Obituary: Sir Ken Robinson (1943 – 2020)

Ray Martin reflects on the life and work of the inspirational educator and activist Sir Ken Robinson. It is with great sadness that we publish this piece, as Ken Robinson’s views on creativity and education have played a significant role in the conception and development of our journal. JUICE will continue to be inspired by Sir Ken’s position of promoting the need for greater creativity in education, and to promote work that seeks to extend the impact of his philosophy.

PUBLISHED ON 20th September 2020 | WRITTEN BY Ray Martin | Photo by Kevin Jarrett on Unsplash

It’s possible that Sir Ken Robinson’s first TED talk – Do schools kill creativity? – has been seen by over 380 million viewers across the world. Not bad for an unscripted talk at the end of a 2006 conference.

He was passionate about the need for change in our educational system, which, he said, was born out of 18th-century Enlightenment thinking with the needs of 19th-century Industrialisation in mind: clearly now not fit for purpose. And worse: in the 21st century, he asserted, where we need to give creativity the same level of importance as literacy:

“… the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued or was actually stigmatized … we can’t afford to go on that way” (2006).

He believed the education process irons out creativity – ‘the really extraordinary capacities that children have – their capacities for innovation.’

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original … and by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities” (2006).

Sir Ken was born into an impoverished family in Liverpool. At four, he had polio and was left with a limp that excluded him from all sport but gave him his early education, in a school for disabled children. He did his BA at Bretton Woods College, which specialised in the arts, and went on to do a PhD in Drama and Theatre at London University. Before completing the latter, he worked on a report, Learning through Drama, for a Schools Council drama project (1977).

Other projects around the arts in schools followed. He was professor of arts education at the University of Warwick from 1989 to 2001 and went on to be Senior Adviser to the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles. He was knighted in 2003. While at Warwick he was invited by then Prime Minister Tony Blair to chair a national commission on education, which resulted in All Our Futures (1998), a report that has been largely ignored by government. Indeed, the focus on core subjects at the expense of creativity appears to have increased.

My contention is that all kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them pretty ruthlessly.

Sir Ken Robinson

Despite disappointments such as these, he continued to argue, as he had in All our Futures, for variety in education, for imagination, for giving children opportunities to find their element, for a way through education’s ‘failed dichotomies …. as a choice between the arts or the sciences, the core curriculum or the broad curriculum; between academic standards or creativity; freedom or authority in teaching methods’ (1999). He was still calling for change in the months before he died, in his Thoughts for Call to Unite (May 2020).

His message may have been ignored by governments, but his impact on teachers has been incalculable: ‘I’ve heard from countless teachers over the years who … say he was their inspiration to think outside the system and outside the box,’ says Brandon Busteed of the educational company Kaplan North America. ‘What he provoked in teachers,’ he adds, ‘is that just because a system or principal prevents you from creating a more creative opportunity in the classroom, they could still do it’ (Sandomir, 2020). 

“Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement. And it’s the one thing that I believe we are systematically jeopardising in the way we educate our children and ourselves” (2010).

References

Robinson, K. (1999) All our Futures: creativity, culture and education Report for the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (NACCCE)

Robinson, K. (2006) Do schools kill creativity? TED Talk. Accessed 15th April 2021

Robinson, K. (2010) Changing Education Paradigms (with RSA Animate) Accessed 15th April 2021

Robinson (2020) My thoughts for the Call to Unite [Online video] Accessed 15th April 2021

Sandomir, R. (2020) Ken Robinson, who preached creativity, dies at 70. in: New York Times, 11 Sept 2020

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