What Sir Ken Got Wrong

“We are educating people out of their creativity”

Sir Ken Robinson


Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas on education are not only impractical; they are undesirable.


If you’re interested in education, at some point someone will have sent you a link to a video by Sir Ken Robinson, knighted for services to education in England in 2003. He has over 250,000 followers on Twitter, his videos have had over 40,000,000 views online, and his 2006 lecture is the most viewed TED talk of all time. The RSA Opening Minds curriculum his ideas are associated with is taught in over 200 schools in the UK. He clearly has some influence.

What explains such iconic influence? Like a magician’s performance, explaining the magic helps to dispel it. Humour, anecdote and charm combined with online, animated media explain why it’s gone viral. Jokes get contagious laughter from his audience in the video, and as online viewers, we laugh along too. Anecdotes about a little girl having the pluck of drawing a picture of God to show everyone what he looks like, or about Shakespeare as an annoying little boy, are part of this charm offensive. And the RSA graphic illustration being drawn before our eyes is just a very cool way of animating ideas.


Sir Ken’s ideas are incredibly seductive, but they are wrong, spectacularly and gloriously wrong. Let me explain why. But first, beyond the jokes and anecdotes, let’s get to the nub of what the ideas actually are.

In a few sentences, this is his argument about education:

1. Schools kill children’s innate creative talents because

2. The school system prioritises academic ability.

3. The system neglects other intelligences.

4. Creativity is as important as literacy.

5. Subject hierarchies of English, maths & science over drama, dance & art are damaging.

6. We are in thrall to conformity rather than diversity of intelligences.

7. So we must transform how the system nurtures talent and intelligences.

SKRElement          SKRfinding

All that glistens is not gold

Here are some select quotations from his talks and books that illustrate his ideas:

1. On Innate Talent

‘All kids have talents, and we squander them ruthlessly.’

‘We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it.’

‘Education dislocates people from their natural talents, buried deep; you have to create circumstances where they show themselves.’


2. On Academic Ability

‘What is education for? Who succeeds? Who are the winners? The purpose is to produce university academics. The whole system is predicated on academic ability, a protracted process of University entrance. Our system has mined our minds for this commodity….’


3. On Multiple Intelligences

‘Academic ability is seen as intelligence; others are not valued, or stigmatised.’

‘Education should be personalised to every learning style.’


4. On Creativity

‘Schools kill creativity.’

Creativity is as important as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.’

‘Creativity as I mean it is just a metaphor for multiple talents and intelligences.’

‘The education system discourages creativity.’

‘What we know about children is this: children don’t need to be helped to learn, for the most part. They are born with vast, voracious appetite for learning … evolve in the womb with appetite… You don’t teach your child to speak, though we do teach them to write. Writing appeared much later in human evolution. But they have a vast appetite for learning and it starts to dissipate when we start to educate them and force-feed them information.’

5. On Subject Hierarchies

‘Every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects – why maths and languages and not drama and dance?’

‘The academic curriculum is based on a series of assumptions that are irrelevant to our current circumstances’.

‘I believe the way we have to go is not to go back to a subject-based curriculum.’

‘I think we should question that there are subjects… It’s not like we don’t know; we know what works in schools; and we know that there is a better alternative to narrowly conceived subject-based curricula that enshrine a hierarchy.’

‘The reason I don’t like the idea of subjects is that it suggests you can differentiate the curriculum purely on the basis of information or propositional knowledge. History is not just a bag of content, it is a discipline, a process of reflection. I just think it’s based on a false premise that you can lift information out of the world and pin it to the wall like a butterfly, and that is what the old academic curriculum was too much about, what we’re trying to get away from.’


6. On Conformity

‘The big issue is conformity – a fast-food model where everything is standardised, not customised.’

‘Industrial systems are impersonal and emphasise conformity in the curriculum and teaching methods and standardisation in assessment.’


7. On Transformation

‘We must rethink the fundamental principles of education.’

‘Reform is no use any more – that’s just improving a broken model. What we need is not evolution but a revolution, for it to be transformed into something else – one of the challenges is fundamental innovation.’

‘It’s a change from an industrial, manufacturing model of batching people – based on agriculture, not mechanic but organic – to create conditions under which they can flourish. It’s not about scaling a new solution – but where we allow people to create their own solution, a personalised curriculum. We must revolutionise education. We have to change from industrial to an agricultural model, to where schools can flourish tomorrow.’

