Transform not reform schools

September 6, 2015

Ken Robinson, the man behind the famous Ted Talk, sums it all up in a book that may well be one of the most influential works of our time on education

Transform not reform schools

It is not that what Ken Robinson is saying is new. It is the timing, clarity and the articulation of his ideas which make his most recent book, Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up, as one of the most influential works of our time on education. Robinson’s advantages are many. He has been a passionate teacher and a researcher on using Drama as a form of learning and he has worked at policy level promoting almost the same themes. No wonder he has been speaking with more authority lately.

In a slightly different way, Tony Blair’s former Head of Delivery Unit, Michael Barber’s essay on higher education, "An Avalanche is Coming" (2013) IPPR, London, written in the context of higher education underscored a similar point -- that unless the present education design is not revolutionised, it will not meet the needs for education in the 21st century.

"Education is in crisis" is a key theme these days for governments, policy makers and the consumers of education across the world. This new anxiety is exacerbated by consistency of message coming from global learning metrics like PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) showing that most nations have stagnated in terms of their fifteen-year-olds’ performance in uniform standardised tests.

It is this context that Ken Robinson’s ideas sound revolutionary. He challenges the existing mainstream ideology of global uniformity of learning standards popularised through his Ted Talk now viewed over 300 million times.

He has always been an ardent advocate of an education system that could work with individual talents of the children and help them develop within their respective areas of interest. This is something which the industrial project of modern education has failed to provide. It measures children’s performance against a uniform (and therefore limited and reduced) yardstick and, in the process, develops a whole market around test scores.

In his present book Creative Schools, Robinson is particularly more convincing. He counts on endless new examples of school leaders who actually were struggling to lift their failing schools where often children of ethnic minorities and poor came to study. These leaders turned their schools around by adopting unique and different approaches to learning that were closer to what the children actually wanted. By engaging children in areas of their interest -- sports, peer to peer learning or physical projects -- the schools actually gave these struggling children an entry point into building their personal confidence which allowed them to even improve their scores in core science and mathematics courses.

He has always been an ardent advocate of an education system that could work with individual talents of the children and help them develop within their respective areas of interest. This is something which the industrial project of modern education has failed to provide.

Ken Robinson is a brave man. Because what he is advocating is still a minority view among the international education establishment, the multilateral donors, national governments, a range of well-meaning and dynamic political leaders and a very large lobby of international assessment experts. There is so much at stake for everyone to show results that learning data measurements and themes of top down accountability of teachers have become a natural policy measure for democratic leaders to deliver within their terms in office and for donors to show results against every dollar spent in developing countries.

Robinson is not concerned with that. He says that the essence of education is a teacher and his class and the dialogue between them. If that is not happening, whatever reform community is trying to do is reduced to mere distraction. In many ways, he is right. There has been a major intrusion of economists, social policy and poverty specialists, programme evaluators, private sector management experts and public policy gurus in the actual formulation of education programmes especially in last two decades. All too often, large education programmes are designed to improve the governance of education department or chasing easy goals like enrolling more children in schools. If UNESCO supported Education for All movement globally is any guide, the whole development world especially in Africa went on to show exponential growth in their countries enrollment, often under pressure to deliver on millennium development goals without even thinking once about how the quality of learning will be ensured in schools.

Ken Robinson is not convinced that agreeing to national/international standards and then making schools comply and deliver against those learning targets can actually improve learning. He goes one step further and argues that uniform standards are producing uniform graduates who then struggle to find work because most of them are not really trained to contribute in the economy as per their unique talent but all of them are trained to become professors or scientists or managers. If everybody will study the same subjects, it will automatically marginalise those who have no interest in mainstream science and mathematics courses and will create major job crises.


In some ways, Robinson’s job is easy in weaving an argument against the gaps of existing education system. But reforming low performing large systems is not easy and needs many things to actually work together well and that demands sound central planning and relentless focus on implementation.

However, Ken Robinson’s contribution is to show very clearly that all of this effort can be made more effective if school leaders and teachers are given autonomy in designing and implementing their own learning paradigm, consistent with their local needs. Analysing Finland’s success story in education (education commentators’ favourite example due to its consistent good performance in international PISA scores) from a relatively new angle, he argues that it is not that standards improved Finland’s performance; it was the other way round -- that they were already doing most things right in education which allowed them to perform so high.

The most important measure of course is to hire the best performing students in Finland as teachers, pay them well and make this a kind of social status. Once you are able to do that, local level delivery qualitatively becomes way better.

That is where Ken Robinson’s powerful and timely work provides a solution to the never-ending education policy experts’ dilemma. Fix the basics, bring in quality teachers, give them independence and treat each student as per their taste and capability, make the curriculum balanced in terms of its focus on equal focus on liberal arts, science, arts and sport because each one of them contributes to majors areas of intelligence, cultural knowledge and personal development.

The problem is that Ken Robinson assumes there already exists an organisational capability in systems to implement his very demanding checklist of expected behaviours from teachers and education leaders. At times, it seems like he has never confronted modern day public policy challenges in developing countries with their acute problems of dysfunctional governance of institutions. May be for him it would be wise to spend some years in Africa and South Asia and write another version of his argument on how to make his vision implementable in a low capacity context.

Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up
Author: Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica
Publisher: Penguin UK, 2015
Pages: 320
Price: Rs1200 PKR