Preaching to the School Choir: Why do we need Sir Ken Robinson?

I like Sir Ken Robinson, his TED Talks combine humour, insightful commentary and a perspective on education that I agree with. But after watching his latest speech (see video) I was left wondering, who is he preaching to and why is there a need for it?


On a number of occasions I have seen presenters use the words of Sir Ken as part of their presentations for Professional Development days. The response is always the same; general agreement and a room full of teachers who are inspired to do great things for their students. I have read some of his books too and agree that education should inspire creativity, teach to the individual's passions and allow teachers to plan units of work that are tailored to the needs of their students. Teaching to the test is seen as a problem and a trend that benefits no one. Teachers need to be valued and treated with respect as highly trained professionals. Students should want to be at school and should leave school equipped for life in a modern world possessing the skills valued by their future employers. 

I agree with all of this and so do the colleagues I speak to about these ideas. So too do many of the most valued researchers in the field of Education. David Perkins, of Harvard's Project Zero, in his book 'Making Learning Whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education' outlines many of the same ideas. Using a sports metaphor he argues that education should teach the 'whole game', make it worth playing, encourage students to focus on the hard parts, seek opportunities to test their skills in new situations, go beyond the surface detail, learn from others both peers and teachers and learn 'the game of playing the game' or 'metacognition. Again, there is very little here to disagree with. Possibly the one criticism I have heard aimed at such theories of education goes something like; 'Well, that's just good teaching with a fancy name'.

Several years back I had cause to write a philosophy of education, a set of guiding principles to be shared with my class' parent body. It included words and phrases such as 'enthused', 'challenged', 'partnership' and 'powerful learners with the ability to determine their level of success'. It speaks of 'an environment that celebrates learning and education as integral parts of life'. I have shared this philosophy with many groups of parents and colleagues since then and have never had any disagreement.

I work in a school that seeks to develop students who are ready for the unique challenges they will face beyond school. I have had the opportunity to study 'Teaching for Understanding' and 'Making Thinking Visible' as these courses support the development of highly transferable skills and dispositions for learning. I know many other schools have provided their staff with similar opportunities and that the teaching skills developed through such courses are desirable among candidates for employment. I have not read advertisements for teachers which focus on a knowledge of standardised testing or rote learning.

So with all this agreement from educators why does Sir Ken Robinson need to spread his message? Why is there a climate in schools that proves he is correct when he states 'Great things are happening despite the system'? As a profession where did we go wrong? When did it become OK for politicians to set Educational Policies that fly in the face of what the profession agrees is best practice? Maybe it is time we started writing educational theories in Latin to keep the 'commoners' off our patch of turf?

By Nigel Coutts