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Sir Ken Robinson Compares Human Organizations To Organisms: Education Is A Dynamic System

Sir Ken Robinson

Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an international educator based in Los Angeles, California. He is a world leading speaker on topics such as creativity, innovation and human resources in education and business. His 2006 TED talk 'Do Schools Kill Creativity?' is the most viewed in the event's history.

Sir Ken works with governments and education systems, international agencies, Fortune 500 companies and leading cultural organisations around the world. He was knighted in 2003 for his services to the arts.


Are schools teaching the skills students need?

In some ways – It’s hard to generalize confidently about all education systems. Education taken as a whole is what theorists refer to as a ‘complex adaptive system.’ It’s complex in the sense that it’s a human system which includes millions of people - students, teachers, administrators and policy makers.

It is also complex because they all have different interests. They all have their personal interests, but they also have different professional roles, affiliations and responsibilities, so it’s a vastly complex reciprocating system. Then there  are all kinds of cultural differences when you move from one country to another. Each school in any system has its own character and personality. Each classroom is subject to the dynamics of individual teachers and their particular students.

Education is a dynamic system, not a static one. It’s not an impersonal, inert engineering system, it’s constantly in flux and changing. It exists in the actions and activities of people every day. So the system is living and constantly changing, and is subject to all kinds of conflicting forces and fluctuations.

For example, new technology is tearing through education in many respects and subverting many of the ways in which people are connecting with each other. 

Within the system there are people who are operating certain sorts of traditional models, and others, even in very traditional systems, who are innovating and doing creative things. You can find examples of tremendous innovation within the current systems as they are. 

So it’s hard to generalize, but there are some features of most mass systems of public education, which I find troublesome in terms of what we ought to be providing our kids with now.

One is that they’re typically based on a very narrow view of intelligence. It’s a view of academic ability in particular, which is too often contrasted with vocational learning: it’s more about theoretical than applied work. There is also an emphasis on the so-called ‘STEM’ disciplines, often to the exclusion of art and humanities.

There is an overemphasis on testing and on compliance, as well as on linearity - the view that you can anticipate not only the lives that our kids might lead when they leave school, but the lives they should lead. We express this in the way the curriculum becomes narrowed to what are thought to be more utilitarian subjects. 

Somewhere in there is a tacit conception of supply and demand. That’s what you see in the standards:  ‘We need more engineers, let’s make that the heart of education. We need more mathematicians, let’s have much more math in schools, we need more scientists, let’s have more science. We need fewer ballet dancers, let’s not have dance in schools.’ It is as if education is  some sort of pipeline for manufactured products.

What kind of skills should students be learning in school?

It’s usual to think of education in terms of what people need to know, understand and be able to do. The term education is one of a group of ideas that the philosopher Walter Bryce Gallie described as ‘essentially contested.’ With concepts like freedom for example, people have very different conceptions of it in practice. America, where I live just now, is rooted in the Constitution that followed the War of Independence. In the Constitution there are principles like freedom and the ability to pursue happiness and wellbeing. It just turns out they didn’t apply those principles to slaves. Some of the Founding Fathers were slave owners and involved in the trading of slaves.

Another example is democracy, which is one of the key concepts in America and in European countries. Until relatively recently it didn’t include the right for women to vote. It was confined to certain sorts of people. So these terms are contested in the sense that people mean very different things by them. And education is like that. In a general sense education is about giving people a proper start in life, but then different people mean very different things by that.

So it is important to define what education is for. For me, the purpose of education is to help young people understand the world around them and engage in the world within them. A lot of the education system is focused on the external world, but all children have their own talents and abilities, sense of possibilities, biographies, anxieties, hopes and aspirations. Among the reasons why kids get disengaged from school is that schools don’t speak well enough to their inner world, and so they don’t feel that school is anything to do with them, or they have been made to feel stupid by it. Or they find it pointless or just boring.

On that basis there are four big purposes of education: economic, social, cultural and personal. But rather than defining education through a group of subjects, I think it is better to think of the competencies people need to make their way in the world now and to engage with the world the way it seems to be evolving. I would include things like curiosity, because in the end education depends on an appetite to learn. If that gets stultified then learning starts to slow down and eventually become frustrating. 

Creativity is an essential set of skills and capabilities. It is the capability to have and develop new ideas that are original and of value and to know how that process works. This is a fundamental skill in every field of human endeavor from the arts, the sciences, technology, mathematics to business. It’s really what sets us apart from the rest of life on earth - our capacity to come up with fresh ideas and to make them come into being -  to create things in the practical world as well as conceptually.

Other critical skills are communication, which is being able to put our ideas together and explain them properly to people in a variety of forms. And collaboration. We live in a social world, we need to work with other people. And if you have an education system that’s atomized, where people work in groups, not as groups, which is rooted in competition, then it betrays the most fundamental dilemma for which most communities actually flourish - when people work together for some common goal.


What is the role of the teacher?

There’s a very interesting book by the theatre director Peter Brook called The Empty Space. Peter Brook’s career has been peppered with extraordinary productions, which have changed the face of contemporary theatre. He said in this book that he is committed to making theatre the most powerful experience it can be and to do that we have to be clear what it is. To answer his own question, he performs a sort of thought experiment where he says: ‘what’s the irreducible minimum in a theatre experience - what can you take away and still have it?’ You can take away the curtains, the costumes, the script, the director, the stage, the building. All you really need is an actor in a space and somebody watching. And it’s the somebody watching that makes it theatre, the actor performs a drama. Theatre describes the relationship between the audience and the performance, so theatre is a relationship word, and he said: ‘it’s that relationship we should focus on. We shouldn’t add anything to it if it diminishes it or gets in the way of it.’

The analogy for me with education is very powerful, because in the heart of education there are students - if there were no students there would be very little point having the system. The fact that there are students in the system is what it’s all about and we have to remember that. The role of education is to help students to learn and it’s the teachers who do that.

So the heart of education is the relationship between teachers and learners - that’s what it’s about. Everything else should be focused on making that the best relationship possible. 

The problem is that over time, all kinds of things have gotten in the way of it - testing regimes, league tables, unions’ bargaining rights, building codes, professional identities, the concerns of various pressure groups, the ideology of various political parties. It’s very easy for people to spend all day discussing education without mentioning the students at all. But all of this is a complete waste of everybody’s time if we forget that our role is to help students to learn. Therefore, the question is: what should they learn and how do we best do that?

All the great education systems and schools know that. It’s why they invest so heavily on the selection of teachers, why they insist on getting people who don’t just have good degrees, or have them at all. They want people who know their material, but they also know that teaching depends upon a whole set of pedagogical skills and a love of the process. It’s more than the transmission of direct content. It’s about having a set of skills focused on facilitating learning. 


What are your views on testing and how could it change?

I’m not opposed to all forms of testing. Testing can be helpful and sometimes multiple choice can be helpful - as long as you understand what they are about and what all this is for.

There are three main processes in organized education:

Firstly the curriculum, which is what we want people to learn, and that doesn’t mean just propositional knowledge. It can be social habits, attitudes, relationship values - all sorts of things eligible to include in a curriculum, not just facts and information of a propositional type. The curriculum is what we want people to lean, it’s why we have education systems. We assume there are things they ought to learn and that’s what we put in the curriculum.

Secondly there is pedagogy, which is the process by which we help them to do that

And then there is assessment, which is how we form judgments about how they are getting on. Broadly speaking there is formative and summative assessment.

Formative assessment is where you’re making judgements about how people are progressing so that we can help them to keep going and develop further. Summative assessment is the process by which we say: ‘the work is done, how did they get on with it?’

Assessment is often misunderstood. The process of assessment really has two elements to it: a description and a comparison.

So for example, if you were to say of somebody that they can sing Nessun Dorma, that’s not an assessment. That’s just a statement of something that is the case, a description of what they can do. But if you compare it to some other performance, if you compare the way they sing Nessun Dorma to Pavarotti, that’s an assessment, because you are comparing what they can do to some external standard, and it’s the comparison that’s at issue here.

Properly conceived, assessments can be purely descriptive - this is what they can do, this is what they have done. As soon as you start comparing it to something else, that’s where we start to get into trouble, in a couple of ways. One of them is that very many assessments now are numerical or alphabetical, and they are very heavy on comparison and very light on description. So people write an essay and they get a B for it. All it tells you is a rank, it doesn’t tell you the quality of the work.

I remember years ago speaking to kids who had done a four year program in dance for their GCSE and I said to one of the girls: ‘what did you get out of the course?’ and she said: ‘I got  a B.’ I thought, you must have got more than that.

So the problem I have with a lot of standardization is that firstly, they are very heavy on comparison and very light on description. They are not very helpful for formative reasons and they are not very informative to other people either. And secondly, they tend to fulfill what someone once called McNamara’s fallacy, after the American Secretary of Defense, in that they make the measurable important rather than the important measurable. So you focus on the things that can be assessed in that way and the implicit message is that the other things don’t matter as much.

But when you start getting into very interesting territory like ethical decisions or aesthetic judgements, then choosing between four options isn’t a very good way to go about things. So, it’s not that I’m against them, but I think for the most part they subvert some of the deeper purposes of assessment.

Standardized tests can be helpful diagnostically. I have often said that if I have a medical exam, I want to know what my cholesterol level is on some agreed standard. I don’t want my doctor to tell me on some scale he made up in the car: ‘your cholesterol level is orange.’ I don’t know what that is. Give me the numbers doctor. They can provide helpful data. 

The trouble now is, in America particularly, rather than being a way of improving the culture of education, testing has become the dominant culture of education. The whole thing is the test and it’s a multibillion dollar industry. Nowadays, the PISA league tables, which have the  best intentions behind them, have become a beauty contest for education ministers across the world, who pose around according to where they are on the rankings or get depressed if they are too low down. I remember saying that the PISA league tables have become like the Eurovision song contest of education. We all know what the Eurovision song contest has done for the quality of popular music - not very much.

So it’s not the fact of assessment, it’s the nature of it, and it is the purposes of which it’s being put that concern me most.


What would be the most exciting learning environment?

One of the least exciting learning environments for most people is sitting in a room, in one of thirty desks, day after day, year in, year out. Many school buildings are inherently rather dull. They are built along factory lines and uninspiring places. They don’t have to be, but they can be.

I visited a school in LA a while ago, and from the outside it looked like a concrete bunker, but when you went inside it was like Aladdin’s cave. There were works of art around the place, there were displays, there were works that not only the kids had made, but the teachers had made too, there were studios and laboratories - it was really wonderful and you just got excited the minute you walked into the place.

So among the things that make learning environments exciting is variety. Variety related to function. You get a certain vibe when you go into a science lab, an art room or a drama studio. A great school environment is an embodiment of the variety of learning that we can do. We need different sorts of environments to stretch our bodies, to expand our minds and stimulate them.

Trying to improve education, to transform it, to get good work in great schools, isn’t some unfathomable mystery like curing certain diseases seems to be. We know what works, I mean there are great places around the world already doing it. The problem lies in the insistence of some policymakers that everything has to be done the same way. 

Really interesting learning environments are not homogeneous, they are diverse and they adapt, and are suited to different sorts of purposes. There’s freedom to move, use different sorts of materials, collaborate and interact with different people or quietly work on theoretical tasks. The best learning environments do that, they embody the variety of learning.


What does great leadership mean to you on a national level and on an individual school level?

It’s hard to overstate the importance of leadership. It is extraordinary the impact that leaders good and bad have on the communities they are leading. There is a difference between leadership and management, which is not necessarily a difference of personnel but of role. The same person could be a great leader and a great manager, but the role is different.

The role of a leader is to provide a vision, to try to realize a sense of direction, a set of goals and purposes, and to inspire people to believe in and pursue them.

The role of a manager is to make sure everything is working so that the vision actually comes to pass.

Some people are great leaders and poor managers and there are great managers who aren’t good leaders. Some people are great at both.

But in an institution the really critical role is of a leader, because communities on the whole do need to be brought together. When you have an organized institution like a school, the leader influences it almost in every way through their personality, their outlook, their disposition and how they connect to people.

There are all sorts of different styles of leadership - if you are just after efficiency, then you may need to go into ‘command and control’ mode. That happens in a lot of industrial processes. But if you’re interested in innovation and creating a cultural growth, then the job of a leader isn’t always to tell people what to do. It may include that, but it is really to create a climate of possibility.

Sometimes people think of organizations as if they are mechanisms of some sort that you just have to maintain - if you get the mixture and the adjustments right they will just hum on eternally into the future.

Human organizations are much more like organisms though - they are communities of living people. The institution of a school is not the building, it is the people in the building. They don’t actually need the building. Culture is the relationships and the patterns of behavior and belief. 

Like any other living organism, human organizations have to live symbiotically with their own environment. A successful plant has adapted to its environment and it not only feeds from the environment, it enriches the environment that it depends upon - that’s the basic principle of ecology, that it helps the environment to flourish and the other organisms in the environment are mutually beneficial.

A great school is like that. A great school that’s connected to its environment can bring the whole place to life. I’ve seen dismal neighborhoods being brought alive by brilliant head teachers in great schools that flourish and connect with the parents, and the cultural organizations around it. You can see poor schools drain the life out of a neighborhood and people are bereft of hope and optimism. Organizations like all organisms flourish under certain conditions.

