In this TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson argues that our current educational systems are still based on a industrial paradigm of education – education is increasingly standardised and about conformity, and kids, who are living in the most stimulating age in history, fail to see the point of going to school, which is about ‘finding the right answers to pass the tests’ rather than about stimulating divergent thinking.
One of our major solutions to the plague of distracted kids (alienated by a system the don’t identify with) is to medicate them to get them through school, whereas what really needs to change is the system itself – we need a paradigm shift, rather than mere reform.
Current Education systems are not fit for the future
Every country on earth is in the process of reforming its education system. There are two reasons for this:
- The first is economic – countries are trying to figure out how to prepare children for work when we simply don’t know what work will look like in the future.
- The second is cultural – countries are trying to figure out how to pass on their ‘cultural genes’ while at the same time having to respond to globalisation.
The problem with current processes of educational reform is that we are trying to tackle the future by doing what we did in the past and we are alienating millions of kids in the process, who simply can’t see the point of going to school.
When generation X when to school, we were motivated by a particular story: that if we worked hard and got good grades, we could get to college, get a degree and get a good job. Today’s children do not believe this, and they are right not to: getting a degree means you will probably get a better job, but is no longer guaranteed to get you a decent job!
The education system is rooted in an industrial paradigm
The problem with the current education system is that it was conceived in the cultural context of the Enlightenment and the economic context of the industrial revolution. It emerged in the nineteenth century, which was the first time which compulsory public education, freely available to all and paid for by taxes was established.
The Modern education system was originally founded on an ‘us and them’ mentality as many thinkers in the 19th century seriously believed that ordinary street kids could not cope with it, and it is also founded on an Enlightenment concept of the mind – which favours a knowledge of the classics and deductive reasoning, what we might call ‘academic knowledge’.
The system thus divides people into ‘smart people’ (academics) and ‘non-smart people’ (non-academics) and while this has been great for some, most people have not benefited from this system, in fact Ken Robinson argues that the main effect is that it has caused chaos.
We medicate our kids to get them through education
Statistics on prescriptions for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) suggest that America is suffering from an ADHD epidemic – we are drugging our kids with Ritalin as a matter of routine. However, Robinson suggests that this cannot be an epidemic as the rates of prescription vary from West to East – they are much higher in the East of America, which suggests that this is a fictitious epidemic – it’s the system that’s choosing to medicate a ‘problem’ which is only a problem because the system has labelled it thus.
What’s really happening is that our kids are living through the most information rich age in history – they are bombarded with information from many sources through T.V. and the Internet – they are in a way, hyper-stimulated, and yet our response is to punish them for getting distracted from ‘boring stuff’ in school.
Robinson suggests that it is no coincidence that the incidents of prescriptions for ADHD corresponds closely to the rise in standardised testing.
The increasing use of drugs such as Ritalin to medicate kids means that we are effectively getting our kids through school by anaesthetising them.
The school system is run for the benefit of industry, and in many senses along industrial lines, mirroring a factory system of production in at least the following ways:
- Ringing bells
- Separate facilities
- Specialised subjects
- We still educate children by batches (‘as if the most important thing about them is the date of their manufacture’).
Increasingly education is about conformity, and you see is in the growth of standardised curricula and standardised testing. The current paradigm is mainly to do with standardisation, and we need to shift the paradigm and go in the other direction.
The education system kills creativity
There was a great study done recently on divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is an essential capacity for creative thinking – it is the ability to see lots of possible ways of interpreting and answering a question; to think laterally and to see many possible answers, not just one.
An example of this simply to give someone a paper clip and to get them to think of as many different uses for the paper clip as possible – someone whose good at this will be able to think of hundreds of uses for the paper clip by imagining that it can be all sorts of sizes and made out of all sorts of different materials.
Cites a Longitudinal study (taken from a book called ‘Break Point and Beyond) in which Kindergarten children were tested on their ability to think divergently, and 98% of them scored at ‘genius level’; the same children were retested at ages 8-10, but only 50% of them scored at genius level, and again at 13-15, where hardly any of them scored at genius level.
This study shows two things: firstly, we all have the inherent capacity for divergent thinking and secondly it deteriorates as children get older.
Now lots of things happen to these kids as they grow up, but the most important thing is that they have become educated – they’ve spent 10 years being told ‘that there’s one answer and it’s at the back, and don’t look and don’t copy’.
The problem we have is that the industrial-capitalist mode of education is deep in the gene-pool of the education system, it is an educational paradigm which will be hard to shift.
Shifting the Education Paradigm
We need to do the following to shift the industrial-capitalist education paradigm:
Firstly, destroy the myth that there is a divide between academic and non academic subjects, and between the abstract and the theoretical.
Secondly, recognize that most great learning takes place in groups – collaboration is the stuff of growth, rather than individualising people which separates them from their natural learning environment.
Finally, we need to change the habitual ways of thinking of those within the education system and the habitats which they occupy.
Relevance to A-Level Sociology
This can be used to criticise New Right approaches to education, as well as New Labour, The Coalition and the present Tory government – because all of them have kept in place the basic regime of testing introduced in 1988.
There’s also something of a link here to Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Principle – in which the Hidden Curriculum mirrors the work place, because the system is still based an industrial model.
Robinson seems to be suggesting we have a more post-modern approach to education – freeing schools and teachers up so they can encourage more creativity in the classroom rather than being constrained by the tyranny of standardised testing.
Limitations of Ken Robinson’s Perspective