25 May 2010

On critically evaluating inspiration

Here is Sir Ken Robinson speaking at TED 2010. Apart from his tendency to chuckle at his own jokes (a fault he shares with President Obama) he's pretty inspirational. This is the follow-up to his 2006 talk (one of TED's top ten).

He's inspirational and aspirational and I share his vision, but is he rational... what planet is he living on? No, I haven't signed up to the Gradgrind tendency, but his vision pretends that human fulfilment is possible without sewers, mines, window-cleaning, accountancy, fish-gutting, and a host of other occupations on which any creative and artistic superstructure can be built.

I detest the economically-driven utilitarian arguments about the purposes of education:
To achieve stable and sustainable growth, we will need a well-educated, well-equipped and adaptable labour force. To cope with rapid change and the challenge of the information and communication age, we must ensure that people can return to learning throughout their lives. We cannot rely on a small elite, no matter how highly educated or highly paid. Instead, we need the creativity, enterprise and scholarship of all our people.
BLUNKETT D (1998) Foreword to The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain
 Department for Education and Employment Green Paper; London HMSO
But don't knock it--within limits (and what those limits are is debatable...) --it's essential to make all the interesting stuff possible.


  1. Thanks for this James,

    Yes he pushes all the right buttons doesn’t he? I have to say though that I find his talks increasingly dubious. At first I thought the one on creativity was great but on scrutiny it’s actually surprisingly lacking in substance and this one’s even worse. I think you’re absolutely right – he’s on another planet: planet Rhetoric. He plays on all of those unexamined vague suspicions people have about how “our” kids are being poorly educated and the terrible ways their innocent burgeoning potential is being squandered. It’s all couched in such commonsense emotive truisms wrapped up in sycophantic pleasantries - like an Easter egg: all glittering attractive sweetness but nothing to really get your teeth into.

    On one hand he says:

    "Every education system in the world is being reformed and it's not enough. What we need... is revolution.” (big applause Sir Ken).

    Then later:

    “So when we look at reforming education and transforming it... it's about personalising education for the people you're actually teaching, and doing that I think, is the answer to the future.”

    He presents this like it’s some kind of radical new insight but in fine art higher education this is exactly what has been done for at least the last 30 years - and I don’t remember seeing many tractors or wellington boots either!



  2. Anonymous9:15 am

    But what if I said "I like designing sewage treatment plants, it's who I am".

    Where does the idea that the only worthwhile transformation by education is into a poet,(and the only authentic self is an entirely useless one come from), if not from intellectual snobbery?

    I agree with Jim that all we have here is a cracking example of empty rhetoric skilfully pushing the audience's buttons.

    Revolution-its very mention still always gets a clap, apparently, even when uttered by a Knight of the Realm. Jaysus! Have these people no insight at all?

  3. "But what if I said "I like designing sewage treatment plants, it's who I am"."

    If you paid attention to his anecdote about the young man who was told by a teacher that his aspiration to be a "firefighter" was beneath his talents, I think you could probably glean that Sir Ken Robinson would tell you to go for it.

    Look, Sir Ken Robinson was primarily talking about the education of children to a general mostly American audience. Of course his speech was long on rhetoric and short on details, but that doesn't mean it was empty.

    He was certainly aware, but you may not be, that his point about "evolution, not revolution" was an explicitly stated theme in the recently published draft of the U.S. Department of Education's National Education Technology Plan 2010. The NETP has a quite a bit more detailed substance about how to effect a"revolutionary" transformation of K-16 education in the United States to realize the vision of the Universal Design for Learning.

    As for Jim's parting comment about personalized learning not being a new concept, of course it isn't. What IS just starting to emerge, however, is the ability of education as a large complex system to deliver personalized learning at scale.

    If Sir Ken Robinson's rhetorical ability helps create the conditions for meaningful change in how we educate our children and shifts the process towards a framework that genuinely takes into account individual needs, then he has performed a very valuable service indeed.


