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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Sir Ken Robinson on the Power of the Imaginative Mind (Part One)

The internationally renowned innovation consultant calls for transformation, not just reformation, of public education. More to this story.
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Sir Ken Robinson on the Power of the Imaginative Mind (Transcript)

Ken: Good evening. Education reform is, I think, now the major global challenge, and I just wanted to share some thoughts with you then open this up for some conversation before we're done. Who's been to Las Vegas?

All: Yeah.

Ken: What is that? [Laughter] Really. I mean. The only reason Las Vegas is where it is, is the thing I wanted to think about this evening, which is an extraordinary power that human beings have and that no other species so far as we can tell shares with us. It's the one thing that makes us distinctively human. I don't mean that-- the power to make Las Vegas, but the thing that underpins it. It's the most unique capacity that human beings possess, and it's the one thing we'll rely upon to take us safely forward into the twenty-first century. And the irony is that I believe in education we spend most of our times-- most of our time trying to stifle it, or to inhibit it in some way. Not deliberately, but systematically. What I mean is the power of imagination. Human imagination is all that stands between us and still living in caves. It's the source of every form of human achievement in literature, in science, in the arts, in human relationships, in business, in the economy. It's what has given us six thousand languages currently spoken on earth. It's what gave us the Sistine Chapel, the music of Bach, the music of Mozart, the great traditions of the East, Confucianism, every world philosophy-- it is at the root of every distinctively human achievement, and it's the one thing that I believe we're almost systematically jeopardizing in the way we educate our children and ourselves. So I want to speak a little bit about that, and really to put three ideas to you. I know that looks like five, but that was a gesture, okay?

Don't be so literal. We won't get anywhere like this. [ Laughs ] Yeah. These are the three ideas. Firstly, those of you-- and we are all engaged in education, or we wouldn't be here. The first is this, that we are engaged globally in a revolution whether we like it or not. We can't get off and decide, "Well I'm not going to be part of it, frankly." It is global in character, and it's literal. What I mean is it's not a figurative revolution. Not something we choose to call a revolution. It is an actual full-on revolution. A revolution is a period in history when things that you take for granted turn out to be untrue. Things that you think are obvious turn out to be obscure. Things that you think are certain to happen do not happen, and that's what we're living through just now. The difference I think here is that the forces that are shaping this revolution globally have no historical precedent. We can look back to times with enormous turmoil. We can look to the Industrial Revolution, we can look to the Enlightenment, we can look to the Renaissance, we can look to the great turmoils in Greece in ancient times. There is nothing that compares with what we are now living through, and we have no way of anticipating its outcome. How many of you have got young children of elementary school age? Okay. Or grandchildren. Let's be fair. Okay. And the rest of you have seen such children, have you?

Thank you. The man over there has seen one. Thank you.

They are to be seen wandering the streets, so you know, at your leisure see if you can spot some. Children, young children, starting elementary school this year will be retiring 'round about 2070, if they ever do retire. Think about that. 2070. Nobody has the faintest idea what the world will look like in 2015, or 2020, let alone 2070, and yet those of us who work in education have the responsibility to enable the students for whom we're responsible to live lives with meaning and purpose as they progress through the twenty-first century and beyond it. So there's a genuine revolution. Now every country in the world is trying to grapple with it. According to a report by McKinsey, governments around the world in 2006 spent the equivalent of-- collectively, two trillion U.S. dollars on education. Two trillion dollars on education. Education by any measure is now one of the world's largest businesses, one of the biggest employers. It uses more money, it has more resources at its disposal, it is a massive global enterprise. And every country in the world is trying to reform its education system without exception, and they're doing it for two reasons. One of them is economic. Everybody's trying to figure out how on earth do we educate people to take jobs in economies that we can hardly predict two years out. How do you do that? I mean this is true at the macro-level of national economies. It's also true at the personal level. I mean it was fashionable for a while for educators to say, "Well, we don't really-- we're not concerned about the economy." I think anybody who thinks education is not about the economy is going around with their eyes shut. It is about the economy. Not only, but it also is about the economy. It's why there is such massive investment. And we feel it personally. I mean I think we all expect-- don't we-- that if our children become educated they'll be in a better place to get a job and become economically independent, don't we? I do. I can't tell you how much I want my children to be economically independent, and as soon as possible.

