Revolution is necessary

Sir Ken Robinson is really funny. Listening to him talk about education is a little like watching a comedy routine. I wish I had a British accent. If I had a British accent, I’d be so much funnier. My favorite thing about people with British accents is that they can make noises that count as words. They’ll just trail of and go, “Hummghhrrawwhhj….” and that will count. It will even sound good. People with American accents can’t do that. We have to use words constantly. It’s very limiting.

Anyway, Sir Ken Robinson gave an amazing talk called “The Element”  for the Aspen Institute that is worth watching, if you have a free hour and are willing to sit through an incredibly long, fabulously entertaining and mostly unrelated introduction to the topic. When he eventually makes a point or two, they are awesome. He talks about how people rarely do what they love with their lives. They are rarely in their element. And that is a huge waste of human talent and potential. He talks about ADHD and compares it to the rash of tonsil removal procedures that were so popular when he was a kid.

(I like him. source)

But my favorite thing that Robinson says is that the paradigm needs to change. The paradigm of school. It’s broken. I believe that. And I feel nervous about saying it, because I didn’t go to school. I feel like I’m not allowed to say it. So I carefully say things about how both school and, um, un-school have things going for them. I do think that. But I also think that school is, in general, a lot worse. Not because it is impossible for school to be great. But because the way school works now is so systemically, structurally, integrally flawed, that it needs a revolution.

Robinson critiques the idea of reform. Reform relies on the notion that the system, as it is,  is inherently fixable. It just needs some tweaks. It just needs some smoothing out of a few kinks. Does standardized testing count as a kink? What about dividing children into grades? These are basic sorting devices that many people who talk about these things believe the school system cannot exist without. Yet they are really pretty arbitrary. It’s hard to think that something so big and so old might be arbitrary. It’s disturbing. Some kids do well on standardized tests, but most do not. Most kids, despite the fact that they take tests regularly, never seem to get “good” at taking them. Social psychologists love to do experiments where they prove that when non-white kids or girls or anyone who is different in some way from the normative identity is reminded of their differences before taking a test, they do worse on it than when they aren’t reminded. Some kids are reminded of their differences every day. Standardized tests don’t sufficiently prove anything about intelligence, competency, or capability. They do conveniently sort children into more manageable groups.

(enough already. source)

Learning in a group of children who are all the same age as you is a strange idea. Isn’t it more productive to learn from people who are older, and to learn to take care of people who are younger?

And what about the subjects that determine intelligence? Where do they come from? Who decided that if you’re bad at math, you’re just not very smart? Why is it that the SAT emphasizes only two subjects and one of them is math? We’ve equated math with logic, but people can be perfectly logical without being good at math. What makes writing an essay a basic life skill?

Robinson says that because ability has been constricted into such a small space (being good at math, writing successful essays, etc), disability has grown enormously. Kids who can’t sit still for long enough, or who lash out at their group of exactly-the-same-age peers, or who are incredibly bored, or who fail standardized tests routinely, are considered disabled in one way or another.

I try to be rational about this sort of thing, but honestly, it makes me furious. People are incredibly talented. We’re brilliant, hilarious, fascinating, artistic, creative, inventive, and thoughtful. I’ve taught twelve-year-olds who had lost faith in themselves already. Who were convinced they were stupid. I’ve taught eight-year-olds who were mortified that they couldn’t read as fluently as their peers. I’ve met adults who still feel stupid and untalented. Who are embarrassed because they didn’t go to college. Who feel left behind. Who learned to think they weren’t good at the world because they weren’t good at school.

And, frankly, it’s a tragedy.

We might not be able to do away completely with schools, and I wouldn’t advocate for that. I don’t think everyone should be homeschooled or unschooled. I don’t think that’s the answer. But schools need to change. More than that, they need to transform.

Because our future is at stake. Our minds are at stake. And we have so much potential.

*  *

Other amazing talks by Ken Robinson: at TED 2006, and TED 2010

10 comments to Revolution is necessary

  • Emelie

    Amen, sister! Haha! I love this and I will have to go and watch that! I agree with the accent part especially. I’ve ALWAYS wanted a British accent, but I live in Texas. Even a boring vlog can be lightened with an accent. Or an Asian accent. Ahh. That’d be lovely.

  • Rob

    I am here to encourage you to have opinions about school. :c) Yes, you didn’t participate as a student. Sure, you don’t have any kids in the system now. No, you are not a teacher employed in your local school district. But you are educated. You have seen the fruits of a variety of schools through relationships with people and conversations with those who are directly involved. The key is to share your opinions in a way that doesn’t shut down the discussion, but informs it and helps move it in a useful direction. (Like towards revolution, say.) What would it be like if, 30 years down the road, everyone is thanking you for sharing your outsider’s perspective?

    I listened to your interview at Radio Free School and have been dwelling on it, particularly the question, “If schools were closed for good, do you see a vision for that kind of a world?” In the context of this post, I wonder, What if that was the revolution? At the time, my gut reaction was that this would be a step backwards. That it would send us into another dark age. I drew that conclusion because I have trouble believing that people would push themselves to learn, even if only in subjects that interested them. Maybe that is not what would happen. Maybe I am too fearful. (It is probably not the whole story, because back in the day those in the ivory tower kept knowledge to themselves, I think. Presently, there is much general knowledge and a fair amount of specific knowledge freely and widely available. Except for that which is hidden by copyrights, patents, and trade secrets, but that is a debate for a different forum.)

