Sir Ken Robinson on Arts in Education

What does it mean to promote creativity in schools and how does it mesh with arts instruction?


Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized voice in education, has been a longtime leader on issues of creativity and human potential. In his latest book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education (Viking, 2015), Robinson asks educators to revampthe outdated industrial K-12 education system. He wants to see a personalized approach that engages students’ individual abilities and creativity in math, science and the arts – to build their skills for the unique challenges of this century.

In a recent interview with Kristin Hubing, School Administrator magazine’s editorial associate, Robinson discussed the importance of promoting creativity in schools, models for excellence in creative education and how school leaders can rectify common misconceptions about arts education.


Q: Why do you think that promoting creativity in schools is so important right now? Why has this grassroots revolution come to a peak at this moment?

A: I think it’s always been important to recognize the significance of creative work in schools. There are several reasons for it. Human beings are essentially creative. I was speaking to an education superintendent in Europe a few years ago, it was in Austria, and I was saying that creativity is an essential part of human intelligence and he said ‘well, where’s the evidence of that?’ We’re sitting in a building that had been standing for about 300 years, a beautifully ornate building; we were surrounded by intricately carved oak panels in this man’s office. There were leather-bound books everywhere, we were sitting at a beautiful mahogany table, there was the latest MacBook on his desk, Mozart was playing in the background, and we were surrounded by beautiful paintings. And I said how much evidence do you need? Human life is shot through with evidence of our imagination, our creativity and our productivity. In science and the arts, in technology, it’s everywhere. In the languages we speak, in the way we design our environment, in the clothes that we wear, the food we eat. Human life is creative. So I’ve been arguing for a long time that we should recognize both the nature and diversity and importance of creativity in education as a whole, but there’s a real sense in which if we don’t help young people develop their imaginative powers, their abilities to be creative across the whole curriculum, then we’re really doing a huge disservice. We’re not really helping them cultivate some of the most importance qualities and capabilities they have.

Why it’s so important just now is that the world is changing very quickly and the ability to contribute, to adapt, to be actively engaged in the world around us has never been more important and for that we don’t need a rigid curriculum with a narrow focus, we need a broad-based one that really does celebrate the full range of our intelligence and our creative capacity. I’ve been at this for a long time. It was the centerpiece of a strategy I did in the U.K. before I moved to America. I wrote a book about 12 years ago called Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative. I think it’s becoming more important just now because the culture of testing and standardization in America has become so intense that it really is frustrating the best efforts of schools and teachers and superintendents to provide the kind of education that children need. No Child Left Behind hasn’t significantly moved the needle in terms of achievement. It’s actually frustrated efforts in terms of instruction and I think it’s time to recognize that it’s not a successful approach in schools and there are better approaches.

Q: In Creative Schools, you mention that the Boston Arts Academy has been sustained by its visionary leadership. What impresses you about how they approach integrating arts into their academic curriculum?

A: The Boston Arts Academy is one of a number of schools that we feature in the book. And one of the principles it illustrates is that the way to engage young people is to seek out their talents and their interests. The core of this is to say that education is not a mechanical or an impersonal process of mass production. It’s a personal process, you’re dealing with human beings here, with lives and biographies and feelings and aspirations and anxieties living real lives in real communities. Some of the problems that schools face don’t originate in the schools, they just show up in schools because of the lives kids are leading outside in their communities, in the streets and with their families. Kids show up with complicated lives and then to give them a diet of just testing and sitting at desks all day doing something they’re not interested in exacerbates the problem so the system itself can cause the problems as well.

At Boston Arts Academy they are offering a much richer diet of opportunities. They are seeking out and cultivating the talents and interests and passions of the students themselves and it’s through the arts, it’s dance, music, theater, visual arts, but it’s also that they offer a full program of more conventional academic work. They’re not looking for established prowess in the arts before they accept young people into the academy. They say “We’re not looking for children who can dance, but we’re looking for kids who can’t not dance.” They’re looking for potential. And they cultivate that potential. And what they find at the academy is firstly they have very high graduation rates. Something like 94% of the graduates of the school go off to college every year. And it’s a proportion; they have a very high graduation rate from the school as a whole. They serve a very diverse range of Boston’s neighborhoods and they offer collaborative work and they work cross-culturally, they work in a cross-disciplinary way, but what they also find, and this happens all the time, particularly when you see schools with big arts programs, is that achievements of the students don’t just go up in the art discipline, they go up across the board. They find that they’re more engaged in other parts of the curriculum as well. So it’ a real win-win, I think. And for me it’s common sense that we should be adopting these sorts of approaches because the results are so spectacular. And it’s not mysterious that they should be because we’re tapping into the real creative energy and passions of the kids themselves, rather than depressing them.

Q: How can educators demonstrate the benefits of art education without limiting it with the endless evaluation that kids are put through in other subjects? How else can it be measured?

