Throughout my career, as both a teacher and creative practitioner, there have been countless references to the work of Sir Ken Robinson, and rightly so. His research in, and commitment to improving education systems have cemented his place among the greatest thinkers of our time. But he is more than his infamous TED talk Do schools kill creativity? and bestselling book The Element.
As the tributes flow for this influential man, I find solace in the company of his profound words. I was in the middle of reading Out of Our Minds for my current research project when I heard the sad news of his passing. Herein, I celebrate his craftsmanship through my thoughts on these extracts from Robinson’s creative and educational anthology.
Creativity in a complex world
The revised edition of Out of Our Minds (2011) was written following the effects of 9/11 and the Global Financial Crisis. Robinson points to creativity as the phenomena that will allow us to meet the inevitable challenges of an unpredictable world. Considering the events of 2020, his legacy is all the more poignant.
In the decade since this book was first published the pace of technological and cultural change has been frantic. He prefaces this edition with a sense of vocation, “the sheer unpredictability of human affairs lies right at the heart of my argument for cultivating our powers of creativity: in business, in education, and in everyday life.”
Furthermore, he expands on the initial core ideas with a focus on implementation. Through his talks and travels his conviction had deepened. He wanted to reach a wider audience with his ideas – that creativity is not just for ‘special people’ but that everyone has huge creative capacities; indeed he has achieved at least this, and has left a lasting impression on many people.
Creative potential and passion
Robinson believed that an individual’s potential often diminished through life experience, as they were ‘taught’ the ways in which to think and behave. In his book The Element, he points to the significance of identifying one’s passion as means for accessing their imagination, intelligence, and unique ideas about the world.
He became a voice for those who were considered unintelligent, in an education system which favoured standardisation, test scores, and industrial processes above the individual’s unique needs and learning style.
People, like accomplished musician Mick Fleetwood, whose test scores at school insisted he wasn’t as bright as his peers. Fortunately, Fleetwood’s parents allowed him to pursue his creative passion for drums and he travelled to London in his teens, worked in a series of bands, and eventually met John McVie to form Fleetwood Mac. According to Robinson this happened “because [Mick Fleetwood] chose not to accept that he was ‘useless according to the status quo’”.
In my first year of teaching music in Albury NSW, a young student in my Year 9 music class was described by many of my colleagues as ‘disengaged in class’. But, this was not the case in music class. He would talk on end about his favourite blues musicians (Jeff Lang and Ash Grunwald) and his eyes would light up during lessons where he could practise his guitar. I somehow persuaded him to perform at a school assembly where he impressed the crowd with his showmanship so much that those same colleagues couldn’t believe how clever he was.
In his element, with guitar in hand, he was exercising his creative potential. Jed Gabriel now plays in music festivals around the country and shares his passion on the stage with accomplished Australian blues musicians.
The irony of education
Robinson was a proponent of non-linearity and divergent thinking, the method of generating creative ideas by exploring multiple solutions.
“I believe passionately that we are all born with tremendous, natural capacities, and that we lose touch with many of them as we spend more time in the world. Ironically, one of the main reasons this happens is because of education. The result is that too many people never connect with their true talents and therefore don’t know what they’re really capable of achieving.”– Sir Ken Robinson (1950 – 2020)
In his popular TED talk Changing Education Paradigms he argued that our students don’t believe the linear story which is “if you worked hard, and did well, and got a college degree, you’d have a job.” Robinson adds, “and they are right not to, by the way.”
“Current systems of education were not designed to meet the challenges we now face. They were developed to meet the needs of a former age. Reform is not enough: they need to be transformed.”
Herein lies our challenge. What do we do with the rich body of knowledge Robinson has left behind?