Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education

Sir Ken Robinson’s latest book offering (April 2015) has been eagerly awaited and lauded Sir Ken has certainly stirred up educational debate over recent years and provided a focus for many of those willing to question the status quo in schooling and education. To that end Sir Ken has been effective in opening up debate and thinking. However, as Paul Henderson writes in his review of this book – we do need to take a closer look and cast a more critical eye.

Book Review

Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education

For anyone interested in education, the publication of a new book by Ken Robinson is worth taking more than a casual interest in because Sir Ken is probably the world’s most famous, popular and potentially influential academic educationist. There are many reasons for his popularity; he is an engaging, witty and entertaining public speaker and his great “gift of the gab” allows him to sell complicated ideas to the masses with aplomb. Part of Sir Ken’s popularity is also due to the fact that in his widely viewed Internet talks he has been able to popularise the critique of conventional schooling that was previously only familiar in academic circles and to a few special interest groups. Since his first popular talk he has also popularised ideas of how to improve schooling in broad terms by painting the overall picture as he sees it with wide brush strokes that the general public can easily understand. By skilfully using such an accessible approach he has been able to sidestep the minefield of nitty gritty details that have left unfortunate others in a quagmire.

Robinson knows full well that “education is an essentially contested concept,” and the fact that he has received praise from such an eclectic band of followers, myself included, may well be some kind of historic first in the world of education. Part of the reason why his words have been music to the ears of so many was that, in the absence of stringent detail, they could be interpreted favourably from a wide variety of philosophical stances. In his much anticipated new book, however, Sir Ken sheds partial light on the details behind many of the ideas that he has helped to popularised over the last decade, which I think will delight some and greatly disappoint others. Not all of the detail is forthcoming though because, by an expedient stroke of luck for the prospects for Sir Ken’s continued popularity, one of the most pressing concerns of the contemporary education scene is the imposition of prescribed standardised methods, so the last thing Sir Ken would want to do is be over prescriptive. However, there is enough that is implied, suggested and not overly prescribed in this new book to keep some of his fans happy and others confused, bewildered and disappointed.
In the introduction to the book Sir Ken sets out quite specifically what the terms “education” and “school” mean to him;
“Education means organised programs of learning”
“School, as I use the term here, includes homeschooling, un-schooling and informal gatherings”
If you are fine with these two statements and are a fan of Sir Ken then you’ll probably enjoy “Creative Schools.” For me these two statements sum up a lot of what is wrong with the book. A great many of the most important premises on which Sir Ken’s thesis is built, such as the meaning of education and how he uses the term “school,” are not compatible with each other, or any alternative or mainstream educational philosophy that I know of. Perhaps his intention is to reinvent schooling as a landscape of educational diversity, or edversity as the Centre for Personalised Education puts it, but, sadly, this hypothesis is not confirmed by reading the main body of the text. Many of Sir Ken’s postulations throughout the book appear to lack coherency. If the term “school” is meant to include un-schooling and informal gatherings, which, quite clearly, are not organised programs of learning, then surely school, as he uses the term, is not very compatible with his meaning of education. For me, this lack of coherency in the interpretation of basic fundamental concepts is not a minor problem, and it is only one example of the mass of contradictions from which the book is comprised. He mentions examples from un-schooling and democratic free schooling, and quotes proponents of heutagogy and autonomous learning such as Peter Gray and John Taylor Gatto, without pointing out that the principles of autonomous learning can never be implemented with any degree of integrity in state funded schools without ultra-radical changes in the concept of curriculum and assessment. Autonomous learning doesn’t adhere to prescribed criteria, without which there can be no accountability, without which you cannot have a state funded educational provision. Sir Ken suggests that different forms of assessment could be utilised by teachers but in my opinion the changes required to fully implement the principles of autonomous learning with any degree of integrity within a conventional school setting are extremely unlikely to be sanctioned by policy makers. Indeed, many proponents of autonomous learning highly value the fact that it does not require externally imposed standards by which the effectiveness of teaching and learning can be measured.
