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The Nation: : Lisa Owen interviews Sir Ken Robinson

On Newshub Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Sir Ken Robinson.

Sir Ken Robinson: (CHUCKLES) Well, basically, being educated is a funny term, isn’t it? It means different things to different people. I mean, there was a time when being educated meant that you’d studied the Classics and you could speak Greek and Latin and quote the scriptures, and then there was a time when being educated meant that you went to college and had a university degree. I’m trying to get people to think differently about what being educated means.

Mike Wesley-Smith: What do you see it as meaning?

It means two things, really. One is discovering and developing the talents that we have within us naturally. It’s a very important part of my argument, this, that all children are different. But it illustrates a broader point which is our talents are very diverse and multifarious, and for historical reasons, in part, our education systems have become rather fixated on a particular type of intellectual ability. We call it academic work. Now we’ve come to confuse academic ability with intelligence in general, and I think it’s something we need to really revisit. So being in educated is, in part, giving people access to their natural capacities and abilities and helping to cultivate them. But also being educated means understanding the world around you as well as the world within you and being literate in a cultural sense, understanding something of the history and the values and traditions of how the world got to be the way it is and why it works the way it does and what the possibilities for change are.

Obviously a big part of New Zealand’s debate around education has been this removing of National Standards. You know, a standardised way of education. What are your thoughts on that as an education approach?

Most countries around the world are working to improve their education systems. I think, for the most part, they’re going about it the wrong way in a couple of ways. One is that the tendency has been to focus on particular aspects of the school curriculum. So there’s been a big focus on science, technology, maths. Very important disciplines, but the consequence of that has been that equally important disciplines, like humanities, physical education, the arts, practical vocational activities have been squeezed out of many systems. That’s a big mistake. And the second is that governments around the world have been trying to make schools accountable through a system of testing – constant standardisation. So, on the one hand we’re getting the curriculum being standardised and on the other hand we’re getting a lot of standardised testing. And the evidence everywhere is that it doesn’t work. Not in the way it’s intended. And we pay a heavy price for it. Kids are under an awful lot of pressure these days at school, more so than we were at school. Teachers and families are under a lot of pressure. It’s all about competition and grades, and it’s become a kind of dreary steeplechase. And along the way, we’ve lost a sense of the vitality of how education ought to work.

And so if you’re an advocate of personalised education for each student, for a teacher that, say, might have 30 students, is that feasible for them?

Well, there are a couple of things with this. It depends what we mean by personalise. From some points of view, it seems to me absolutely axiomatic. Education is a human business. We’re not manufacturing sprockets. These are people we’re talking about – young people whose education has a critical bearing on the life they lead and how they discover or not the possibilities that lie inside them and how they can manoeuvre in the world around them. It is personal. It’s personal for their parents, it’s personal for their kids, it’s personal for everybody. It’s a relationship, and there’s no alternative to having a personalised system of education. It’s about how well we do it and what we really mean by it. It doesn’t, to me, mean that everyone can just follow an entirely idiosyncratic curriculum that has no relationship to anything else. The reason I say that is because there are some things that I think we can agree people need to learn in common. And there is a good case for having in schools a broadly agreed framework for the curriculum. I mean, I think it’s important that everybody practises the sciences in a creative and inquisitive way. I think it’s equally important they practise the arts in a disciplined and creative way. And I’d rather that was not left to chance and we had some way of making that available. What personalisation really means, in this case, is making sure that teaching is differentiated to the talents and interests and rates of learning of individual kids. It’s what families do with their children and great teachers have always done that. Teaching isn’t just a process of transmission; it’s a relationship. It’s as much a process of coaching and mentoring and inspiring. Great teachers have always done that. So, yes, it has to be personalised in that sense. Can teachers do it in a class of 30? Absolutely they can. And often people think that to be a good teacher you just need a degree in the subject in question. It’s a total myth. There are plenty of people who are very well qualified in a particular field who are hopeless at teaching it. Teaching is 50% that – knowing what you’re doing. It’s also at least half knowing how to engage with people and how to energise and interest them in the work they’re doing. That’s why you remember your teachers from school. They’re the ones who turned you on and the ones who also turned you off. So you can’t make education teacher-proof. You shouldn’t try to either. You should celebrate and empower teachers to do their job properly, and if you do that, that is how you personalise education.