The question is how? You know, what kind of education will meet the current purpose, and ones that we can't quite anticipate? One of the problems we have at the moment is our education systems are dominated by linear assumptions about what will be relevant to the future, and frankly, we don't know what will be relevant to the future. What we do know is it won't be linear. You know. So one of the reflections of that current thinking is that there is a hierarchy of subjects in our school systems. So we have math, and science, and languages at the top because they're thought to be more useful for economic purposes. They are very useful, they're very important, but not more important than some of the disciplines which we'll touch on. These linear assumptions are, I believe, are often diverting some of our best students from their best talents, and we're doing it on the basis of an old model. An old model of educational need and of economic purpose. So the first thing is this. There is a revolution, and it's palpable and literal. The second proposition which I sort of put out to you for the next few days' conversation is that in order to meet this revolution, we have to think differently about human resources. I believe that some of the most brilliant people among us were dislocated from their natural talents by the processes of being educated, and that all of us lost something along the way of our capacity. I spoke at-- Max mentioned the TED Conference a couple of years ago. One of the other speakers there was Al Gore, and Al Gore gave the talk that became the movie "Inconvenient Truth." You've seen the movie, I should think. Well you know, it seems to me that anybody who doesn't believe there's a crisis in the world's natural resources isn't paying attention, but I think there is another climate crisis, which is as deep, as profound, as far-reaching, and as serious as the first one and it has a causal relationship to it. Now, you may say, frankly, one climate crisis is enough, thank you very much. I have one, I'm good. You know?

Please let me deal with this one first. I'll get back to you. But I think this second climate crisis is within our compass directly as educators, and it's connected to the first, and has caused it. This is a crisis not of natural resources, though I believe that's true, but a crisis of human resources that for years, generations, we have made very partial use of the natural resources with which we are born, and with which we would normally depend upon for flourishing communities. And the consequence of this is that we have massive social disruption, massive social dislocation, and massive social unrest, or individual unrest. And this crisis in some ways mirrors exactly the crisis in the natural environment. There are big businesses involved to keep things as it is, there are massive financial investments to protect the current status quo, and the costs of cleaning it up are massive. I'll give you one example. I live in California, as I say, and last year, if I get the figure right, California, according to the published figures, spent-- the state of California spent three point five billion dollars on the state university system. It spent nearly nine billion dollars on the state prison system. Now I cannot believe, can you, that three times as many potential criminals are born every year in California as potential college graduates. What you're seeing evidence of is people being exposed to poor circumstances and bad judgments, their own and other people's, and the costs of mopping this up far exceed the costs of getting it right to start with. The economics are economics of distress rather than of success. And the big shift I think we have to make, and we're seeing this in the field of natural resources now, big businesses getting its head around the fact it's actually cheaper, more cost-effective, better for business to get it right in the first place rather than clean up the mess afterwards. And I think we have to adopt in education, and a model of the ecology of human resources, and to think that through in terms of how we dispose our resources and model our institutions. And it's a radical shift that we have to make. And the third proposition is having thought about all these things, we have to do something else. Most countries are bound on a movement of reform, and I honestly think it's just not enough. No. The issue is not to reform education, it's to transform it into something else because the current system was conceived in most of our countries relatively recently. Actually truthfully, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which is not so long ago, predominantly to meet the needs of industrialization. And the current system in most of our countries is not only-- was not only created in the-- for the purposes of industrialism, but in the image of industrialism. And you see it all the way through the ideology of education, the linear assumptions about manpower resources, the way in which we process children, particularly young children through a grade system. That's particularly the case, I found, in America. It all still strikes me as very interesting that we educate children by age. Why do we do that? You know, it's like let's get all the eight-year-olds together, all the nine-year-olds together, all the four-year-- why? It's like the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. You know? Why?