‘It’s already happening – in Austin, Texas, a whole district has given every kid an iPad. It’s a revolution in the way they’re teaching and learning. And you can multiply the example. The system is already adapting.’


iPads for all?


Seductive but Wrong

These ideas are very, very seductive. It’s easy to be enthused by the grand conceptions of ‘talent’, ‘multiple intelligences’, ‘revolution’, ‘innovation’, ‘paradigm shift’ and ‘transformation’. It’s easy to recoil from the horror of ‘conformity’, ‘standardisation,’ ‘academic ability’ and ‘hierarchy’.

Head of English Alex Quigley has written convincingly here on how seductive these ideas are, and why we should mistrust Ken Robinson: initially ‘entranced … enraptured … infatuated’, he soon felt ‘beguiled’, ‘frustrated’ at the ‘cult of personality’, then ‘healthily wary’. Some, though, were not so seduced. UK education blogger, teacher, author and expert on education research Tom Bennett has challenged Sir Ken’s ideas:

‘There are many dangerous ideas he promotes that, while well-meant in root, bear dangerous fruits.’

‘The suggestion that the contemporary curriculum is somehow the death-knell of creativity is nonsense.’

‘The idea that schools somehow drive creativity out of a child is laughable.’

‘I tire of someone who has never been a classroom teacher telling me what classroom teaching is like, or how children should be taught. Being told by a non-teacher with a PhD in education how to teach is a bit like being told by a virgin how to get laid.’


‘His theories of what creativity is, and how it must be taught, are sophistry and illusion. There isn’t a shin-bone of evidence to support what he says.’

‘… easy to find inspirational, but empty. It’s far harder to inspire someone with concrete and practical ideas. Superficially convincing but ultimately brainless.’


Ultimately brainless?

Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has also challenged Sir Ken’s approach:

‘Robinson suggests that what’s needed in education is a “paradigm shift”. Maybe so, but Robinson makes a poor case…’

‘I lose confidence in Robinson because the framework in which he puts education and education reform is not in the least revolutionary. In fact he’s tapping a very rich, very old vein of thought… I want Robinson to tell me what’s going to make things different this time around.’

‘My other problem with this video is that some of the details are inaccurate. Getting details wrong makes me less confident that Robinson is getting the big things right, and failing to acknowledge previous attempts to change the paradigm makes me uncertain of his vision.’

Quigley, Bennett and Willingham are right: the evidence isn’t often on Sir Ken’s side. For example, in his 2006 talk (with 25million+ views) he mentions that the reason why women multi-task better than men is probably because the ‘corpus callosum’ in the brain is thicker in women. It turns out this is from one study in 1992. The evidence from a meta-analysis of 49 studies from 1980 to 1997 shows that ‘no sex difference could be found in the size of the corpus callosum, whether or not account was taken of larger male brain size.’ This is just one example of the faulty evidence for his claims.


Practice is the path to mastery

Others are using Hans Zimmer and William Shakespeare as examples in his anecdotes. The reason for their creativity is not innate talent. Zimmer was the son of two musicians, who grew up in a music studio and played by himself for countless hours. As Shakespeare expert Rex Gibson says:

‘Shakespeare is an outstanding example of how schooling can foster talent. Schoolboys learned by heart over 100 figures of rhetoric. His schooling provided an excellent resource for the future playwright. Everything Shakespeare learned at school he used in some way in his plays. Having mastered the rules of language, he was able to break and transform them. On this evidence, Shakespeare’s education has been seen as an argument for the value of memorising and of constant practice.’


Schooling can foster talent

Unwittingly, Sir Ken has stumbled on the very example that belies his idea that traditional schooling kills creativity. And this is true not just in the musical or artistic sphere, but the political sphere too. Nelson Mandela in South Africa and the Black Panthers in America turned their traditional education to radically revolutionary aims.

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.


False prophet?

1. Talent is not innate

A growing body of research shows that talent isn’t innate, waiting passively like a tooth ready to be extracted. Research collated in books from Malcolm Gladwell, Carol Dweck, Matthew Syed, Daniel Coyle, Geoff Colvin, Daniel Willingham, Doug Lemov and Paul Tough show that natural talent is a myth; it’s only dedicated, determined and disciplined practice that leads to great achievement.


2. Multiple intelligences don’t exist

Dan Willingham has summarised the research and shown that learning styles do not exist; on multiple intelligences, ‘for scientists, this theory of the mind is almost certainly incorrect’: ‘The fact that the theory is an inaccurate description of the mind makes it likely that the more closely an application draws on the theory, the less likely the application is to be effective. All in all, educators would likely do well to turn their time and attention elsewhere.’

