168: Sir Ken Robinson: Wisdom on the intersection of education, leadership, and the environment (transcript)
As a professor of leadership, host of the Leadership and the Environment podcast and constant student of acting by my environmental values I live and work in the intersection of leadership, education and the environment. Ken Robinson does too but with one big difference he’s been here for decades longer actively practicing in each. This episode approaches each of education, leadership and environment from several perspectives. I can’t say anything better than his voice carries the wisdom and vitality of someone who’s worked here in this space and in the intersection of these areas for longer and with greater passion than maybe anyone I’ve met or worked with and I’m in this world. So without further ado let’s listen to Ken Robinson. I’ll just say as one aside, our schedules meant recording by phone meaning the audio quality isn’t like being in a studio. But I believe you’ll find Ken’s message transcends the medium and hope you listen past the noise.
Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I’m here with Sir Ken Robinson. Ken, how are you doing?
Ken: I’m very well. Thank you, Josh.
Joshua: And I’m glad you’re here. And I hope I don’t make you blush but years and years ago when I started teaching I taught in a very traditional style of lecture and there was a movie called Most Likely to Succeed which is the first I came across you and it was a tremendously influential documentary for me that is not the only thing but one of the main things that shifted me from what I now would call a complaints based education model intoâ€¦ To me it’s overlapped strongly with leadership. And so you’ve been in my life in a way for a long time. I met you in person in November. So I hope you don’t mind my starting with that.
Ken: Well, I’m delighted honestly, I’m delighted to hear it. Thank you. It’s a very interesting movie Most Likely to Succeed and it looks at all kinds of different models of education. And that’s you know it’s been a big theme in the work I’ve done for a long time that there are big differences between learning, education and school. You know kids love to learn. They don’t all get on with education and some have a very hard time with school and my work has been focused on that. We don’t need to fix students. We need to fix school. And that learning is a relationship and that there are all kinds of ways of handling that relationship for the better good of teachers and students alike and for the vitality of education. So yes, thank you. I think Most Likely to Succeed it’s been very widely viewed actually, it’s a good movie. It looks particularly doesn’t it at the work in the second half of high-tech high in California but the principles there apply across all kinds of institutions.
Joshua: Yeah. You talked about differences between learning, education and school and for me as a professor I teach in university level and that was mostly [unintelligible] K12 mostly high school. And I see huge parallels between learning and leadership that I would see them also very similarly, not learning as you described it, not school because I think school is much closer… I don’t know it’s not the style of leadership that I like to practice or teach. And I think that the work that you do in education and in schools and in learning would be very useful in the world of leadership and leadership education and I’d love to hear some things that we could learn, we in the leadership world could learn from you in your world which is very similar world actually. And a lot of overlap.
Ken: Yes. I mean they overlap in almost every way. Just to elaborate briefly on that distinction learning, education and school and I’ll come onto the leadership thing in just a minute. It’s a very important set of distinctions for me really. I mean they’re all connected clearly but learning is the natural process ofâ€¦ Actually, it is the natural process of acquiring new skills and understanding. And weâ€™re born into the world with a voracious appetite, a deep curiosity to learn, to learn about the world around us and also as human beings not just to explore the world but to try and figure it out you know our lives are shot through with fears and ideas and beliefs and values, perceptions shared in other ways. Education, to make the distinction, I think offers a more intentional process of learning, a more organized approach to learning. And it’s something people can do for their own, people are self-taught in all kinds of areas but the most sustained process that we’re all exposed to of intentional education is K12. And then for a great many people higher education beyond that. And we have education systems, as I say, primarily for political and economic and social reasons and quite properly but the conceit of education of organized approach to learning is that there are some things that we believe culturally and for other reasons that people need to learn and we shouldn’t leave it to chance which is why we have a curriculum and why we argue so much about what should be in it. And then the other reason is that we assume there are things that people can’t readily learn on their own and they need some help to do that which is the basis of pedagogy. And again there are endless arguments about how pedagogy works best. But the problem as I said in education is, I mean broadly speaking, is that the way our education systems have evolved is out of sync with the natural appetites and rhythms of learning for most people. It’s not a coincidence that many kids go into education, a great majority of them in elementary school you know their spirits high and the excitement raging to get onto this new thing and by three or four years in the energy starts to stall and by the time people get into high school for many kids it’s died, kind of [unintelligible] on the bench altogether.
Joshua: Or smothered.
Ken: Itâ€™s smothered, yeah. Itâ€™s not because teachers want it that way. It’s the institutional patterns, rhythms, expectations of how the system operates. And it’s a deadening for very many people.
So I’m not arguing against education. I am arguing that we should be revitalizing it and rethinking the basic principles on which we’re operating and why we’re doing it. Schools are different thing. I mean a school in its essence is a community of learners. And I think that is vastly important. Most of what we learn we learn with and from each other and learning is a social and cultural achievement. Schools are best conceived I think as a community of learners. And the trouble is that we’ve come to think of schools as certain types of institutions. Theyâ€™ve evolved in certain ways of the past few hundred years. So we think of them as having particular habits and rhythms and rituals. You know if we ask people to think of a school, we tend to get common pictures of them. Rooms you know places with special rooms and lockers and bells ringing and the day being divided into bits and knowledge being carved up into subjects.
