Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sir Ken and the Kool-Aid Problem

Everyone loves Sir Ken Robinson. I do, you do, adoring crowds do. He seems like a genuinely nice, funny guy who cares about education, the arts, kids and a few other things we all care about.

My only problem with him is that he is wrong. In his now famous TED talk he discusses how schools "kill" creativity and he misses the mark by a wide margin. Yet, there is an almost cult-like following around these types of ideas. Why? I think one of the reasons most people drink the Ken Robinson Kool-Aid is because they want to believe that his theory is true.

I can remember what it was like to be a 4th grader, looking out the window wishing I could climb trees and break empty bottles against the bricks rather than learn long-division. When I was in 4th grade, I didn't see more than 5 minutes into the future. Most kids don't. That's why we rarely give them credit cards, drivers' licenses or real swords. Kids learn about consequences and predicting the future as they experience life and the wisdom of experienced people around them. That's a process most people describe as becoming more mature, becoming wiser, gaining a deeper understanding of the world. It's all good.

Even though we learn on an intellectual level why education is important as we get older, we are forever biased emotionally in favor of recess over chemistry class. Unfortunately we are also emotionally biased to believe people who say things like, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up" and "Creativity now, is as important in education as literacy," to which he received a loud round of applause. Why mention the applause? The reason is that it helps you see that the crowd came into the talk wanting to believe it. They came in emotionally biased in favor of the premise being true. They applauded the title of the talk before they heard the arguments presented for our scrutiny in the talk.

"Every child is an artist" is attributed to Picasso, but when Robinson quotes him it seems like such a provocatively optimistic thing to say, right? All children being artists sounds great, doesn't it? If you are emotionally neutral on the issue though, it doesn't pass the sniff test. Our judgment of a 5-year-old's painting is emotionally overwhelmed by feelings of pride, fuzzy happiness and the desire to encourage that child. We are rooting for the child. This is what makes us human. However, if you judged the painting from an objective, emotionally neutral position you wouldn't have many nice things to say about it.

If you were objective and emotionally neutral, you might rephrase Picasso and Robinson and say, "Almost every child is a terrible artist, but we love them for trying. The problem is that some realize they are terrible and they stop trying, while others learn, practice and eventually become really good." That is certainly less likely to end up the title of a TED Talk, but it is an intellectually honest and defensible position to take.

Go into a Kindergarten class and look at the pictures on the wall. Look at them objectively. Then go into the art class at your high school. Look at the work the Sophomores and Juniors do. Look at it objectively and compare it to the kindergarten art. Not only do the older students have more skill, but their art is profoundly more creative. Much richer storytelling in the shadows and facial expressions. Much more art about abstract things, much more art about things that aren't in their living room. The more art classes a child takes, the more creative they become.

Compare that Sophomore in high school to an art major at your local college. By the time a child reaches college age, the 14+ years of school must have almost completely destroyed them according to Robinson's theory. But the very opposite is true. The art major has had their view expanded. They have had their skills expanded. They have learned to apply original ideas to various mediums to express deep emotion. Think of what an art major could have done with this "cat (pig?) with girl" picture:

Can teachers do a better job of delivering constructive criticism?
Sure. I know I could use an upgrade in that department.

Should we work to ensure that at the very least we don't discourage kids from trying?
Yes, absolutely.

Do schools kill creativity?
I'd say obviously not.

There are a few other huge holes in his theory and his logic, but it is certainly entertaining. Sir Ken is a very funny guy and had the crowd eating out of his hand (before he took the stage unfortunately) and is a model of how to give a good lecture. I think there are kernels of truth in many of the things he says, but if you watch it as an objective judge and not an emotional fan stuck in a 4th grade mindset you won't drink the Kool-Aid.


  1. It seems to me our entry starts from the wrong premise.

    You use ontogeny as the backbone of your theory but it fires back. Because you miss the central point: creativity at its core.

    Certainly, no one will deny that the work of a 12th grader is better in terms of skill and COMPLEXITY but that is just logical: the human being acquires knowledge and develops skills as it grows.

    However, if you DO study the creations of toddlers (and look beyond the "skill" or lack of it thereof) their CREATIVE associations outnumber the ones of a teenager. Again, even if the teenager makes more complex artwork at the technique level, creatively speaking they are behind a toddler. They would hardly draw a girl befriending a pig, or say "the waves just come back because they want to kiss the sand." (like a 5-year-old said a few days ago).

