Welcome to the TED Interview. I'm Chris Anderson, and this is the podcast series where I sit down with a TED speaker, and we get to dive much deeper into their ideas than was possible during their TED Talk. Today, I couldn't be more excited, because I'm here with none other than Sir Ken Robinson. Sir Ken is the man responsible for the most-viewed TED Talk of all time. It's been seen more than 50 million times now, a talk called "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" He recorded it back in 2006. It was one of the first six TED Talks that we ever released, and probably that talk did as much as any other to really put TED Talks as a whole on the map.
(Audio) Sir Ken Robinson: I heard a great story recently, of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was six, and she was at the back drawing. And the teacher said, "This little girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson, she did." And the teacher was fascinated. She went over to her, and she said, "What are you drawing?" And the girl said, "I'm drawing a picture of God." And the teacher said, "But nobody knows what God looks like." And the girl said, "They will in a minute."
CA: The idea he spoke about seemed to really strike a nerve with people. It felt as if millions and millions of people around the world had had this experience of being at school and somehow, their own creativity not being heard or recognized or felt or developed properly.
(Audio) KR: I believe this passionately, that we don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it; or rather, we get educated out of it.
CA: Sir Ken has been a scholar of education pretty much all his life: as a professor, a policy advisor and an author. And I'm so excited today to have a chance to ask him more about his ideas.
Sir Ken Robinson, welcome.
KR: It's a real pleasure, Chris, thank you.
CA: Why don't we start by finding out a bit about you and your own education.
KR: Well, I'm from Liverpool. I was born there in 1950. I'm one of seven children. We grew up with no money. We weren't aware of it.
CA: Which one, by the way? KR: I'm number five.
CA: Number five. So you had to really carve out some attention in the family.
KR: Well, yes. I mean, my first three siblings all have middle names, and my parents kind of ran out of steam by the time they got to my end of the list, and I was just glad not to be called "Five."
So I grew up there, and I had no idea growing up what I might ever go on to do, or if I would ever go on to do anything at all. So it's always been a big theme in the work I do that we create our own lives. It doesn't really matter where you start from.
CA: As a child, you were hit by quite a severe illness. Will you talk about that?
KR: Yeah. Until I was four, my father was convinced I was going to be the family soccer player. I showed an early and precocious talent for it, evidently. I was strong and quick. I had good eye-hand coordination, and my dad had been a semi-professional football player himself. But in the early '50s, there was an epidemic of poliomyelitis, which spread right across Europe and North America, and I got it, yes. So at the age of four, I was in hospital with polio. I was in for eight months, and I was paralyzed overnight, pretty much. And I was thrown into the world of special education. Actually, in the early '50s, people weren't very good at euphemisms. We hadn't really got the hang of them. So I went to the Margaret Bevan School for the Physically Handicapped, where I was in the company of a lot of other people with calipers and braces and wheelchairs and various sorts of physical illnesses or handicaps. And it threw the whole family into that world.
CA: But despite that, or because of that, you did pretty well academically, and you ended up in a grammar school, which at the time was the higher of two tiers of British general education.
KR: Well, yes. It was interesting how it happened, because we didn't really pay attention to people's disabilities. That wasn't what defined us. I mean, I didn't think of myself as having polio, and I didn't think of the kids I was talking to as having cerebral palsy. They were interesting or they weren't. We were just kids kicking it around. But what became clear was that the system itself didn't have great expectations for the students, and I wouldn't be doing what I do now but for two or three people who crossed my path. One of them was a school inspector called Charles Stratford, who came into my classroom one day. I guess I was pushing 10, and I was sitting back doing something or other. I was chatting, I remember, with one of my good friends at school, a guy called Robert _____? who had hydrocephalus, enlarged skull. And I chatted with this guy for a while, to this man who I found out later was Charles Stratford, and he disappeared.
And a few days later, I was asked to go and see the head teacher, and he was sitting there. It turned out that he was the inspector for special education, and whatever had happened in the conversation, he spotted something that he thought was interesting and had spoken to the class teacher, then the head teacher, to ask what was going on with me — was I being stretched, and was there something else I could be doing. The upshot of that was, they moved me up a couple of classes, into the hands of this formidable woman called Miss York. And she was a real tartar. She was a fantastically good teacher but very demanding, very compassionate but very demanding, and she was kind of sewed up tight like a turkey. She was trussed in the clothes she wore, and seemed very buttoned-up.
But at the time in the UK, we had something that anyone from the UK will recognize, called "11 Plus," and it was a public exam that was taken at the age of 11, on the base of which, you were allocated — I, to what was called a grammar school — and Miss York and the head teacher and Charles Stratford clearly thought I was capable of passing the 11 Plus, and that I would benefit from some extra tuition to help me do that. Anyway, the upshot of it was that I took the 11 Plus, and I was the first person, I think, in the history of the schools to actually do that. In England at the time, and certainly in Liverpool, passing the 11 Plus was like a passport onto another social plane, another planet entirely. Anyway, I passed the 11 Plus and I was sent to the collegiate, and it was an absolute turning point.