A: There are different areas of the arts. For example, I was a professor of arts education for some years in the U.K. and I wrote a whole series of curriculum guides on the arts and sometimes people conflate creativity with the arts, so if you say are you creative they often say they’re not, and what they mean is they don’t think they’re artistic. Creativity is a much bigger idea. It takes in science and technology and math – the whole curriculum. But if you think of the arts in particular, there are several aspects to a balanced arts education. The first is it should cover a range of disciplines. It should cover visual arts, performing arts, literary arts. Secondly, the arts are not just forms of recreation or leisure. And I always want to oppose the idea that they’re somehow categorically different from the sciences. The sciences are ways of organizing our understanding of the world around us. And they’re rigorous and they’re objective at their best and highly creative, too. But the arts are rigorous and highly disciplined and creative too and they have more to do with understanding the world within us and how we can relate to the world around us. That’s what music and poetry and dance and theater are all about. Understanding our experiences in the world, our personal experience, our relationships with other people, our own perceptions of the world around us.

I was on the board of the Royal Ballet. If you look at dancers rehearsing, if you go to orchestras, if you look at players in rehearsal, if you look at the techniques in lighting, these are very rigorous and demanding technical processes. We wouldn’t expect young children to be experts in any of these areas any more than we expect them to excel in calculus when they’re 5 years old. It’s a process, it’s developmental. So as soon as we’re clear that there are techniques involved, that there are issues of value and judgement involved, the quality of the work, it becomes very feasible to put together a supportive and proper schedule of assessment criteria and we’re doing it. Art schools have been doing it for years. It’s perfectly feasible and actually necessary that we should do it.

Q: What would you say the biggest misconception that people have about creativity in schools is and how do you think school leaders can help change that view?

A: There are various misconceptions about creativity. One is to say that people conflate it with the arts and think it’s only about the arts. Now I’m, as you can tell, a committed advocate in support of the arts in schools. I think if you don’t have a balance in schools between the arts, the sciences, the humanities, physical education, mathematics, languages, then you’re not doing education. You’re doing something else, but you’re not giving people a proper full and balanced education. And I’m not saying the arts are more important than the sciences, but they’re just as important. And actually there are a lot of interactions between them. There are some wonderful cross-disciplinary projects between the arts and sciences as well, which I’ve seen in schools. So creativity firstly is not only about the arts, it’s about the whole curriculum. It’s important and necessary to develop creative capacities in the sciences, in mathematics and so on. In technology. And we’re surrounded by the fruits of that form of creative thinking.

Secondly, there’s an assumption, a misconception, that only special people are creative and that it’s a rather rare commodity and it’s not. Human beings are born with immense creative capacity. But we have to cultivate it. So a creative curriculum, a creative school, involves everybody as well as the whole curriculum.

And the third misconception is that creativity is just doing what you like. You know, just kind of brainstorming and coming up with random ideas and without having checks and balances and that somehow it’s the opposite of factual learning and discipline. And that’s a complete misconception. You can’t be creative in writing or in music or in science or in dance without having progressively better control over the discipline of it. It’s a developmental process, but discipline isn’t a hindrance to creative work, it facilitates it, properly conceived. But that’s a delicate pedagogical issue. I mean I know people who spent years learning to play the piano who never want to pick up the piano again because they were so put off by it. You know it’s about kind of feeding in techniques and encouraging techniques in the service of producing interesting work. And that’s what great art teachers know. I suppose the last thing is that there is therefore an assumption that creativity can’t be taught. It absolutely can. It means having a clear definition of creativity and also understanding that teaching is more than direct instruction. That teaching is mentoring and coaching and encouraging and critiquing and it takes in much more than factual instruction.

So I have a definition of creativity which is a process of having original ideas that have value. It’s about coming up with fresh thinking. It doesn’t have to be new to the entire planet, but it certainly has to be new to you. And it’s about critical judgment. Critical judgment isn’t the opposite of creative work, it’s an integral part of it. You look at people designing scientific experiments or writing a piece of music – there’s a constant process of checks and balances. Does this work? Does this feel right? And then when the work is produced of course people form their own views of it. So I’ve never wanted to divorce critical judgment and values from creativity. The challenge for educators is to understand how these things connect.

Q: Could you provide an example of successful collaboration between the arts and the sciences at the pre-collegiate level?

A: There are many, and one of the ones that we talk about in the book, which has become quite well-known now, is the work of High Tech High. But Boston Arts Academy is worth mentioning as well. They have a lot of activity and disciplinary work and of course the arts themselves involve lots of technical work. High Tech High is an interesting case in point because they do a great deal of work obviously in technology, they do technological projects, they assign students tasks which combine the exploration of scientific principles, the application of them to technological projects, which also intersect with the humanities. So for example in the documentary film that I gave an interview for, called Most Likely to Succeed, students are asked to look at why some cultures grow and develop and survive and others don’t. And that involved a close look at the interaction of technology, the agricultural practices and industrial practices. But the thing about High Tech High is the vast majority of the work is project based, collaborative. So they don’t break the day into periods like conventional high schools do, they don’t ring bells all the time, they’re not asked to put their hands up with questions. The whole place has a workshop atmosphere, rooms where they are working collaboratively on projects, creating models, doing presentations; it’s like a vibrant workspace. And of course there’s a huge level of engagement.

