Showing a Little Respect

I grew up in Burnley in the 70s and 80s. It wasn’t the most affluent or thriving of places, but it was full of northern warmth and wisdom. My parents both grew up on council estates in the kind of poverty that has children cowering behind sofas with their parents whenever someone knocks on the door. They brought us up with the kind of determination that only someone who is never going back can have. There were two mantras. Get an education. Respect your elders. You respect them, said my Grandma, because you will never have seen what they’ve seen. So I’ve always tried to keep that in mind. At this point my Mum is no doubt choking on her coffee, remembering her stroppy teenage daughter. Moving swiftly on…

When I disagree with someone who has been around for much longer than I have, I somehow don’t feel I have the right to simply say ‘you are spectacularly wrong’. I feel I ought to listen to them, try to figure out where they’re coming from and then engage with the issues that concern me. In my mind, respecting your elders is not to blindly accept what they say and do, but to recognise that there may be reasons why they say the things they do, why they do the things they do. And for this reason, I feel deeply uncomfortable when young teachers blithely dismiss as rubbish the thoughts and ideas of those who lived through very different periods in education.

I was reminded of this today when I read Joe Kirby’s post on Ken Robinson. Joe Kirby is a gifted and highly intelligent young teacher and having met him, I can also say that he is open minded, friendly and humble – a delight in short. So this is in no way a personal attack on a very lovely person. But I worry about the way some older educational thinkers are dismissed by this new breed of young teacher; those for example who never had to break the love of reading down into the 15 minute blocks of the National Strategies, or who have never seen what a Head teacher like Richard Kieran or David Whittaker can do to light up the lives of children.

Joe’s opinions on Ken Robinson are summarised thus:-

“How is he wrong?

Sir Ken’s ideas aren’t just impractical; they are undesirable. Here’s the trouble with his arguments:

1. Talent, creativity and intelligence are not innate, but come through practice.

2. Learning styles and multiple intelligences don’t exist.

3. Literacy and numeracy are the basis for creativity.

4. Misbehaviour is a bigger problem in our schools than conformity.

5. Academic achievement is vital but unequal, partly because…

6. Rich kids get rich cultural knowledge, poor kids don’t.”

And he ends the post on this note:-


In short, Sir Ken is wrong on education: profoundly, spectacularly wrong.

So next time someone sends you a link to one of his videos, perhaps you could send the link to this blogpost back to them – what Sir Ken got wrong.

And this is where I feel really uncomfortable. I don’t think it is right, personally, to say to someone who has dedicated over 30 years of his life to education to dismiss all that work as ‘spectacularly wrong’. I think we need to be a little smarter than that and a little more respectful. Having said that, we should never seek to stifle debate and Joe is quite right to point out that an enormous number of people have watched Robinson’s video presentations without ever critically engaging with some of its content. He is absolutely right to bring it out into public debate. And so, in the interest of public debate, I would add these points to the post:-

1. Robinson is not using the idea of talent being innate to suggest that some people have it and some people don’t but instead to say that we all have the potential and that drawing that potential out is the responsibility of education (both in and out of schooling). In this sense, Robinson’s view of finding that ‘element’ is very much in line with that of Syed, Coyle, Dweck and others.

2. While VAK and the like are spuriously simplistic and have rightly been attacked, Robinson is right in saying that it takes all kinds of abilities to make up a world. This interpretation is much more in line with Willingham’s distinction between a learning ‘style’ and an ability, which seems to me to be a much more sensible way of looking at things.

3. Robinson’s assertion that schools inhibit creativity does have some research support – look at Paul Howard- Jones’ work on generative thinking, or the book that Robinson quotes on his video which is a wide reaching analysis of the reduction of this type of thinking in children as they go through school. Generative thinking, or possibility thinking, is highly innate, but creativity as Robinson himself points out in the RSA speech, is much more complex.