CA: So any of those individuals who gave you that sort of personalized moment in education, if they could have seen the story play out, they would have, I guess, considered that time well spent, decisions well made. You often speak and write about the importance of just a personalized approach to kids. It's not one size fits all at all.
KR: No, I think that's axiomatic. Education is about people. It's about human growth and development, and it's a very personal process. There's a very important cultural and social dimension to education, but we're, each of us, unique individuals, and we think differently, we have different capacities, different talents, different proclivities, and one of the great criticisms that I have of mass systems of education is that they tend to wash out the differences. For example, going to the grammar school suited me down to the ground. I liked it. But it wasn't for everybody. A lot of people went to grammar schools who didn't like it, and a lot of people didn't go to them because they didn't pass the test. They might have enjoyed it, but they weren't given the opportunity I was given. The interesting thing about that system is, it's based on a particular view of intelligence, but intelligence is clearly a much larger idea than the sort of abilities that tend to be cultivated in that system. I'm not critical of academic education itself; I rather enjoyed it. I mean, I was a professor at a university. I write books. I did a PhD. It's not as if I'm down on it.
But it's not the only form of life, and it's certainly not the highest form of life. It's just a form of life.
CA: So any system of education that just says, "Let's look for the intelligent kids and give them special treatment," as if that was one spectrum, one measurement, that's misguided.
KR: Well, yes, because it's based on a particular view of intelligence. For example, the 11 Plus exam. The point of the 11 Plus exam was to identify kids who had the ability and inclination to benefit from a grammar school curriculum, which was an academic curriculum. And the assumption was that kids who went through that would be capable of going on to university and into some kind of professional role. The kids who went to secondary modern schools were thought to be less capable of those things and would probably go on to some form of manual work. And the point about it was, the whole ethos, was that this was about equal opportunities and "parity of esteem," as the expression went, but we all figured out if you passed the 11 Plus you went to the grammar school, and if you failed, you went to the secondary modern. So right at the age of 11, there was a system of sheep and goats.
CA: Almost tied into the British class system. This was your ticket to the middle class. Otherwise, enjoy your life as working class.
KR: Yes, there's no question of that. And that wasn't covert, it wasn't accidental, it wasn't something that people were embarrassed to talk about. If you read the legislation, the 1944 Education Act, it was sewn into the fabric of the legislation. It was a deliberate piece of social engineering. And it had a lot of benefits, by the way. I benefited enormously from it. But as many people who benefited from it did not, and that's the problem with it.
CA: So where did this interest — perhaps even obsession with — creativity in education come from? And how do you even think of creativity in education?
KR: Well, creativity is only a piece of the story, really. It's what I happened to talk about on the TED stage, and I did write a report about it and I am interested in it, but it's not the be-all and end-all of what I think should be going on in education. My route into it, like I think the route most people take into their lives, their careers, was circuitous. When I was at school, I had no idea what I was going to do, none whatever. The most practical step I took to having any kind of career when I was 16 was to send off for a set of application forms to become a manager at Marks & Spencer. That was it, I thought. What could possibly go wrong?
CA: Marks & Spencer is a very sort of staid, very English clothing store, primarily.
KR: Yes. Most people in Britain get their underwear from Marks & Spencer. I think it's important people understand that.
CA: I gave that up a while ago.
KR: Whether that's a good or a bad thing, we don't know. But yeah, so I had no idea. And then when I was in what we call in the UK the "sixth-form" — it's the junior and senior years here in America — a group of us wanted to put some plays on. We'd read plays in the English class, but we wanted to perform them. It seemed a bit of a heretical idea, but we thought, why not, because they seemed very interesting. And an English teacher helped us with the plays. He directed the first couple. And then we wanted to put another play on the year or so later. I thought I was going to be cast in the play. I'd been the stage manager and had a small part in the previous one. And we cast all the parts, or he cast all the parts. He said he couldn't direct it that year, but he could cast them. So he came along to the casting session. All the big parts went, all the small parts went, and I was still sitting there, and I thought, well, that's probably me doing the stage managing again. And he said, "I've been giving some thought to who to direct the play." He said, "I can't do it this year, but I have a proposal. I think Ken should do it." And I nearly passed out, truthfully. And I looked around the room expecting people to crack up and say, "You must be joking." And they all said, "No, that'd be great. Would you do it?" It had never crossed my mind to direct a play. I didn't think I could do it, I didn't think I had the ability to do it. I didn't know how to begin doing it. But eventually, I thought, well, why not? I should try it. It's been a bit of a maxim in my life, truthfully, not to walk away from things that worry me. I think it's always better to walk towards it if you possibly can. And that just got me involved in the arts more generally, and it was through the arts I got interested, eventually, in some of the ideas connected to creativity.
CA: So looking back, is your narrative now that directing that play was perhaps as important as anything else that happened to you at that school, in terms of your own development, confidence, what have you?
KR: No question, yes, yes, probably the most important thing.
CA: But what would you say to people who say, "Look, this is all very nice, arts are splendid, very nice that some kids can do that. But let's get serious. When it comes to actually creating a career that will actually make you real money and/or contributing to the economy in a productive way, what we need is mathematics and science and technology and engineering, and we need these STEM subjects. Really, if your kid could do those, that, of course, is what you should emphasize, and that's what schools should emphasize." No?
