Uniformity may look smart, but it covers up a series of flaws.

Sir Ken Robinson. will his words of wisdom be heard?

Sir Ken Robinson. will his words of wisdom be heard?

Debates about the virtues or disadvantages of school uniform have been a feature of education for years. Debates about the uniformity of education systems across the world are less common. That sounds like some form of conundrum, so let me explain.

Wherever one travels in the world, in visiting schools certain factors appear common. Whilst the organisation of individual classrooms may vary, basically they consist of a teacher, possibly with the assistance of one or more other adults, and children sitting either in rows, or grouped around tables. Information is generally delivered by an adult from the front of the classroom, and the dominant means of exchanging information is through the spoken or written word. This is a tried and tested process that has been shown to have achieved a degree of success over many centuries, so why would we expect to do anything differently?

There are other aspects of education that indicate an international uniformity, but which are beginning to be challenged in some quarters. Amongst one of the most intelligent and provocative sources of this challenge, comes from the educationalist and writer Sir Ken Robinson who currently lives and works in Los Angeles, USA. Robinson, who was born in Liverpool in the UK, has held a number of academic posts including that of Professor of Education at Warwick University. He is also author of several thought provoking books, including “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” written with his colleague Lou Aronica; a text that I would like to see featured on the reading list of any course designed for the training of teachers.

Sir Ken Robinson has described what he sees as the misguided and outmoded hierarchy of subjects that is a uniform feature of education throughout the world. At the top of this hierarchy is mathematics, language and sciences, beneath which comes the humanities and lingering at the bottom of the pile, the creative arts. This curriculum diet, designed to meet the needs of a largely industrial society, he suggests is out of date, and out of touch with the likely future needs of our societies. Furthermore, the rigid imposition of this list of subjects by apparent importance is turning increasing numbers of students away from education. The suppression of individual creativity is, in Robinson’s view, a dangerous approach that may well lead to increased disaffection and the disenfranchisement of significant numbers of individuals.

An article published today (May 10th) in TES Connect under the heading “Sir Ken Robinson: The education system is a dangerous myth”, provides a platform for Robinson to once again express those concerns that many of us share, but which are generally swept aside by politicians and education administrators. Yet in expressing his ideas, Robinson is highlighting issues that I hear emphasised by teachers in schools on a regular basis, though they are often reluctant to speak their minds for fear of being seen as out of line with the current narrowly focused standards agenda. A powerful argument put forward by Robinson states that:-

“Learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills. Human beings are highly curious; from the moment they’re born, children have a voracious appetite for learning. For many, that appetite is dulled as they go through school. Keeping it alive is the key to transforming education”.

Furthermore he believes that in schools today:-

“most efforts are focused on raising standards through more competition and accountability.”

There are he suggests great dangers in pursuing this approach, both in terms of the limited impact that the generation of increased competition and accountability has on improving the education system as a whole, but also because:-

“they often compound the very problems they claim to be solving, such as the alarming drop-out rates, the levels of stress and depression – even suicide – among students and their teachers, the falling value of a university degree, the rocketing cost of getting one and the rising levels of unemployment among graduates and non-graduates alike”.

Uniformity is not the answer when it comes to providing an effective approach to education. Even the most inexperienced teacher will tell you that all children are individuals, with different interests, aspirations, aptitudes and abilities. This should surely be a source of inspiration to any teacher, and should also tell us that a “0ne-size fits all” approach to teaching is nothing more than nonsense. If we continue in our attempts to mould all children in the same way, then it is inevitable that a significant number will lose interest,  fail, rebel, drop-out or simply ignore the systems put in place. Whilst all children most certainly need to become proficient in mathematics and language, we also must celebrate those who achieve in creative arts, physical education or any of those other subjects that are currently further down the food chain in our schools.

Nineteenth century thinking still persists in our education systems all around the world, despite the fact that we live in societies that are changing at a pace unprecedented in our history. It is clear that if we entrust the development of education to our current political leaders, we are likely to supress the creativity and enthusiasm for learning that is inherent in all children. Whilst I can express my own frustration with this situation, I cannot hope to do so with the eloquence of Sir Ken Robinson, and therefore conclude this piece with a further quotation from his article published today.

“If you design a system to do something specific, don’t be surprised if it does it. If you run an education system based on standardisation and conformity, which suppresses individuality, imagination and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does”.