Sir Ken Robinson Opens Up about Learning and Personalized Education

Editor’s note: I interviewed Sir Ken Robinson by phone shortly after the release of his new book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Movement That’s Transforming Education. In it, he highlights solutions to the most pressing, intractable challenges in education.  

In this edited transcript, Robinson addresses how children learn, the need for personalized education, and why it’s now possible to develop personalized education on a broader scale. Read and listen to some of Robinson’s thoughts here, and look for more of our interview in the Winter 2016 issue of Independent School magazine.

On How Children Learn

Ari Pinkus: “I want to talk about learning. How can we harness the way children learn in their early years to create a better learning environment for youth?”
Sir Ken Robinson: “One of the things I say in the book is, well, firstly there is a big difference between education and learning. The difference is that learning, as I see it, is a process of acquiring new skills and knowledge. And we do that naturally and voraciously from the moment we’re born. The example I give is children learning to speak, which is a remarkable achievement, when you consider what’s involved and … the very plasticity of the brain, which allows children to adapt to all sorts of different language environments from the moment they’re born…. There doesn’t come a point where you sit your child down at the age of 18 months and say, ‘Look, we need to talk.’ Or as I say in the book, or rather, ‘You do. And this is how it works.’
“You don’t formally instruct children to speak. You wouldn’t have the time and they wouldn’t have the patience. It’s far too complicated. They absorb it. There are all kinds of things that we learn to do that we couldn’t be formally taught to do because they are too complicated inherently.
“The thing about education is that it’s intended to be a planned program of learning. The assumption in education systems is that there are things that are too important for children to learn to leave to chance, that we want them all to learn them, so we organize things so they will. Or there are things that are also too complicated to learn that they need some help in formal instruction. Writing’s a bit like that. It’s actually quite a lot like that. Children don’t spontaneously learn to write left to their own devices. They need to be helped because these are complicated cultural systems that have accumulated over a very long period of time.
“So my argument is that in some respects the conditions that we create in schools for children to learn can hamper the way they learn. Children often learn best collaboratively. They often learn best when they’re doing practical projects not ones which are anti-theoretical, but which see links between theory and practice.
“They, particularly young children, need time to play; they need time to exercise physically. They need to be encouraged to follow their curiosity. They need to have their learning structured, of course, but it needs to be structured in ways that will help them apply their natural talents and interests to what they’re trying to engage with. And increasingly in this test-driven culture, we’re setting up systems of education, which are antipathetic to the natural processes of learning.
“Now I am by no means the first person to say this. Of course not. I say throughout the book that the ideas I’m presenting aren’t in many cases original to me. I’m not claiming that. I’m really trying to rehearse, revisit, review these ideas, given their relevance to today’s education. I mean, for example, there are lots of proprietary systems in kindergarten. Kindergarten itself originated as a natural process of learning. It uses this very metaphor of organic growth. It’s a child garden. Maria Montessori, over 100 years ago, was developing systems which were more contoured to children’s natural rhythms of learning. You see that in the work of Rudolf Steiner, Pestalozzi, all kinds of people. Now, I’m not recommending any particular system in the book. I’m simply saying that there’s long been a recognition that children learn best in school when the rhythms of school match their natural appetites for learning, and encourage them rather than confront them.”

On Why Personalized Education Is Necessary

Pinkus: “You spend quite a bit of time advocating for a deeply personalized approach to education. I’m wondering if you can explain in a little more detail what this approach looks like.”
Robinson: “Well, one of the ways I describe the aims of education is that education overall should help children understand the talents inside them as well as the world around them so they become active and compassionate citizens and fulfilled individuals. It’s seems to me axiomatic this that we all live not just in one world; we live in two worlds. We live in a world that was there before we came into it. It’s a world of other people, of objects, events, and circumstances, the material world, the social world. It was there before you got here, and it will be there when you’re gone all being well.
“But there’s a world that exists because you’re in it. It’s the world that came into being when you did. It’s a world of your own feelings and emotions, the world of your private consciousness that only exists because you exist. And education, in my view, has to address both these worlds equally and the relationships between them. Many of the problems that we face in schools, particularly in high schools these days, of disengagement, of nongraduation, of alienation, of hostility to education, originate because of our neglect of the child’s inner world, of the issues they bring with them to school every day, of their need to connect with their own talents and interests. That’s why I’m saying that education is not a mechanical process, it’s a human process….”
“…I don’t mean by personalized learning that students should only be left on their own to pursue their own interests, be left largely to their own devices without any intervention from teachers…. I’m saying that there are things we need to learn in common about the world around us, but we need to balance those with opportunities to explore our own perception of them, our own take on them, and our own inner world of our talents and feelings.
“It’s why we need a balanced curriculum — not just the STEM disciplines, important as they are, but also one that includes equally the arts, the humanities, and physical education because these are all ways in which we begin to understand the world within us as well as the world around us.”

On Why It’s Now Possible to Carry Out Personalized Education More Widely


Pinkus: “You write in the book, ‘the great irony in the current malaise in education is that we know what works. We just don’t do it on a wide enough scale.’ What is unique about this time? Why are we now well positioned to carry out personalized and engaged education more widely?”
Robinson: “Well, firstly, I think it’s absolutely vital that we do. I also say not just personalized but customized, by which I mean customized to the area. I was talking this morning with people who have been involved in the transformation of education in Cleveland, and what they’ve been trying to do over the past eight to 10 years is to reorganize their education system to take into account the actual circumstances they face in that city. That’s been true in Massachusetts. It’s been true with the A+ schools that you see across the Midwest. All schools that are trying genuinely to meet the needs of the students within them have to take into account not only the students themselves and the relationships to the teachers but the cultures they bring to school….
“…We do now have access to technological resources which are unprecedented. I don’t, by any means, see technology as the whole answer to education, but it does provide some fantastic opportunities to personalize education in several respects. One of them is that the tools we now have, properly understood, offer extraordinary opportunities for students and teachers alike to access ideas, materials, historical, cultural from all around the planet. We’re no longer confined to the resources of the classroom or the school library….
“Secondly, the tools themselves make available all kinds of practical opportunities for making things and for collaborating … there’s always been a relationship between technology and creativity, whether it’s a trumpet or a chisel or a microscope…. So the digital technology we now have makes possible all kinds of practical, creative inquiries….
“But we can also and some schools are doing this already help to personalize the schedule in ways we couldn’t before. If you have 1,000 kids in the school, and all you’ve got is a slide rule, and a pen, and a rubber, an eraser, it’s very hard to plan an individualized curriculum for everybody that takes into account everybody else at the same time. It’s an extraordinary complicated job of logistics. But with the technology we now have, it is perfectly feasible to give every child their own curriculum or at least their own schedule….
“We do have these opportunities now and … we couple them with the creative resources of teachers and schools and all school principals I know who do want to create the very best environment for their kids to learn properly, for their schools to become a vibrant part of the community. We have those tools. What we now need is the confidence and the policies and the determination to develop them and to put them into practice.”
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Ari Pinkus

Ari Pinkus is a former digital editor and producer at NAIS.