Kids Don’t Fail, Schools Fail Kids: Sir Ken Robinson on the ‘Learning...

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Kids Don’t Fail, Schools Fail Kids: Sir Ken Robinson on the ‘Learning Revolution’

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Feb 23, 2017

Kids Don’t Fail, Schools Fail Kids: Sir Ken Robinson on the ‘Learning Revolution’

British author and speaker Sir Ken Robinson is known for several accomplishments, from his books to his professorships to his TED talks. But in 2006, he gained recognition for something that no other TED speaker in history has done. It was back then that he delivered a TED talk on the topic of whether schools kill students’ creativity—and today, that video has been viewed over 43 million times, currently holding the title of “most popular TED talk of all time.”

Well, it’s been ten years, and with the recent proliferation of terms like “personalized,” “mastery-based,” and “blended” in the education world, some of Robinson’s viewers may wonder if or how his take on schools has changed.

At the "Power and Possibility of Individualized Learning" event held in Minneapolis on February 22, co-hosted by the Bush Foundation and the School Leadership Project, Robinson delivered a keynote address in which he spoke to the “learning revolution,” arguing that the shift to personalized learning is a non-negotiable in the United States if education is prepared students for the future, instead of simply the “now.”

So, why then is personalized learning a non-negotiable?

Why Problems Arise When Kids Go to School

For Robinson, his background in education extends all the way back to when he graduated from college. And over those thirty years, he has found that the solutions to education’s biggest issues are not a mystery.

“Honestly, we know what works in education, and what doesn’t,” he said.

A huge misconception amongst adults, according to Robinson, is that kids don’t like to learn. On the contrary, “my conviction is that kids love to learn. That’s not the problem,” he shared. Rather, “it’s the construct of school” that beats a love to learn out of students, he says.

And why? “The problems tends to arise when kids go to school because the deeper they get in, the more they start to lose interest,” Robinson said, pointing to the United States’ large student dropout percentage as evidence that school—as a system—is failing students.

If it's the system that creates the very problems educators, policymakers and funders keep trying to solve, what is the answer? In Robinson’s mind, there are three themes to be aware of when considering how to change education as it looks today:

  1. It’s a time of revolution in many industries across the world. “I mean that literally. There are changes on the planet now that are without precedent,” he said. “We have an exponential rate of technological change, over the past 30 years in particular. We’re heading into a period of even more radical technological innovation, and with it will go entire industries.”
  2. If populations are to meet this revolution, we have to think differently, particularly about the individual self. “We have to reframe the abilities of our children. We have deep natural talents, but we have to discover them and cultivate them. If you have a narrow view of ability, you generate an enormous about of inability.”
  3. Thus, we have to rethink how we do school. “There are systems we’ve created for efficiency, not to get people to learn things,” Robinson started, later adding, “We organize our kids’ learning by their date of birth. We don’t do that anywhere else, except school.”

What We Could Do Better…

For Robinson, the very concept of “school” becomes problematic when considering all of the other “incidentals and fiction” that have become attached to it over the last 50 years. One key example: standardized testing.

Because the government has largely been driven by an economic imperative to be a force in the global market (oftentimes said to have been turbo-charged by Reagan’s A Nation at Risk report), this has resulted in fewer concerns over individualization of student learning. Rather, the government, according to Robinson, has essentially pushed for more and more nationwide testing in order to 1) standardize everything, and 2) try and improve education “through an intense process of competition.”

One of the major issues with this is the sheer amount of money that goes into this system every year. In 2013 alone, the U.S. education testing and support industry was a $16 billion business. Compare that to the NFL ($9 billion) and the U.S. domestic cinema box office ($11.2 billion.)

And the other problem with standardized testing? “This does not prepare kids to achieve,” Robinson says. “Kids need to be able to communicate, work in teams.”

So, what are Americans to do? For starters, communities should “agree what education is for.” In Robinson’s mind, there are two worlds in which every individual lives: the external world (“the world that was here when we came in, and will be here after we’re gone), and the internal world, which is unique to each individual and includes his or her fears, hopes, and dreams. That second world often gets forgotten in education, Robinson argues, meaning that education should, in retrospect, include a sense of the individual in its design and purpose.

Robinson does have his own definition of education’s purpose (“To enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become”), but his is one opinion. And in this particular presentation, Robinson called out two schooling programs that, in his opinion, have each championed notions of “personalized learning” without relying heavily on technology.

...And the Schools That Are Doing This Well

First, Robinson referenced Kansas City-based MindDrive, an afterschool program for at-risk high schoolers. Founded in 2010 and heavily focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and experiential learning, MindDrive got headlines when its first cohort created a fully-functioning car that ran on the “power” of social media Tweets. Robinson said he responds to the program because of how he’s witnessed it reignite that forgotten love of learning in students.

“These kids came alive intellectually. It was about teamwork. The results (in testing) improved anyhow, and came about as natural consequences,” he said.

For his second example, Robinson described a Massachusetts-based school called Orchard Gardens. Similarly to MindDrive, the school and faculty drew back on an obsession with standards and testing. Rather, in a radical move to rid the school of prevalent violence, the principal eliminated security infrastructure and instead chose to spend that budget money on arts programming for students, which Robinson described as a “reframing of student growth.”

The Reality

Not every school or afterschool program will look like Orchard Gardens or MindDrive—”There are multiple ways of doing the same thing, based on common principles,” Robinson said.

But what’s most important, he concluded, is that every student deserves to be treated like the miracle that they are—with personalized, individualized education that addresses that “world within.” And with Orchard Gardens and MindDrive as just two of many examples, it’s clear that Robinson has faith and trust that the U.S. education system can right itself.

“The good news is, there is wonderful work out there with schools," he said, "where teachers are doing well—where kids are thriving.”

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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