But schools don’t have to be that way at all. And that’s a big part of this is to rethink how schools work. I mean universities are exactly alike in that respect with K12 and there is a bit more freedom in them obviously, more choice but that’s still organized institutionally in ways that don’t always facilitate the kind of learning that is most important for people and so the principles do apply right across. The leadership issue is very important because like all institutions the leader has an overwhelming impact on the character of the personality and the mood and culture of an organization. It’s hard to overstate it, isn’t it? You just have to see what’s happened in America with the change of presidents. It’s astonishing how a change in leadership can affect an entire cultural energy in a country. And it’s certainly true in institutions so the roles of leaders and teachers are leaders in their own fields you know in the work they do with their students. Leadership and teaching are very, very closely intertwined.
Joshua: Yeah. That’s been one of my big discoveries and why I love teaching so much as I’ve evolved. There is a model that I had before which I think drives a lot of the course of style teaching which is the teacher knows, the student doesn’t, the teacher gives information to the student, then the student knows. And if you want to tell how well it’s happening you test them and the more you test, the more you can find out why we’re doing it well. The model from an outside perspective it does make sense. It doesn’t seem to work. And what has led to me to is a model, my current model is more like I teach classes that are, they are alwaysâ€¦ What do they call it? Required classes. [unintelligible] Anyway. They’re not required classes. So people have always chosen it. So I know that they’re in it because they want to be there if they want to be there, there’s something that they want, there’s something that they care about, there’s something motivating them. And I see my role is to find that motivation, uncover it, help them through the vulnerabilities of sharing it and the fear of being judged and things like that and then give them a way to act on it because I’ve more experience than they do. I’m generally older than them although I do teach adults as well. And if I can get them motivated and give them direction, then I just let them loose and then they get results. And that’s also my style of leadership which is it kills me when I hear someone say like, â€œHow are you going to convince someone to do something?â€ or in different words they’ll say like, â€œWhat are the carrots and sticks that you’re going to set up so that they do it?â€ The latter is management to me but the former is just convincing people. It seems like the opposite of leadership to me. And so there’s a parallel and I don’t know. This is what I thought about when you were just saying what you’re saying.
Ken: Well, you know I do agree with that. There are a couple of analogies to draw. There was a book publisher years ago, I began my work in education with an interest in theatre, drama and theater in schools. And that’s what my doctoral studies were about. I wrote a long dissertation about the nature and importance and character of drama as a form of education. And along the way I came across the work of a guy called Peter Brook. He was a theatre director. I mean a very distinguished and accomplished theatre director who for years was involved with the theatre in Britain and then found the Centre for Theatre Research in Paris and was responsible for the whole raft of ready staffing and good and powerful theatre productions.
So he wrote a book some years back now called The Empty Space which was about his ideology as a theatre practitioner and his methods and he said that his interest, his mission so to speak as a theatre practitioner was to help to create theater experiences which were transformatively powerful. And he said you know a lot of theater isn’t like that. A lot of theater is entertainment. It passes the evening. It’s a diversion. But then the evening would have passed anyhow. You’d certainly fall short of calling it transformative. But he said the theater has that power and that’s what he’s interested in in tapping into and focusing. And he said to do that he needed to ask himself a question which is â€œWhen we talk about theater what are we talking about? What is it that we have in mind?â€ And as a way of getting to it, he performs around a brief thought experiment. He says, â€œIf you take a theater experience, what’s the heart of it?â€ And in other words, â€œWhat can you take away and still have it? What’s the irreducible minimum?â€ And he says, well, you could take away the script, a lot of theaters are not scripted. In many cultures historically people didn’t work from scripts. You don’t need a script. You could take away the costumes, a lot of theater isn’t costume. It’s not necessary. You could take away the stage. You could take away the lighting, you could away the curtains, you could take away the crew. As a matter I could take away the director and you could get rid of the building. You don’t need that a lot of theater can happen outdoors and done.
You said when it comes to the only thing you need, the only thing you need for theater is an actor in a space and somebody watching because the actor performs a drama, theatre describe the relationship between the performance and the audience. If there’s no audiences, no theater, there’s no effort, there’s no theater. You need both. And so theater is a relationship worth. And the role of a theater practitioner is to focus on that relationship to make that relationship the most powerful it can be and not to add anything to it which distracts from it or dilutes it. These are the things that we see in theater. Wonderfully powerful theater happening and appear in a big auditorium but you have to recognize that what you’re focusing on is the power of the relationship between the performance and the audience.
