What have we got to lose?


A few months ago I wrote a post about Sir Kenneth Robinson and the TED talk that brought him a great deal of attention and admiration. Once again, I find I am inspired by Robinson and the TED phenomenon, only this time Sir Ken is an indirect participant.

TED recently began compiling playlists of their talks as selected by people with significant credentials and credibility. Diverse luminaries such as Bono, Bill Gates, Bjork and Geoffrey Canada curate talks which are meaningful to them. The one I’m interested in is a set of ten videos Robinson loves.

I watched the whole thing over the weekend and it was indeed truly fascinating. However, I very much doubt the average web surfer will also devote just over 2 hours to view and absorb all that is on offer. So here, first collectively and then individually, is my take.

Final Thoughts First

Conventional practice does not get much of an endorsement from these talks. Six presentations centre on dynamic work done in developing nations, three of them highlighted weaknesses in the way established western education systems go about the task of teaching, and two of them were borne out of radical technology inspired innovation…outside of schools. This is hardly surprising. After all, Robinson’s first contribution to TED was entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”

There was a far more significant theme that ran through all ten videos however. Great things are accomplished in education when learners are allowed to be the driving force. The sense I had of it was that a quantum leap in learning is achievable when the learners are given greater autonomy and encouraged to be more proactive. It’s not as simple as saying ‘the big people should get out of the way’ but that’s close to the mark.

There is a problem in summarizing these videos though. Their insights are dangerously easy to over simplify. Much of it appears so obvious when you watch them that you could be forgiven for thinking ‘Of course! That’s just common sense. Don’t schools know about all this stuff already?’ But it’s not as easy as that. It has now been a few days since I watched these videos and I’ve thought about them often as I go about my work. I’ve looked about me at my conventional school – my big conventional school – and decided it’s a good case in point for not demonising the traditional, conservative education model which it so accurately represents.

The teaching and learning done here will be all too familiar to many of you. We are administered through a state sanctioned curriculum. There are tests, standards, and reports. There are uniforms, bells, class sizes, leadership structures, subject departments, rows of desks and discipline policies. Overseeing it all, largely unnoticed, is a timetable. It is a classic example of, as one talk suggests, a bureaucratic model that hasn’t really changed in over 100 years. It is easy to criticise as out dated and, as one talk put it, obsolete.

On reflection though, I’ve decided that to do so is unfair. To paint a picture of this and other conventional schools the world over as factories that treat children as so much product on an assembly line is to exaggerate the reality. This is because the overwhelming majority of students who attend such schools get a great deal out of them. Furthermore, the vast majority of staff in such schools like working with people and love teaching and learning. There is creativity in these schools and an important difference is being made to peoples lives.

I take the point though that this is not always the case for everyone and results can be mixed. Which takes me to the nub of the matter. Conventional schools place an enormous importance on social cohesion. Their bureaucratic nature may be controlling but it is also a stabilising influence. They have a vested interest in the status quo and it’s hard to shift away from that. By contrast, I think these videos, showing wonderful advances in education, suggest the most inventive, dynamic, experimental, free-thinking and creative people are working in environments where there is nothing to lose.

Established education systems and the schools they administer do have something to lose by scrapping old, conventional methods in favour of radical and untested new ones. Who can blame them? It’s not that they aren’t open to the ideas. They just don’t want to risk getting it wrong and would prefer someone else tried it first to be sure.

So with that in mind here’s a summary of Robinson’s top ten. All of them are full of excellent insight and have implications for making all schools better. Just how that gets done in practice though is a little tricky and may take a while to work out. I encourage you all to look at these talks and consider what they have to offer.


10: Let’s use video to reinvent education

Salman Khan explains how the Khan Academy came to be. He’s an engaging presenter and there’s a cameo from Bill Gates at the end that I think is significant. My take on the KA phenomenon is that it is a victim of its own success and too easily dismissed by conventional education as an Evil Empire endorsed fad. That’s unfortunate since I believe he’s on to something. His contention that students are more comfortable working at their own pace, reviewing the sections that didn’t sink in and then rapidly improving thereafter rings true to me. The idea of reversing the homework paradigm so that much of the knowledge acquisition is homework and what is normally homework is done in class is particularly interesting. Can’t bring myself to get enthusiastic about the gamification he discusses with Gates though.

9: Education innovation in the slums

Once Charles Leadbeater gets going, he inadvertently encapsulates the theme I described above. You could look at Finland for a peek at the future of schools … or you could go to the slums of Rio. If you want to see a place where education is a matter of life or death, you wont find it in Helsinki.

8: “To this day” … for the bullied and the beautiful

Shane Koyczan gives some biographical context to a poem he then recites. All I can say is that you should watch this. Twice.

7: Teaching one child at a time

India, the second most populous country in the world, is an odd place to micro manage education but that’s Shuka Bose’s story. She can tell it better than me but I’ll make two points about her talk. Firstly, she nails a fact of life “When you talk Global, you are talking English.” Secondly, she’s an educational outsider, having come from a previous career in commerce, who ignored the insiders that said it couldn’t be done.

6: Teaching Arts and Sciences together

Mae Jemison, astronaut, doctor, dancer, makes a good point in a 2002 presentation that sadly shows its age (back in the day when power points where new and interesting). Her central premise is extremely important; that our fixation on putting learning into categories and specialised fields of study is limiting. My only real issue with the talk is that she uses herself as an example of multidiscipline cross-pollination. I think she’s just too good for most of us to relate to.

5: A girl who demanded school

The bio calls Kakenya Ntalya ‘fearless’ and I’m inclined to agree. This remarkable young Massai woman’s story highlights how schools were once the best protection of basic human rights in much of the developed world. While many of the talks inadvertently undermine the place of school in society, this one showed why we need them.

4: The El Sistema music revolution

What a paradox music is. So liberating, so creative, yet demanding rigorous discipline, coordination and structure. For its students El Sistema may or may not lead to a career but it will offer an escape from poverty and oppression. If the difference I make to the world measures as a small fraction compared to Jose Antonio Abreu’s achievements than I will be a very very happy man.

3: Build a School in the cloud

Sugata Mitra’s presentation was probably my favourite of the ten. The ultimate example in letting people “get on with it” when it comes to learning. I’m not completely all in with the concept of a school in the cloud but it warms my heart to see proof that all a young curious and motivated mind needs to achieve great things is a scrap of opportunity.

2: Turning Trash into tools for learning

No need to say much. Just watch it. Arvind Gupta is Awesome.

1: What do Babies Think?

For me, this was a case of preaching to the converted. One of the Linguistics Units I teach is all about language acquisition in newborns so Alison Gopnik’s contention that babies are super computers in nappies was one I already considered to be fact. Robinson’s top choice has significant implications for education. If we are serious about developing minds, we could invest a bit more in pre K or early childhood learning and, while we’re about it, let the kids get on with the job and stop holding them to standards that are relevant to us and not them. Something I’ve mentioned before and believe in passionately also.