  4. Hi Matt,

    “personalized learning at scale”.

    Hmm, sounds like a bit of an oxymoron to me. I’ve read a little about the application of Complexity Theory and Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) to education but I must say that I remain somewhat skeptical. I’m all for vision so long as there’s real substance to it rather than clever button pushing and epaulets.

    “I don’t see any point that some one in the Swedish academy decides that this is work is noble enough to receive a prize. I have already got my prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding things out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors. It bothers me, honors bother me, honors as epaulets, honors as uniforms.” Richard Feynman

  5. "Hmm, sounds like a bit of an oxymoron to me."


    Perhaps "personalized learning" and "revolution, not evolution" will prove to be just another set of buzz phrases that come and go within K-16 education, and certainly there are any number of skeptics who would agree with you, but the point remains that in the context of his TED talk Robinson was almost certainly referencing the current debate about education reform within the United States. And he used coded language with a currency in that debate that may have been missed by outside observers.

  6. ""But what if I said "I like designing sewage treatment plants, it's who I am"."

    If you paid attention to his anecdote about the young man who was told by a teacher that his aspiration to be a "firefighter" was beneath his talents, I think you could probably glean that Sir Ken Robinson would tell you to go for it."

    Are you under the impression that a Chartered Chemical Engineer is the academic equivalent of a fire-fighter?

  7. "Are you under the impression that a Chartered Chemical Engineer is the academic equivalent of a fire-fighter?"

    Since the point's about following your passion... sure.

    Oddly enough, my father DID design wastewater treatment systems, albeit with duckweed. (http://www.p2pays.org/ref/09/08875.htm)


  8. Anonymous8:26 pm

    I don't get your point. You can't follow your passion if you can't afford to, or haven't got the smarts to do so.

    Being a fire-fighter is O level entry, mostly done after a stint in the army. Firefighters have to be physically courageous, but they can be as thick as two short planks.

    Chemical Engineering is an all-graduate profession, with similar A-level requirements to medicine. It's really quite intellectually taxing.

    Are you really saying that these two professions are academically equivalent?

    And then there is whether you can afford to follow your passion if you don't come from money, as discussed in the comments here:

  9. Sean,

    With respect, I think you're conflating academic prestige with professional passion.

    You seem to discount that it just might be someone's passion to be a firefighter, or other occupation that doesn't require the most rigorous of academic requirements, even if that person is by whatever definition capable of doing "better." The point being made by Robinson is if any given something is what you truly want to do, then that's what you should be doing. And the societal educational systems of the world should be encouraging children to follow their passions leading to outcomes of their determination, not ours.

    As a case in point, my father has a Ph.D. in Bacteriology and was a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s and 80s. In the 1990s he became a high school biology teacher. By the standards you seem to be applying, that was surely a step down because it's far less difficult to become a high school teacher than a professor at one of the top universities in the world. But, he was never happier.

    And he went on to found a charter school in an American inner-city to help prepare students for careers in health care, education, and other human services. Check it out for yourself: http://www.afa.tc/

    If it's something you're passionate about and truly want to do, then it is absolutely as valid to want to be a firefighter as a chemical engineer.


    P.S. Having known a number of chemical engineers and firefighters in my time, I suspect many, but certainly not all, in both fields would have a very difficult time qualifying as professionally competent in the other. And that is why they are what they are.

  10. Anonymous5:03 pm

    The concept of getting much of value in the form of education from a TED conference is worrisome. The purpose is entertainment.

  11. Anonymous5:44 pm

    "Are you really saying that these two professions are academically equivalent?" was my question. The question you are answering is "is the profession of chemical engineer as worthwhile as the job of the fire-fighter?" That was not my question.

    Firefighters are not professionals. It is a skilled manual trade, rather than a profession. This matters in the UK.

    As well as being socially greatly inferior, fire-fighting is poorly paid, and whilst fire fighters are held in high esteem for their bravery, no one is under the impression that they are escaping the working class. I used to be in the mountain rescue team, and there were number of fire-fighters there. Brave lads, and not stupid, but by no mean academically gifted. I could do their job. They can't do mine.

