Q&A: Sir Ken Robinson’s Advice for Dennis Walcott

Q&A: Sir Ken Robinson’s Advice for Dennis Walcott

July 22, 2011 at 6:00 am

Sir Ken Robinson spoke with MetroFocus about what he believes should be the Education Dept.'s top priorities. He is seen here at the closing plenary session of the National Governors Association Convention in Charleston, S.C. Aug. 7, 2006. AP Photo/Alice Keeney

Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation. An estimated 200 million people in more than 150 countries have watched his 2006 and 2010 TED Talks. This week, he is in New York City to participate in The Imagination Summit, the first national conference focused on making imagination an integral part of American education.


Q:  As New York City’s new Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott preps for the beginning of the first school year under his reign, what advice would you give him?

A: My main advice is that you have to recognize first that education is about people. It’s a personal process. Anyone I know who has been through education, which is everybody, what they think back is the teachers that they had. Don’t you?

Q: Yes, Mr. Smith, Kenneth Smith.

A: What did Mr. Smith do?

Q: He was the English teacher in seventh and eighth grade and if his name weren’t Smith, I’d have been able to find him through Google, as I’ve tried to, and thank him for giving me a real love for language and writing and poetry and reading that has turned into a career for me.

A:  That’s just an example of how it is a personal process. Everybody who drops out of school has a reason. Everybody who succeeds has a reason.

That means that you have to do this school by school and classroom by classroom. The plain answer is there is no alternative. It’s the only way to do it. Any attempt to do it other ways doesn’t work. Witness what I’d call the massive failure of No Child Left Behind.

For kids, their whole experience comes down to the school they go to and the teachers they are with.

I’d say to New York City that it all comes down to the leadership and the quality of the teaching. It doesn’t matter whether they are charter schools or public schools. That’s not the issue. There are good and bad of each kind of school. Leadership means giving people the freedom to innovate in their school. Obviously you need a framework of accountability though. But as soon as you start trying to micromanage these processes from City Hall, you’re in trouble.

Q: And what would you advise Dennis Walcott, as he’s weighing all sorts of big decisions?

A: I would encourage him to see the cadre of school principals as the major allies and essential partners in reform. We need to invest in the professional development and the recruitment of great principals. The principals then need to be able to focus on the development of their faculty. It’s true in every old field of work.

In sports, a great coach can take a group of people who aren’t performing well and turn them into a fantastic team.  And a really bad coach can take a really great team, talented individuals, and ruin it within a season.

It’s like your teacher, Mr. Smith, if you have someone in the front of your classroom who looks you in the eye and you can see he means it, you respond to him because it resonates with you.  But if you have someone at the front of the class who’s just parsing bits of grammar and it’s all about preparing or the test at the end of it and he doesn’t really see you, you think, “This doesn’t have anything to do with me.” People don’t thrive with a dry diet of standardized testing.

Q: What can teachers do — teachers who are just starting out or who have been at it a long time?  Take someone who may be inspired by what you have to say but who still has to work within the system that hired them, with mandated curricula, with their own performance judged by standardized tests?

A: Teachers can do a lot.  When the door closes on the classroom, they are in charge of the experience those kids are having.  The primary role of the teacher is to engage them and gain their interest, to stimulate their imaginations.   Teachers who get that have a better time themselves. Levels of enjoyment go up for both students and teachers.

As an example, there was a national literacy strategy in England. And part of it was that every elementary school, every teacher, had to do this thing called the literacy hour that was quite closely prescribed.

One day this friend of mine had this group of kids and the lesson plan was all about paragraphs, what they are, why we have them. So, you can imagine how exciting that sounds to a kid.

Without talking about paragraphs, what this teacher did was he had them talk about the long-running soap opera “EastEnders.” As the kids watched an episode and he asked them all about the story lines, why scenes changed and why the camera kept moving around and changing angles within scenes.  So the kids explained to the teacher the principles of film editing, which they didn’t even know they knew: the camera following the point of view of different characters in different scenes.

Then he read aloud several pages from “Great Expectations” and played the voices of all the characters. And he said to them why do you think the page is broken up like that?

So, the kids made the connection that paragraphs indicating different characters talking in Dickens were like a change in camera angle in the TV show.

But that teacher could have gone in and said, “Here is what a paragraph is….”  He could have listed on the blackboard all the reasons we break text up into paragraphs. He could have a test. The point is that there opportunities for creative teaching are in every day and every lesson.  Finding ways to engage people like Mr. Smith did with you is a vital part of the job.

Q: It sounds like what you are saying is that there is a lot of potential for creativity within boundaries, that it’s about not letting the set parameters shut your own creativity down?

A:  That’s right.

Q: That you should be emboldened to be creative within the standards you have to meet.

A: Yes, people tend to infer from general constraints other constraints that aren’t even and that you don’t have to live with. That is very limiting and makes us the authors of our own misery.

But look at Shakespeare’s sonnets. There is a clear structure to a sonnet. Each sonnet has a certain number of lines and has a particular rhyme scheme. And he didn’t deviate with that. He wrote these exquisite pieces within these constraints.  As is true with most art forms, there is a structure.  That doesn’t make it any less of an art form. Teaching is an art form.


Ken Robinson discusses the importance of creativity in education on Ted.com, filmed feb. 2006.

Sir Ken Robinson is the author of  the bestselling “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” (Penguin/Viking 2009), which has been translated into 21 languages. His latest book is a 10th anniversary edition of his classic work on creativity and innovation, “Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative” (Capstone/Wiley).

The Imagination Summit is hosted by Lincoln Center Institute (LCI), the education arm of Lincoln Center.

MetroFocus Editor in Chief Laura van Straaten conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.