KR: Well, I've got no argument against the importance of the sciences and technology. On the contrary, my way into this happened to be through theater, but I'm always very keen to emphasize this, it's important. And I certainly never have wanted to conflate creativity with the arts. I mean that in two ways. The arts aren't important because they're creative. Rather, they're not only important because they're creative. They're important for all kinds of other reasons. They're not the creative bit of education. The arts can't be reduced to shibboleths about the importance of creative work, because through the arts, we express deep issues of cultural value. We express the fabric of our relationships with other people, our connection with the world around us as well as the world within us. They are forms of language in their own right, language broadly conceived, and they are among the most profound ways that we come to know ourselves and our relationships to other people and how cultures become defined. They are deeply important.
But creativity isn't exclusive to a particular field. It's a function of intelligence. Science, mathematics, technology, humanities, engineering — name any form of human intellectual activity or any activity that engages our intelligence, and it's a scene of potential creative achievement. Science is deeply and sensationally creative at its heart. It's been transformative in the lives of humanity, particularly in the last 300 years. But just to hook back to what you were saying: one of the reasons why the arts, for example, tend to be pushed down the hierarchy — and it's not only the arts, by the way; physical education is being pushed out, the humanities are being pushed out — is because education is dominated by, on the one hand, a conception of intelligence which is rooted in the university idea of academic work.
And secondly, our education systems are governed by some idea of utility about the subjects that will be most useful for getting a job. And that's why people say we need to have STEM disciplines, because we need more mathematicians, we need more people doing technology. Well, it is true that those disciplines can have a practical application. It's also true that the arts, broadly conceived, the creative industries make a major contribution to the vitality of our economies, to the life and soul of our communities. If you look at great companies like Apple, like Amazon, like Google, that are at the leading edge of technological change, their work and their success has been driven by design, by artists, by writers, by musicians. It's not only scientists. So there is a need to take a balanced view of what sort of skills are needed to nurture the development of our current economic systems and how they may themselves be changed. But also, our lives are not linear. We don't know how people's lives will play out. I often ask people at conferences these days how many of them are doing now what they thought they'd be doing when they were 15, and very few of them have. I mean, the best evidence of human creativity is our trajectory through life. We create our own lives. And these powers of creativity, manifested in all the ways in which human beings operate, are, I think, at the very heart of what it is to be a human being. And we overlook them, really, at our peril in our school system.
CA: So this is a huge issue, though, because if it was hard when we were 15 to predict what it is we might be doing, it feels like it's massively harder now for someone who is 15 to have a sense of what they might be doing, because we almost know that a large number of the jobs, the career paths, that people have gone through for years are about to be taken away by some form of automation. So how on earth do we get kids ready for life? Should we be shifting to trying to create this sort of ideal set of skills, of modes of thinking, of character traits, that are best equipped to give someone a chance at surviving the brave new world that we may or may not be entering? How ... how would you ... ? You know, if you were in a kitchen making this recipe for what you want to put into a kid facing the future now, what would be the elements that would go in, that education should be thinking about?
KR: Well, let me just preface that, because I want to answer that. But to preface it: it's important, I think, to try and get some handle on what's unique about the times we live in and what's the same old same old. People have been talking about catastrophic effects of new technologies pretty much since human beings started to make tools at all. I mean, technologies do two things, whether it's a plow or a laptop. Firstly, they can extend our physical reach. We can do things physically that we would not be able to do without the tool. The plow made it possible to cultivate great tracks of land much more quickly than we could have done by hand or with a small shovel. But a transformative tool does more than extend our physical reach. It extends our mind. It makes it possible to think about things that we literally couldn't conceive of before the tool made it possible to think that way. Like the internet; it makes it possible to do things, the iPhone makes it possible to do things, that we couldn't before. But long before these things, the motorcar, the printing press did the same thing. It overturned established ways of thinking, established ways in which cultures operated, and threw countless people out of work; created new jobs, destroyed old traditions, destroyed old ways of life, while new ones came out of the compost of the old. And that's always happened.
CA: But it feels to me like there's a profound difference now, just based on timescale. I mean, say it was your grandfather who invented the plow, and you were asked, "What's the biggest thing that's happened in society recently?" "Well, it's the plow! It's amazing. Now we can grow crops much more efficiently. It's astonishing, it's giving me a whole new thought about agriculture and the potential for human civilization." That person's grandkids, asked the same question, would basically say: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, my great-great-great-grandfather invented the plow." Nothing had happened since then. For generations, things stayed the same. And what feels different now is that we have barely had a chance to get familiar with the world of the internet, let's say, or the shocking changes that's brought on that we didn't predict, like social media, cyberbullying, whatever, you name it, all these things that no one really saw coming. And before we've even had a chance to get used to that, much more dramatic changes could be a mere decade or so away, and here we are still using what you and others have called this sort of industrial-age education. Education hasn't adjusted to the internet, let alone the world of AI. So how panicky should we feel about where we are right now?