    It may be hard to understand this from the US, but your argument seems quite elitist from a UK perspective. You and your father can do something poorly paid but virtuous because you can afford to. Many, (including the children of fire-fighters)do not have this luxury.

    Sir Ken has escaped the working class through his academic career in a way that he never would have if he had decided to be a fire-fighter. His children's chances in life are enhanced dramatically as a result, and perhaps they may go on to lecture people who have escaped the hand to mouth life of much of the working class on their stultifying lack of vision. We can only hope not.

    In the real world, a career as a firefighter will not provide enough money to someone who has to make their own money to have the leisure to think long thoughts. This may be spiritually uplifting, but it may as well not be.

    My point is simply that Sir Ken has his head up his arse-as he has some idea of how the UK class system works, he has less excuse than you.

  12. Sean,

    I find it somewhat amusing you call my perspective "elitist" when that's the exact same sense I have about yours. I suppose we are being representative of the distinctly different UK and US outlooks on life.

    The reason I didn't answer your (rhetorical) question directly is because you aren't really interested in my answer.

    Of course the two professions aren't "academically" equivalent, but that's just one way to look at whether or not a given job is worthwhile- societies need both occupations- or a valid choice even when you have other options. What you seem to be saying is it's just not valid to *choose* to be a firefighter when you have the opportunity to be a chemical engineer instead. What I have been responding to in your comments is the assumption that people have the obligation to choose the best paying and most prestigious occupations available to them.

    However, doesn't it really depend on your priorities, motivations and specific circumstances? For example, creating better opportunities for your children isn't really a concern if you don't have any children in the first place.

    And yes, for me personally I could be making a hell of a lot more money if I had stayed in the business world. And perhaps from a strictly monetary perspective I would be able to give my 3 year-old daughter and 5 year-old son more "opportunities" in life, but I also want to model for them that happiness in life comes from finding a purpose in it that is meaningful to you. I know a lot of materially very successful people who are miserable.

    Since I don't really want to make this a personal argument, and I think we've both made our perspectives perfectly clear, let me bow out of this conversation with a final set of observations based on my experiences not just in the U.S., but also in places like Bangladesh, Peru, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, South Korea, Thailand- a very broad cross-section of the very "real" world- where I have interacted with people at every level of the social/class scale:

    -You don't need a life of leisure to think "long" thoughts.

    -You don't need any specific job title or social position to have dignity.

    -It is absolutely a societal responsibility to the extent possible to create genuine opportunities for everyone.



  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7AvWqM8z3k&feature=related

  15. This entire conversation is at cross-purposes. What you think I am trying to say isn't what I am saying-I'm very literal, what I mean is what I say. Any interpretation is over-interpretation.

    What you think I seem to be saying, or whether you think I am interested in your answer is all to do with your internal processes, and the limitations of on-line communication.

    Hence comment on your comments on what you think I am saying (and am not) would be irrelevant.

    My perspective is to me clearly not clear to you, and you think I neither understand you nor wish to. In what sense can we be said to have mutually made our perspectives perfectly clear?

    I do not think being a firefighter is an invalid choice of job. I do not think earnings should be the only consideration, nor any other factor. I did not mention dignity, not claim that material success brings happiness-this is in fact the opposite of what research shows.

    I do know that we can go to many places, and meet many people, and know nothing whatever about what it like to be in their shoes. The Queen does it all the time.

    Have you ever heard "Common People"? I prefer the Shatner version...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7AvWqM8z3k&feature=related

  16. Sean and Matt,

    This is a really interesting discussion/misunderstanding. It certainly does seem to be a clear case of contrasting positions: on the one hand Idealism and on the other Empiricism. I must admit though, my own position is certainly partial too, and it's therefore probably unsurprising that, as a UK citizen, I'm more tempted to side with Sean in this matter.