3. Literacy and numeracy are the basis of creativity

In the UK, 17% of school leavers leave school functionally illiterate, and 22% leave school functionally innumerate. Ask any parent what they would prefer: that their child left school unable to read, write or add up but able to dance and draw creatively, or unable to dance or draw creatively but able to read, write or add up. The reason why there’s a hierarchy of subjects is because some are more empowering than others. If you can’t read, you can’t learn much else. If you can’t do arithmetic, you can’t become a teacher, doctor, engineer, scientist, plumber or electrician. Numeracy and literacy are complex evolutionary applications of civilisation; they take a great deal of time, practice and expert guidance to master, so we dedicate a lot of time to them in school, and rightly so. Sir Ken is wrong when he says children do not need to be helped to learn, for the most part: children do need to be helped to learn – every teacher knows that. We don’t dedicate so much time to dancing and drawing because they don’t disempower you so much if you can’t do them.


4. Misbehaviour is more damaging than conformity

In any classroom, without compliance with instructions, no one learns anything. Disruptive behaviour is chronic, particularly in the most challenging schools. The problem for many teachers is not so much conformity, but rather pervasive disruption to teaching. Self-discipline is not an evil weed to be uprooted, but the foundation for effective learning. But then again, Sir Ken has not been teacher in a tough school – nor any primary or secondary school at all.

5. Academic achievement is important, but unequal

Strong academic achievement in private schools allow 96% to go to University, and in the UK commandeer 70% of the jobs as high court judges, 54% of the jobs as doctors and 51% of the jobs as journalists, despite only educating 7% of children. Yet only 16% of the poorest pupils go to University, due to persistent academic underachievement. It’s no good Sir Ken disparaging the education system’s focus on academic ability; closing the gap in academic attainment is vital for social mobility, social equity and social justice in this country.

6. Subject knowledge is vital for critical and creative skills

Decades of scientific research shows the importance of broad and domain-specific knowledge for reading, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. So it’s no good Sir Ken disparaging subject-based curricula. All over the world, mastering subject disciplines is the route to success. It’s no coincidence, no middle-class industrial Victorian conspiracy that China, South Korea, Canada and Scandanavia all organise their systems like this, as global expert Tim Oates explains: ‘In all high-performing systems, the fundamentals of subjects are strongly emphasised, have substantial time allocation, and are the focus of considerable attention. It’s the most effective way of organising teaching and learning, because, as Daisy Christodoulou explains: ‘thinking skills are subject-specific; our working memories are limited and easily overloaded by distractions; and pupils are novices,’ not experts, and so require expert guidance.


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.

About Joe Kirby

English teacher, education blogger
This entry was posted in System. Bookmark the permalink.

153 Responses to What Sir Ken Got Wrong

  1. Simone says:

    When I first saw his Ted talk something felt amiss….he gives a lot of reasons (and ‘quotes’) against the education system but offers no alternatives or ideas, it is like someone moaning and complaining about their lot but doing nothing about it. Did his own children go through the education system I wonder? Most likely, because he does not have anything to put forward as an alternative. I teach, and I gave up teaching to homeschool/unschool my youngest son who has ADHD, it worked and informed all of my future teaching and I can very much say that Ken Robinson’s ideas are just a tip of the iceberg, with no real depth to them or experience. I went back to teaching when my son was old enough to cope by himself and I do very much have misgivings about the system and find it to be totally flawed, but from a much more informed basis that Ken’s – through real experience. More than that, I can offer and prove the validity of alternatives, which is more than can be said for Ken. Much I was inspired by his talk many years ago (although there was something that did not resonate at the time), he uses his influence or ‘Sir’hood to propagate something he really knows very little about, I’m afraid to say.

  2. Emma Hiscox says:

    This blog totally reaffirms Sir Ken’s brilliant observations. Clearly this writer just cannot grasp what on earth ‘creativity’ means & stands for & how creativity & the arts affect every single aspect of life, how sad. What a great example of how someone can be so ‘intelligent’ yet so stupid at the same time….& this folks is the problem with many that teach & whom we entrust with our childrens education.

