Sir Ken Robinson on education — more feedback, updated

[See update below] Paul W. Bennett, the director of Schoolhouse Consulting, and Nova Scotia’s best known educational policy critic, shares Bert Lewis’s skepticism about Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk.

With the advent of TED Talks, Sir Ken Robinson, the current, undisputed rock star of public education, has been, or will be, coming to a School Board near you, so it’s wise to be forewarned and perhaps even forearmed.

Sir Ken puts on quite a show, especially with that snazzy RSA animation. Very few can match him when it comes to the British accent, rhetorical flourish, and sardonic humour. Having listened to him many times, I’ve become more aware of how much he benefits from speaking to audiences with little or no grasp of educational theory, history or philosophy. That gives him free rein to deal almost exclusively in broad, contestable generalizations.

Former NSCC principal Bert Lewis is right to be skeptical. Good teachers and thoughtful educators come with what Neil Postman once described as “a built-in crap detector.” In “Changing Educational Paradigms,” Sir Ken repeats his familiar refrain that the entire Educational System is totally obsolete and has been for years. Strangely enough, he appeals most to those who favour process (pedagogy) over substance (knowledge) in education. They are reduced, for some reason, to putty in his hands.

Let’s start asking him a few pertinent questions: If the system is so obsolete, then why do those in charge of the System pay him huge fees to promote that message? And why do most audiences of teachers seem to lap it up? More to the point, after listening intently to Sir Ken, why do they retreat back into the system with their heads down? It simply doesn’t add up.

I’m not sure why (or whether) mainstream school systems have embraced Robinson, but I think I understand his appeal to non-expect critics of the contemporary school system. The public suspects schools and teachers have been complicit in the trend to pathologize little boys as suffering from a medical condition; schools and teachers do a poor job of accommodating creative misfits; and the hierarchical structure of school systems deters innovation and critical thinking.

[UPDATE]Ken Dewar, emeritus professor of history at Mount Saint Vincent University, who claims to be old, shares Bennett’s and Lewis’s scepticism:

You call Robinson’s talk “brilliant,” and it certainly is that — clever, amusing, dazzling — but his rejection of contemporary education is absurdly sweeping. By the end, one has almost forgotten the kernel of the valid point he has made about ADHD…

[The answer to Bennett’s concluding question] is that rejection of all that might be seen as “old” or “traditional” in pedagogy has been embedded in modern teacher education for the past 50-100 years, with the result that listening to (or watching, or reading) an iconoclast on the subject is satisfyingly self-affirming.

Meanwhile, in practice, open-minded teachers motivated by the love of learning and attentive to the needs of their students struggle to communicate knowledge of various kinds and by various means, just as they have done for centuries. They might even have learned something by the odd furtive glance backward.