Education Is Not About Conformity….

I was in Las Vegas recently and had a chance to listen to Sir Ken Robinson talk about passion in education.  What a life changing key note speech!  I was enthralled and very inspired by his powerful words.  Allow me to summarize for those of you who were unable to attend NCTE 2012 (The National Council of Teachers of English Conference).

Robinson began by explaining that it seems to be an “earth shattering” idea that kids are naturally creative and that teaching is an art form.  It’s difficult for many people to see that while they are in the middle of telling us how to do our jobs.  And there are several people who think they know how to do it better then we do.  Parents, politicians, business people…..

But the interesting thing is that in today’s world, businesses demand creativity and innovation.  The last thing they want is standardization because they are seeing graduates who aren’t able to “think outside of the box.”  It’s why companies like Kodak have gone down the drain.  They failed to innovate while other companies rose up and took command of the market.  Even Bill Gates knows that he is only as good as his next innovative idea.  Look at the competition between Blackberry, Samsung, and Apple when it comes to the release of their new Smart Phones.  The world is all about innovation and keeping up with the changing waves that sweep through.

So why then is there this notion of unity and conformity in school?  We sit children down in desks, in rows, inside square classrooms, inside rectangular buildings where their schedules are controlled by a clock and a bell while one person says “This is what you will learn and this is when you will learn it.”  Hoo boy.

We all have the inherent knowledge that children are all unique and yet we have a curriculum that treats them as if they are the same.  Robinson warns that as long as we continue to subject children to teaching that basically involves low grade clerical work, don’t be surprised when they don’t go for it.  But that’s ok.  We’ll just take these kids and diagnose them with ADHD and then drug them so they sit still.  After all, huge pharmaceutical companies make millions off of these drugs and therefore have a vested interest in this culture of “ADHD” kids.  Robinson compared todays generation of ADHD kids to the tonsil free generation of baby boomers.  Had a sore throat?  Take out your tonsils!  Can’t sit still in class?  ADHD it is!

Robinson talked about the path his own son has taken to get to where he is today.  It involved someone opening a door to his passions, discovering the classes and experience he needed under his belt and then walking down that path.  At some points he took courses he never would have thought of taking in his life, but there you go.  One of them was even a philosophy class.  The combination of courses and work experience would have seemed odd to an outsider looking in.

Robinson says that our life is built from the ground up.  You discover your passion and then choose the path accordingly.  The path will let you know where you need to go and what you need to do.  We don’t wander around telling university students, “You should really take philosophy, theatre, applied engineering, and business management because hey, someday that combination might just work out for you one day!”  They would think we are nuts!  Yet we do tend to do this with our high school students.  We tend to say things like, “You better take all your Sciences because hey, you might need them in the future.”

Robinson says that education is based on the idea that you can predict what kids are going to do in the future and that simply isn’t true.  So many of us have walked down one path only to discover another and abandon our original goals.  I was pretty convinced when I graduated high school that I was going to become a psychiatrist.  That lasted about as long as finding out it would require 16 years of post secondary and getting a medical degree.  Oops.

I still didn’t know what I wanted to do while I was in my fourth year of university!  Psychology was a passion and that’s why I was getting THAT degree but with my wedding and a move to Calgary, AB looming around the corner along with the knowledge that a BA in Psych was NOT going to get me a well paying job….I stumbled and panicked and wound up applying for Education at the University of Calgary to “kill time” until I figured out what I really wanted to do.

Turns out that once I got into the classroom I was hooked.  Who would have figured?  But the interesting thing is that I know in my heart I’m not going to be a classroom teacher forever.  My passions extend to areas of curriculum developed and working with other teachers.  I’m incredibly interested in how the brain physically learns and what that means in the way we run schools and educate our students.  My learning and my career haven’t finished evolving yet.

Robinson reminds us that we are not born with resumes.  We earn them.  When you invest in your talents and your passions you create opportunities.  It doesn’t work in reverse.  Education is a very personal journey yet kids don’t get to experience this until they get into the post-highschool world.  The rare schools that offer personalized education refer to these programs as “alternative education.”

Businesses don’t want standardization, as I said before.  The cookie cutter model of school and education is the death to any business currently operating in this age of technology.  So who wants these standardized tests?  Politicians.  There is a misguided notion that these tests somehow offer accountability as is demanded by the public (who, coincidentally enough, also happens to vote these people into power).  Businesses will tell you that they could care less about how well students can fill in a bubble on a piece of paper.  The ability of a student to take a test doesn’t mean anything to them.  They want to hire someone who can think creatively and that has nothing to do with testing.  Their biggest complaint is that the people they hire are not creative or adaptive.  Why should they be?  They are graduating from a system that has taught them in order to do well you must sit still, learn what you’ve been told to learn, memorize and regurgitate it on a standardized test.  And our students have learned how to play this game all too well.

Technology in the past ten years alone has changed our world in dramatic ways.  10 years ago if you “tweeted”, people told you to stop.  Now if you don’t “tweet” you’re practically a social outcast (paraphrased from Robinson).  Books published ten years ago are now being thrown out because the information in them is so dated that it’s no longer valid.  And that’s information from 2002!  It isn’t that long ago!  And this race against time and technology gets faster everyday.  It’s a little like the Superbowl add for iPhone a couple years ago.  The pun was that by the time they finished making the commercial for the iPhone 3, the iPhone 4 had already been released.  It’s not that far off the mark….

Robinson told teachers that if you wait for the government to give you permission to be creative and innovative, you are going to wait forever.  To really push forward with the idea of reform it has to be from the ground up.  The government will always push for status quo.  He also reminds us that when we stand in front of our students we ARE the education system, at least as far as they are concerned.

He ended by saying that if the conditions are right, growth is inevitable.  There’s a story of a desert region called Death Valley that was completely barren of all life….until the most amazing thing happened.  It rained.  And the floor of the desert grew with plant life.  People from all over the world came just to take pictures of this amazing event.  Life…. in a place where no one thought it was possible.

Create the conditions for creativity within your classroom.  Kids are naturally creative if you let them be.  And perhaps they will begin to see life where they didn’t before….

The gift of humanity is in it’s diversity.  We need to remember this.  Value it.  Treasure it.  Safe guard it.

Education is a personal journey.  It’s not about conformity, it’s about discovery and passion.

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About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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