May 31, 2021
So far, one of my most downloaded episodes has been number 42, on Sir Ken Robinson's talk Do Schools Kill Creativity? Numerous members of the audience have told me that they appreciated my critical eye on the matter. But at that time I had not read any of Ken Robinson's several bestsellers. "Don't you think you should? How can you be critical of him when you haven't even read him?" It was goading from someone else, asking me to rise to my own intellectual standards, that made me finally give in. I decided to read a book of his. Suffice to say, it was not a very good use of my time.
Out of our Minds comes with the subtitle Learning to be Creative, and yet it gives very little concrete advice on that point. A jumbled book with no clear order, it mixes worn-out platitudes with click-baity list articles ("Nine qualities of a creative leader" - all that was missing was "Number six will shock you!!"). He weaves in talk of a "schism" between arts and sciences without properly defining what he means by this, as well as the occasional anecdote about children and potential that he is so well known for.
Probably the most startling of his theses is that the current school system (by which he means children sat at desks learning knowledge from books and a teacher) is a product of the Enlightenment. Besides the questionable relevance of this to the book's pruported subject matter, the idea itself immediately makes no sense to anybody with the faintest inkling of the history of education. How, I wonder, does he think school looked before the Enlightenment? Did children in ancient Babylonia engage in "active learning" according to their kinaesthetic learning styles? Did Jesuit schools organise project-based learning and focus the curriculum around dance? Were Chinese boys studying for the Imperial examinations letting their curiosity go wild through the freedom of discovery learning? The irony that the intellectual tradition to which Robinson himself belongs owes much to Jean-Jacques Roussea's 1763 book Emile, and so is itself a product of the Enlightenment, is completely lost on him.
But the problem I want to focus on is not the structure or even the content of the book, but simply the methodology. Robinson is revered around the world, and yet his arguments can hardly be called cogent, thorough, or research-backed. Sprinkling in clever anecdotes and aphorisms might work for a casual chat, but it doesn't do much when you're trying to seriously prove a point. I suppose this book is not meant to convince unbelievers, but for consumption by those already sympathetic to his message.
I would like to remind you that I was at first a fan of Robinson, all those years ago. It was a combination of his charisma and my values that made me like him, and I was intrigued by his arguments (such as they were). Had I been better armed with knowledge of how learning really works I could have realised what was wrong from the outset. At least now, all those years later, I can share my criticism of him and hopefully make more people realise the flaws in his ideas - and his methodology.
Ultimately, the questions that the work of Robinson raises are worth discussing, but properly. Let's not simply swallow his words whole without thinking about their validity. Let's think about what he is suggesting, and investigate it with proper scientific scrutiny and broad humanistic erudition, as far as we can.
Enjoy the episode.
42. Do Schools Kill Creativity? by Ken Robinson