And you see I think that’s a direct parallel with education that the role of a teacher is to facilitate learning. And it seems odd to even have to say it but teachers are doing so many other things whether they’re in higher education or in pre-K they’re doing administration, theyâ€™re looking after assessments, there are all kinds of going to meetings, all sorts of things that clutter up the working life of a teacher but their essential role is what they’re there to do is to help people learn to facilitate learning. And my view of it is that if we don’t get that relationship right, if people don’t understand that’s the half of the business that everything should be there to facilitate that, then we’re missing the point entirely. And like theater education has become encumbered with every type of distraction. Now we’re testing regimes with building codes, with union laws, with professional affiliations, with economic concerns and interests and the consequence of that is that it’s perfectly possible for people to talk about education and ignore the very thing that’s supposed to be at the heart of it. You know if the students were to leave the building or the teachers, there would not be anything to talk about. And so having that relationship right is deeply important and great teachers understand that that to be a teacher is in its way to be an artist. I always think of teaching as an art form that a great teacher has like a doctor or a musician or any other professional who understands their role you need to be skilled, you need to be knowledgeable about the work that you’re doing, you need to be practiced, you need to be getting progressively better at it. But a great professional, a great artist understands that there’s a huge amount of judgment, of connoisseurship, of knowing what works here and now, not working off of a formula, knowing that this would be approach here and it might not work somewhere else. This is how we apply this idea in the present.
You know it’s like a great sommelier. You go to a restaurant and there may maybe a wine cellar with thousands of bottles of wine in it but the job of the sommelier is to understand your life and say to you, â€œBut I think this particular bottle would work with what you’re ordering.â€ It’s drawing from your repertory of knowledge and understanding and depth of experience. I think well what would work here and what would work best just now. And that’s what great actors do. They modulate the performance to the energy they’re creating in the room as they’re doing it and great teachers do that and it can involve direct instruction, they can do and it often will because teachers often know and should know more in some respect than the people they are teaching in some respect but it also involves knowing when to provoke inquiry, when to ask interesting questions, when to challenge somebodyâ€™s conventional thinking, when to get people on their feet move in together, when to get them working on projects, when to get them teaching each other and stepping back. It’s why I always think of teachingâ€¦ You know before the word got tainted with other association. But I always think of teaching as enabling. It’s about creating conditions, the optimum conditions in which people will want to extend their own knowledge and understanding. And one of the first roads of this is to say is to fire the imagination, to excite the interest of the students, to try and engage them in the excitement they feel for the questions they are asking as well but to keep extending their reach, to keep cultivating their appetite and their curiosity to learn and giving them challenges so they will extend that. And that’s why I think of pedagogy as an art form because it involves all of that and it’s a relationship you know it’s a complex relationship. In a student group there’s the teacher to the students, there’s the students with each other and there’s all of those to the issues they’re exploring. And I know I’m sure you’ve had it too in your own experience that it can happen that disciplines that you may have started out with a big interest and you start to lose interest in because of the way it’s being taught and the teacher and the personality of the teacher or their approach to it. I can also think of disciplines I thought I would have no interest in at all but I got very excited by because of the way the teacher engaged in the discipline itself or the issues and the topics. So that relationship between the field, the students and the teacher is the heart of all this and that to me is the essential piece, that should sit at the heart of the whole ecosystem of education and everything else like in the natural environment should be organized to facilitate that you know that the role of a teacher is to create that sort of culture in the â€œclassroomâ€, the role of a principal is to create that sort of climate within the institution so teachers and students can do that and an ecosystem builds out. I see a very strong [unintelligible] with the way we think of the natural environment.
Joshua: I have to say that that was one of the most powerful few minutes of listening. I was alternating between listening as an educator myself, as a citizen, as a student, as a leader or a teacher of leadership and I wonder if I can just share a few of the things like I can’t go through everything that came to mind as you’re speaking and pick up whateverâ€¦ I think I was watching a video of you speaking of Shakespeare was once a student and what it must’ve been like to teach Shakespeare English and it made me think of that and that’s lighthearted.
Ken: But it’s true. [unintelligible].
Joshua: Yeah. And who did they have to quote? And well, again I kept translating what you’re saying talking about teaching to talking about leading and how to facilitate learning is something… That means what the teacher does is facilitate and what the student does is learn. And I grew up thinking the teacher did something to the student. I used to think that the leader got people to do things and itâ€™s a very simple thing to say the teacherâ€™s job is to facilitate learning but it’s almost a lot of it is getting rid of all the distractions so the student can learn. Or maybe it’s leaving the distractionâ€¦ I mean letting kids do what they want. I thought a lot ofâ€¦ Have you worked with Peter Gray and or a Sudbury schools?
Ken: I know Peter’s work. Yeah. Iâ€™ve spoken to him. Yeah.
