Education Funding Opinion

Sir Ken Robinson Shakes Up the Standards Paradigm

By Anthony Cody — January 28, 2011 3 min read
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I had a strange experience earlier this week. I sat in a room of school district coaches and managers, and watched the following video featuring Sir Ken Robinson, who gave a short lecture, illustrated here with drawings, about the destructive sinkhole our current educational paradigm has led us into. Robinson offers us a compelling critique.

The strange thing was, after this video, a panel took the stage and spoke in entirely positive terms of the new Common Core Standards, suggesting these would lead us in the direction Sir Ken was indicating. There was an empty chair, so I joined them, and suggested that, in fact, the new standards are the direct descendants of No Child Left Behind, and are designed to create a new generation of tests that will be similarly flawed. But I think most of us are so enmeshed in our current paradigm that the implications of Sir Ken’s talk are difficult to apply.

So I want to take time here to examine the key points he makes, and see if we can have some dialogue around them.

When we went to school we were kept there with the story, which is if you worked hard and did well and got a college degree you'd have a job. Our kids don't believe that, and they are right not to by the way. You are better having a degree than not, but it's not a guarantee anymore. And particularly not if the route to it marginalises most of the things that you think are important about yourself.

What does this mean? The emphasis on college and career readiness is built on an illusion. The middle class jobs we are promising our students are dwindling at the same time the number of applicants to college is rising. We are not going to “educate our way to a better economy,” in spite of Duncan’s rhetoric. And Sir Ken is aware that there is sometimes a conflict between the aspiration to college and a healthy sense of identity on the part of our students. They may be wise to reject this tradeoff.

Next, Sir Ken takes on the way we have come to think of intelligence since the rise of the Industrial Age and the Enlightenment:

The real intelligence consisted in this capacity for certain type of deductive reasoning, and a knowledge of the Classics originally, what we've come to think of as academic ability. And this is deep in the gene pool of public education. There are really two types of people. Academic and non academic. Smart people and non smart people. And the consequence of that is that many brilliant people think they are not, because they've been judged against this particular view of the mind.

Sir Ken then decries the exploding use of psychotropic drugs to anaesthetize our children, to get them to sit still long enough for us to pour all this academic knowledge into their heads. And he questions why it is that the Arts have been lost from so many of our schools.

The Arts especially address the idea of Aesthetic experience. An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak. When you're present in the current moment. When you are resonating with the excitement of this thing that you're experiencing. When you are fully alive. And anaesthetic is when you shut your senses off, and deaden yourself what's happening. And a lot of these drugs are that. We're getting our children through education by anaesthetising them. And I think we should be doing the exact opposite. We shouldn't be putting them asleep, we should be waking them up, to what they have inside of themselves.

But then he gets to the part that really challenges our paradigm.

We still educate children by batches. You know, we put them through the system by age group. Why do we do that? You know, why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are. You know, it's like the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture. Well I know kids who are much better than other kids at the same age in different disciplines. You know, or at different times of the day, or better in smaller groups than in large groups or sometimes they want to be on their own. If you are interested in the model of learning you don't start from this production line mentality. This is essentially about conformity. Increasingly it's about that as you look at the growth of standardised testing and standardised curricula. and it's about standardisation. I believe we've got go in the exact opposite direction. That's what I mean about changing the paradigm.

How can we wrap our minds around THIS? How could we possibly NOT put children through in batches? How could we allow them to choose to study things that actually interest them? Or group them by ability rather than age? Shouldn’t we make sure they learn the things they are BAD at first?

This is indeed a completely different paradigm. It is not about “raising the bar.” It is not about Algebra for every 8th grader just because studies show that students who were most successful in college passed Algebra in the 8th grade. It requires us to toss every structure out and start from the ground up, with a fresh eye that values lots of different ways of learning, and of expressing understanding. This is HARD! It is not about releasing all control and letting everyone do what they please. It might be more like the hidden structure we see in a well-run Montessori classroom, where five year-olds busy themselves on a variety of self-chosen tasks, learning far more than if they were forced to recite phonemes in unison.

But I heard an interesting rebuttal to this at my meeting.
“If we make changes along these lines, our students will be at a disadvantage.” Wow. Here we are in a district where the dropout rate for African American males is close to 50%. How is the current paradigm providing them with any advantage at all? The current paradigm offers a huge advantage to children raised in homes of college-educated parents, surrounded by books and words. We can do our best to shore up our students’ skills, but most of the wonderful cultural assets these children bring to school with them are not “standard,” and do not help them succeed on the tests by which they are judged. In some ways, the pressure placed on low-performing schools to raise their scores is actually making the gap between well-to-do students and the poor even wider.

Of course there is a legitimate point here, that it is tough to be the one place that makes this paradigmatic shift. Our students are still enmeshed in a system that expects test scores and college degrees, whether or not they are meaningful. And there is a great deal of work we need to do as educators to elaborate a clearer picture of what schooling might look like in a non-standardized paradigm. But we have got to push for change, and we have got to be clear that this change will serve our students much better than the standardized test paradigm we find ourselves in now.

What do you think? Is Sir Ken’s new paradigm one that appeals to you? How can we develop a clearer vision of it?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.