Sir Ken on why we should leave common sense out of education

Just got back upstairs from Sir Ken Robinson’s lunchtime talk at the RSA based on his new book, The Element. In his talk – among other things – he sought to explain why the educational debate is so cyclical.

Now I’ve heard this argument before, but as usual, Ken Robinson says it very well. People, he said, see education as obvious. Everything about it is obvious – it’s common sense. “I went to school – I know what education’s about”, and “my school was like this, and it never did me any harm” are arguments frequently heard in support of this or that form of education. We should go ‘back to basics’, they tell us, meaning back to what they were told was important when they were at school.

As Sir Ken put it, because education seems obvious, people tend not to question the core assumptions from which they derive their common sense judgements, and their ideas about what the ‘basics’ are. It’s almost like assumptions about education are so deep seated, drilled into us from and throughout childhood, that they are a fundamental part of how we understand ourselves, our own lives, and the lives we want our children to lead.

Add to this the fact that everyone has an opinion because everyone went to school (or didn’t – in which case they’re even more likely to have an opinion on it) and you have the makings of an ideologically entrenched debate. Add further that everyone has a very personal view of education based on that of themselves or perhaps their children and you have the makings of an emotional debate.

Perhaps this explains the special inertia of the educational debate, and its vitriol. Because no one is an outsider.

How do we take the fact that education is something that includes everyone, and make that a democratic, citizen-centric, force for good, rather than fodder for a reactionary, populist, vitriolic debate?

PS The audio of Ken’s talk will be on the RSA site before long – check back here in a couple of days

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Sir Ken on why we should leave common sense out of education

  1. very interesting. Sometime ago I was considering studying a PGCE because I felt I needed a better understanding of formal education (most my work has been in informal education), so I figured teaching for a short while could be useful to develop the work I’m really interested in, but to ensure it was relevant to schools. The people who put me off that idea were a couple of Head Teachers! They felt I’d lose an ‘edge’ that I have from not being within the system.

    Whether this proves to be true is yet to be seen, but I definitely think there’s potentially much benefit from regarding education as not only something that those with educational qualifications can be involved with, particularly where some of those that have those qualifications have an otherwise very narrow view/experience of the world.

  2. louisethomasrsa

    Thanks for this insight – I think it’s really important to acknowledge that while teachers should be supported and valued as highly skilled creative professionals, there are others that can and do contribute to learning processes – both formal and informal – and that those perspectives can be incredibly valuable.

    One of the themes we are exploring as a team is what the relationship between formal and informal learning could or should be. It would be interesting to hear views on whether informal learning can or should operate in ‘formal’ partnership with schools?

  3. Hi Louise – I very much agree. I think if you viewed schools as being in the ‘business of producing young people that can thrive in society’ you’d look to getting the best people around to support that ‘productivity’, not simply narrow yourself to the few with a certain qualification. That’s not to rubbish that qualification (I’d be in trouble if I did as I’m married to a teacher!).

    Likewise I’ve found recent developments in formal education very interesting especially in early years education which seems to have a lot in common with informal education.

    Its difficult to say with regard to informal education in schools – a very key part of what I’ve been involved with is the voluntary aspect of young peoples involvement – the fact that young people can walk away at any stage maybe adds a different dimension. How much adapting this into the compulsory nature of a school setting would affect it I’m not sure – that said we have worked with a few schools and done things pretty much the same we would do normally and each times its worked well. Certainly there’s much to share between both sectors.

  4. Mengfei

    I think that schools should absolutely engage with local informal learning institutions, as often these organizations have the advantage of greater freedom in designing learning experiences that are not hampered by a certain set of standards or curriculum. They also allow students to extend their learning experiences beyond the typical classroom into another environment in the form of after school programs or field trips, and studies have shown that this extended form of engagement and attention that students receive beyond the typical school day makes a huge difference.

    I certainly agree with Robinson’s skepticism about “going to back to basics” , but I also feel there are certain common sense things that seem so obvious and yet still seem to go missing : things like we learn best when we’re engaged, that we don’t all learn in the same way, and so forth.

    • louisethomasrsa

      Thanks Mengfei – sorry for the delay in responding – I just received notification of this comment from my junk email folder!

      Your point about common sense is interesting – I totally agree that these things appear to be common sense but I suppose everyone’s common sense is different, and comes from different places.

      This is why the debate (on both sides!) needs to operate on the basis of evidence and new knowledge rather than assumption and ideology. Although at the same time we must be careful to respect the limitations of evidence so we don’t fall into the trap of using the success of some initiatives in some places to create more ‘one size fits all’ claims, but rather attempt to create knowledge about where initiatives have worked, under what circumstances, and why, and then empower schools and practitioners to use that knowledge to best effect.

  5. Luorca

    I believe that for a person to be able to change, create and mold productive students, that teacher has to love the profession of teaching. It is true that different people learn through different methods and that is what is left for each teacher as a responsibility, to make sure that the needs of the child are met.
    Teachers have to know a basic background of the students so that the daily plans prepared by the teacher suit each child in the classroom.

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