KR: Well, I don't think we should be panicking, but we should certainly be taking this seriously and treating it as urgent. I mean, the point I was making is that human life has never been immune to catastrophic and cataclysmic change, and technology has always been at the forefront of that. But what is different about now is, well, two things, really. One is the speed at which these technologies are building on each other and proliferating and moving us in directions we couldn't possibly have anticipated. So there's a massive technological agenda here, and it's accelerating, and that's the nature of technological change: it becomes exponential.
And the other thing is the extraordinary rate of population growth that we've experienced since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. I mean, when I was born in 1950, there were fewer than three billion people on the planet. By the turn of the millennium, there were six billion, so the population doubled. And we're now at, what, about seven and a half billion. Estimates vary, but we're heading to probably nine, 10 billion by the end of this century. Well, we have no idea if the planet can tolerate us in this way. There was a wonderful documentary on the BBC a few years ago, presented by David Attenborough. It was about how many people can live on earth. It was called, "How Many People Can Live on Earth?" I mean, the BBC has a gift for titles, as you know. And the question they asked is: Given that every human being needs food, fuel, water and clean air to breathe, how many of us can the earth sustain on the current levels of production and consumption? And at the end of it, it was concluded that if everybody on the earth consumed all these things — food, fuel, water and energy — at the same rate as the average person in India, the earth could sustain a maximum population of 15 billion people. So we're halfway there. Now, the trouble is, we don't all consume as they do in India. They said if everybody on the earth consumed at the same rate as the average person in North America, the earth could sustain a maximum population of 1.5 billion. So we're five times past that already. Now, the evidence is, of course, everybody does want to live pretty much as we've been living here in the so-called developed economies, and —
CA: Maybe with a few edits.
KR: With a few edits. But if you look at the rate of our consumption, we're not putting the planet at risk. I always find it wry when people say we have to save the planet. The planet's been around for four and a half billion years. The planet's going to be fine; we may not make it. What we're imperiling are the conditions of our own survival as a species on the planet. I mean, the earth will shake us off like a rash if we don't get this right.
CA: And many other species.
KR: And many other species whose existence we're already threatening and have destroyed many of them already. So what we have is a rapidly growing population of human beings, accelerated by a growing appetite for what the earth can make available to us and powered by proliferating technologies. So when I say we need to look at what's new and what's the same as in the past, technological change and cultural restlessness is the same, but the rate at which all this is happening is brand new, and it's why I would say, and many people would agree, and it's what's in your question, is that we are facing challenges on the planet as a species that are unprecedented. We've never faced these before, and we're trying to grapple with them through an education system that was designed in the 19th century to do something else, to face the first wave of industrialization. There was a wonderful quote from HG Wells in the early 20th century, and I believe it to be true. He said, "Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe." I think it's exactly right. Our only hope here is how well and how thoroughly and in what way we educate our own children and future generations and the skills and competencies that we cultivate within them. And the current system is inadequately designed to cope with any of that. That's why it has to be revolutionized.
CA: So that is an incredible quote. And there's a puzzle here, to me. You spoke about the incredible impact that industrialization had upon the world. But what was interesting is that the world responded by building a new education system that used many of the principles of manufacturing at scale to pump minds through this process where they would emerge with a standardized set of skills, able to continue "manufacturing empire God-knows-what." Why hasn't the same thing happened? The world's supposed to be more advanced now. We're past the industrial age. We're in the knowledge age, the internet age, call it what you want. It's definitely an age where completely different principles already apply throughout culture, throughout politics, throughout the economy. We're still in this industrial-age model of education. Why has it got so locked in, so intransigent?
KR: When we talk about the industrial model of education, there are people who say this is an exaggeration, that it's not an industrial system, it's not at all like a factory. Well, the fact is, the mass systems really were developed in the 19th century, as you say, to meet the needs of industrialism. And that workforce, the economic workforce, the Industrial Revolution, was roughly 20 percent professional people, professional and administrative people, people who worked in suits indoors in offices, and about 80 percent manual. And the system was designed that way. For example, the 11 Plus and the grammar school systems in the UK were created to mirror that workforce requirement. It wasn't that only 20 percent of people could go to grammar school. It was that only 20 percent of people were needed to go to grammar schools. It was a professional net. So it was a species of linear planning from that point of view. The other way in which it modeled industrialism was in the organizational structures. We educate kids by age group. Why? It has no relevance to how kids learn. It's an efficiency model.
CA: It's very convenient.
KR: It is. It's an efficiency model, an organizational model, not an educational principle. We divide the day up into 40-minute bits. We ring bells and we divide it up into different subjects. The world isn't divided into separate subjects. Subjects are an invention of schooling so we can find a way of organizing the day and have a timetable and teach people according to the specialisms of the people who graduate in these things from universities. So it's the character of education which has to be revolutionized. But there's another story here, which is that the system is actually changing very rapidly and radically at the grassroots level. I wrote a book a couple of years ago called "Creative Schools," trying to document some of these changes.
CA: So tell us some of those stories, because I think people really, really want to see that happen.