    Why? Because after the age of 7-8 self-regulation, awareness of reality and making of logical assumptions and connections increase. The child begins to "shut down" in terms of creativity. Logical associations and knowledge of how reality works will prevent him/her to ever say again that the "sea waves kiss the sand".

    On a different note...why didn't you challenge Sir Ken Robinson directly? He has a Twitter account.

  2. George,
    Great post- always good to see someone challenging someone who, as you say, is pretty widely respected and loved.

    Although I am a "fan" of Sir Ken, I always did feel that his approach lacked substance. It is one thing to get on stage at TED and entertain the crowd with anecdotes and broad statements ( "Creativity now, is as important in education as literacy"), but another thing entirely to present concrete ways to achieve his broad goals. In this regard, I'm essentially on the same page as you.

    Where I DO think Sir Ken gets it right is in the way he encourages two broad courses of action:

    1. A greater emphasis on experimentation and alternative in our education system- I believe this is absolutely critical, and something that can only be achieved through a more market driven approach to education. Something like the Swedish (?) approach, where vouchers can be applied to public, private, and for-profit private schools.

    2. A deemphasis of the 24/7 scheduling and "helicopter parenting" that many kids grow up with- Children do need time to be "creative", in the sense that parents should stop worrying about having their days filled to the brim with tutoring and extracurriculars.

  3. Cristina!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate the conversation.

    A few counter points--

    1. re: "Because after the age of 7-8 self-regulation, awareness of reality and making of logical assumptions and connections increase." This sort of deflates Sir Ken's premise that school is to blame if your argument is that this naturally happens during human development.

    2. I disagree with your assertion that "sea waves kiss the sand" is something only little kids say. You can go to any high school poetry assignment and read thousands of lines just like this, usually even more creative.

    I would add that those types of creative lines of poetry usually *peak* in school. Many students who enjoy poetry gradually stop writing after they graduate and real life sets in. Probably the most creative, poetic writing people do occurs during (and because of) school, not before and not after.

  4. Quinten!
    So happy to see your comment. As you can tell I am pretty opinionated and it gets lonely without people with opposing views to debate and discuss these things.

    I agree with the idea that we should encourage more experimentation. One of my favorite phrases is "try it and let's see what happens." Usually what happens is exactly what I thought would happen, but I think kids learn better when they make those mistakes on their own.

    I might fold point # 2 into point # 1, but again I agree. Doing things *for* kids wastes everyone's time in the long run and more importantly wastes an opportunity to let them figure it out themselves.

  5. Thanks for the second gust of air this conversation has given me after seeing Ken's speech.

    I have been sitting here, suspecting myself for agreeing with Ken, George, Cristina and Quinten and hating myself/the world for not having had the education to enable me to express my thoughts as eloquently and in such a focussed manner as yourselves. However, I think the main reason I agree with you all, including your disagreements, is due to, and at the same time despite, my sometimes physical, often mental, absence from school lessons. Imaginative and creative kids like I was, and like to think still am, who rarely listened and never obeyed, were of course the first to fall through the net of an education system based on deductive instruction and the obvious need for hours of attention per day and years of obedience to the logical and necessarily inflexible "rules" of the deductive approach and the testing thereof.

    The question for me are;

    1.Had I received a more open, student-centred, creativity oriented, collaborative and inductive learning experience (did I leave out any tired old buzz words? Please let me know), would I have listened and learnt more and developed those all-essential intellectual/life skills?

    2. If so, how many students in the class would have benefited/lost out from this approach?

    3. Although this discussion is not directly about inductive Vs deductive approaches, it seems that the veneration of creativity and self-expression Vs the insistence on providing information and testing on that given data are exactly that; a debate between the two camps. Question(s); Why does it have to be so "either or" with so many educators? Why do so many seem so monotheistic? Greatness in teaching/learning/life lies in flexibility of approaches, no? Openness to all ideas and application of the best these according to needs and aptitude.

    "The golden rule is there is no golden rule"

  6. George,

    I apologize for taking such a long time to compose a reply to your post. I ended up writing a quite lengthy piece, so I'll give a brief breakdown here and provide a link to the more in-depth argument on twitter.

    -I agree that they are drinking Sir Ken's Kool-Aid, and I also agree that this sort of mob-mentality is a serious issue in the population as a whole. In fact, I think it is the very epitome of a lack in creativity and independent thought.