Joshua: I mean lately I’ve been very interested in learning about that model’s learning to let kids just completely play. Well, I mean there’s a lot of structure but it’s not the structure it’s different but that kids want to learn. Or the John Dewey quote that has stuck with me more than maybe any others, â€œChildren are always asking questions but almost never in school.â€ and which has many different meanings but I mean that they’re always asking questions, they want to learn. Left to their own devices they’ll probably learn and theyâ€™ll probably enjoy it. And a lot of what we do is getting in the way of that learning.
Another piece of what I was picking up from you was you’ve been doing this for a while and I don’t hear you fatigued. I hear you passionate and that passion for a lot of peopleâ€¦ People dream of being so passionate about something and making a difference. And if anything, correct me if I’m wrong, but your motivation and passion, if I’m reading you right, is as great as ever, maybe greater.
Ken: Yes, it is. I’d say that’s true. Absolutely. And it is because I think the issues are urgent, they are profound and they touch on everything, they touch on what we understand about human growth and development. I feel that education is quite clearly enmeshed in issues of human rights and entitlement. And so it touches on that sense of our purpose in being here. It also reaches into the quality of our lives as a whole and I don’t mean it as a piece of hyperbole. I think these are existential issues to do with the character of our species and how we relate to the rest of the planet. It couldn’t really be much more important than that.
I mean there has been a very long standing conversation as you know about the relationship between nature and nurture in human life and I think anybody who has had children knows that this is a dynamic relationship. I mean that there’s no serious case for believing that children come into the world as a blank sheet unformed. We come into the world fully loaded with characteristics, personalities, dispositions and the whole array of talents and capacities. What becomes of them does have evidence to do with our circumstances and the opportunities weâ€™re given. And education is a very big part of that. It’s how we bring people in to this unfolding story of humanity. I mean it’s at a conservative count over the past 200000 years or so of modern humanity.
There have been it’s estimated maybe 110 billion people who have drawn wrath on the planet. I mean 10 percent of us pretty much on the planet right now, weâ€™re the largest generation in human history by a very wide margin. And we were about 7,5 billion but we’re heading for 10 maybe at the end of this century. So it depends how you count these things you know that’s maybe 5000 generations of human beings and we’ve all contributed to this complex fabric of knowledge and understanding and experience. So we come into the world you know not as blank sheets and we don’t come into a world that’s just started. We come in as fully loaded all kinds of preoccupations and talents and dispositions into well that’s in process with deep histories, deep cultural patterns, deeply ingrained habits of mind. And part of education is to help children look into themselves and discover what lies inside them and part of it is to, and it’s related, is to help them look out and engage with them make their way in this world and make their contribution to it and live a life of purpose and meaning.
So how we think of education, how we cultivate these talents, what we value in the curricula that we present and what we convey in the teaching methods that we practice is deeply informed. It’s deeply important for the individuals, itâ€™s deeply important for how we become part of the growing consciousness of our species. And to have all that reduced to some kind of torpid mixture of testing profit and SATs and SATs in the interests of what I think is now a bankrupt system is a terrible degradation of the proper noble purpose of education. And I do think it’s existentially important for us because we have for all our genius and innovation and creativity and we’re still creatures of habit and weâ€™re governed by all kinds of negative as well as deeply positive feelings, emotions and capabilities. We’ve created a series of circumstances now particularly the past 300 years in the way we live, the way we have disregarded our relation to the natural environment, the way we’ve disregarded callously our relation with other living creatures on the planet where we are creating conditions for our own possible extinction. I mean I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that.
And education is deeply rooted in all of this. And it’s why I’ve often quote H.G. Wells, the science fiction writer who once said that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. And I think it is. I think it’s as serious as that. And it is at the level of individual lives I mean I think of my own life, Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s been true of yours that the effect of education, of the teachers we meet, the things we’re encouraged to learn, the things we’re encouraged not to learn, to turn away from or to embrace all of that then has a profound effect on how we see ourselves and the world around us and how we operate within it. So it happens at that granular level of the individual but it happens also at the overall level of how we are together as an increasingly populous species on this planet. And you know we’re living at a time where we’re putting almost reparable demands on the planet’s ecosystem to stay in our way of life and also the time when we’re more connected. So it’s a time of great hope and optimism but also a time of very serious and potentially tragic challenges for all of us. So education is not trivial. And I say my concern for a long time has been that it has become trivialized by the wrong sort of conversation about what it’s for and how it can be made better. And it certainly can’t be made better with this sound regime of testing and linearity and complaints that has politically come to dominate the way education is being talked about in our public forums. I think it’s much more serious than that. And also much more hopeful that if we get the mixture right.