KR: Let me just give you one quick example. There's a school in the UK up in the north of England that I was reading about recently. It's called Feversham. It has a very high population of kids from different cultural backgrounds, a lot of them non-English speakers. And for a long time, it was a school not doing well. There's a pretty draconian system in the UK, as there is here in America, of testing and testing and testing, of big pressure on the STEM disciplines. And this school was not doing well. They have a head teacher there now who decided to tackle this from a different perspective. He introduced into the school a very broad program of music and drama courses. It's an elementary school. And they're doing about five hours a week of these different disciplines, and in a very short amount of time, the result has been that attendance at school has rocketed, parental satisfaction has increased enormously, kids are doing well not just in those disciplines, but across the board.
There was a school called Orchard Gardens in Massachusetts which had the same effect. I was looking at this school a while back. It went through, I think, five principals in six years. It was a school nobody wanted to send their kid to. And the school was spending about 250,000 dollars a year on security. This is an elementary school. Security. They had a new head teacher come in, and he decided that the way forward was to get rid of all that. He dismissed all the security staff and invested all the money into cultural programs at the school. He sacked and brought in some new staff. They came up with an entirely new ethos. The school is flourishing.
Now, they're art examples, but if you look at well-known example in California, there's a group of schools called High Tech High. These are schools which are secondary schools, high schools. All their work there is project-based. They don't have formal bells ringing. They don't have formal timetables in the school, where kids have to move every 40 minutes. A lot of it is teamwork, collaborative work. They do high-level science and technology, and they also, by the way, have good arts programs in the schools, just as these other schools I mentioned also have good mathematics and science programs. What's common to them is they have a very flexible approach to the timetable, they recognize that the key to all of this is not just the curriculum but it's pedagogy, and that they —
CA: Explain what you mean by that.
KR: I mean that there are — if you think of it, there are sort of four major elements to education, particularly, to a school-based education. There's the curriculum, which is what we want people to learn. There's pedagogy, which is how we help people do it. There's assessment, which is the process of making judgments about how well kids are getting on. And then there's the environment of the school in which all this takes place, the physical and the social environment in which it happens. Now, most countries in the world over the past 20 years have been trying to raise standards in education. In America, since the legislation "No Child Left Behind," states and the federal government collectively spent billions of dollars on standardized testing, particularly to try and raise standards in mathematics and languages and science, and it's been a total waste of money, time and effort.
CA: You'd have said at the time that going that route isn't the way, kids aren't machines, you can't just dial up the gauge and demand a higher level of results and expect to see it happen that way, that the key is — is what? It's taking a more personalized approach, of understanding every kid is different and trying to build that into the system.
KR: Well, the focus of these reform movements has been on curriculum and assessment. And the effect has been to narrow the curriculum onto a group of disciplines that politicians have thought to be more useful, particularly for economic growth and development, and on assessment, which they have taken to be the way of guaranteeing that the standards are being delivered. And the form of assessment that's been followed, it's been a very narrow, normative, competitive form of assessment, and none of it's worked. The reason is that the curriculum has become too narrow, it's the wrong form of assessment.
But also, what really makes a difference in student achievement, what really makes the difference, is pedagogy. It's the quality of teaching and learning. If you think back to your own time at school, certain teachers jump out at you in your memory, the ones who turned you on, the ones who turned you off. Teaching is an art form, and what it's been reduced to is a sort of delivery system, a kind of service agent for the testing companies. And that's not true of the schools I'm talking about. The ones that have been turned around have recognized that at the heart of a school is this idea of a learning community, and a learning community works best when students and teachers are working together collaboratively. People learn best when they learn with and from each other, so getting those conditions right. And the impact of an hour of curriculum and of this harsh culture of standardized tests is to kill off those conditions. It's why it doesn't work.
CA: Help me understand this, because I'm outside of education, but I'm interested in technology. Obviously, in the last 20 years, there's been this spectacular revolution, this thing called the internet. Suddenly, everyone in the developed world pretty much and an increasing number of people elsewhere in the world have access to a little device where they can ask a question and basically get an answer to it. Knowledge as it used to be thought of is ubiquitous, free, available on demand. But it doesn't feel to me like education systems, the way in which we set curriculums, have remotely adjusted to how dramatic a shift that is, that knowledge defined as anything that you could Google (Laughs) is there in abundance. Am I right in thinking that, basically, it's foolish for us to be teaching stuff that could be Googled? We should be teaching other stuff. What is that other stuff? How do we prepare people for a world where there's so much knowledge out there? What are the key skills? Because just knowing the date that a certain battle was fought in the 17th century clearly isn't one of the things we really need to be teaching now. I don't think — unless I'm missing something.
KR: Well, I don't know. I've just been interviewed for American citizenship, and I was pleased I was able to give the correct date for the Constitutional Convention. No, there's a difference, isn't there, between information and knowledge more generally conceived, and Google and the other resource of the internet, Wikipedia, are fantastic repositories and resources for a certain type of knowledge and understanding, knowledge that something is the case. But there's a related form of knowledge, which is the nature of what it is to have an experience of something, the nature of human experience, the qualities of being alive,
CA: The inner life. KR: Our being in the world, yes.