I know eight-year-olds who are far smarter than some eighteen-year-olds in particular things. But we have this process of putting them through a kind of linear model. So we have to transform education. That's my contention. I believe we need to have a theory of change in the middle of all this as well, about how does change take root, and what's the process by which it'll start to promulgate? And I think having powerful pilot projects, powerful innovative schemes, which can then be mobilized and publicized, particularly through the new technology, is one of the agencies of change. It's not just by persuading our policymakers. We have to do something on the ground. So that's my perspectives for all of this. I want, though, to talk particularly about the place of creativity. It's a particular interest of mine, but it's not a kind of sectoral interest. Creativity, I believe, is as important now, or should be seen as being as important in education as literacy and as numeracy. That we should devote ourselves to developing these powers of imagination, creativity as our strategic priority, and I believe this can be done. I led a whole strategy in the UK. When Tony Blair was elected in '97, he said he wanted to promote creativity through the school system for economic purposes, and I thought, "This is great." My reservation is schools don't promote creativity. Actually, they were never intended to in fairness. You know, they were intended to do something else. This is something new they have to do. Some schools did, some school districts did, but it wasn't an accepted brief for education. And I said, "Well if we're going to be serious about it, let's get serious and talk about what's involved," 'cause I believe that we need to make creativity an operational idea in the way we've made literacy an operational idea. And to see its connections to literacy, and also to math, and to science, and to the other parts of the curriculum, which we should feed in. If we're to make creativity a centerpiece of education, and innovation, and imagination, we can't leave them as being scattered wishes. You know, everyone occasionally has a good idea. The question is how do we train people to have many good ideas? What are the skills involved in doing that? And I think the first thing is to reconnect creativity and intelligence 'cause the fact is that you can't be creative unless you're acting with high intelligence. And the highest form of intelligence is to be creative, so let me define creativity. I define it as the process of having original ideas that have value. The process of having original ideas that have value. There are misconceptions about creativity. There are at least these ones. First, that only special people are creative. It simply isn't true, but this idea has taken root partly because only a few people connect with their creative capacities along the way, and we celebrate them for that. And some people, of course, have tremendously developed skills and we celebrate that too. But everybody has creative capacity. Everybody. The challenge is to know how to cultivate them. Children have immense natural capacities of innovation, of creative thinking, of alternative ways of seeing. They are deeply personal capacities, and great teaching has always been there to model and to bring them out. But we need now to systematize these across whole systems and not to see them as eccentric capacities, which they're preserved of a few gifted teachers. Now modeling that is a twenty-first century challenge. But somebody once said, you know, "The great problem with human societies is not that we aim too high and fail, but that we aim too low and succeed." And for education for the future, for all of us collectively, I think we all have to accept that for now and forever, we have to aim very high in education, and we have to succeed. Thank you very much.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

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Sir Ken Robinson's remarks were recorded on April 10, 2008, at the Apple Education Leadership Summit, a gathering in San Francisco of more than one hundred school superintendents from around the world. Robinson is the author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative.

This video is the first part of a two-part presentation. To learn more, view the second part.

Comments (36)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

R. Cormier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

No one in any of these pages has ever mentioned foreign-language education. Isn't it time we address this vital issue in the US? HOW do we go about developing "project-based educational modules" for such classes when SO FEW Americans can speak a second language to begin with? What kinds of projects are out there for us to use--BEYOND the "101" level, please.

K. Rosko's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you Sir Robinson (and Edutopia) for discussing creativity.

Sadly with the emphasis on NCLB we find that one of the major areas that not only allows for but encourages (and actively teach) creative thinking skills, the Arts, are slowly being eliminated or scaled back to make room for more science and math.

However, if our children cant apply those concepts and skills in an innovative and creative way - what do we have?

Unfortunately I think we also see much education as reinforcing the "standard" answer over the unusual (the old "theres only one correct way" mode of thinking).

To address the first comments by anonymous - I agree.
I think we not only need to rethink education and how educators teach, but how parents see education.
Many see the worksheets as the solution, and fail to see that by doing something as creative as making butter in class for example, you can teach reading, writing and math in a creative way.

Many parents see the butter, but not the math (the only legitimate way to teach math would be with a math worksheet).
Most students however, 20 years later, will remember the butter more than anything else.

I do believe however, that with continued work, and with the efforts of people like Sir Robinson, we may turn the tide.

I am constantly reminded (and remind anyone who will listen) of that scene from Apollo 13 which shows classic creative problem solving at its finest.
The crew is suffering from CO2 poisoning and the canister from the landing craft is a different size and shape that the one from the command module.
The scene shows one engineer throwing a load of everything contained in the craft on the table and saying to the others "We need to make this (lunar module), fit into a hole made for this (command module), using nothing but that".