    I think there is high value in education, and a common basic knowledge of certain subjects makes our society better. So I think that compulsory education is maybe a good thing, while being very grateful that parents have options on how that education should be gained, and what it should look like. Getting the education at home is not for everyone, and I think that the public school status quo might be better than nothing. There is already a big gap between those who value education and those who don’t, and that would widen vastly if those who didn’t care were permitted to remain ignorant. The consequences of this are deeply worrying to me.

    That was my initial thought when faced with the idea of traditional schools shutting down. Judging from your reaction in the interview, you were not so pessimistic. So, let’s think outside the box. The paradigm’s flawed. Kids’ performance is dampened because they think they are inferior to others. The system’s broken. The resources are there, today, for anyone to educate themselves if the drive is there. What about the pupils who cannot be bothered, and have no one in their lives who will push them?

  • Person embarrassed for never finishing college, here. *waves*

    I started. Quite a few times.

    It’s just that … I HATE school. :( Most of it’s so useless and stupid. And I’m just rebellious enough for that to drive me crazy and make the whole shebang not worth it for me. :(

    Did I mention that I love learning? Yeah.

  • I love that you can take a graph from a right-wing economist (who obviously, as is evident in the tone of his posts, cares not a whit for the worker) and find a use for it.

    Nice work.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Graham Whisen, davidwees. davidwees said: Revolution is necessary #edchat […]

  • Kristin

    While I’m a big advocate of homeschooling for all the myriad opportunities it offers children, I believe schools are important too. Obviously there are many, many kids whose parents can’t or won’t stay home with them to facilitate their learning outside of a school environment.

    However, I think the increasing interest in homeschooling could be the thing that revolutionizes schools. I’m not saying this *will* happen, but it could happen if the powers-that-be spent enough time learning from homeschoolers and finding the value in their experiences.

    For example, I think many homeschooling families that aren’t strictly “school-at-home” let their kids develop their own interests (with a lot of parental facilitating) and then the kids pursue those interests with other like-minded kids. What if schools did something like this? What if students started out in big groups with an age range (say, 8 to 11-year-olds), perhaps deciding democratically what school-approved subjects they will study together, and then smaller groups begin to develop (with adult guidance) so those students can pursue specific interests in the chosen subject. This would empower kids, teach them how to work in groups with different-aged peers, and together they could accomplish a larger project they might not have been able to do on their own. Heck, it could teach them the democratic process as well!

    It doesn’t have to work just like this, but schools could benefit greatly if they incorporated more elements of homeschooling. Each day I’m amazed at the opportunities homeschooled kids have. I can’t say I feel that way about kids who go to school everyday.

  • Mere

    I agree with you Kate…schools are broken. I’m allowed to say that. I’ve been to school, I trained to be a teacher, I sent my kids to school and now I have taken them out of school. We didn’t have hideously bad experiences…actually I have very fond memories of my school years and the kids were doing really well according to testing and “norms”. It’s just that when you plan something for the masses and revolve it around logistics…and of course money..then cracks are bound to appear.
    Teachers start with the greatest of hopes and dreams, they want to make a difference and then systems and policies suck all of the good intentions out of them. Not all of them but enough to make ticking boxes more important than touching lives. They really end up fighting the system. It’s crazy but while parents want to go back to work and so are prepared to put their kids into the system however broken it is, I don’t think much will change. Not until there is a surge of people that say “enough, this is crazy!”
    I really admire those people that forged the path of homeschooling long ago so that today I could give it ago and the way be pretty clear and easy going.
    Thank you parents for me will you. :-)

  • i believe a lot is broken. especially people. (odd that people, our most valuable resource, the one thing that can sort out all the other broken things in the world, is what we’re paying attention to the least.)

    i believe choice is the ultimate empowerment – our means to healing – our story of revolution.

    Kate – you write often about differences. and embracing those differences. that what is often toted as popular, is simply normal, and potentially boring. we’re missing out on life by being what we’re not.

    i say, the revolution isn’t that difficult. i say, many won’t have to change much. we just need a change of mindset. a mindset that allows personal choice. a mindset that encourages respectful questioning of all assumptions. and then a shaking up of gatherings. who’s together in a room. and why. no more compulsion. no more labels.

    if we decide the new standard is personalization. if we let ourselves be ourselves. if we realize the web now allows each person to define their own success. i believe we’ll find we all fit together quit nicely. because we’ll all be nicer. people play more offense when we let them be themselves.

    Kate.. i think you are a big part of the revolution. you get what it means to be you. and you do it with grace. that’s what we need. people to be themselves, with grace.

    • Tristan Thompson


      Good stuff. Reading what you guys are saying is refreshing me with a sense of hope. I think that kids will be the ones who will lead the revolution. They are the ones who will want it the most. Everybody else knows that public schools are broken, but they are the oppressed, they are the slaves.
      They will begin to realize what they are capable of. An important part of this is for the more able students who have it more together than some of the rest to finally realize that even they deserve to be free and that it is not wrong for them to stand up. When that happens, the revolution will come.

      It’s in the air, I can smell it like rain.

      It’s a beautiful idea, my God – it is almost intoxicating.

      Sorry, this stuff gets me going. I am glad to have stumbled on to you guys.

  • Schools will never be good places for kids because kids are coerced into attending. They are MADE to do things. People shouldn’t be MADE to do things (for their own good-naturally).

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