Joshua: I was listening to the way that you talked about how it is now which is like a drudgery, feels like it’s like in mud and not playful mud like kids playing and what youâ€™re talking about before, the words, it felt like glorious or beautiful and like the way someone might describe a sunset. You used the words I think noble and certainly important. And from that perspective it’s such a different world than I thinkâ€¦ I grew up thinking about of education is like the more school side of things. And it also brought me back to what you’re saying before about drama. And I just recently had a conversation with a professor at West Point which is one of the premier places that teaches leadership, and she’s deeply passionate about teaching. And we were talking about how they teach drama there and it’s not obvious to the outside person why drama would be taught at a place that’s teaching the military. But it’s completely obvious to them although not to everyone. And like there are some people who got caught up in the testing stuff and drama doesn’t really make sense. But the people that is most important to are the generals like the people who have been out practicing with the school teachers for an entire lifetime, 40 years sometimes and they’re the ones it’s like, â€œThis is what is most important here.â€ You know you’ve got to do your pushups, you got to march in formation but that’s where the stuff thatâ€¦ I am not going to be able to put that into words but I hope that people listening that they get it. You know in ways that I haven’tâ€¦ I barely been alive that long let alone practicing something for that long.
And also there’s a distinction that I like to make, not betweenâ€¦ When I started teaching a friend of mine was taking acting classes, Meissner technique in particular which is like method acting. And at the time I had noticed that actors possessed great social and emotional skills that a lot of my professors didn’t. And yet a lot of them had dropped out of school. Like on Inside the Actor’s Studio routinely most of the guests, I think probably three quarters of you know Oscar winning actors and so forth, they dropped out of school. Then I learned that they didn’t stop learning. They learned in a different style. And so I wanted to learn that style because I could see the effects. And this learning drama in the sense of like reading Shakespeare and seeing Shakespeare perform and things like that and Shakespeare as a stand in for, let’s say, all art, all social, expressive, emotional performance based or you know it doesn’t even have to be performance based because it could be visual art. There’s learning from other artist but there’s also learning to practice it and putting yourself out there and allowing yourself to be vulnerable and searching inside yourself that these thingsâ€¦ I can’t put into words how important that is and how I’ve only recently gotten this that that’s the stuff to keep. If you have to keep anything, arts and sports activities seem to me far more important thanâ€¦ It’s not like one or the other but there is such a dearth of that in my formal education outside the classroom I was there.
Ken: There are two key observations in all of this for me anyway. I mean one of them is that if you think of this ratio between nature and nurture that all of usâ€¦ Itâ€™s one of the points I’m making at that book I wrote a few years ago called Out of Our Minds but all of us essentially live in two worlds and we know this is true. You know there’s a world as it was once put that exists only because you exist, itâ€™s the world that came into being when you did, it’s the world of your own private consciousness the world that began when you did and will end according to how you think of these things you know. But it’s the world of your own interior consciousness and imaginings and capacities, the world that it only exists because you do. But there’s another world that exists whether or not you exist. It was the world that you came into that was there before you were born, it’ll be there when you’ve gone, it’s the world of other people, other minds, of other consciousness, of material objects, of other living things. And that’s there whether or not you are there, the world it exists whether or not you exist.
And education has to look in both directions. It has to help people understand the interior world and the world around, as I was saying earlier, and so that’s the first thing. The second thing is that we don’t live in the world as it seems to me as other creatures do. I mean we make far too much of the differences between ourselves and the rest of life on Earth but in some respects we clearly are different and the most obvious way to say it is that we live in a world of our own creations that we are empowered with deep resource of imagination and all the practical powers of creativity of putting our imaginations to work and to fabricate, to make things, to compose theories and ideas and to create artifacts and technologies. I mean other creatures pretty much live in the world as they find it and we don’t you know we create agricultural systems with great technology or scientific theories, we’ve built machines that enable us to leave the planet, not just look at the stars. We are by far the most creative creatures of our [unintelligible] ever to walk on the earth. And at the root of all that are the immense powers of imagination and abstract thought and of representative thoughts. Now the fact that we are speaking over a telephone using words and languages that we didn’t invent ourselves but we are as to and we can contribute to. Now we have the capacity to step through our own consciousness and turn to the minds of other people and to communicate with them in the ways that I think which is simply don’t and I think like the same degree of sophistication.
And you know what we’ve come to think of the arts and the sciences have equally powerful roles in all of these areas. I mean the natural sciences, not a caricature in a way, the natural sciences are our attempts to understand the world around us in their own terms. And the aim of a natural scientist is to develop theories and ideas and constructs our understanding which are independent of their own experience of these things. You know our understanding of the cosmos is not dependent on the personality of Newton or of Einstein. The test of it is whether these ideas can be validated independently of the people who compose them. Their objective in that sense you know that they are open to challenge and verification. So part of the role of the natural sciences is to try and make sense of the world around us in its own terms.
The arts sort of sit on the border, I think, between our interior and our external world. The questions [unintelligible] is what’s the nature of our experience of these things. What is it like as a human being to have this experience and how does this appear you know in terms of the quality of our lived experience. And art forms you know are as various as our capacity to represent these experiences in us you know sometimes we represent them visually, sometimes we do them in sound or some combination of the above. We represent these experiences through our physical movements, through our engagement of the people and drama is quintessentially the application of our imagination creativity into ascetic forms which address the issue of what do people do in these circumstances, how do people behave faced with these challenges, these circumstances or in concert with this belief system what do people do in these circumstances.
