World’s most popular TED-talker tells Texas conference public education can be fixed — but not quickly

Sir Ken Robinson talks during the Edshift conference at Omni Hotel Mandalay in Las Colinas, TX, on Jan. 11, 2015. (Jason Janik/Special Contributor)

“You can test as much as you like, but if you aren’t cultivating the basic principles of teaching and learning — the central part of the reform movement — then the tests will just keep telling you you’re failing. Because you are.” – Sir Ken Robinson

Article Credit: The Dallas Morning News

Sir Ken Robinson is a British education expert and author whose 2006 TED talk “Do schools kill creativity?” is the most watched talk in the history of the TED program, with more than 27 million online viewings. One official TED blog called him the “sneezing baby panda of the TED ecosystem.”

Partly, his presentation and its sequels continue to attract an audience because he’s an academic with the delivery of a standup comic. Partly, though, he hits a nerve: “My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status,” he said. “…[W]e’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

Robinson was in North Texas this week keynoting EdShift2016, a national conference of school officials seeking to come up with better ways to make public education more successfully engaging. In his speech, Robinson offered this observation:

“We know what good teaching looks like. We know what’s wrong with assessment.”

Afterward, he sat down for a conversation. Here are some excerpts:


Do we really know what good teaching looks like and what’s wrong with assessment? Because there seems to be plenty of argument about that.

“I think so. Certainly from a school transformation point of view I think it’s important to say that we know what the solutions look like. This isn’t like curing cancer, where we just don’t know and we’re thrashing around. There are great schools everywhere that are achieving high results.”

For instance?

“If you want just one example, the Montessori system, which has been around for what — a hundred years? — was evolved in a context of kids not doing well at school. Often working class kids who are disaffected, disenfranchised.”

How about a successful system of public education?

“If you look at one of the more successful systems in the world, that’s Finland. Forty years ago, it was not doing particularly well. And it’s about 40 years ago that this journey in America started toward more standardized testing… America went down the road of standardization and particularly with No Child Left Behind. Finland went in the exact opposite direction. It went toward personalization, customization. They invested heavily in the training and profession development of teachers.”

But there are huge differences between Finland and the US.

“Well, in terms of population there are about 5.5 million people in Finland and about 300 thousand plus students. But the education system in America is largely organized at the state level. And there are 30 states in America with populations equal to or smaller than Finland.”

American education had terrible problems before No Child Left behind – including the marginalizing of many back, brown and poor students. Surely government systems should make that more difficult?

“The intentions of No Child left behind were absolutely correct and admirable. I’ve never questioned that. The idea of not leaving any children behind is unimpeachable. [The problem is the strategies used to meet the goals.] And one of them was this reliance entirely on standardized testing. And then it didn’t offer any standardized approach to standardized testing, it threw the whole thing up to the marketplace…We know what works and can be practiced. What I’m arguing is that customization, personalization, isn’t a problem. It’s a solution. Actually, it’s the only one that really works in my experience.”

How long would your approach take to improve education in America?

“This is not a quick fix. And that’s part of the problem. There’s been an impatience about this strategy. We want to get it done, turn it around quickly. What’s happened in Finland has taken around 40 years. You do need to build a different kind of infrastructure. You do need to look at the culture.”

You say you believe in some use of standardized tests. What’s the matter with the way they’ve been used in the United States?

“It’s become the culture of education rather than a way of improving the culture of education. You can test as much as you like, but if you aren’t cultivating the basic principles of teaching and learning — the central part of the reform movement — then the tests will just keep telling you you’re failing. Because you are.”

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