So, for me, a big starting point for all of this is that human beings live not just in the one world but two, and education has to address them equally. There's the world around us, the world that was here before we got here, the world that will be there when we've gone. And we need to help kids understand that world — its culture, circumstances, how it evolved, how it works, and how they can connect to it. But there's this other world that exists only because we exist, the world that came into being when we did, the world of your inner life, through which you experience the world around you, that only exists because you do and will not be there when you've gone. We only know the world around us through this inner world, and our schools are very poor on the whole at helping kids connect with this world within. And it's only through that world that they really make sense of the world around them. And it's why we need balance. So at least on that basis, you'd think that education would have at least four big purposes: they're economic, they're cultural, social and personal. And for those reasons, you need a broad curriculum, and yes, all these aids out there are tremendous resources. I mean, when I was doing my graduate studies in the '70s and '80s, we did have a similar resource. It was called the library. We used to go to that and read the books. This is a much more convenient way of getting to it. I mean, Wikipedia is an astounding achievement, I think, in terms of the collaborative archiving of human knowledge and understanding. But it isn't enough just to know this stuff in theory or to read it online. There's much more to education than that. You have to live these things and experience them.
CA: So Ken, you speak eloquently about the power of teaching and how much difference a great teacher can make, has made in your life and can make. But I wonder whether we've all taken enough note of how technology could potentially empower teachers to redefine aspects of teaching. I mean, right now we expect a teacher who is teaching, say, nine-year-olds, is supposed to both teach them instructionally but also be a mentor, a coach, a disciplinarian, a kind of early career counselor, whatever. There are so many roles in there. And yet, couldn't there be more specialized roles here? Like, one thing that we've seen online now is that a great teacher, in the instructional aspect of teaching, in that aspect, a great teacher can instruct and inspire potentially millions of kids with a single lesson. Shouldn't we be thinking more about saying, "You know what — for the instructional part of teaching, it's kind of mad that we expect to duplicate that thousands and thousands and thousands of times with a wide set of individuals, many of whom just may not have the language or the deeper insights that really allow you to make that subject come alive."
You know, I hated history at school. I hated it. I was so bored by it. Since then, I've met historians who absolutely enthrall me. If I could have been taught by those historians, that could have changed who I am, and now today, those historians could teach literally millions of kids. So in such a world, then, wouldn't that make it more possible for other teachers to build relationships with kids and deepen this sort of personalization that seems to be so key to really getting the best out of kids? So at the very least, relationship-based teachers versus instructional-based teachers — is there potential for education to really build more of that distinction, and couldn't that enrich the education experience for kids?
KR: Well, as you say, teaching involves all kinds of roles, and great teachers have all kinds of techniques at their disposal. The new technologies have a transformative potential for how we think of how schools work. One of the ways that technology is helping to revolutionize education is it opens up, as you say, the resource of the world's greatest teachers to everybody. And there's no reason why a classroom teacher shouldn't make available these resources to kids, because they're bountiful, and they're becoming more so, and there are, by the way, websites that are sharing this expertise, and good schools are using them and use them very productively. I mean, it's one of the ways that TED has become so influential, isn't it, in education. People are using the resource that TED makes available in all kinds of ways in schools to stimulate lesson programs and help courses of work.
The thing I just want to say about it, though, is that technology is one of the reasons we have to transform education, and it's also one of the ways we can transform education. I think that's important to recognize. But it's not the whole answer. I've seen schools where kids are spending seven hours a day at computer terminals, and it's a tragic thing to be doing to young people, because we grow holistically. And what that means is it's also important that children don't just spend time with technological devices, they spend time looking into each other's eyes. They spend time working together as groups. They get outdoors. One of the prices we've paid with this obsession with academic work and testing is that we have absolutely shriveled the importance and the place of play in children's lives. It's a deeply and profoundly important part of how children grow up. They should be outdoors, running around, playing together. They should be in the countryside as much as they possibly can. But if not, if they're in big urban settings, at least as close to nature as they can get. So the technology is important, but it's not the only part. But it can free up an awful lot of other time for other sorts of ways of connecting and learning.
CA: Yeah, I think I could never have become an entrepreneur if I hadn't spent half my youth playing Monopoly.
KR: Is that right? CA: That's one theory. There's no business in our family, but yeah, play in general.
KR: And did you find you had a gift for Monopoly?
CA: I found that I got really, really angry when my sister won, and it was very motivating.
No, it definitely makes you think. It makes you think about negotiation and so forth, and you build — I mean, every type of play builds life skills.
So let's try and build a school, Ken. So I've got a building for you, if a building is necessary. There's several million dollars. You can invest how you want. And we're going to welcome a class of a hundred kids of different ages in three months' time. How do we get ready for them? What would be some things that you would love to see happen, let's say, on that first day at school? What do we say to these kids?
KR: Are we taking over an existing building, or — ?
CA: Yeah, you can fit out the building however you want to. Right now, it's just this huge, empty box. You can put in rooms, leave it open. You can do whatever you want. And there's lovely outdoor space as well.