So all of the art forms and their vast variety and there are so many of them but they’re all caught up in this puzzle for meaning, for understanding, for making sense of what it is to be in the world from the perspective of the experience of living it. And as you say it’s neither one or the other, it seems to me, that there should not be a choice in education between the arts and the sciences. And in fact, until relatively recently in human history people didn’t make such choices and all the scientists I know are impelled by a deep passion for the work they do, they are impelled by aesthetic consideration and the artists I know are also highly objective and deeply skilled in what they do and they’re just as involved in the search for understanding of a rigor.
One of the failings of the school system so far institutionally, I am not [unintelligible] individuals, its inability to recognize the extent to which the arts and sciences coexist in our search for meaning and purpose in our lives and therefore how they address the different parts of that quest and should do in education. This shouldn’t be a choice between them and to me you know a balanced education has to provide equally for the arts broadly conceived, the sciences, the physical education because we are embodied creatures and we don’t just think about the world between our ears. We live in the world holistically. And also between literacy and mathematics we shouldn’t be trying to distinguish the importance of these things but to see that they are synergistically connected. And it’s why I keep coming back to this idea that education is facing similar challenges now as we do in the natural world, in the rest of the natural world, I should say.
I mean as I said the other analogy I wanted to mention is that our education systems grew up in the context of industrialism in the 18th and 19th century, into the last century and were largely modeled on the practices of industrialism you know mass systems of public education came about to meet the needs of the industrial economy and in many respects they resemble industrial processes. But the real, you know that is to say they’re linear, they’re about conformity, they’re about compliance but the real analogy for me is not industrial manufacturing which is about inanimate objects. It’s industrial agriculture which were systems to cultivate living creatures and plans but based on industrial principles and in particular mechanization and mass production, the emphasis on yield and also facilitated by the development of pesticides and of chemical fertilizers. So you know for the first time in history it became possible to cultivate vast tracts of monocultural plantations and to do this through chemicals and technologies which were alien to the natural processes that were being used to cultivate. It was a great success for a very long time.
The trouble is you know with industrial agriculture we’ve imperiled the planet because we’ve been destroying water systems ecosystems and also the soils on which we all depend. We know this. We’re seeing vast erosions of soil across the world now. And these practices vibrant and successful as they’ve been in their own way are simply unsustainable and they are unsustainable because they’re destroying the natural ecosystems on which we all depend. And you know the difference with organic and sustainable agriculture is that they work with the natural rhythms of life you know sustainable farms recognize that instead of being focused on yield and output at the expense of the soil the way you have sustainable crops and cultures is to focus on the soil. If you get the soil right, the plants will be fine. If you ignore the soil they may be fine in the short run but they won’t sustain it and I think what’s happened education is exactly parallel. We’ve had these depersonalized inhuman processes of testing and compliance conformity which dulled the appetite for learning and along the way we’ve eroded the culture of education. And what I’m talking about is a cultural shift. If you get the culture right in an organization, like in the natural if you have a vibrant mix in the ecosystem of the arts, the sciences, if you have a vibrant ratio between teachers and learners, close links with the community, then schools flourish, communities flourish in a way that they don’t if you’re trying to treat them as impersonal processes that are driven by casting and they’re kind of rather sterile form of data production. So knowing, understanding how the natural processes of life and learning operate should be the key to not only to how we do education more effectively but how education becomes synergistic with the lives we’re trying to live on the planet generally and in both cases we’ve managed in the past 300 years to kind of dissociate ourselves in this process. And I think that the timeâ€™s racing ahead of us now where we have to get back in sync with these natural rhythms or will continue to pay a big price for it.
Joshua: You spoke a lot about the environment and the parallels. One of the questions I like to ask guests that is one of my favorite questions to ask is what the environment means to them. Because at the beginning I thought everyone’s going to answer what I did but the passion seems to be as great with everybody but itâ€™s unique and I mean it seems to me that when I asked about your sustained and probably increasing passion is that there’s something coming from inside on education and I feel that’s also the same in the environment and I feel like maybe they’re very, very similar but I’m not sure.
Ken: Yes, they are. Yeah. I think it’s the same. I’d say it’s the same or comparable set of issues and they have common roots and their solutions are the same. I tend to think of it as that we have two climate crises at the moment which are interconnected. There’s the crisis in the natural environment which is undeniable. As we look around as we know this. I mean when I gave a talk at TED in 2006, the first one, I remember quoting Jonas Salk who said that before insect were to disappear from the earth all life on Earth would cease within 50 years. If all human beings disappeared, the rest of life would flourish. And that’s the essential truth in that. And we’re seeing it now with the collapse of insect colonies and populations all round the planet just now. This is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. And it’s because we’ve marinated the earth and chemicals which are having toxic effects on the vitality of the planet and also with the farming practices which we know I mean you know all this [unintelligible] you know it’s clear that our appetites and our industrial practices are destroying the ecosystems on which we are actually dependent. This isn’t to say that the Earth canâ€™t do it. I mean the Earth is going to be fine. I mean the Earth will shake us off like a [unintelligible]. The planet survived much worse things than humanity over its four and half billions of life so far. But you know we’re creating conditions which are unsustainable for us. And it’s within our power to fix them.