  3. Teacher all my life says:

    your conclusions are correct but the sources you use to challenge sir Ken are ridiculous. One cognitive scientist, an RE teacher calling sir Ken “brainless” etc
    Good effort but embarrassing references

  4. pedagogy PHD says:

    Challenging sir Ken with another illusionist – gladwell – is a joke

  5. Terry Clarke says:

    Good academic results and an approach to life where you embrace ideas, think creatively to solve problems, dare to take risks, recognise and use the strengths you have, build on your weaknesses and have a love for something like the arts, sport ……anything. 46 years as a teacher I’ve kept going because you can’t beat that moment when students find that thing that makes them special. They have self worth so they work harder in all areas because they don’t want to let themselves or you down. Challenge for all. Sort out lessons that are death by PowerPoint. Whole school support for behaviour standards. Sir Ken for me not Gove!
    TC. MBE services to education

  6. Linda Lindholm says:

    As an educator I completely agree with Sir Ken Robinson. I think you need to fully educate yourself on his work before you are so quick to judge. I disagree that creative behaviors require literacy. Some do, some don’t. Learn the facts!

  7. Andrew Scully says:

    A motivational speaker on education who is causing people to discuss the merits of different forms of education and reflect upon what is happening in schools? You’re right…definitely a fraud. Who would want someone who preaches educational reform to be the catalyst for conversation about how schools should be modeled and what teaching should look like?

    Oh please!

    Disagree if you like but the reality is that his work is stirring conversation and if you are going to speak intelligently on what he says then you need to reflect on what you are doing. Seems like a good thing even if you don’t agree with what he says.

  8. Christopher says:

    It would help if more people were aware of the subject of the Philosophy of Education, which is the study of the purposes of education, the content of curriculum and the teaching methods- Rote Learning, Group Teaching, ‘Child-Centred Education’, etc.

    People must be aware of this field and its history, otherwise they will not have anything (effectively) to compare modern ideas with, and the ideology of Progressivism will continue to grow insidiously.

    Here are some key texts-

    The Republic, Plato. 350 BC. Book 1 discusses the need for Gymnastics and Music at the core of the curriculum, as well as Astronomy, Geometry and Mathematics. An educated class of ‘Guardians’ to lead the state. Selection in Education advocated for the first time.

    Politics, Aristotle. 300 BC. “Balanced Development”. Advocates Rote Learning. Discusses Vocationalism in education for the first time, as well as the formation of character .

    The Institutes of Education, Cassiodorus. 550 BC. Calls for a Christian curriculum based around the study of Psalms, Epistles and Gospels, as well as the Trivium and Quadrivium of Logic, Grammar, Rhetoric; Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music.

    Some Thoughts Concerning Education, John Locke. 1693. The first signs of ‘Creativity’, Child Centred Education, Student Led Learning etc. Advocates Maths and Science as for the sons of businessmen, discarding the Arts and Humanities. “A healthy mind in a healthy body”.

  9. Huskie says:

    You have it backwards. Yes, academics are important and vital, but you can’t force-feed “literacy” and “numeracy” and expect students to later be creative with all of this wonderful content knowledge that some central planner felt it imperative for everyone to know. Learning doesn’t work that way…why do you think the illiteracy and innumeracy rate is so high? If you allow them to follow their strengths and interests then the content will follow. Start with the content and students have no purpose for learning – that’s why we have to bribe them with grades.

    “Natural talent is a myth” – maybe, in a sense. Most of us aren’t born geniuses who can play violin or write novels with very little hard work or experience. But it defies common sense to suggest we are all born as identical blank slates, with absolutely no strengths or weaknesses, who can be molded however family, society, and culture molds us. Yes, hard work and self-discipline is important, but I don’t think Sir Robinson ever says it isn’t. He does say that different people are different, which I can’t help but to agree with.

    “Misbehaviour is more damaging than conformity” – so your position is that students don’t comply enough? That self-discipline can best be achieved by obediently working hard towards management’s goals? By that definition, slaves were the most self-disciplined people on earth.

  10. h8ed says:

    Shut up, Sir Ken Robinson is completely right, I am a student and I vouch for him, stop trying to play safe, what’s wrong is wrong, the current system is wrong

  11. Eddie Carron says:

    Children are born with an innate imperative to learn – not from formal instruction – perceptually from their senses. This is the same imperative that has driven evolution; it is the mechanism called the ‘absorbet mind’ by Maria Montessor.

    Teaching is what teachers do – instructing is what trainers do. Do went want to teach our children or train them to perform in a predetermined way so that we can tick lots of boxes. I suspect the latter because that is certainly what governments want us to do.

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