Creativity at its finest.
Check and see how many of the designers of the Mars Rover were also artists and/or musicians on the side.

Julie Ales's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree 100% with Sir Ken on the need for a systematic change in education -- and how we incorporate creativity in our curriculum. What will this look like? I imagine that we will see classrooms where project based learning is fundamental, where cross grade level students mentor each other, where students take a key role in mentoring teachers on technology (they are way ahead of most of us anyhow!), where students are able to create work that incorporates technology in every discipline. To create systematic change, we need to listen to voices from many sectors. How can we open our education system to the world? How can we open our school doors to the community right outside? Meaningful resources are right there - waiting to be asked. We need to embrace voices from leading sectors of society -- business, the arts, sciences. There is a place for everyone at the table. Thank you, Sir Ken, for your consistent voice of educational reform. -- Julie

Anonymous high school teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sir Robinson's speech was absolute truth, however far too vague in actual HOW-TO's for me. (Perhaps I need to read his book.)
Talk is cheap.
EVERYONE knows "the Emperor" is naked. Most of us are no longer even afraid to utter it and some of us are shouting it. We are shouting however into an echo chamber,the only thing echoing back is apathetic, disconnected, enabled teenagers.
Where is the place to go if you are the one who believes you know how to design and make the emperor's new clothes?
Everyone is talking. Even those who haven't set foot in a classroom in decades for example. Some are doing things in their own classrooms or schools but that will never cause the kind of transformation he is calling for and we all know is necessary.
The real question is how do we create any kind of united force for this transformation? Especially in public education where politicians, who will believe the mathematical impossibility that all children can score above 50% or that one set of tests can gauge learning, are in charge? The teachers, who really could actually CREATE answers, are ignored at best, or at worst, blamed for the 'revolution' Sir Robinson describes.
And yet some of us have to keep fighting in the trenches...or there is no hope.

Geoff Dellow's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You're right.

You need to read his book.

He is quite specific.

He's also chaired an impressive working party in the UK - result "All our futures".

As a practitioner of creativity in the classroom - I can tell you two things.

1. The kids love it and grow in stature. As a result they are better behaved and their learning increases dramatically.

2. Hardly any teachers or 'educators' take a blind bit of notice. -

They have too little time.

They don't like taking risks.

They have a rigid curriculum to follow and a panicked and shortsighted management.

- - - - -

Thousands will die of depression (both literally and mentally) and violence will continue to increase because students of all ages aren't encouraged to be creative.

Feel free to contact me I give practical help - for free! - gd at

Michael Vitelli's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Soon...R. Cormier - We will soon have what you need, "project-based educational modules" Join us!

Dr Charles Parker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with your remarks regarding the revolution of information, with no historical precedent, and the new science directs us to new more useful recommendations from brain science to "just living."

The applications in neuroscience are staggering as we are awash in a sea of descriptive, limited diagnostic subsets so superfiical they are rapidly becoming almost useless.

You must be talking to de Bono... the Kaleidescope of brain science, supersedes the old telescopic view of human behavior. The Diagnostic manual is old, superficial and hopelessly inadequate with the new science.

This crisis is of human resources... simply because we have undervalued the everyday man. Academia leads the hesitant way,looking gingerly at bell curves remarkably exposed by Taleb in The Black Swan. Yawn.... But the promise is in the open communication with everyman... the truth is there,

So I much agree, as an old friend of de Bono, we must join together with creativity and intelligence. Constructive change can only take place within the context of non-Aristotelian thinking.

Creativity is disparaged - as many are terrified of change and new learning. Old information worked a bit, and therefore encourages denial.

Thanks for the excellent remarks,

Mateja Milharcic's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Outstanding and inspirational! Hearing Sir Ken Robinson's speech has made me think of how the school system where I live works or better yet, where is slows down and blocks. It made me contemplate, what and how I, as a special ed teacher and family therapist working with parents of children in mainstream schools, can do to promivate creativity and the potential every human being possesses in themselves.

Mateja Milharcic from Slovenia

Rahul's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your article is very informative for me because I have never heard about Apple Education Leadership Summit, a gathering in San Francisco of more than one hundred school superintendents from around the world. Thanks.

Reilly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You know I have read much information about this popular men. And everything he writes and everything he says is truth. Of course from my part I suggest to read one or two books, that are enough to understand his mind.

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