Many educators know Robinson from his popular 2006 TED talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” which has been viewed more than 33 million times. Some of us have even had the good fortune to attend one of his keynotes at an educational conference (I saw him a few years back at NCTE and still chuckle over some of his witty one-liners). Yet, somehow overlooked is his longstanding record as an educational researcher, writer, and reformer. He has been “in education,” as it were, for 40 years; he holds a PhD in Education, was a professor of Education at the University of Warwick, UK, and has written countless articles and books on cultivating creativity in schools. Heck, in 2003, he was even knighted by the Queen of England for his service to the arts. Suffice it to say, Sir Ken is an authority on transforming education.
In Creative Schools, he addresses the paradox of teaching and learning in a standards-obsessed system that touts a desire to mold unique and creative students. Through a series of case studies of educators and institutions that are transforming the way that they “do school,” Robinson makes the case for bold and courageous change. “The challenge,” he writes, “is not to fix the system but to change it; not to reform it but to transform it. The great irony in the current malaise in education is that we actually know what works. We just don’t do it on a wide enough scale. We are in a position as never before to use our creative and technological resources to change that.”
Robinson’s opening chapters acknowledge that now is a time of great tension within the education community: tension between teachers who would sooner do anything except “teach to the test” and Washington bureaucrats who are embarrassed by the consistently low rankings American students score on international exams; between traditional teachers who question the rush toward technology in the classroom and their colleagues who think that understanding how to employ technology with purpose is a prerequisite for meaningful participation in contemporary society; between the antiquated arrangement of our public schools as the last remnant of an industrial factory model (complete with division of labor and factory-reminiscent bells) and a workforce that demands imagination and ingenuity.
These tensions have had a deleterious effect on the status of education today. Robinson contends: “Most industrial processes generate huge amounts of waste and low-value by-products. So does education. As we’ve seen, they include dropping out, disengagement, low self-esteem, and limited employment opportunities for those who don’t succeed, or whose talents are not valued in the system.” The solution to these problems (or perhaps more accurately, the solutions) is the focus of the remaining chapters of the book.
At the heart of Creative Schools is a call to action, hollered from the rooftops of schools that are doing something very right. He highlights the innovations of alternative learning environments like the North Star center and Minddrive, as well as the good work of leaders who transform learning within an existing system, like Dr. Laurie Barron of Smokey Road Middle School and Richard Gerver of Grange Primary School. He deconstructs what works at places like High Tech High School, a charter school in San Diego, where one of the first things to go were the bells. And he leaves readers with a lingering sense of purpose, established from even the first pages of the book: “Revolutions,” Robinson argues, “don’t wait for legislation. They emerge from what people do at the ground level. Education doesn’t happen in the committee rooms of the legislatures or in the rhetoric of politicians. It’s what goes on between learners and teachers in actual schools. If you’re a teacher, for your students you are the system. If you’re a school principal, for your community you are the system. If you’re a policymaker, for the schools you control you are the system.”
As far as I’m concerned, that strikes me as best news in this book. Because it’s summer, I’m pumped, and that’s a system I can change.