Review by Stephen Lockyer

Primary teacher

20 Mar 2022, 5:00


As McAfee needs there to be viruses on computers, the Robinsons need us to be the problem

Imagine if… by Sir Ken Robinson and Kate Robinson

By Sir Ken Robinson and Kate Robinson






1 Mar 2022

(Rapturous applause)

Welcome to my TED Talk. Like others before me – most famously this book’s author – I will try to distil a large and complex idea into a small, shareable clip.

(Photo of Sir Ken Robinson)

Of course, filleting away the flesh of our arguments risks diluting our message. And we all know where that leads.

(Growth Mindset slide. Knowing audience laughter)

Ken Robinson achieved fame by evangelising to educators about how their system – and therefore their practice – stifled creativity. Amazingly, as many bought into this idea as challenged it.

(Picture of Sir Ken’s daughter, Kate)

Winning over the doubters has fallen to Kate Robinson, who took over completing the book her father had begun. The result is this ‘long letter’, distilling a lifetime’s work into a pocket-sized book.

(Photo of a book in a small pocket)

Now, it is hard to write concisely, but even harder to read concisely. So for those of you with only minutes of reading time (i.e. teachers), just leap to page 25 where the book actually starts. You’ll miss nothing more than the authors’ thanks to Overlord of Automation, Jeff Bezos. Yes. Really.

(Photo of a megalomaniac cartoon)

The meat of this essay is Ken/Kate’s passionate argument that ‘anything’ can involve a level of creativity ̶ not just the soft, artsy subjects we think of as creativity catnip. A good premise. I found myself nodding along enthusiastically.

(Text on screen: The Education Chapter)

Then this line appeared: “Children love to learn, they do it naturally; many have a hard time with education, and some have big problems with school.” I thought: you could put any two teachers together and productive debate about this would effortlessly ensue. Imagine if that was the purpose of this book… But just as McAfee needs there to be viruses on computers, the Robinsons need us to be the problem.

(Cartoon building with ‘Amazon Prime-ary’ signage)

The book stops short of one trope, at least: “preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist.” But one line asks for schools to foster better partnerships with the world of work. I can confirm from experience that it’s easier to uncover KFC’s secret recipe than find a teenager a week’s work placement. Imagine if someone wrote a book encouraging businesses to form better partnerships with schools.

(Picture of Oliver Twist, holding a bowl out, marked ‘real world partnerships’)

Sentiments like this make this vaulting, evangelical read feel sadly out of touch with grassroots teaching. Yes, there is a decline in creativity. Yes, some teachers use formulaic lessons and copied resources. But why? Imagine if this book had drawn on those true creativity heroes in real classrooms to find out their secret recipe. But I guess Jeff Bezos has bought it regardless, so why bother?

(Photo of a North Atlantic tree octopus)

Instead we are offered a curriculum composed of eight core competencies: curiosity, creativity, criticism, communication, collaboration, compassion, composure, citizenship. I have no problem with these. I love them and work to instil them in my own children (those in class and the freeloaders at home). Imagine if we knew whether they meant the same to you as to me, and what that looked like in the classroom.

(Slo-mo footage of a farm)

Instead we are presented with another trope: the ‘school-as-industrial farm’ model – a cliche so infuriating I have created a ‘schools-as-Greek-style-yoghurt’ model in response.

(‘Schools-as-yoghurt’ graphic)

Robinson is/are on the money about one thing: One size doesn’t fit all. What they’ve missed is that in just half a generation’s time we’ve already seen a huge transformation towards personalisation. And it’s not clear any of it is down to being derided from the relative safety of a viral YouTube video.

Overall, this is an interesting and thought-provoking book. Its lasting message that “the system is broken. You are the system” may win a new generation of disheartened teachers around, but not me. Like so many, I work on the eight C’s daily from within the confines of ‘the system’. It’s no educational panacea, but it’s all we can do some days without running into a corner and sobbing. Imagine if that wasn’t the reality.

But then how would TED Talks go viral?

Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

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