Sir Ken Robinson, TEDxLondon, and the Independent School Response

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Back in 2008 Sir Ken Robinson was a featured speaker at the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference (when the hashtag #NAISAC08 wasn’t even a glimmer in some tweeter’s eye). He got a huge round of applause, and he generated buzz that lasted for hours, at least until people got into their planes, trains, and automobiles and headed back to a world of midterm examinations, board meetings, anxious families, teacher hiring, and all the things that energize late February and early March in independent schools.


To whatever extent, in the past couple of years Sir Ken has rather gone viral in the world of education, and like Daniel Pink (another #NAISAC08 featured speaker) his name alone has become a sort of synecdoche for “innovation, change, creativity”—to the extent that I almost feel the need to ask readers’ pardon for invoking his name.


After that conference I came home with mind a-bubble and dashed off a piece that was published as a back-cover “Commentary” in Education Week as “The New Progressivism Is Here.” In that essay I attempted, clumsily, to suggest that the kinds of constructivist practices touted by Sir Ken and long promoted (at least in the independent school community) by the likes of Grant Wiggins, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Howard Gardner, and others were entering the mainstream as natural evolutions of the progressive ideals of earlier generations. The New Progressivism, I proposed, was poised to become the recognized body of Best Practice. I even spent several years filling a blog with further observations and thoughts on the New P.


Sir Ken Robinson keeps promoting his ideals, and in retrospect I am rather grateful that the New Progressivism never caught on as a concept, as the “P Word” (New or old) has a way of derailing substantive conversations about education in all kinds of unfortunate ways. I just finished watching a large chunk of TEDxLondon, “The Education Revolution,” which was inspired, opened, and closed by Sir Ken. I was delighted—ecstatic, even—to hear him proclaim that “the principles of alternative education [that is, the practices and emphases that I had called the New Progressivism] are the principles of education,” at least as it should be and increasingly is being practiced.


Conversations about change and innovation in education, Sir Ken also noted, “are not happening in a vacuum—not in a cultural vacuum, not in a historical vacuum.” It was nice to hear him remark on the historicity of the ideas that he propounds so well, and it was even nice to hear him acknowledge some of the innovative educators and schools of the past whose successes—and arguably whose failures—have contributed much to current-day thinking.


From my perspective one of the most important points that Sir Ken made in his TEDxLondon closing was in reference to “mainstream” schools, and their role in—and often their absence from–talk about innovation. This was true to an extent for the conference as a whole, where un-schooling and non-institutional approaches to education played a significant role, as if many of the participants are perhaps ready to give up on the idea that established institutions can make significant changes in their ways of doing education. But at least Sir Ken, noting an initiative in Los Angeles that involves the public schools there, seems to have a bit more hope.


North American independent schools, and their counterparts elsewhere on the planet, probably qualify in most minds as the epitome of “mainstream.” While I think that’s not quite accurate, it’s close enough to make me want to jump up and down—as featured speakers at so many other NAIS Annual Conferences since New York in 2008 have made me want to do—and say, “C’mon, guys, let’s get to it! Something is afoot, and something is here!” It doesn’t matter whether you call that something the New Progressivism or simply a comprehensive new understanding of “the principles of education,” but the imperative for change is well and truly upon us all, and we must respond.


I have great hope—and I am lucky to work in a place where I see that hope being realized daily—that independent schools, with their stores of cultural, social, political, intellectual, creative, and fiscal capital, can offer a response that is not just reactive—a practice adopted here, a new policy there—but in fact profoundly and seriously innovative, and innovative in proportion to the real challenge. To paraphrase a tweet from my boss from a TechCrunch Disrupt! San Francisco session last week with Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, Real innovation is about solving problems that are hard and valuable, and not just solving simple problems in clever ways.


I can’t think of anything harder and more valuable that educating kids (and ourselves) well for the world we live in and the world we shall be living in. Independent schools have to embrace “the principles of education,” as the best thinkers understand them today, and bring themselves and their faculties up to the highest level of implementation while encouraging even further, and bolder, exploration.


The time is here!



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