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?
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 Edutopia.org