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Wrestling with Sir Ken

24 June 2015

Dean Ashenden takes on the sixties, GERM, and the world’s best-known educational revolutionary


Is revolutionary change in schooling possible? Educationalist Ken Robinson. Sebastiaan ter Burg/Wikimedia

Is revolutionary change in schooling possible? Educationalist Ken Robinson. Sebastiaan ter Burg/Wikimedia

Ken Robinson is perhaps the most celebrated of schooling’s growing band of global gurus, presenter of the most-watched talk in the history of TED, commander of seven-figure speaking fees, profiled in Vanity Fair, and knight of the British realm. He is a prominent advocate of a “revolution” to “transform” schooling, a critic of the present “industrial” system of teaching, and an opponent of what he calls GERM (the global education reform movement) and its goal of “improving” a fundamentally outdated and dysfunctional educational form. He is by no means alone in holding these views. His new book, Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up, is a frontal assault in a gathering battle over what schooling is for and what it should look like.

Robinson makes two great contributions to this struggle. He grasps that something big is going on in and around schools, and he insists that the received way of conducting schooling is, at last, vulnerable. His account of what a “transformed” school does and can look like is incomplete but nonetheless inspiriting. There are, however, serious shortcomings in his understanding of present realities and future possibilities, and in his “theory of change.” It is possible to share his sense of urgency and possibility without subscribing to his understanding of how history works or his confidence that “time and tide are on the side of transformation.”

To begin with what Robinson is against. He is against what he calls the “industrial” approach to schooling, and he is against a “reform” agenda that derives from and reinforces that approach. “Industrial” schooling (he says) was installed to meet the social and economic needs of the nineteenth century, and is “wholly unsuited” to the twenty-first century. GERM – the rather tortured pun is intended – pushes schooling in exactly the wrong direction with “catastrophic consequences” for students and teachers, and compounds an “ever-widening skills gap between what schools are teaching and what the economy needs.” Standardised and standardising education crushes creativity and innovation, “the very qualities on which today’s economies depend.”

Moreover, and despite its reliance on a mass of research into “what works,” GERM itself doesn’t. Driven by “political and economic interests” including the OECD and its test-based league tables, national governments (remember Julia Gillard’s “top 5 by ’25”?), and giant testing corporations, the GERM prescription has delivered only modest, patchy and sometimes transient gains. The big problems of schooling – inequality, low student engagement and high attrition, teacher dissatisfaction – are as pervasive as ever.

And what is Robinson for? He is for a transformed system. That, he argues, is what really works. “The challenge is not to fix this system but to change it; not to reform it but to transform it.” That is required by both the emerging social and economic reality and by the very idea of “education.” The continuing cultural, social and development tasks of schools are central to his thinking, but so is the view that schools must prepare young people for a “profoundly” changed workplace by developing “twenty-first-century skills,” including flexibility, adaptability, initiative and self-direction, critical thinking and problem solving, and financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy.

All this is consistent, in Robinson’s view, with the incontestable fact that “children have a powerful, innate ability to learn.” The school’s job is not to push them through a one-size-fits-all program but to build on this “learning power.” Within a familiar structure (arts, humanities, maths, science and so on) curriculum should be enacted in a quite new way. Entrenched distinctions between the academic and the vocational, between the formal and the informal curriculum, and between disciplined learning and the development of “creativity,” must be overcome. Doing and making should be accorded as much time and respect as study. Learning must be “personalised” to match the learner’s age, stage, interests and capacities. Schools must give all students a red-hot chance to find out what they are good at and passionate about. Students must learn with and from each other, and take full advantage of the resources of the home, the community and, of course, digital technologies.

To these ends, assessment should focus on developing learning and the learner, generating feedback and guidance rather than mere comparison and grades. It must be as concerned with each individual’s growth in understanding, insight and capacity as with the acquisition of propositional knowledge, as much a form of learning as a support to it.

Most important of all is the teacher. “Great teachers are the heart of great schools.” The teacher’s core and irreplaceable responsibility is to create the conditions in which learning can be generated while accepting that he or she is “not always in control of these conditions.” Teachers must ignore the false distinction between “traditional” and “progressive” pedagogies to draw on a range of fit-for-purpose techniques and approaches. What matters is getting the right approach for the purpose and the learner. Contra GERM and the accountability agenda, teachers must be trusted, respected and rewarded as professionals.

Those acquainted with Robinson’s earlier work will be familiar with this “critique of the way things are” and his “vision of how they should be.” But to these Robinson now adds a “theory of change.” It is a bold undertaking.

