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Sir Ken Robinson: About creative revolution

Sir Ken Robinson

One of the main goals of Eksperimenta! is to initiate sustainable changes in art education, striving toward an educational system that supports the full development of each student’s natural talents. Seeking and finding people with similar ambitions, Eksperimenta! conducted an exclusive video interview in Los Angeles with an advocate of creativity and innovation, Sir Ken Robinson. The following is an excerpt of what was discussed during the video interview.

Why is there constant talk about reforms in schools and where have the reforms taken us so far?

I think it is necessary because the world is changing so quickly that our education systems simply have to evolve to keep pace. The problem as I see it is that the reform movements in most countries are really moving in the wrong direction. Instead of keeping pace with the change, they misunderstand the nature of the change. In many cases the reforms are attempts to take us backwards, not forwards.

What do you mean by taking us backwards?

Most of our education systems were designed in the 19th century, to fit the needs of the 19th century. They are based on the economic circumstances of the 19th century. A lot of the reform movements that we see have at their heart an attempt to improve that model. So you see a big emphasis on conformity, on standardising. And in many cases one of the effects of these reforms is to push the arts further out of the school curriculum. And I think that’s a terrible mistake. In my view the arts ought to be in the very centre of education.

You have said that teachers have to be “gardeners”, not “industrialists”. What do you mean by that?

I mean that our current education systems were predominantly designed in the 19th century to meet the needs of the industrial revolution and there are two pillars here: one is the organisational culture of education, which in many countries is like a factory – there are set hours of the day, the day is divided into small sections, people are educated in groups according to their age, in high schools the curriculum is divided between different specialists who focus on certain processes, the outcomes are tested against agreed standards, and there are very clear sets of criteria of conformity and evaluation of normal and abnormal. It’s like an industrial process from that point of view.

There is another piece, which to me is the intellectual culture of education that is to do with a particular piece of intelligence in the mind. The problem with that is that human beings are not at all like industrial components and that is one of the reasons I think that so many people go through education and don’t connect with it properly. They come out of education not knowing what their talents are and what they are capable of, not feeling confident and not feeling very creative and not knowing what to do next. So the root problem is that it is based on conformity and standardising.

If you had two children, you’d know that they are completely different from each other, even if they are identical twins. Because they differ in all kinds of profound ways – in terms of their dispositions, their interests, talents, abilities, aspirations. Even children brought up in the same households, in as equal conditions as possible, turn out completely different. And that’s true of all kids, of all people. And the reason is that human beings are not inanimate objects, they are organic. And like any organic field, we thrive on diversity.

So my point is that human communities – whether it’s a nation or a family or a school – is much more like an organism than a mechanism. Any group of people thrives on feelings, on motivations, on perceptions, on values, on levels of interests. And from that point of view, teaching people is about creating the conditions under which they will become engaged, they will grow and flourish. And that is much more like gardening that engineering. If you want people to do their best, you nurture them. I don’t mean that you make it easy for them, that you don’t set standards or say, “Just do what you want.” But people flourish under certain conditions and they wilt under other conditions.

I believe that the revolution we need to see in education is fundamentally about adopting a new metaphor. It’s going from a mechanistic metaphor, an industrial metaphor of mass production, which is what the current systems mainly are, to one that is much more based on ideas of cultivation and culture.

If you had a chance to build your own school, what would it be like?

The way I see it, the first element of my school is that the students are meant to be learning. The curriculum would include the sciences, the arts, physical education, mathematics and the humanities (history, geography, sociology etc).

In most schools the arts are at the fringe of the curriculum and that’s a catastrophe. I can think of no reason why the arts should be seen as less important than any other discipline and every reason why they should be seen as equally important.

Why does the society at the moment think that the arts are less important?

There are two reasons. One of them is that our current system of education is based on ideas of economic usefulness, economic utility. That’s not an abstract point – you probably felt that when you were is school, that if you were interested in doing art or music or dance or theatre, somebody along the way probably said, “I don’t know if you are going to get a job doing that,” “You’re not going to make a living as a musician,” “You’re not going to make any money if you are a painter.” So there are economic reasons why the arts are on the edge of the curriculum today and those reasons are mistaken and wrong.

The other reason is not economic, it’s intellectual – our current systems are dominated by the idea of academic ability and the real status in schools goes to disciplines which are thought to be hard academics. And doing art in many countries is not seen as being academically rigorous. Painting, playing an instrument, dancing and taking part in plays are often associated with recreation, leisure time activities, which are intellectually less rigorous. They are thought to be – but they are not, or course! My point is that doing the arts is intellectually as rigorous as doing maths or sciences.

Arts should be at the centre of the curriculum, because they represent an enhanced view of the intelligence. We live in economic times in which the powers of insight and intuition, empathy and creativity that the arts make possible, as well as cultural knowledge, are more and more important. That’s part of the revolution I am talking about – we have to rethink those assumptions.

How much art should there be in a curriculum and in what form? For example, in Estonia we have only one 45-minute art lesson per week…

You can’t have an effective art education with 45 minutes per week, you just simply can’t. It’s like saying, “We have one meal a week… so, are we ok?” No. Probably not. You would be undernourished, you’d be lucky to survive. What will happen during those 45 minutes, if there’s a good teacher, is that some kids in the class will be so inspired by it that they will use this as an oasis and they’ll pursue their artwork outside the class as well.

In a regular school week there should be equal provision given to the major fields of curriculum that I mentioned. And it need not be the same provision everyday for everybody. What I’m arguing for is opportunity and personalising. It is possible these days to organize our time in school so that people follow a differentiated curriculum.

Let’s talk about what contemporary art can give to society as a whole. Why do we need arts in society?

For every piece of art there are certain people who like and those who don’t like it. You’ve got to allow room for error, a room for taste. In all art there are questions of personal judgement, value, aesthetics. What you don’t know in advance is what is going to make a difference and what is going to be worthwhile.

Creative process is a surprise and you can’t predict where the value will come from. Nobody was waiting for Picasso, or The Beatles, or the iPhone. But once they turn up, they create their own demand. In every classroom around the world there are kids who may be the next person to transform technology, the next great artist, the next great scientist, and even if they don’t turn out to be that, they have inside them the seeds of possibility which will transform the lives of the people they know and effect.

How to free this creativity?

You do it deliberately and systematically. The way I define creativity is this: creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value. It is a process, it’s not an event. In this process there are two things going on – the process of generating ideas and the process of evaluating and shaping them. It’s about originality – making something new that wasn’t there before. And it’s about critical judgement, making decisions about whether what you have is what you want. It’s a dialogue between skill and perception.

If you’re a good art teacher, a part of what you’re doing is trying to encourage people to have confidence in their ideas, and part of it is giving them access to materials and techniques and helping them to have a critical conversation with their own work as it evolves.

Engaging with other people’s work, or your own work, there is critical knowledge and cultural, contextual knowledge. What you want from a good art education programme is that by the time students graduate, they should have an enhanced ability to look at others’ work and form opinions about it and to be able to express what they think of it. The reason a lot of people look at contemporary art and say, “Well, this is rubbish,” is they don’t know what they’re looking at. They don’t know what language it is being spoken in.

To me there are four pillars of art education: creative element, technical development, critical judgement and contextual knowledge. Those four things need to be re-integrated, so that there’s a genuine balance. You’re not just making the work, but you understand the world in which you’re making it.

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