Sir Ken and a Jumble of Thoughts

death valley The other night I had the opportunity to see Sir Ken Robinson speak to a small group of parents and students at Mulgrave School in Vancouver.  He spoke in the evening after spending the afternoon talking with small groups of students and teachers at the school, which I thought was a wonderful way to spread his message throughout the school community.  I’m a compulsive note taker and took notes using Evernote on my iTouch (it would have felt rude to have my laptop open).  Below are a few of the points he made that resonated with me (of course, looking at them now they seem rather bland stripped of the entertaining stories and dry witty remarks that accompanied them).

He began by stating that “many things that we have come to think of as obvious have turned out to be untrue.”  I noted this because it seems like such a simple statement from the outside, but if you are one of those people that genuinely believes something that is obvious it is very difficult to get you change your mind.  He linked this to the belief that going to school and then on to university will guarantee you a job and future security, which is no longer the case.  He mentioned that this is partially because the ‘industrial model of schooling is linear and life is not linear.’

He had his usual message that we are in the middle of a technological revolution, but what I really liked was the way he tied this into culture: “A genuinely revolutionary technology will change the world, but we can’t predict the outcome; we can’t predict how the technology will run up against cultural values.  For example, TV took over the heart of popular culture and changed everything.”  I liked this because it spoke of the uncertainty of change and the need to be ok with this uncertainty.

To get across his point that we are in the middle of a revolution he talked for a while about the inevitable consequence of Moore’s Law: “Computers don’t think; but they will.  Once computers cross learning threshold they will be able to rewrite their own processing system. Maybe by 2025 computers will be as smart as we are.”  At this point you could tell the audience was starting to feel a little uncomfortable.

He also tackled population growth and used an interesting comparison that I hadn’t heard before: “About 90 billion people have lived on planet since the start.  By 2050 10% of ALL the people that EVER lived (9 billion) will be on the planet at the SAME time.”  Yikes.

He went on to say that to tackle these issues “the future requires us all to be using our talents”; we all need to be in our Element.  To be in your element you need to be doing something that you have a natural aptitude for.  He said that many people who find their element had a mentor that saw their talent and encouraged it even though they have no idea where encouraging the talent will go; which brought the argument back to his “life is not linear so stop expecting to know how things will turn out” argument.

So if life is not a linear process like the factories of the industrial revolution, what is it like?  He suggested that life should be looked at more as a composition.

He finished off with a great story about Death Valley and how it actually contains dormant seeds just waiting for a drop of water to germinate.  He suggests that human minds and schools are like dormant seeds of creativity waiting to be germinated by a culture that embraces diversity.  He suggested that when we are re-imagining schools we need to change from an industrial metaphor to an agricultural metaphor.

I think my big take away from this talk was the need to stop trying to approach school and the transformation of school and learning in a linear way.  I’m struggling with this one because I want someone to create a nice skills articulation for me that I can use to teach creativity and help my students find their element (I’m not giving up on this one by the way; I think the Design Cycle and the idea of creativity needing boundaries are important bits of this puzzle) and I believe that structure and clear learning outcomes are essential for learning to take place, but I’m not clear on how this looks in an agricultural model of school.

It also occurred to me as I listened to Sir Ken talk that part of the reason so many people struggle with the impact technology is having on their lives and the lives of their children is that we are all looking for linear explanations of how this will all play out.  We want to know that if a child uses the internet and social media at school then there are a set number of things that will happen and the school has planned for all contingencies.  When the truth is a lot messier and non-linear, so it is very difficult for a school to guarantee to parents the outcomes that will result from a particular set of activities once we start to include social media in our lessons.

So I’m going to spend some more time struggling with what this idea of an Agricultural Model of education might look like.  I think I might revisit David Warlick’s K12 Online Conference closing Keynote called A Gardener’s Approach to Learning.

Death Valley photo by Hanroanu on Flickr

4 thoughts on “Sir Ken and a Jumble of Thoughts

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  2. Hi Phil,
    Thanks for sharing! I saw Sir Ken speak a few years ago and it’s interesting to see how his ideas have developed. I like what he has to say; he’s such an engaging speaker. I wonder why he’s ‘making the rounds’ and speaking across Canada? Regardless, it’s wonderful to have such a well respected person getting that particular message out!

  3. Thanks for posting this reflection. I too love the agricultural metaphor. It sounds to me like what he is saying (and what you may be struggling with) is the vision of “controlled chaos.” We know we need to tend to some things, we know we need goals, we know we need direction, but how to do that while also fostering creativity and maybe some craziness?

    If we continue the metaphor, perhaps we can think of that as… how gardeners use trellises, spikes, support, and more to guide their creations into “place.” Don’t forget they also prune regularly, ensuring that removal of what’s dead and gone can make space for new growth and beauty.

    Maybe that metaphor works, maybe it doesn’t… but I do like where you’re going with the idea of the agricultural model of education. I’m looking forward to hearing more. Thanks again for sharing! 🙂

  4. Great posting Phil! I am most impressed how accurately you could capture the essence of Sir Ken’s presentation with your iTouch … clearly some creative keyboarding skills that I am still to replicate on my Blackberry! Back to your point … the tension between ‘school’ and the organic nature of learning.
    My take on it is that we are still going about this in the wrong way – we still seem to be taking curriculum (preconceived and essentially non-organic) and trying to super-impose essential skills and creativity. In order for the ‘agricultural’ model to occur, I took Sir Ken’s message to indicate that, in essence, we need only but prepare the environment in which learning can flourish, and then inspire and guide students to pursue their passions through creative processes of discovery.
    More than ever, I believe that curriculum needs to be secondary, and that assessment needs to for learning (not ‘of’, or even worse, ‘to prove’). Only then can it be truly authentic. I agree that structure and clear learning outcomes are essential to achieve the ultimate goals of education but, more and more, I find myself starting to define those outcomes in terms of the students’ aptitude for learning, and ‘structure’ to reflect the executive skills we need to acquire in a natural learning environment (Sir Ken refers to this as “human capacity”, occurring in students’ “natural learning environment”; essentially free of pre-determined notions of ‘age’, ‘time’ and ‘space’).
    While I can see us changing the nature of our schools somewhat to facilitate organic learning (e.g. differentiated approaches to learning, creative scheduling, use of technology, etc.), my dilemma is making sense of the IB curricular outcomes within this landscape – reminds of a great podcast you once directed me to which addressed the question on whether the IB can be shifted (http://www.sospodcast.org/2009/12/03/episode-29/). Right now, unfortunately I don’t think the organisation really wants to; and therefore will find it very difficult to co-exist in Sir Ken’s organic universe.
    Phil, I am also hoping for the skills articulation you reference above. Maybe we can get a group together to begin to chart some thoughts … now wouldn’t that be a great process to be involved in!

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