But we have a similar crisis in human culture just now. And you can mean you can enumerate them. We have a court welfare organization, one of the greatest causes of morbidity among human populations just now is depression. And this at a time when we’re materially better off than we’ve ever been in the history of humanity taken overall. We’re going through the world’s worst opioid crisis currently. We’re seeing a continuation of brutal conflicts. And I know that Steven Pinker [unintelligible] quite rightly will argue that these things are in decline but they’re still present and all the evidence is that where our technology is outpacing our spiritual capacity to deal with the consequences of it. And so there is a crisis in human culture and we know we see it and it’s being added to for our students very often by the unnecessary pressures that we put them under in education and education is not the source of all these issues but it should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And that’s the recalibration I and lots of other people are arguing for that if we can get education and more on the side of the solution here, we’re going to have a much better chance overall of evolving our relationships not just with each other but with the planet that we depend upon. So yes, they are directly connected to my mind.
Joshua: You know there’s one thing I ask this comes from my project based mode of teaching and also since the people I have on the show tend to be leaders and influential people and people that are in lots of peopleâ€™s communities and forgive me if I sound too pedantic or we can edit this out if you want but I invite people to think of something, guests I invite them to think of something that they could do, not big or small just something to act on what the environment means to them. And if you’re up for it to share how it goes because I think a lot of people at home feel like, â€œWell if I act but no one else does, then what I do doesn’t really matter.â€ But you know I’d like to bring to them the experience of others who do act on these things. And I wonder if you’d be game for coming up with something to act on, something youâ€™re not already doing.
Ken: Do you mean for the environment?
Joshua: Yeah, well for the environment but acting on your values, acting on what it means to you. So not necessarily what the New York Times says you should do or Greenpeace says you should do but what you feel is important.
Ken: Yeah, well, [unintelligible]. You know people often ask about this you know about how do we change the system whichever system they happen to be thinking about. And obviously my main preoccupation for a long time has been the education system. And I think people are often inhibited from doing that because they think it’s too big a system and what difference will anything make. But human systems are as you know they’re what theory is called complex adaptive systems. They’re not fixed, they’re not mechanical, they’re not impersonal. They consist of the millions billions of actions that individuals take all of the time.
So the education system to take an example is made up of millions of people, literally hundreds of millions of people and their different systems around the world, hundreds of thousands of institutions, countless interest groups and it’s enacted every day in what people do. And it changes. It does change. Systems change all the time and they can be slow to change, they can have sudden lurches forward, they are constantly subject to what are called emergent features, emergent properties. So for example, you know technology has changed the way a lot of education has been practiced. People can be deeply affected by a new idea as you said you were and I often am. So it’s important to recognize that systems exist in the actions of the people who populate them.
So I always want to say to teachers, for example, or anybody worked in education, if you’re in the system, you are the system, you’re a part of it. And what you do is the system in practice. So if you’re a teacher and you have a group of students when the door closes behind you, if there is a door, what you do next is the education system for the people that you’re facing. And if you change your practice, you change the system for them. And if enough people change what they do it becomes a movement and the movement then becomes a transformative change. And those things do happen. Historically they have happened. It’s what’s happening just now in the environment as well with the kids coming on the streets and challenging the lethargy of politicians in dealing with these large challenges that we face. It’s happening with parents who are deciding to oppose testing in schools. It’s happening in the Me Too movement, change happens more often than not from the ground up. And certainly as much as it does from the top down.
I did a book a few years ago called Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. And I think it’s important to recognize that change comes from the ground up as often as from the top down. But it’s associated with the climate. So to come back to what you’re saying about leadership and I’ll give you my example in just a minute, one of the ways that we describe the environment obviously, the social as well as their physical environment is we naturally use the word culture which is you know a term about growth and culture it’s been defined various ways as the way we do things around here or more specifically as the values and forms of behavior that characterize different social groups. But culture is essentially a pact that communities make to behave in certain ways and sometimes they know they’re doing it and sometimes it just becomes unconscious that it’s through peer pressure. Another way I think about culture is it’s about permission. It’s about what’s all right and what isnâ€™t, that’s where the boundaries of permission are set. I mean the best recent example like those comes to mind is that living in America as I do now it’s been interesting to see that in the last number of years every state in the union has passed legislation to approve same sex marriage. And that’s great. It didn’t happen though because members of Congress had a retreat in Aspen and decided they should sell this issue to the electorate. It happened because there was a change in the culture. People change their minds about this issue and required that the change came in the law. It came from the ground up. It was a changing climate. And I think of the role of leadership as not so much command and control but as climate control. The role of a leader in an organization is to set the cultural tone of the place and to say what’s okay, what’s not okay, you know, what works and what doesn’t and where are the boundaries of the mission and to be sensitive to the way the community itself is maybe reshaping and redefining it with their own expectations and their experiences. So the role of a leader is to facilitate as well. That’s why I think the teachers as leaders and great leaders are also teachers. The two roles are very, very close if not identical in many respects. So it is about living by example and it is about knowing where the boundaries are and settling or resetting them. Itâ€™s what happened in the transition between President Obama and President Trump. You know they both in our ways have reset the boundaries of what’s possible and what’s permissible. And people will take their own view about where those boundaries are and you know which is the better set of parameters but that’s what the role of leadership turns out to be.