So the role of a leader for me in education is to understand the conditions in which people flourish, just like a great teacher understands the conditions under which children learn best. I’d say teachers are enablers, not just instructors. The role of a head teacher is to create the conditions in the school where teachers can do that. The role of a district is to create conditions where schools in the district can do that through collaborating. The role of the government is to create conditions where districts can do that. That’s what I mean by the ecosystem.

If we forget that the whole point of the system is to help students to learn, then the whole thing gets turned upside down and you end up with a situation where the whole point of education is to get higher up the PISA league tables. And that’s when the whole thing goes off the rails.

Personal memory

What was your favorite moment in your own education?

One of the pivotal moments for me was when I was in high school. I was seventeen. A group of us in my form were really interested in theatre. We used to study plays in school, but we read them as if they were books. We didn’t act them, which always struck me as odd. It was like having a music class in which you sat and read music scores all day long and never put a record on.

A group of us decided we would like to put a play on and we did. We did it after hours in the school hall. We asked one of the teachers if he would direct it and he agreed to do that. It went very well and the following year we did another one and he directed that too. So we all got the hang of it, sold tickets and put the show on. I was stage manager.

It came up a third time but when we asked if he could direct it he said: ‘I can’t, I haven’t got the time.’ We gathered the whole group together that was going to be in the play, including some actual girls from the girl’s school across the playground. We had never actually met girls in person before, but we had heard of them.

So they came and we were going to do The Importance of Being Ernest. The teacher said: ‘I won’t direct it, but I will help you cast it.’ So we sat around and he gave out all these parts. All the best ones went to different people, until just the butler was left. My mate Alan got the role so I thought: ‘I’m stage managing again.’ 

And then the teacher said: ‘I did say I cannot direct the play this year, but I think Ken should' Well, I nearly passed out. It had never crossed my mind that I could direct a play or that anyone in the group would agree to it. I just didn’t feel I had that relationship with them. A director is somebody who has to preside over this whole thing. But the others looked at me and said: ‘great idea.’ 

I was terrified, but I learned a long time ago that you shouldn’t walk away from things that trouble you. The best way to deal with a fear is to go straight towards it and try to get a hold of it. I was intrigued by the idea of directing a play and so I did. Then I went on to direct a lot of plays as a student.

To me that was a very important moment because sometimes other people see in you things you don’t recognize in yourself. They can see a strength or an ability that you didn’t know you had. And it took somebody to have that confidence to push me to do it, for me to do it at all. It opened a whole field of interest, not least in the place of drama and school, and why it mattered. 

I ended up going to an arts college and doing theatre and English partly because of that experience, and probably what I do now can be traced back to some extent to that divergent point. Perhaps if he hadn’t said: ‘can you direct the play?’ I would be running a bar somewhere now.

The next 100 years

The next 100 years of Finnish education should... continue to develop the principles which have been half of the changes for the past forty years, but continue to evolve them in the way that the world needs them to.

Now I say this because part of my long time argument is that we’re living in times of revolution and it’s not going to slow down. We are living in times that are driven by rapid evolution of digital technology, and the changes we have seen in the past fifty years will be nothing compared to what lies ahead in the next fifty. I mean, extraordinary changes are afoot in the way these technologies affect how we live, the work we do, where we do it, who does it. 

We are living through times with immense population growth - the population of the world doubled in the last thirty years. It’s seven and a half billion now and heading towards nine billion in the middle of the century. We are putting a massive strain on the Earth’s natural resources and we have to really be able to engage in a profound process of innovation, on how we feed ourselves, the fuels that we use, how we house ourselves. More than half the world will be in cities, in enormous mega cities.

These are times with immense change and what Finland has evolved over the past forty years is a system that’s highly personalized, highly collaborative and one in which a lot of professional discretion is placed properly in the hands of teachers and of head teachers. I think that’s why Finland has become an exemplary education system for many people around the world - far more effective across a range of measures than most other systems and certainly more so than most school systems in North America.

But it can’t afford to sit still, because the world is changing so quickly and although the principles are fundamental and sound, the way they are applied has to continue to evolve. There will be fresh challenges with the curriculum, fresh challenges for teachers in evolving their pedagogy and the country itself will continue to evolve, culturally, and technologically.

So the heart of Finland’s success to date has been a sense of professional discretion and professional responsibility, but with a deep vein of innovation coupled with fundamental principles of teaching and learning. None of that points to it being a static system that perpetuates an orthodoxy  or becomes trapped in its own success. It has to keep evolving.