KR: There's a very interesting book called "The Third Teacher," which is about the impact of the physical environment on kids and how they learn. So the first thing is, I'd want the design of the school to have flexible spaces. I don't mean, though, for it all to be open plan, but kids need time to be on their own as well as to be together. So we'd be looking for flexibility. There would be a large assembly place, because the best schools, in my view, are built on democratic principles. There is, by the way, a big movement for democratic schools. A democratic school is one in which the students have a substantial and serious role in the decisions the school makes about curriculum, about teaching, about the timetable, about everything that goes on in the school. In terms of the curriculum, the curriculum, I believe, has to be balanced between the arts, broadly conceived, sciences, technology, mathematics, physical education, the humanities, and they would be equally important, there'd be no hierarchy.
CA: You'd mix up ages with these different classes?
KR: Absolutely. When kids leave school at three or four o'clock in the afternoon, they don't go to separate compounds for four-year-olds or eight-year-olds. Families work that way. Communities work that way. We learn with and from each other. And all the evidence has been for a long time that young and old kids learn wonderfully well from each other, sharing expertise. Also, it's a good example of where the system creates the problem. Some kids are way ahead of other kids at the same age in different disciplines. Some are behind relatively, but maybe ahead in some other field. If you keep putting barriers up by age group to hold people back or push them forward, it can create all kinds of problems in itself. So yes, I would have no age distinctions. There would be a lot of other people invited to work in the school apart from the teachers. CA: Like who? KR: Adults other than teachers, obviously subject to the ordinary screens. You'd want to be make sure they'd be safe and so on, but schools, properly conceived, are the hub of communities. A great school can enliven and energize an entire neighborhood. I've seen that happen. And schools which are not full of energy and vitality can bring a neighborhood to its knees. So there is a big role for parents, for example, in the education of their own children. There's a big role for people who specialize in different fields and disciplines. People have all kinds of expertise in business, the crafts, and community and cultural organizations, that can flow through and irrigate the whole culture of a school. So the curriculum would need to be broadly based, and there would be choice in the curriculum. I do think there's a case for making sure that kids are exposed equally to what the different disciplines have to offer. I mean, they're are all kinds of things I learned at school that I wouldn't have been inclined to learn if I hadn't been obliged to.
CA: Well, you wonder whether there's some system that is somewhere between giving kids just free choice right from the start to torturing them with four years of something they didn't want to do. You could set up ... well, they are going to have to go through two or three weeks of a full array of subjects, and both teacher and kids get a sense of whether there's some kind of fit here.
KR: Well, that's right. and in a democratic school system, that is typically the case, that you're able to experiment, try, explore different disciplines. And, of course, the teachers are then on their mettle to make it engaging and interesting, if you know that the customer may walk out the door. Again, it's a very fine line in all of this, because learning is a personal responsibility. It's like getting physically fit. If you go to the gymnasium and just stand leaning on the equipment all afternoon, you're not going to benefit from being there. And if people are in a school properly conceived, they have to show their own agency. They have to become engaged and practically active in their own learning. Nobody can learn anything for them. All teachers can do is create the conditions where it's more likely to happen. But yes, I'd want to see a lot of choice. You'd want to see a lot of flexibility in the time available for different activities.
You know, at the moment, we tend to have days, particularly in secondary schools, that are cut up into regular time slots, and it's an efficiency model. But with an individualized curriculum, it's possible to spend as much time as you need to focus on the thing in hand, which is what we do typically when we get out of school. And by the way, there are schools that are doing all the things I'm talking about and have been for a long time. But the trouble for them, often, is they're doing it in spite of the dominant political culture, not because of it. They're having to push back against this dreary culture of testing. But there are three ways to think about it. One of them is that you can make changes within the system as it is. One of the things I always say to teachers is: the education system isn't only capable of changing, it is changing. But I also want to say to them: if you're a teacher or a head teacher, you are the system. You're not the only part of the system, but you're a big part of it, and when the door closes on your classroom, if there is a door, and you face those kids today, you are the education system for them, and what you do next is the system, and there's a lot more room for innovation in schools than people often believe. A lot of what goes on in schools is influenced by legislation, but it's not required in legislation, for example, all the things we're talking about, about educating kids by age group, by having set periods of time, having bells go off or whistles go off, having a hierarchy of subjects. Those things aren't required in law. They're institutional habits, and they can be broken, and a lot of the schools that I visit and recommend, some of the ones I mentioned earlier, are making these innovations within the system as it is. There's nothing, actually, to stop you doing it. It takes an effort of will and vision and great leadership on the part of the school, but these innovations are actually happening. But also, you can make changes to the system. If parents and teachers are keen to make the changes, there are movements that are favorable to them that they can join and become part of. They can get more involved in the legislative process. And the third option is, you can get out of it. If you really feel that there's no future for you in the system, there are alternatives — homeschooling, un-schooling — and all of these are being deeply facilitated by the opportunities that are available online.
CA: System change is hard, but what I hear you saying is: hang in there, change could happen faster than any of us know. And frankly, I think your talk has played a role in all of this. I mean, you spoke in 2006, 12 years ago.
(Audio) KR: So I want to talk about education, and I want to talk about creativity. My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.
That was it, by the way. Thank you very much.
So, 15 minutes left.
CA: TED Talks weren't on the internet then. You just showed up, and you stood up in the room there and captivated everyone, yes, in the moment. We were all roaring with laughter. We were all inspired. And then this thing online just somehow took on a life of its own, and it's now been seen by 51 million people. How did this happen? I mean, first of all, you as a public speaker — how did you become such an extraordinary public speaker, able to just hold an audience in the palm of your hand?