Who was you teacher that made the difference?

I fell into the hands of a teacher called Miss York, who was an absolute tartar. Very demanding and rigorous. But in between it all, you could tell she really cared. And she used to push us hard. But for her and two or three teachers along the way, I wouldn’t be doing what I do now. But it illustrates the point that sometimes you’re drawn to teachers because of their passion for the discipline or just you’ve got a respect for their approach to you or because you find them interesting as personalities. It’s often the case that people are drawn into a particular discipline because of the teacher they had.

Do you feel like if you walked around a modern classroom, you’ll see kids increasingly having replaced books with computers. Do you think there’s a risk that you lose the potential influence a teacher can have if kids are increasingly taking their education to a screen?

There is. Yes, the short answer is yes. I think there’s a risk. It’s worth remembering, though, that virtually every technology that came along has had people throwing their arms up in despair, saying it’s the end of civilisation as we know it. In the 18th century where books became widespread, people thought, well, this is the end of everything, that the idea of the portable library, people seemed to think we’ve sold our soul at this point. And now we take that for granted. Television was going to be the end of everything. Films were going to be the end of everything. Rock ‘n’ roll – mind you, that was the end of everything, so that’s fair enough. (LAUGHS) No, the thing is that the tools we have now, the technologies, are sensational compared to any of those available to any previous generation. So I’d be the last person to say that these are not fantastic resources for education. They just are. But there’s a downside, which is they can be a terrible distraction. There’s a lot of evidence that kids who spend too much time on social media are suffering more anxiety as a consequence. I’ve always thought social media was an ironic title, because they’re not social. They’re antisocial in some respects, aren’t they? You know, when I was at school, when you went home for the day, that was it. I mean, you could watch the television or hang out with your family, but the dramas of school were kind of gone. But now it’s constant and it’s obsessive. So there is a downside. Good parents know this. It’s almost one of the definitions. The role of a parent is to set some boundaries, and I think we do need to set some boundaries to help our kids to kind of tune out.

Because, of course, there is a lot of enriching material to be found online.


Including your TED Talk, which, of course, has launched you into another stratosphere.

Listen, I’m not suggesting anybody turns that off. Meanwhile, that talk has been seen online 50 million times. It’s been seen probably by ten times that number of people.

So you must be just below Justin Bieber on the YouTube—

Little bit below Justin. Just a bit above Miley Cyrus. But then I don’t twerk.

Fair enough, yes.

I mean, I could if encouraged.

What’s the most poignant reaction you’ve heard as a result of that talk?

I was talking to these kids afterwards, and there’s a lad holding back. He’s about 17, 18, with somebody who I realised was his dad. He came over at the end and he said, ‘I just wanted to say thank you.’ I said, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘Well, for the talk you gave because it’s really helped me and my dad.’ I said, ‘How has it helped?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve always had this thing about design, drawing and art and I want to go to art college, but my dad said I couldn’t go. He said I needed to go to university and do, like, a real degree.’ That’s how he put it. His dad’s standing there nodding. And he said, ‘We’ve had a terrible time for the past couple of years. I’ve been angry and upset and we weren’t talking and Dad’s been getting angry with me.’ And he said, ‘It’s awful.’ And his dad’s nodding. And he said, ‘A couple of months ago I saw your talk, and I asked my dad to come and sit and watch it with me. And he did. He didn’t say anything and he put his arm around me and said, “You’ve got to go to art college, haven’t you?”’ He said, ‘And I’m going to art college, and I want to say thank you.’ And his dad said to me as well—he shook my hand and said, ‘You’ve given me my son back.’ Well, you know, you can’t plan that stuff. You don’t think that’s going to happen. But the point I’m making is that it is about people. This is a human process. Education is not some industrial thing that’s all about data points and league tables, and politicians make a big mistake when they think it is. You have to recognise the human dimension to it, and this kid will go on, no doubt, to achieve very high standards because he’s doing what he wants to do in the place he wants to do it, and he’s got family support.

Thank you so much for your time. I think my final question would be what would Miss York think of you if she could see you now?

Well, I hope she’d be pleased with what I’m doing, but she’d probably tell me I’m not doing it well enough.
Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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