And so you can through your own example change the system according to how you set the boundaries for the people that you affect and you work with within your own classroom and in your own life. And so coming around to what you’re saying I mean yes, I think itâ€¦. I never get much away from Gandhi’s invocation to be the change that you want to see in the world. And there are all sorts of ways in which I hope anyway I live my own talk. I mean we’ve always tried to practiceâ€¦ My wife, weâ€™ve been together for 42 years and we’ve worked together all this time on these sorts of issues that we’ve tried to be the change that we are advocating for in the way that we live our lives and in the work that we do. And it’s been true in the way we’ve always thought about and acted in education. And I mean I spent my life doing this. It’s not like it’s a hobby. And it’s also true in the way that we think about our relationship with the environment. And I mean for example it’s a very practical thing for me what one of the ways in which weâ€™re despoiling the planet and also I think that some of cruelty on the planet is through our obsession with a meat based diet rather than a plant based diet. And half my family my brothers, my peers are vegan. I teach on the edge of veganism all the time. We eat very little meat. We avoid it whenever we can. We have very little to do with animal products and we have very little to do with artificial much as we can and you know it’s something we try to practice all of the time. You know I’ve been involved in supporting those movements in various ways as well. We’ve been doing… You know my brother has a very good website called The Peaceful Planet and my two youngest brothers I mean, young I mean they’re in the 60s now but they were both professional soccer players in their day and fought for veganism you know from a very early age. So you know there are ways in which you can practice these principles in your daily life. You don’t have to launch a national campaign. You just have to be part of the change that you want to see.
Joshua: Yeah. I agree. I agree with everything you just said. And I wonder ifâ€¦ One of the things that I do when people have a few things in mind is I suggest making it a SMART goal you know specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time round and I wonder if you’d be game for doing something you said on us on a short term basis like you if youâ€™ve been thinking about vegan to try vegan for a short time.
Ken: We do. Absolutely. Yep, yep.
Joshua: So I’m a little torn now because I think that we’re past when your time was up.
Ken: I have to go out. Iâ€™m like five minutes pass if that’s all right, Joshua.
Joshua: Well, I’d love to have you on a second time to share some of those experiences and also because this to me has beenâ€¦ Every podcast I listen to several times but this is reallyâ€¦ I really appreciate what you’ve shared and the breadth and depth of experience.
Ken: Thank you.
Joshua: You’re welcome. I could see a lot more. And I often close with asking is there anything you’d want to say directly to the listeners unprompted by me?
Ken: Well, you know there’s a quote I came across years ago, it proved to be quite controversial for a lot of people I know but it’s by [unintelligible] Robert Ardrey who wrote a book about the nature of humanity. And it was just a very interesting quote that’s often been referred to about the struggles that we have collectively and internally with [unintelligible] the competing instincts and so on. And part of the quote is it says, â€œWe were born of written apes, not fallen angels. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles are not irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth of, our symphonies however seldom they may be played, our peaceful acres however frequently they may be convergent to battlefields, our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished? You see I’m paraphrasing now, â€œThe miracle of humanity is not how far we have sunk but how magnificently we have risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.â€ And I think an essentially optimistic view of the constant kind of trials and dynamic of what is to be a human being in a rapidly changing world. And education is best conceived I think as part of the uplifting process by which we continue that that ascent of appealing to our better instincts and our better capacities and our ability to work together and to live together more harmoniously not just among human beings but with the rest of life on Earth. I mean that’s I think a higher calling and education to me is an essential part of that process. And it’s what sustains my interest in it.
Joshua: And I’ll put that quote written on the webpage. And Ken Robinson, thank you very much.
Ken: Itâ€™s a great pleasure, Josh. Thank you.
It almost pained me to hear the conversation reach its end for time. Everything he said I would have loved to pursuit in 15 different directions. I really wish I could. I’d say if only we had more time, I would have loved to continue. But I know that had we spoken for a day I still feel like we barely scratched the surface. To say nothing about acting on what we spoke about which would be a whole other set of things. Naturally, I would have liked to formalized an environmental challenge to hear his results but, one, time and, two, he clearly already does these things. Ðnyway. I’ll do what I can to bring him back. In the meantime, I recommend listening again, I know I will, and watching his videos of which there are many online.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees