A Review of Sir Ken Robinsons Ted Talks on Education

Since they were first posted online in 2006, TED Talks have become an internet phenomenon, with well in excess of one billion views. Many of the talks have also been downloaded thousands – or even millions – of times for presentations to students or corporations, who find the ideas discussed by some of the world’s leading thinkers both inspirational and motivational.

 One of the earliest TED Talks to be posted was a speech on the future of education by Sir Ken Robinson. Called “Do Schools Kill Creativity,” it has since become possibly the most listened to speech in history. It has been downloaded more than 20 million times across all platforms, and when the number of presentations at schools and conferences are taken into account, the number of people who have seen Sir Ken’s talk may exceed 200 million. Although there are now almost two thousand TED Talks available at the official TED site, on YouTube, and elsewhere, “Do Schools Kill Creativity” remains one of the most popular and most discussed of them all. More than six years after it first became available to the general public, the video continues to be downloaded almost 10,000 times every day.

Sir Ken’s central contention is that everyone is born with creative tendencies, but these are drummed out of growing minds and bodies by an education system that unfairly prefers regimented left-brain thinking. Although young children are naturally imaginative and prepared to take many creative risks, these innate talents are often undervalued in schools, with their focus on maths and formal language and ‘getting the answers right’. Robinson claims that the ultimate outcome of modern schooling is to prepare students for higher education, and that our notions of ‘success’ are predicated on who gets to go to university.

According to his thesis, this narrow view of human intelligence(s) is contrary to the great diversity of natural abilities. Education, says Robinson, tends to be linear and rigid while the human experience is “organic and largely unpredictable.” For many good reasons – economic, cultural, and personal – schools need to change the way they are preparing young people for the future.

There are several reasons for the incredible popularity of this talk. To begin with, Sir Ken is an engaging and entertaining speaker, whose clear and forthright theories are presented in an almost conversational tone. Little anecdotes punctuate the big ideas, and there are jokes too. Robinson’s quip about university professors using their bodies merely as a form of transport “to get their heads to meetings” has been quoted many times since. Sir Ken is a genial presence whose personal appeal is not diluted by any distractions. There are no slide shows or cue cards; there’s just an audience and one man on a stage, speaking from the heart.

Secondly, the ideas being presented are Romantic concepts that have a broad appeal. They resonate because everyone feels that, in some way, school stifled their natural talents and stopped them becoming who they should have been. It’s a concept that’s alluded to in Dickens’ “Hard Times”, when Mr. Gradgrind mistakenly asserts that schools should “Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life,” and also in Robbie Williams’ marvellous poem, “Hello, Sir.”

More than this, however, is a widespread belief that schools are failing to meet all the challenges of a rapidly changing world. Standards appear to be falling in several key areas, discipline and engagement are not what they once were, and an increasing number of young adults are leaving school without a clear idea of what to do next. Although governments, educators, and school boards are furiously trying to adjust, what is happening is often nothing more than an adjustment of existing strategies. What Robinson proposes is not a learning ‘evolution’, but a ‘revolution’, and this is an attractive idea.

In 2010, he presented a follow-up TED Talk which developed these themes. His talk was called, appropriately enough, “Bring on the Learning Revolution.” Comparing human resources to natural resources, Robinson suggests that society makes very poor use of its human talents. The problem, he claims, is that the essential needs of education were established during the Industrial Revolution, and they have changed very little since. Using the analogy of wristwatches, he suggests that, in truth, no-one needs to wear them anymore, but people do so out of habit.  Similarly, education no longer serves its clients well – it is outdated – but it continues to persevere in something like its original form because society habitually expects it to.

The solution, according to Robinson, is that Art, Music, Dance, and other forms of creative learning, should be embraced as willingly by schools as are mainstream subjects like Science and English. They should not be seen as academically ‘second-class’, or supplementary to the needs of students, but as intrinsic parts of a well-rounded education.

“Bring on the Learning Revolution” includes more humor and more anecdotes than the earlier Talk. Robinson’s ideas and personal credentials were established in 2006, and in this presentation, he is able to make more of an emotional appeal. He quotes Abraham Lincoln and W. B. Yeats, and tells a moving story about a boy who wanted to be a fireman. It’s an almost perfect speech, and because so much of what he says makes perfect sense, it is hard to disagree with Robinson’s central thesis. (A detailed analysis of the speech can be found here.)

Sir Ken Robinson’s two TED Talks are among the high-water marks of what TED set out to do. He presents bold new ideas in a way that is compelling and inspirational. Most people who hear him speak will understand that what he says has great validity. The problem seems to be, however, that to make the changes he suggests will require a creative courage that is contrary to the way that many people are taught – by schools – to think.