabulary, they often describe similar activities for stimulating their creativity, which are…

Hold that thought! Write it down, record it, do whatever is needed so you don’t forget it. Ideas come to you during sleep? No problem, just keep a pad and pen nearby. Not enough, or too many ideas in your head? Allow whatever you are thinking to topple out, unedited. Julia Cameron writes her “morning pages” on a daily basis – “three pages of longhand writing about anything.” She notes that as she writes those pages, “new ideas began to walk in.”

Try something different! At least once a week, break your routine, feed your head visuals, sounds, and text that are not your standard fare. Give your brain ideas to ponder. Cameron teaches “the artist ‘date’ or ‘outing’ [which] is to take an adventure once a week.” According to Robert Epstein, “the more diverse your knowledge, the more interesting the interconnections – so you can boost your creativity simply by learning interesting new things.”

Make yourself think! Look for problems to solve, but not just any problems. Rather, challenge yourself to solve more complex or unusual problems. John Houtz reminds us that people “have to work at it; creativity isn’t necessarily going to come naturally.”

Get out and about! Epstein says “the more interesting and diverse the things and the people around you, the more interesting your own ideas become.” Cameron adds that simply taking a “walk out the door for 20 minutes or so” will have an impact on your thinking. “When people walk, they often begin to integrate the insights and intuitions that they have had through morning pages and outings.”

Ah yes, this has happened to me multiple times when I take walks by myself. My thoughts flow freely and it is not unusual, if there is an issue I am dealing with, for me to have a conversation out loud with myself. Indeed, this is an easy way to get “off the grid”.

Houtz talks about how our personalities can impact the manner in which we stimulate our creativity. Someone who is more introspective and less outgoing might prefer quiet reflection; a more extroverted person may benefit from the hubbub of other people.

These suggestions read like a “how to” manual for fostering creativity but before you say they are silly, give them a try and then let me know what you think.

Images: pad and bicycle on beach from iStockPhoto; squiggles and stonewalls done in SketchUp by Fred Bartels

[p.s. August 9, 2008 – I stumbled upon this related Encefalus post, How to Bolster your Creativity. The author hasn’t “written in english for a loooooong time”, which explains any quirks in the prose.]

Design and Innovation with Arnold Wasserman

Arnold Wasserman is the man behind The Idea Factory. I discovered him thanks to a recent interview by Joan Badger and Ben Hazzard for their SMARTBoard Lessons Podcast.

Wasserman echoes Sir Ken Robinson in saying that we all come hard wired to be creative, and we then teach that feature right out of our children as they progress through school.

In discussing his company’s work with Singapore’s education system, Wasserman asks how we go about reintroducing our two hemispheres to one another, and concludes that we need to figure out how to use the ideas of K-6 education in the upper grades. He says:

“The brain knows how to be creative and the mind gets in its way.”

In other words, as we get older (and more “educated”) the mind encounters enough information that it begins to put a harness on the brain, stifling it from using ideas that do not mesh with the reality to which the mind has been exposed.

Wasserman references Google’s 80/20 rule as a way to nurture innovation. The rule states that employees can spend twenty percent of their time focused on their own ideas. This allows “the mind to get out of the way of the brain.”

“The Learning Journey” is a method that his company uses to “get the mind out of the way of the brain” by shakings things up. He suggests that to innovate it helps to see how innovation is working in other fields in order to understand how innovation works, in general, as opposed to within a specific field.

Wasserman’s tips to discover the principles of innovation:
First – see how it is done in other fields
Then – try to solve a problem in yet another field, completely different from your own (the proverbial “sandbox”)
Now – translate this to your field

The main reason for getting out of your comfort zone and exploring a completely different field, where you then have to solve a problem, is that “expertise is the killer of innovation.” The more you know about your own field, the more difficult it is to innovate. What is required is to “think back into the company from the minds of those outside it.”

This last bit reminds me of teaching. It is said that the best way to learn something is to have to teach it, and I agree with this concept. However, sometimes if you know a thing too well, it becomes very difficult to think back into the learning from the mind of someone who is struggling to learn that very thing. Yet more food for thought for educators on summer break.

Mel meet Ken, Ken meet Mel

Just imagine a conversation between Dr Mel Levine and Sir Ken Robinson. They’d both be telling stories about individuals, education, and the process of learning. They really should meet each other, if they haven’t already, as they both advocate for finding your passion and pursuing it, and they both would like to see education change to better serve all students.

Mel Levine aims to help demystify kids and youngmellevinephoto.jpg adults to themselves, so they better understand how they learn by understanding their strengths and weaknesses. A person’s strengths can serve as the foundation around which their learning and maturing take place. Sometimes it is difficult to assess one’s own strengths, though, particularly when one’s weaknesses can seem insurmountable or simply overshadowing. The goal of Mel’s program is to assist individuals in overcoming or circumventing their weaknesses, while highlighting, enjoying and celebrating their strengths.

Ken Robinson believes that individuals should pursue their passions, sirken.jpgand that many times in education the educators school individuals out of their passions. Schools should retune themselves to place equal emphasis on the nontraditional areas, such as the arts, thus permitting students who enjoy or excel in these areas ample opportunity to pursue their studies while being lauded for those skills, regardless of their aptitude in more traditional areas.

Both Mel and Ken feel that having a passion and being able to pursue it are highly motivating and important aspects of education, and are often downplayed (when not in typical academic areas) in favor of more traditional areas. I think they would have a fine time chatting with one another!

Don’t take my word for it! Here they are, in their own words (except for Garr’s blog entry.)

On his Presentation Zen blog Garr Reynold’s has an excellent summary of Sir Ken Robinson on the art of public speaking.

Interviews with Ken Robinson

Interviews with Mel Levine