At the heart of this theory is a switch in what he refers to as a metaphor but others might think of as a “paradigm.” “If you think of education as a mechanical process that’s just not working as well as it used to,” he argues, “it’s easy to make false assumptions about how it can be fixed; that if it can just be tweaked and standardised in the right way it will work efficiently in perpetuity.” But it won’t, “because it’s not that sort of process at all.” Schooling is an organic process.

“Education is really improved only when we understand that it… is a living system and that people thrive in certain conditions and not in others.” Schools are “complex adaptive systems” that by their nature offer far more scope for innovation than is generally realised – and, what’s more, they can only be changed in and through the daily activity of those who live it. The culture of any given school comprises habits and systems that people act out every day.

“Many of these habits are voluntary rather than mandated,” he says, “teaching by age groups, for example, or making every period the same length, using bells to signal the beginning and end of periods, having all of the students facing the same direction with the teacher in the front of them, teaching math only in math class and history only in history class, and so on.”

Robinson really homes in on – indeed his argument depends on – change “within the system as it is.” In his theory, “revolutions don’t wait for legislation… they emerge from what people do at ground level.” Like most revolutions, “this one has been brewing for a long time, and in many places it is already well under way. It is not coming from the top down; it is coming, as it must do, from the ground up.”

Yes, the revolutionary will encounter system-level obstacles including “the inherent conservatism of institutions [and] schools themselves,” conflicting views about the sorts of changes that are needed, differences in “culture and ideology,” and “political self-interest,” and must therefore “press for radical changes” in system-level policies. But history is with the activist and the innovator. “[T]ime and tide,” Robinson declares, “are on the side of transformation.”

Robinson’s book often reads like a self-help manual. PowerPoint lists, twenty-five of them by my count, range from the three elements of academic work, the four purposes of schooling and the eight core competencies to ten tips on how to make your school more inviting. Superlatives (“great” schools, “wonderful” teachers, “inspiring” leaders, “extraordinary” innovations, and so on) are in ready supply. But Robinson also covers a great deal of complicated ground in an enviably accessible fashion. Anecdotes, examples and eyewitness accounts abound, some featuring the usual suspects (High Tech High, for example), many not. Few of those who work in and around schools, including older students as well as parents and teachers, will fail to find Robinson engaging, illuminating and perhaps even inspiring.

There are several points at which Robinson’s case is obviously vulnerable. When he claims that the GERM agenda doesn’t work, and that we do know what actually works, his adversaries will compare his anecdotes and generalisations with their own stockpile of closely researched evidence, including the evidence that the improvement agenda can work, and is little by little lifting its own game as well as that of the schools.

The proposition that what the economy now needs corresponds neatly with what school reformers have long wanted is convenient, to say the least. His picture of the labour market and the workplace of the future is as romantic as it is hazy. The apparent assumption that “profound” and ever-accelerating change is uniquely characteristic of our times is questionable. Indeed it could be argued that the kind of change to which Robinson alludes is occurring within a frame of stability and burgeoning wealth peculiar to the West over the past two or three generations.

There is also a quarrel to be picked with Robinson’s insistence that schools are organic and are not mechanical. It makes much more sense to see them as both, and other things as well. My own view is that schools are best seen as sites of production; they have much in common with other workplaces and work processes but also quite distinctive characteristics and purposes as producers of learners and learning. One among a number of advantages of a “production perspective” is the realisation that schooling is not just a preparation for work. It is work – around a fifth of most people’s working lives, in fact. That provides a better starting point for thinking about what needs changing in schools than focusing on “preparation” for the workplaces presumed to await them in some distant future. Another advantage, to which we return, is that a production perspective provides a better basis for understanding how technology will change teaching and learning.

But the really crucial question for Robinson’s argument against GERM and “industrial” schooling, and for “creative schools” and “transformation,” is this: is genuinely transformative change in schooling possible?

This is where Robinson’s high sense of the purposes and possibilities of schools, and his admirable support for genuine grassroots movements over GERM’s carefully crafted enlistment, get him into trouble. They carry him from an absolutely correct intuitive judgement to a “theory” so misleading as to verge – given his prominence and influence – on the irresponsible.

Robinson is correct in sensing, contra GERM, that schooling’s future will not be continuous with its past, and in proclaiming that a sea change laden with great possibilities is now under way. But his theory of change does not see what “transformation” is up against, or what is driving change at this particular moment, or what will be required if change is to be shaped in a way that he and many others (including me) would like to see.

Robinson’s theory can’t see what transformation is up against.

In their seminal essay “The ‘Grammar’ of Schooling: Why Has It Been So Hard to Change?” American historians David Tyack and William Tobin draw heavily on the work of their colleague Larry Cuban to argue that schools, like languages, possess a grammar. Just as the grammar of language organises meaning, so does the grammar of schooling organise “the work of instruction.”

