Getting off of the roundabout

roundaboutflickrstateoftheart101.jpgEducation as we know it is at a precipice.   Nationally, we perceive that things aren’t truly working, that our society is changing, that the world is changing, and that there needs to be a response.

But it feels as though we are stuck in a roundabout, circling through the same patterns, and trying to fix things by just working harder or strengthening standards.

Daniel Pink’s book Whole New Mind showed us what profoundly different tools will help us thrive in the 21st century world and economy–skills like design and story.   In his book Out of our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, Sir Ken Robinson deepens our understanding of the dichotomies we face.

He urges that we need “radically new strategies.”

“We won’t survive the future simply by doing better what we have done in the past.  Raising standards is no good if they’re the wrong standards.”(p. 4)

He outlines the models that our educational systems seem to be based on–the economic model of industrialism and the intellectual model of academicism.   But, he comments, “The problem we now face is that this economic model is outmoded and the intellectual model is completely inadequate.  All attempts to improve education by expanding it or by raising standards will fail if these two sets of assumptions are not completely reconstructed.”(p. 23).

He further points out: 

“The dominant idealogies of education are now defeating their most urgent purpose: to develop people who can cope with and contribute to the breathless rate of change in the 21st century–people who are flexible, creative and have found their talents.”(p. 57).

So, accepting the premise that the structure of our schools is based on an outdated factory model and that what is needed in terms of results is much different–what can schools do to increase creativity and innovative thinking within their institutions?  (and across the field, for that matter)

The world itself is not organized into discrete academic subjects, nor into 45 minute segments of unrelated units of work time, for the most part.  Our daily lives challenge us to integrate what we know from different academic subjects as well as different life experiences and different artistic fields.  Helping our own children design an art project out of fruit juice cans at ten p.m. or designing a brochure for our small business when we have little art background calls up the best of our abilities in many different areas.  

Robinson sees ways to invite creativity, innovation, and cross-curricular connections into our schools at the organizational level and recommends several strategies.

First, we must identify and foster the development of the creative abilities of all within our organizations.   Using brainstorming sessions or techniques outlined by de Bono–and finding ways to tap into open-ended thinking is key. 

However, sometimes in high schools and colleges, it seems certain departments feel that this isn’t within their purview–creativity is the “job” of other departments.  Robinson also finds it is important to support “domain-specific” creativity–that is problem solving and creativity within each specialty.  He points that that often specialists aren’t necessarily asked to make use of the full-range of their skills within the organization, so leaders must not only take stock of individual creative abilities but subject specific ones as well.

An important key is facilitating the conditions to “actively encourage” innovation and change–not just during a brief exercise but systemically.  Robinson sees an important connection in increasing contact between disciplines, reducing boundaries between departments, and mixing those of different experience levels so that ideas can flow in various directions within the organizations.   As he points out, “Creativity often comes about by making unusual connections, seeing analogies, identifying relationships between ideas and processes that were previously not related.”(p. 188).   I would add to that–fostering many more connections between teachers and school personnel and entities outside of the school.    Invite a few business people and artists into meetings with teachers or workshops–have teachers step outside of the campus to visit businesses or university settings each year, or even another disparate school, and help staff break outside of the familiar box of their own campus.

Lastly, he feels organizations must:

 “Encourage a culture where creative abilities are valued and harnessed to the organisational objectives. This means. . .avoiding an atmosphere of accountability that discourages taking risks or that stifles exploratory activities in the interests of short-term gain.”(p. 194).

This is a difficult task for schools when the larger system is set up to run more like a production factory.    How do we help support risk taking, or balance the role of accountability with innovation and exploration?    How can we encourage students to take risks or learn through exploration if we are also doing skill drills?     I fully believe students can learn information in many different manners–and drilling gains temporary skills, while learning through exploration and constructivist methods gains real understanding and knowledge.    But how do we make that a part of the conversation, nationally?

How can we design curriculums that honor the connections between disciplines–disciplines of all sorts, not just the “core courses” but music, art, dance, theater, drafting, computer science, and on and on?   

As Robinson so keenly points out, teachers seem philosophically torn between two models of the individual in education.   The one model is the one of rationalism–where rational thought is valued, and bodies of academic knowledge are transmitted by teachers.   The other model is that of “naturalism” where every child is thought to be a unique individual, that the teacher’s role is to draw out the talents of the individual and develop the whole child.    Robinson feels that both of these models unnecessarily divorce thought from feeling and draw a line between intellect and emotion. (p. 164).

That dichotomy in how we think about education is so evident in our classrooms, schools, and libraries and in the teachers all of us know.   Wouldn’t part of moving forward, and exiting the roundabout be to reconcile those views–and to come to a new understanding of the whole person and how education fits into that?

And more than institutionally, I think of what a difference it would make for each and everyone of our students–to be engaged in an exciting, innovative, connected learning experience–where what they learn connects to other things they are learning;  where it feels like the “real world,” and where it taps into all of their potential, not just the academic part of them, but their whole being.

After all, as Robinson concludes:  “We need new structures of learning for a different type of future.  We cannot meet the challenges of the 21st century with the educational ideologies of the 19th. . . .We cannot approach the future looking backwards.” (p. 201)

So, how do we begin to exit the roundabout?

Image credit:

This photograph is by my son, who I hope will always pursue his creative abilities.  Happy Birthday!

5 thoughts on “Getting off of the roundabout

  1. I like your metaphor of the roundabout and the visual that goes with it – compelling thoughts – i need to mull over this further…

  2. Another book to put on my list of readings! Your review is compelling and offers a lot to chew on – somehow we do have to get out of the proverbial roundabout – thanks for sharing.

  3. Out of Our Minds is one of those books that should be read by someone BEFORE they are allowed to make pronouncements on education and especially how to “fix” American schools. I’m assuming that you have already seen Robinson’s presentation at the 2006 TED conference. In twenty minutes he does a better job of sizing up our education system than a shelf full of studies and white papers.

  4. Just want to let you know that Dan Pink will be my guest on Living Hero towards the end of February. Just enter your email in the subscription box on to receive an email when the Podcast is broadcast. I’m writing to you and others in advance to give you a chance to participate in the formation of the interview questions. Just type your question into the question box widget on the right column of the page. Also, to see recent blog posts, just click into the recent posts question in the right side column. Once the Podcast is posted, comments can be added at the bottom of the podcast post. I look forward to a highly generative ongoing conversation and I do hope you’ll be part of it! Please spread the word! Thanks for the work you’re doing. My very best, Jari Chevalier

  5. It seems like one of the easiest ways to get kids out of the roundabout is to involve them with the real world. We too often venture to prepare them for the “real world” only after they’ve graduated from university. Many believe this is when they actually enter it. Why not educate as if students are currently “in the real world” and are able to engage in it meaningfully? Involving students in real issues that affect them here and now seems to work well toward inoculating them against the anesthetic environment found in most schools today.

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