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EducationHolyrood Magazine

Finding the skill set

By 11 February 2012No Comments

I recently re-watched Sir Ken Robinson’s wise, witty and well-informed Royal Society of the Arts lecture on changing educational paradigms.  If you are interested in improving learning and you haven’t seen it, you should:
We operate an educational system designed and structured in the cultural context of the European enlightenment and the economic context of the industrial revolution.  It idealises certain forms of learning, deductive reasoning and the classics, and makes false judgements about all other forms of learning and of those whose skills and attributes lie outside these traditionalist parameters.
Robinson is at his wittiest addressing what he calls the ‘modern epidemic – ADHD’.  He does not deny its existence but is clear that since the prescriptions for ADHD in the USA increase the further east you travel, ADHD’s routine medication is at least a culturally determined phenomenon.   We are living in the most intensely stimulating period in human history.  Mobile phones, the internet, television, demand immediate attention.  Yet we penalise children for getting distracted.  We penalise them and medicate them.
His observation that the rise in the incidence of ADHD has paralleled the rise in standardised testing challenges current orthodoxy.  He asserts that ADHD is a fictitious epidemic and that the educational paradigm in which it operates stands as the great barrier to creativity in life and in learning.
Aesthetics  are the areas of human experience where the senses are fully operating, the individual is concentrated in the present and is most fully alive.  The opposite of aesthetics is anaesthetic, when the senses and the mind are numbed.  The widespread medication of children is precisely that, a deadening of young minds when they should be freed.  Drugging children, the reliance on standardised testing and the creation of bland, standardised curricula, are about conformity.
An educational system modelled on industry and operating in its interests deadens creativity rather than unleashes it.  Why, for example do we educate in batches, groups determined by chronological age?  Conformity and standardisation place limitations on divergent thinking and the capacity for creativity.  Robinson looks to release these capacities and enrich the world with them.  We shouldn’t be anaesthetising young people but should be waking them up.
That collaborative and cooperative learning is far more effective than either listening to didactic lecturing or individualised, atomised study, is at the centre of his plea for change.  We need to end the mind-set which rigidly separates the academic and intellectual from the practical and vocational.
Like many challenges to educational tradition, Robinson’s does not advocate the destruction of the ‘academic’ or the knowledge based elements of the curriculum.  The concern however, is that the move to a more collaborative and cooperative pedagogy will unwittingly put these at risk.  The reality that young people are bombarded with information and experiences and have become used to moving rapidly and restlessly from activity to activity, does not mean that reflection and even deductive reasoning are now unnecessary
There is a certain satisfaction that much of Robinson’s thesis is encapsulated in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. Indeed one of the reasonable criticisms of CfE is the title.  It’s less a curriculum than a pedagogy.  His robust critique of the elitist view of education as well the social control paradigm is much-needed.  In a period however, when schools have experienced reform after reform, fear and insecurity are rising.  The arguments for change require the quality and humour of Robinson’s superbly illustrated presentation.  The dilemma for progressive educationalists is how best to ensure that such paradigm reforms do not destroy the best aspects of our curriculum or our school system.
This article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 3 October 2011:

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