“Here we have in mind, for example, standardised organisational practices in dividing time and space, classifying students and allocating them to classrooms, and splintering knowledge into ‘subjects,’” Tyack and Tobin say, and go on to suggest that over time the internal coherence of this grammar acquires external support. “Neither the grammar of schooling nor the grammar of speech needs to be consciously understood to operate smoothly,” they note. “Indeed, much of the grammar of schooling has become so well established that it is typically taken for granted as just the way schools are. It is the departure from customary practice… that attracts attention.”

All of this is correct, in my view, but nonetheless understates the reality of what “transformation” of the Robinson kind must contend with. The taken-for-granted image of the “real” school is just one of the struts and stays that have grown up around the grammar of schooling, particularly during its massive postwar expansion. It includes: a credentialling system that transmits the demands of universities directly into the schools’ curriculum, and connects schooling to a society-wide competition for advancement (or to avoid relegation); a physical infrastructure devoted to the classroom; a workforce dominated by a single category of worker, “the teacher,” industrially organised, and tenured; industrially backed regulation of the terms and conditions of teachers’ work in ways derived from the grammar (class sizes, contact hours, and so on), and which also frame students’ work; budgets largely absorbed by the salaries of a tenured, closely defined and highly regulated workforce, with little capacity to link resources with “policy,” and a consequent cumulative incrementalism that fuels a tendency for costs and problems to pile up faster than solutions; and a range of interest groups, none of which has the capacity to drive an agenda for the whole, but many of which have the power to single-handedly frustrate such an agenda (vide Gonski).

This means that any theory of transformative change has something rather more on its plate than “the inherent conservatism of institutions [and] schools themselves.” It must cope with a grammar of schooling, and the industry in which that grammar is embedded. Yes, “the system” is complex and adaptive, a culture enacted by individuals in their daily work, and shaped by their outlook and decisions. But it is also a heavily reinforced structure, a form and instrument of power. It is just this combination of flexibility and structure that gives “the system” its capacity to resist, deflect and absorb efforts at “transformation,” as Tyack, Tobin and Cuban are at pains to emphasise.

Thus Cuban has documented the emergence of “hybrid” pedagogies which reflect both teachers’ attachment to progressivist ideas and the hard facts of their work within the frame of class, classroom, subject and lesson. Tyack and Tobin point to the ebb and flow of experimentation, innovation and “alternatives,” which are often driven by charismatic leaders within the overall dominance of a stable grammar. They see the system as a whole operating so that “changes in the basic structure and rules” of the grammar of schooling, like the grammar of language, “are so gradual that they do not jar.” It might even be said that these familiar exceptions to the rule belong to the system’s fundamental logic, functioning as its safety valve, repair shop, and legitimation device – until now.

Robinson’s theory doesn’t see what is driving change or what is distinctive in the present moment in schooling.

In Robinson’s theory, “transformation” will come from grassroots innovation required by a shifting social, economic and technological context, and fuelled by idealism and hot gospelling. Well, yes, and no. Not really grasped in this account is the ever-expanding force of technology, and not around schooling so much as right in the heart of it, in quite unprecedented combinations of hardware and software that will increasingly embody and orchestrate teaching and learning.

It’s not that Robinson is unaware of that fact. The spread of the digital technologies, he writes, is “already transforming teaching and learning in many schools.” He includes “new technologies that make it possible to personalise education in wholly new ways” among the three distinctive features of the present moment in schooling, and Sugata Mitra, the Kahn Academy and the “flipped classroom” all make guest appearances.

But being aware of these developments is not the same as really understanding their weight and impact. The nomination of technology as one of the three “different this time” factors arrives in the book’s penultimate paragraph. The formal discussion of the new technologies is allocated just over a page, where it is treated as just one among “an abundance of emergent features” of schooling. Teachers, assessment, leaders and home influences, meanwhile, get whole chapters to themselves. The discussion of technology is, in short, a retrofit, glued onto an argument which took its essential shape decades ago.

Although Robinson refers over and again to the pervasiveness of technological change, and although he senses that the ground is moving under our feet, his working view of technology within schools is not all that different from that adopted by the industry: learning comes from teaching and teaching comes from the teacher, whose work will be supported and perhaps even empowered by the new technologies but isn’t replaced or even seriously disrupted. Technology does indeed seem to be supplementary if we look at it within the history of schooling. But what if we see both schooling and technology in the larger history of production? From that standpoint it appears that schooling is just now arriving at a point previously reached by one industry after another since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, the point at which technology becomes capable of not just supplementing human labour but substituting for some forms of that labour, and demanding the reorganisation of the rest.