Here’s what he says about curriculum;
“The curriculum is a framework for what students should know.”
“As well as providing a framework for what all students should learn in common, [my bold italics] the right balance of these disciplines allows schools to cater to the personal strengths and interests of students as individuals”
This is hardly an ultra-radical change in the concept of curriculum. Dear knows what his new-found alternative learning pals would make of it. It suggests that one size does not fit all, except when it does. Who decides when it does and doesn’t and what should be learned and what shouldn’t? This is something that Sir Ken cowers away from because he knows it always ends up in a quagmire of wrangling and disagreement. Sir Ken’s concept of curriculum changes nothing.
Elsewhere in the book he says that the reason so many people are “still” homeschooling is because of the sorry state of schooling, implying that if schooling was sorted out there would no longer be a need for homeschooling. This implication clearly demonstrates that Sir Ken certainly has an awful lot to learn about home-based learning.
A lack of coherency and knowledge plagues the book. One minute he’s taking a dim view of those who judge education by PISA rankings and the next minute he’s saying that education is really good in Finland judging by its place in the PISA rankings! The multitude of incompatible anecdotes and contradictory examples are not the only problem. It’s what he doesn’t say that is also cause for alarm. He mentions nothing of the principle of subsidiarity.
As an example of good teaching, he tells a story about a teacher who, seeing that a pupil’s apparatus doesn’t work, figures out the problem and fixes it for her so that she can continue learning prescribed learning intentions. I don’t think this was a particularly good example of good teaching at all. Where was the principle of subsidiarity? This is the principle that states that if people can do things for themselves they should be allowed to do so. Far more effective learning would have happened in this scenario if the teacher had not jumped in straight away, figured out the problem for the learner and then fixed the problem for her. Why did he not open it up to the rest of the class to figure out why the apparatus didn’t work? It was a simple enough problem involving a wick that was too short to sustain a flame. By opening up the problem to the rest of the class, a brilliant discussion could have been instigated through leading questions, if required, about what a flame is and what it needs to burn and what would need to be done to fix the problem. A pupil could then have been asked to fix the apparatus using, and simultaneously testing, the hypotheses arrived at through class discussion, thus all the thinking and doing would have been done by the learners and not their over-teaching, spoon-feeding teacher. Dear, oh dear – what a rubbish book!
Having said that, it wasn’t all bad. I did like the fact that he stood up for the theory of multiple intelligences, which has taken a bit of a battering in recent times.
As for the answer to the baffling question of how someone I was previously such a fan of could write a book that I really don’t like, I finally found it in the notes at the end.
In note two he says, “Sometimes people say they agree with me but probably wouldn’t if they understood what I was really saying.” I reckon that I must have been one of those people. I agreed wholeheartedly with Sir Ken’s Element books, but, after reading this book, I now realise that the ideas he had previously popularised were intended ultimately for the purposes of tweaking conventional schooling. I still agree with what he said in the Element books and I agree with the age old critique of conventional schooling that he has, thankfully, helped to popularise over the last decade, but I don’t fully agree with his vision of a solution, or what he sometimes calls a paradigm shift or revolution, which, in light of his explanations, would seem to me to be more accurately described as a series of tweaks. Some of the tweaks he calls for in conventional schooling are less standardisation, more personalisation, a better trained, valued and paid workforce, more parental involvement, and assessment techniques that better reflect personal attributes – how many times have you heard that hackneyed list of usual suspects and how many times have these same tweaks failed to make any real difference to conventional schooling, except, perhaps, in Finland!
Paradigm shift? Revolution? I think not. Having said that, I don’t think the book was a complete waste of money because it did offer some interesting information and gives a deeper understanding and clarification of Sir Ken’s essentially humdrum, heard-it-all-before improvements to conventional schooling. After reading this book I am now also fully aware that Sir Ken is one of these people who agrees with the principles of alternative learning but probably wouldn’t if he understood what they were really saying.
Paul Henderson, April 2015.


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