That’s a big part of my argument here is that kids love to learn. They are natural learners, we’re all born with an appetite for learning and we achieve extraordinary things like learning to speak in the first few years of our lives. You couldn’t teach a child to speak, it’s far too complicated. You don’t sit them down to learn to talk. They just learn. Education is supposed to help them to learn, the idea of education is that there are some things that kids need to learn which are too complicated for them to do without expert help. You can learn to speak, but learning to write is a different thing. You can’t go around inventing your own writing system. We have writing systems and people need to be introduced to them. You don’t just pick them up. Like calculus. It wouldn’t be reasonable to allow children just to go off and invent their own system of calculus when we spent hundreds of years generating these things. It’s a huge cultural acquisition. So education is organized learning.

The problem is, and this is part of what I’m pointing to in the book, is the structures of education themselves often frustrate learning inadvertently. Like breaking the day up into bits all the time or keeping kids rigidly in age groups, like dividing the day into certain subjects, when actually subjects and disciplines often feed into each other. If you change the structures of education, you get remarkably different results. For example, in America we’re told about 7,000 kids a day leave high school without graduating. Over a million kids a year do that. But I see kids being re-engaged all the time in alternative education programs that are more personalized. You see huge levels of disengagement. You have kids being diagnosed in elementary schools, they’re being asked to sit for hour after hour at desks doing tests or getting ready for tests when they need to be up and around moving. You see them being diagnosed with ADD, they’re being medicated, but if you get them out of their desks and you get them moving, a lot of these problems start to disappear. In other words, it’s the system that creates the problems that we think we’re solving so when people say to me “how do we solve these problems – disengagement and non-graduation and so on,” Part of my answer is, well, stop causing them. Do something different. Try a different method and the book is just full of examples of schools and teachers who are doing that and getting much better results.

Q: In Creative Schools, you suggested one positive step for schools to take is to become tied more closely to the fabric of their communities. What do you mean by that and what are some of the benefits?

A: Schools are, when properly conceived, not testing centers. They’re centers of learning. And the best schools always have closeness. The kids spend more time out of school than they do in it. And they come from real backgrounds, they live in real neighborhoods, they have relationships and they have, in most cases, I say most because of course the world is changing very quickly, but they have families and connections and lives outside the school and people whose children are in schools have hopes and aspirations for them as well. So schools shouldn’t be isolated ghettos in their communities. They are ideally enmeshed in the fabric of the community. A great school has those connections with the community, can be a hub of community life, a center for performances, for adult learning, for teacher workshops, places where the facilities are made available to others, certainly to students but to others as well. Great schools have theaters, they have gymnasiums, they have sports facilities, so they can be a real hub and a great school raises the hopes and aspirations of the community as well.

That’s what we’re arguing for – that if you have a broad curriculum and an expansive conception of the schools’ role in the community, they can bring life to neighborhoods. And if they are closed and restricted, they can also drain life and expectations in the community. Schools have always been a gateway to opportunity for kids and can be for their families as well. So what I’m trying to encourage in the book is a broader conception of what a school is. Schools to me are any communities of learners and the learners don’t have to be just the students. The great schools I know recognize that teachers are learners too and teachers can also be students and students can be teachers. We can have adults other than teachers teaching in schools and also people older than young people actually in schools taking classes alongside them. And there are lots of examples of schools being reinvented like that. And also these aren’t fresh ideas, they’ve been around for a long time.

I do have reservations and anxieties about this multibillion dollar testing industry and it’s worth remembering that it is a business and most of these tests are designed by companies for profit. Whatever their other intentions may be, this multibillion dollar industry is not regulated in any way and every time there’s a new twist in the curriculum, every time there’s a new set of standards, it’s another bonanza for the testing companies. One estimate is that the education testing industry generates revenues of about $16 billion per year in the U.S. And all that’s coming out of the budgets of state and districts, out of the education budgets. You can imagine what we could do to improve the nation’s schools with an extra $16 billion a year to spend on facilities and training and cultural programs and instead it’s going into testing. So now I’m encouraging people to rethink what schools can be like and a lot of things that go on in schools aren’t mandated and aren’t required by law, but are just other things we’ve done for years and we keep doing them because we always did them. So there are lots of ways that schools can reinvent themselves internally and also can recreate their relationships with the communities around them and I say all the evidence is that when that’s done imaginatively, creatively and with passion and with commitment then we get extraordinary levels of achievement and a very different outcome.