Specifically, technology increasingly offers a distinct source and form of teaching labour. And that implies a quite different way of organising the work of teaching and learning, as can be seen in a preliminary way in “blended” schools, “virtual” educational programs such as the Kahn Academy, and indeed entirely “virtual” secondary schools. “Teaching” no longer comes from just “the teacher,” and therein lies the real threat to the received grammar.

That Robinson’s theory sees neither what transformation is up against, nor what is driving the big change, betrays a cast of mind that comes almost completely intact from the 1960s. The sixties are, if I may say so, an excellent place to start thinking about schooling, but as a place to finish, not so much. It would be unfair to suggest that Robinson, like the Bourbons, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing, but it is fair to say that he has remembered more of the world in which his outlook was formed than he has learned about technology and its inexorable movement from the margins to the centre of schooling.

Creative Schools is dedicated to Bretton Hall College, where as a young working-class trainee teacher he was exhilarated by the ideas of Alec Clegg and other luminaries of British progressivism. His picture of a “transformed” school, although given a contemporary gloss and rationale, belongs essentially to that era. It is to sixties progressivism that Robinson also owes his habitual dichotomies – creative versus industrial schooling; perfidious systems versus idealism at the grassroots; bottom-up change versus top-down; transformation versus mere improvement; the selfless workers in the vineyard versus the self-interested interlopers of “business” and “politics.”

The binary most central to Robinson’s case is his assumption that transformation/revolution means out with the old and in with the new. In fact, it’s more a case of the old colliding with the new – the immovable object of schooling versus the irresistible force of technology – with who knows what upshot.

We can be sure that getting change won’t be the problem, but that getting desirable change will be. We can be confident that schools will not be obliterated in the way of newspapers, for example – they perform irreducible functions including childcare and bringing children and young people together to grow up. We can also be sure that change, of whatever kind, will not obliterate the incumbent grammar and install another. Rather than talking about a “transformation,” therefore, we should talk about a transition,probably from a single dominant grammar to several competing grammars, including both the one Robinson doesn’t like and the one he does. In that transition GERM’s theory and practice of “school improvement” may have as much to offer as the ideal of “transformation.”

In this scenario, what will be up for grabs is mix and balance, and that will vary over time and place. Within schools, and secondary schools particularly, the trick will be in mastering a kind of meta-grammar, finding optimal combinations of several educational forms, with various attempts at “blending” being obvious examples. Within systems the problem will be to make that possible.

Robinson’s theory doesn’t see how change can be shaped.

If Robinson’s or other transformed grammars are to survive and flourish it will only be by combining top-down strategy with bottom-up movement.

Getting the right relationship between systemic and local action has proved elusive in most Western school systems most of the time. That is one reason why GERM, with its over-reliance on top-down engineering, has failed more often than not. The same will be true of the transformation idea if it can’t solve what is essentially the same problem. When they are pushed from the top, as the Gillard “revolution” found, the grammar and industry of schooling lock together and seize up like compressed cornflour. But as was so clearly demonstrated in the decades following the 1960s, grassroots, advocacy-driven efforts can thrive all over the place for a while, burning up huge quantities of energy, hope and idealism, and then dwindle.

If there is a way out of this conundrum in tepid political times such as these, it may be in making politics with the industry’s interest groups, the most powerful of which are not the “outsiders” that so worry Robinson but the industry’s employers and employees.

As things now stand, their power is contained by the industrial and regulatory regime they constructed and within which they conduct their relations. Is it possible that they might abandon this adversarial stasis to collaborate in pursuit of their joint and several long-term objectives?

These insiders confront together the irresistible force of technology-enabled and technology-magnified change. The clear lesson of history is that those affected by such disruptions will do a lot better for themselves (and, in this case, for their ideals and sense of professionalism) by using disruption rather than resisting it. Employers and employees could set out on a long march through the grammar’s legacy orgware, and particularly its regulation of teachers’ (and therefore students’) work and workplaces, the currently lopsided composition of the workforce, and the inflexible disposition of budgets and associated habits of thinking in terms of “effectiveness” rather than cost-effectiveness and opportunity cost. The industry might change itself in ways that permit and encourage new grammars to emerge.

This or something like it may offer a way of shaping the irresistible. There are precedents in Australia’s recent industrial history. There may not be a coherent way of shaping change. For Robinson’s efforts to set out an alternative to GERM’s Gradgrind theory of change we should be grateful, but a more successful attempt will reflect a much more developed sense of structure and power, of politics and history, and of technology and production, and be made of much tougher stuff. •

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