    -I have not found that college students represent a group more capable of applying original ideas as a result of formal education. From my experience, one of the fundamental aspects of education, grades, actually creates an environment that encourages conformity.

    Great discussion George! Keep up the good work!


  7. John,
    Thanks for the comment. I am cross-posting this on your blog as well, so anyone reading this is welcome to check out as well.

    Excellent points about people jumping on bandwagons. I think that applies to the ultra-sensitive world of finding cures for fatal diseases too. When advocates for one group do a better job of making their cause trendy, they divert resources and attention from others that may be much more dangerous to many more people. It is incredibly difficult to critically think about which group of suffering people deserves what, especially when we are generally happy, healthy, lucky people.

    The quote that essentially sums up my feelings on learning facts is "Understanding fundamentals of a discipline is cardinal for effective problem solving within that field; however, training people to turn off their brains, for the sake of learning fundamentals, produces robots with poor adaptability."

    Some other points you made I feel are off the point, regardless of how accurate they may be. You critique the attitudes of classmates who are unconcerned with learning any more than they have to, which I have seen as well. It sort of drains the enthusiasm of others who may have started off as curious students.

    I don't disagree that this phenomenon occurs, but it isn't really about whether or not they are creative.

    You also mention classmates that cheat. Again, this is unfortunate and a cause for concern for sure, but it isn't part of the case that "schools kills creativity" or that "every child is an artist" which are the main points I disagree with.

    In fact, I would argue that when you discovered "that half the class was using solutions they had found online to solve every homework" that is actually evidence that these students had retained the creativity school was supposed to have killed. They were able to pass an advanced college class simply by finding creative ways to cheat. Immoral, unethical for sure, but also very creative (and incidentally proof of the ability to think outside the box to solve problems.)

    Excellent points about 1+1=2, but I would add that no other options are possible to people who don't know anything about base-10 or binary number systems. Those are specific facts that you understand and you probably spent most of your time learning about them thanks to school. Meaning, your ability to see other (creative) solutions to 1+1=? is *enhanced* by school and people who dropped out after 2nd grade would be stuck in that uncreative box that school helped you escape.

    Regardless of whether we agree on some points or not, I truly appreciate you taking the time to think about this post and provide such deep answers to the questions raised in your mind as you read it.

  8. Steven!
    Sorry I missed your comment earlier. Thanks for taking the time to read the post and add your counter-points to the discussion.

    I think #3 is dead-on the money. Ideology is directly opposed to critical thought regardless of the domain. When I have discussions with sports fans, it amazes me how they get blinded by emotion in favor of "their" team. I see this all over education, but to me it seems especially virulent in progressive social media hives (I think partially because of the nature of real-time, many-to-many communication).

    People get offended when we critically think about their "team" just like a fan of the Yankees gets offended when someone questions their chances. To me, admitting you have a rooting interest is sort of degrading to all of us.

    Kudos to you for refusing the bow to the pressure and maintain an objective approach to education.

  9. Thanks for the response George!

    I completely agree that by cheating, the students were, in a way, being more creative. This point, and the other regarding lack of interest in the material, were meant to display how the system isn't producing an environment that energizes students to care about creative application of the facts they just learned.

    You are absolutely right that I didn't present these arguments properly, thus they were out of place. I got a little too passionate regarding the topic and kept too much in my head. Thanks for calling me out on this. It will help me improve!


  10. Hello George,

    Seems the conversation has trailed off over time, but as I educate myself more on education systems I was looking for opposing views to Mr. Robinson's philosophy and came across this blog. I always believe there are two side to every story and some where in the middle lies the truth. I like to find the middle.

    My thought is after all the debate above, as an instructional designer as Hofstra University, what can school districts DO to strike the right balance for young students when it comes to inspiring intelligence and creativity while working toward success in academic abilities.

    I feel medicating 1 out of 5 high school boys is not a good answer from society.

    I'm new to blogging, but this is worth being interested.


    1. Hi, Mary!
      Thanks for adding your thoughts here.
      That's a huge question, and I won't pretend to have the answer, but I think it is somewhere in the area of "learning by doing."
      If I had a chance to alter this argument, I'd change it to "schools can do more to let students practice their creativity."
      If students are allowed to experiment and they are allowed (forced) to think about things, not only will they learn more, but they will also discover more solutions to problems. This, to me, is the value of learning by doing.