    Forgive me for saying this is Matt, but I think "Sir Ken" has played you for a song with his "coded" language and romantic idealism. When you say:

    "It is absolutely a societal responsibility to the extent possible to create genuine opportunities for everyone."

    Is this a Rawlsian assertion or just a commonplace interpretation of the American Dream? And are you under the impression that there are any societies which even remotely provide such opportunities in real terms?

    The point here, I think, revolves around the question of choice. People who have the privilege of better education, more money and more time are in the position of being able to “reflect” and make choices about their future. Reflection doesn't come for free - it has to be cultivated and given space to develop. Many people on the bottom rung of society often don't even have the time to be able to reflect and make clear choices about WHAT they'd like to do let alone HOW and they very often don't have the inclination to reflect because this has never been cultivated in them or valued by their social habitus. Simply creating “opportunities” is utterly negligent at the very least. If I were to credit Ken Robinson with anything, it would be to acknowledge that he at least seems to recognise this fact - though he never mentioned it in his talk - why would he - that would call for a real revolution, not the cozy let's make a better world together romantic fantasy that he was peddling.

    On a lighter note you might like this:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0DUsGSMwZY
    Look out for the word "inclination" by the way - it's very telling I think.

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. Sean,

    I stand by what I said that we have both made our positions perfectly clear. I understand your perspective quite well, I just don't agree with it. There is a difference.

    The only shoes either one of us can walk in are our own. You are being just as presumptuous as I am when you assert you know what anyone besides yourself wants and/or needs out of life. You may *feel* you have a better handle on the reality of the state of things, but that's neither here nor there.

    And since we are coming dangerously close to making this personal, as I feared we would, this is truly going to be my last response to you. I wish you the best.

    As for J. Hamlyn's comments:

    "And are you under the impression that there are any societies which even remotely provide such opportunities in real terms?"

    No. In real terms I think all societies fall short of achieving this, but that doesn't mean we as individuals and collectively don't continue to try to make the world around us a better place, even if just a tiny part of it.

    You may think that's simply naive jingoism, but my entire life I've been surrounded by people who have tried to do just exactly that, and we're not just talking about people who come only from privileged positions.

    "Simply creating “opportunities” is utterly negligent at the very least."

    Why is it "utterly" negligent? And what exactly do you propose being done instead?

    "Many people on the bottom rung of society often don't even have the time to be able to reflect and make clear choices about WHAT they'd like to do let alone HOW and they very often don't have the inclination to reflect because this has never been cultivated in them or valued by their social habitus."

    I think this is not just condescending but patently false. If there is anything utterly negligent about how societies treats the people living at the margins, it's the presumption of what "those" people can't do.

    If you don't believe me, I point you to Anil Gupta and the Honey Bee Network as a source of independent confirmation.

    To finish with Sir Ken, since he's the focus of the original post, all I was pointing out was he was talking to a predominantly American audience, and I think he tailored his language to cater to that audience. It was also a "rally the troops" kind of speech intentionally short on detail. That doesn't invalidate the message.

    It doesn't bother me in the slightest if you want to think me naively optimistic, or have been played for a song, because I'll take it any day of the week over pessimistic cynicism. Far too many people spend way too much time talking about what can't be done instead of what can.



  19. Anonymous9:37 am


    I thought your last post was your final word? Did you pick up this style of discussion from your kids? Are you going to put your fingers in your ears and go "nah-nah-nah can't hear you now"? LOL.

  20. Hi there Matt,

    Blimey we really are all roots and leaves in this discussion aren't we?

    There's another TED video which James has linked to from his Doceo site in which Simon Sinek discusses “How great leaders inspire action” which is probably relevant here. I don't doubt that ideals and inspiration galvanise people and that's great. What I object to is the suggestion that simply because someone is inspiring that they have all the right solutions. This, I believe, is a very dangerous idea indeed and it’s why I personally try to scrutinize rallying calls very closely.

