"Let me keep my mind on what matters
Which is mostly standing still
And learning to be astonished"

~ Mary Oliver ~

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sir Ken Robinson -- Educating the Heart and Mind

Aug. 25, 2011, Queen Elizabeth Playhouse
I'm still applauding Sir Ken's talk.  I first saw him on Ted Talks five years ago and he still inspires.  Here is a summary of his latest talk in Vancouver:

Schools keep children’s differences deeply hidden.  The standards by which all students are  measured, and the conformity that is expected  systemically embed the notion in our children that if they don’t meet those standards or conform to expectations, that there is something wrong with them, they’re “no good.”

Kids often get branded by their ethnicity, gender, “ability”, behaviour, or other single entity.  Systemically, we have created built-in stereotypes in our schools – stereotypes about what or who is acceptable, and stereotypes about those who differ.  We know that humans thrive on diversity, not conformity.  Everything creative, innovative, out of the box, comes from someone who thought about things differently, did things differently!  We know that children are interested and productive when they are engaged and passionate about their learning.   We keep asking children to modify themselves in order to fit into the school curriculum and the standards.  Instead, teachers need mandates to modify their programs to meet the students’ individual needs and interests, to know and act upon just what children’s individual “engagements” are!

There is a crisis in the world’s natural climate, but we also have a crisis in the human climate.  Statistics indicate a 40% drop-out rate in the USA.  Why?  Robinson says it’s because of disaffection and disengagement. Suicide rates are historically high.  Four times as many men as women commit suicide.  Why?  They feel unsuccessful, not good enough.  We live in a time of family breakdown, unemployment, and yet another “lost generation.”  One of every 31 is or will be in jail in the USA.  This is a catastrophic cost to pay for our extreme lack of social cohesion.  In Canada, we like to think that we’re not as bad off as those in the United States, but we must be aware of “losing” our young people, too.

Robinson says that education can be the solution, but changes must be made -- systemically!  The system is faulty.  To be born is a miracle; every child born, a miracle – and what do we do with these miracles who come into our schools?   The ideology, values and assumptions that are taken for granted in our educational systems exclude so many children.  These values need rethinking, re-visioning!  Conformity and standardization are the rule – we run our schools like fast food chains.   Schools now are trying to guarantee world-wide uniformity.  But what if we change those values and assumptions to be more like the Michelin Guide – that is, use criteria to evaluate success and high quality but create choice in styles, methods and what is produced.  Schools need to honour diversity -- diversity in who students are, in how students learn, in how teachers teach, in what students are passionate about learning and in how students demonstrate their learning.  

Our schools follow established patterns, long-term habits.   When baby boomers were children, tonsillectomies became a medical contagion.   They were the habit of the time.  Now we are in the midst of an ADHD plague; the habit of diagnosing this label is at an epidemic level.  We know that 900,000 children in the USA have been falsely diagnosed – but you see, this is a form of conformity, too!

Sir Ken’s message:  Personalize, don’t standardize!!

As long as our underlying assumptions and beliefs separate the mind from the heart, and indicate that only the mind is what is important in our schools, humans will feel this terrible schism.  There is more to us than the thinking, academic, mind!!!  We can better apprehend ourselves and the world without this division, a division which rapidly leads to exclusion.

The disciplines in academia are value-laden and hierarchical.  We’ve disembodied our children, honouring the academics over the arts, making high marks in reading, writing and arithmetic more valuable than physical, emotional and social development.  We value sitting still over how a particular child may learn best, labelling the child as unable to pay attention, all blame placed on that child.  We need to bridge this mind-body and mind-heart separation.  We need to value and give time to our inner space, our feelings, our ways of expressing ourselves.   

Sciences are directed to explanation, wherein objectivity reigns.  The arts, however, describe; they give an account of our experience, personally, subjectively.  We no longer live in harmony with the natural world but are separate and shut off from it, and now we have lost or have dismissed our creativity, our empathy, our imagination and intuition.

The task?  We need to have a more unified conception of what it means to be human, to explore and understand the natural combination of feeling and knowing and the connection between them.  According to Sir Ken, we’ve lost our spirit and must reconnect ourselves with ourselves and with each other.


  • Recognize that education is personal – therefore, we need personal curriculum, based on relationships between student and teacher, students and students, passion and engagement
  •  Put arts back into education – the arts are now so marginalized, and yet it is through the arts that we humans express ourselves!  The arts, including physical expression, should be at the centre of our education!
  • Mindfulness is needed – to assist with calmness and overall awareness. 
  • Humans are not mechanisms; they are organisms!  So we must look at the nature of the school.  See it realistically.  Then work together to improve it.  We can remake our schools organically.

Will it be easy?  No!  But, as Anais Nin spoke of the pain of containment being greater than the pain of bursting out of the bud, we need the courage to do this.

Sir Ken acknowledged that yes, there are schools who do this already, schools that teach from a pedagogy of care, schools that see the individual child and encourage each child’s passions and interests.  But those schools and those teachers do this in spite of the system, not in concert with or because of the system.  It’s high time that we make the eccentric the mainstream!

Let’s focus on social emotional learning, self-awareness, education of the heart.  To do this does not interfere with the education of minds!!!  In fact, all the research demonstrates that those who are socially and emotionally well also do better academically!

The real curriculum of conformity and standardization are hidden and embedded.  We now need to embed what we know matters – getting to know our kids, knowing what makes them tick, knowing what their passions are, how each learns best, what engages them.  Teachers need to know what they are doing, need to be conscious and aware of why they use certain strategies and not others.

Robinson says we can learn from Peter Brook, the famous British director.  He  writes about “the empty space” that is the stage and  what makes theatre the most powerful and transformative – he says it’s only the basics that are needed, leave out a lot, leave just the actor, the audience and the space in between, the space to create!  Applied to education, we don’t really need fancy, well-equipped schools at all – just a teacher, a learner, and a strong relationship between them.  Let them create the learning together.

Perhaps teachers require coursework on pedagogical caring, or at least emphasis on pedagogical sensitivity in their own training.  They should come to school with the conscious intention of creating a caring classroom and supplying the conditions for thriving! 

Sitting down for six hours a day doing clerical work is not what children should be doing in school!  And we know this!  When children can’t succeed at this, we label them and medicate them, rather than examining and changing the system that marginalizes them and makes them feel unsuccessful.

Yes, we are creating the problems for our children, systematically and systemically.  And we can do something about it.  Let’s stop the bad habit now!  Let's get kids to move, to meditate,  to tap into the learning and to express themselves in many different ways.  Are we creative enough to make the necessary systemic changes?  Yes!  Let’s create a culture where people can do their best work!