When we think of creativity, we need to consider the difference between the generative and playful kind that any parent will tell you children have in abundance and they kind Joe refers to here, and which concurs with Robinson’s NACCCE report findings, that creativity leads to outcomes that have value. In this way, we see for example, Einstein’s or Shakespeare’s creativity as a combination of generative thinking and knowledge. That knowledge, of course has to be acquired and mastered – often in school. But too often, the knowledge hook is missing; the deep work of creativity – that lost in the fog time – is lost in the pursuit of quick, Ofsted friendly progress gains and the fear of failure undermines the attempt to try something new. I have always read Robinson’s work as an attack on overly simplistic, objective orientated, measurable academic gains, rather than the pursuit of deep, purposeful and contextualised knowledge.

4. He is also right, in my mind to point to the absurdity of subject hierarchies. Shakespeare was a dramatist – I doubt he would have supported the idea that Literature was better than Theatre. It would have been a ridiculous and false separation for him. Of course literacy and numeracy are important. You can’t be an actor without being literate. You would be hard pressed to manage an orchestra without numeracy skills. But literacy and numeracy are not the same as English and Maths. We need to keep that distinction in mind. Having said that, the quote that creativity is more important than literacy sounds absurd and is one of those soundbites designed to provoke without being substantiated. Mind you, I expect at a point of apocalypse, creativity might well be more important than literacy. Hopefully, we’ll never have to find out and it’s not really a scenario that should dictate our educational choices ;-)

5. Great Arts courses have to contextualise the works they examine. History, Geography, Literature, Philosophy and many ther subjects underpin the Arts. To say that knowledge exists in one set of subjects and is absent in another is simply not accurate. For many children, poor or rich, an arts based curriculum is the very vehicle to the kind of knowledge that is part of the cultural capital that is so vital to children’s success. This is something that a school like Eton understands very well. It is a national disgrace that the Ebacc has led to a 14% decrease in the study of an Arts subject at KS4 and even worse that this rises to 21% in schools with high numbers of FSM children.

On the whole though, I think it is right and proper that we have this debate and many of the points made were important and open up critical distinctions. It is not so simple as to be able to say ‘Robinson is wrong’ but perhaps better to say ‘We need to look at this more carefully’, and to tread forward with just a little bit of respect.

9 thoughts on “Showing a Little Respect

  1. As an NHS GP it is very noticeable that many young people I see soon after “finishing school” have little or no interest in learning. Learning about the organs of their body and what might be going on and going wrong seems to hold little or no interest. Any debate that stimulates a “love of learning” should be encouraged. Fully “engaged” patients can save the NHS £millions that could be re-deployed to education services if only we had more “joined up” practice.

  2. I think this post is top notch. I read it this morning and although I too am not convinced by everything Sir Ken says, quite a bit of his stuff is wholly reasonable. I think your post was fair, balanced and thought provoking.

    I was a little surprised this evening to see that a number of the wisest, most knowledgable and modest educational bloggers were out there talking about “ad hominem” and “sick of reading poorly reasoned arguments”. I was even more surprised to find that they were referring to this post (I believe so if not I apologise to all for my error).

    I know it is the usual gang so one really shouldn’t take too much notice but Hattie and Yates have a new book out and it only needs Dan Willingham to bring out a new book and we will have endless blogs about visible direct traditional no-fun instruction so I thought I would make a stand.

    I remember the old days when academics did peer reviewed research and the rest of us used their research to inform practice. Then came “teacher as researcher” and a good many teachers started to look at practice and try to develop a bit of useful theory. Now we have the internet and any old Tom, Dick or Harry is happy to comment based upon the research of others in a sort of quasi-academic way. They all reblog and retweet as if it was some sort of peer review process.

    Many of them talk about the uninformed being the worst judge of their own competence but they never seem to think that this theory might apply to them.

    Along with a good many other I thought your post was balanced and respectful and many some excellent points.

    As for many of those gang members out there I would quote the great Dan Willingham ( with the original name removed from the quote) and suggest you simply insert the name of the appropriate blogger of your choice…

    “It’s worth reading ******** simply because others do, and he is
    helpful as a pointer to interesting psychological literatures that
    have been ignored. I say “pointer to” rather than “interpreter
    of” because his summaries of these interesting literatures are
    usually incomplete and misleading.”

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