Two challenges for Ken Robinson

Yesterday I had the pleasure of listening to Sir Ken Robinson (now on Twitter) speak in person for the first time. Like many people I’ve watched him on YouTube videos, so this BETT2015 talk was a nice opportunity. And he was very impressive in person: affable, disarming, offering nicely turned phrases, connecting with the audience, full of praise for teachers and learners.
Sir Ken Robinson at BETT 2015
Like many others I appreciated his calls for nurturing creativity, for instructor autonomy, for building up an innovative population to address planetary ecological problems.  These messages resonate with me, not least from my pedagogical practice and devotion to digital storytelling.

And yet as the talk went on two problems occurred to me.  Over time they seemed more like blind spots in Sir Ken’s presentation.  I can’t recall him addressing* either, and so I think they are worth considering.

1. No politics?

Asked what we should do to improve education, Robinson advised us to transform our individual practices.   He cited Gandhi (maybe) about our being the change we want to see in the world. He repeated this advice several times.

Interestingly, Sir Ken did not recommend any social or political activity.  He did not ask us to get involved with a national political party**, or to lobby a state or local government (keep in mind he lives in LA, which just had a spectacular K-12 educational technology fiasco).  He didn’t ask us to influence our professional membership organizations, like goading the MLA to stop supporting the overproduction of PhDs, or working with our unions, should you have access to one.  He didn’t call us to organize by social media, or even to peer up for mutual assistance.    This speech left us with a tend-your-own-garden call to action, quietism instead of collaboration.

This is especially strange advice, given Robinson’s emphasis on global climate change and overpopulation.  There are political options on the table now for these, some already put in practice: geoengineering, shifting to a no-growth economy, government-mandated birth limitations, encouraging vegatarianism/veganism, transitioning to non-carbon-based energy sources, growing North-South support, and so on.  Some are better than others, some more likely than others, etc.  The point isn’t that Sir Ken didn’t recommend the politics I like, but that he implicitly asked us to avoid the domain of social action entirely.

So, challenge the first: does Robinson really want us to avoid social and political action to improve education?

2. Economic inequality?

Speaking of the social and political domain, Robinson asked us to think of education reform as a way to help humanity solve major problems.  Said problems included overpopulation, climate change, and wasting human potential.  A renovated education system should yield a civilization more capable of addressing these wicked problems.

As I listened and tweeted, something seemed to be missing from this big picture context.  As often happens, Twitter supplied me with an answer.  As Sebastien Marion asked,

Curious whether he addresses income inequality & poverty. #bettarena #Bett2015

And he did not.  One of the most discussed and controversial topics of our time did not surface during this talk, nor in any others of Robinson’s that I can recall.*  This is an unusual omission, given the interdependence between income inequality and climate change, and how he hammered on the latter.

Moreover, income inequality is a driving force for education, and not in a good way.  Increasingly sharp economic differences now lead to widening gaps in terms of school resources, academic preparation, and learning outcomes.  In the United States (where Robinson now lives) colleges and universities have widened income gaps in the faculty by reducing the number of tenure-track jobs in favor of part-time, ill-supported adjunct positions. The wealthiest institutions have become so rich as to pull far away from the others, and even merit Thomas Piketty’s investigation to see if their riches actually impact national wealth distribution as a whole.

So let me issue challenge the second.  Does Sir Ken see the driving force of widening income inequality as of secondary importance to larger issues, or does he deem it something educators should not engage with at this time?

…I framed this post as challenges rather than as a critique because I usually don’t like building arguments on absences, and because Robinson’s urgency about climate change felt like the first level of a deeper politics.  And I just like the guy, I admit it. So maybe he offered a narrow focus for this talk and the others, simply wanting to zero in on getting teachers to change themselves. The politics will appear elsewhere. I can appreciate that.

On the other hand, his ambit has become political.  Sir Ken now links individual practice to national standards, international ratings system (i.e., PISA), and the total planetary system of climate change.  He has thrown teacher change into social and political contexts, asking us to teach and learn in ways that shape human civilization.  There’s a well-known type of politics one can advance by claiming to avoid politics. The omissions I’ve identified may be indications of a deliberate political stance of getting academics to disengage from politics and social movements.  If so, I’d be interested in hearing the reasons why.

* I have not read his books.  If there are answers there, readers, please direct me.

**Maybe that’s actually good advice, if both Democrats and Republicans tend towards bipartisan agreement on education policy these days.

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4 Responses to Two challenges for Ken Robinson

  1. Rolin Moe says:

    From my perspective, the reason for Sir Ken’s reticence of the social and political is due to his brand. Sir Ken is the epitome of an inspirational speaker…he captures the stage for the time he is on it, his talks feel both folksy as well as erudite, and everyone can walk away feeling not only like they learned but also like they can do something about it. Considering the length of Sir Ken’s career, if he were interested in actionable steps beyond the saccharin, they would appear in some of his post-UK work (I have read his books; the princess is in another castle).

    This is the brilliance of Sir Ken as motivator, and the frustration of Sir Ken as advocate. I do not see his efforts as a kind of politics or anything beyond a very well-orchestrated persona that avoids any contentious issue and focuses on items where public opinion can nearly be 100%, except that by focusing on creative populism he can say many things and be absolved of inertia when change fails to manifest. If he were to burn some of his cultural cache on an advocacy platform I would have to believe he would see results in the field, but there would be a noticeable change in his TED views and his regular speaking honorarium.

  2. Pingback: Two challenges for Ken Robinson | weiterbildungsblog

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