    You may call my position pessimistic cynicism - and part of our disagreement is that I would also take that “any day of the week” over what I would characterize as having my head in the clouds. I would prefer to call my position critical:

    “At any rate, there is a historical fact that the Ionian school was the first in which the pupils criticised their masters, in one generation after the other…It was a momentous innovation. It meant a break with the dogmatic tradition which permits only one school doctrine, and the introduction in its place of a tradition that admits a plurality of doctrines which all try to approach the truth by means of critical discussion.” Karl Popper

    So, to get back to the main point, we have to ask ourselves if this “agricultural model” which Robinson talks of is really the solution? I would argue that it isn't, and simply because I can't come up with an alternative doesn't somehow transform it into the right thing to do. Simple solutions are great for making inspiring presentations and “rallying the troops” as you say. Fine.

    As an attempt to reconcile this disagreement I’d like to suggest that we need cynics like myself and Sean (sorry Sean!) just as much as we need idealists like yourself. Perhaps together we can get a better picture of the whole tree (roots, leaves, trunk and all) and the solutions which we arrive at together will be all the better for it.



  21. I think it's time for the classic line; "This correspondence is now closed. Ed."

    See you on another post!

  22. Educational Reform must be Professor Led: We Mucked it Up
    Only we know that Teacher Preparation and staff development are seriously flawed, and often painfully inane. There is no real market place in proven ideas, in some ways Teacher Education is controlled by well intentioned but misdirected interests that can include Schools of Education, publishers, self-important foundations, and yes, by weak professors and teachers who get a net gain from generations of ambiguity about our critical mission, powerful professional teaching. Current Teacher Preparation is a mishmash of competing whims and untested practices with no continuity or coherence across the profession. Every other profession has a common core of principles and PRACTICES that everyone is expected to know. Of course, there are outstanding teachers and teacher Education programs but this is random when it needs to be highly replicable.
    Join the dialogue to raise awareness of this critical problem ironically it has an easy, inexpensive solution. The goal is to craft a system for identifying and refreshing a core curriculum of Best Instructional Principles & Practices as opposed to mere “standards.” Teaching is about doing. This would lift the entire profession since there is no other profession that has not done this in some shape or manner. The absence of preparation in a core curriculum makes teacher education impossible, and therefore, evaluation of teacher effectiveness and accountability based on student outcomes illogical, if not irrational. While there is no consensus on core principles and practices to guide instructional decision-making there has been a pretty remarkable, though unheralded progress in pedagogical science made in the last 50 years; it could be called a Cambrian Period as when many new life forms began to appear on planet earth.
    The aim to better regulate teacher preparation may only appear to reduce professionalism, but it is in fact next-generation professionalism; especially now when information is massive, but distilled knowledge still thin. For example it is now widely acknowledged that pilots make many fewer errors when they follow the industry wide constructed check-off lists before takeoffs and at landings. Similarly, life threatening errors have been reduced by a considerable degree when surgeons and support staff have carefully followed check-off lists before, during and following surgery; the more error prone surgeons have been made less so, and the more skilled ones even more so. Ideally, and most likely, as teachers are guided to better instructional decisions, an overall enhancement in decision-making, and strategic thinking are also likely to follow.
    All stakeholders can now be more easily involved in identifying Best Practices, and in the ongoing process of providing field-based guidance of where these choices falter and/or simply need a bit of tweaking or customizing. The effort would take place on the web where all could see and participate, and to that extent would be a transparent and tangible exercise in science, conflict resolution and participatory democracy

    See:http://teacherprofessoraccountability.ning.com/main/invitation/new?xg_source=msg_wel_network And…http://bestmethodsofinstruction.com/
    Or our newest site featuring advanced teaching methods for and concerns of Professional Teachers: http://anthony-manzo.blogspot.com/2010/05/race-to-top-accountability-leaves.html
    Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus


Comments welcome, but I am afraid I have had to turn moderation back on, because of inappropriate use. Even so, I shall process them as soon as I can.