KR: That's drugs, really. Drugs and hormone tablets.
It's hard to say about that, really. It's never something that I thought about or pursued or had an ambition to do. But I find that when I get up in front of a roomful of people, I want to have a connection, a relationship with them, which is what it's about.
(Audio) KR: When my son was four in England — actually, he was four everywhere, to be honest.
KR: And, I mean, I get nervous doing like everybody does, or should.
(Audio) KR: He was in the nativity play. Do you remember the story?
No, it's a big. It's a big story.
KR: And the first little while for me giving a talk is about getting that relationship, getting us all settled down. I mean, I don't like listening to people give talks, either. So it's important to have a rapport with the room.
(Audio) KR: Kids will take a chance. If they don't know, they'll have a go. Am I right? They're not frightened of being wrong.
KR: It's like jazz, I think, or improv.
(Audio) KR: Now, I don't mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you're not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original, if you're not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids ...
KR: I mean, when I came to TED, I hadn't written the speech out, I hadn't rehearsed it, I hadn't practiced it, I certainly hadn't memorized it. But what I have is an arc of the talk I want to give. I always think of it in five pieces, truthfully. Over time, I've come to think of it that way. There's an introduction, and then there's a set of premises I want to deal with, I kind of develop them, and then I wrap it up. It's bookended by an intro and a conclusion, and there's a kind of three-part section in the middle. It doesn't always go that way. It's just the way I think of it when I'm planning it. Now, I have some notes in my pocket with just some bullet points, and it's like a set list is how I think of it, because every audience is different and every occasion is different. I always find when I'm giving a talk, I take it for a walk and I take the audience for a walk with me. The whole trick is to make sure you land it at the end. There are like three or four things in the air by the time you get to the end of it.
(Audio) KR: There was a wonderful quote by Jonas Salk, who said, "If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years, all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years, all forms of life would flourish." And he's right. What TED celebrates is the gift of the human imagination. We have to be careful now that we used this gift wisely and that we avert some of the scenarios that we've talked about. And the only way we'll do it is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are and seeing our children for the hope that they are. And our task is to educate their whole being so they can face this future. By the way — we may not see this future. But they will. And our job is to help them make something of it.
CA: It feels like you spoke to this large group of people who almost felt failed by education, or they felt they had failed in education, and I think that they heard your talk and almost felt seen for the first time, of, "Oh, maybe that wasn't my failure. Maybe that was the school's failure" And that sort of validation, I think, was deeply powerful. Here's hoping, Ken, that the millions of kids in school right now facing this impossibly uncertain future, that they will find someone who will see them in that same way.
KR: We're born with these massive capabilities and capacities. Whether we realize them is a question of how well we cultivate them and whether we recognize them in the first place. A lot of our talents are like the world's natural resources. They're often buried beneath the surface. You have to find them. When we find them, we have to refine them, and then we have to have the confidence to use them. And, properly conceived, education should help us all do that. but for all kinds of reasons we've talked about, it doesn't always. I don't blame individual teachers or schools for it. It's in the system, and it's a system that needs to shift, and it's important that we do. But I also want to say to kids that you can't anticipate the whole course of your life in advance. You don't get your CV with your birth certificate. Your life is your own creation. And it's not irrelevant where you start from, but the history of human achievement is that people have done remarkable things from very improbable beginnings.
I remember a while ago, I did a session with the Dalai Lama in Vancouver, and one of the things he said there was that to be born at all is a miracle, so what are you going to do with your life? Every human life is different, unique, and unrepeatable and unprecedented, and the one thing we create is our own unique biography. The best evidence of human creativity is that, that we each have our own unique experience, and nobody else has your life. And we often submit to the idea that it's all a linear program, because we have to write our CVs from time to time and fool people into thinking it was a plan. But it's really a constant process of improvisation. Really, I'm just arguing for forms of education that give people the skills and the competencies and the hope and the confidence to have the life they deserve in a community that they feel proud of.
CA: Sir Ken Robinson, thank you so much, both for your TED Talks and this conversation and for all you do. Thank you.
KR: My pleasure. Thank you, Chris.
CA: So that's about it for Season 1 of the TED Interview. But I have some news for you. We're planning a second season. You know, TED's a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, and what we've heard from you is that you like this version of sharing ideas, of going deeper than is possible in a TED Talk. So we'll be back soon with another set of conversations. In the meantime, look out for a bonus episode coming soon, and if you get a chance, do share this podcast with friends and rate and review it on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. I read every review, and it will help us as we record Season 2.
This week's show, per usual, was produced by Sharon Mashihi. Our associate producer is Kim Nederveen Pieterse. Our show is mixed by David Herman. Our theme music is by Allison Leyton-Brown. And since this is the end of the season, some special thanks are in order to Helen Walters, Colin Helms, Angela Cheng, Janet Lee, ?? Our designers are Mike Femia and ?? Our fact-checkers are Joe Isaac, Paul Durbin ??, Lorena Aviles Trujillo and Brian Gutierrez. Thank you so much for listening. We'll be back next year.