It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I have been a huge devotee of Sir Ken Robinson for well over two decades. So, it was a thrill for me to receive his manifesto, published posthumously, on its March 1 release date.
What a little gem it is. Some might describe it as a small book. Others, a long letter. Regardless, Imagine If . . . Creating a Future for Us All is a “must read” for anyone with an interest in systems and the role they play in contemporary society. At a mere 113 pages, this little volume is chock full of wisdom and insight that can only be gleaned from a life’s work that is full of richness and meaning. I’ve read it three times already, and each time I come away with a new nugget.
We know Sir Ken to be a champion of creativity and imagination, and the essential inclusion of these traits in all the systems we operate in. Sir Ken reminds us in Imagine if . . . that systems are human creations. Because these systems are the product of human innovation, they can be changed by humans, if we have the will, when we find they are no longer useful or have become antiquated. As the world has evolved, effective systems have adapted to these changes. If they fail to evolve, systems are doomed to be considered no longer relevant.
One of our remarkably out of date systems is education. This was an area that Sir Ken was particularly worried about. One of the key reasons for his concern is that our traditional system ignores the creativity and imaginations of children; seemingly working to discourage them. He writes that traditionally, schooling has functioned to “educate” children in discreet subjects; for them to be adept at managing and recalling key information that maybe, if they’re lucky may come in handy someday. He suggests that we should be thinking in terms of disciplines rather than subjects as they are more fluid and adapt to broader, deeper, and interdisciplinary understanding.
I quote directly from page 50 of Imagine If . . . as Sir Ken Robinson defines a contemporary education. “Despite the widely acknowledged, and frankly unignorable, changes societies around the world continue to experience, education systems generally remain rooted in the past. The answer is not simply to do more of what has always been done. The solutions we require are not in the rearview mirror. The challenge is not to reform our systems but to transform them. In order to effectively raise children who will thrive in the world they are inheriting, we must revolutionize education. The revolution we need involves rethinking how schools work.”
We need to be clear about the purpose of education in our society. The four purposes and eight competencies Robinson ascribes are “essential aspects of being human. They are no more, or less, than what we expect of each adult we encounter in both our professional and personal lives.” He asks us to consider these four purposes that might revolutionize how we think about education.
· Personal – enabling kids to successfully navigate in two worlds: the one around them and the one within them.
· Cultural – enabling students to understand their personal culture while respecting the diversity of others.
· Economic – enabling students to be “economically responsible and independent.”
· Social – enabling students to become compassionate and active citizens.
In support of these purposes, Sir Ken outlines eight competencies that go far beyond our traditional notion of “subjects.” These competencies, I might add, mirror the traits of successful students in the 2015 report on education issued by the World Trade Forum, as well as other prominent business leaders and education think tanks.
1. Curiosity – “The ability to ask questions and explore how the world works.”
2. Creativity – “The ability to generate new ideas and to apply them in practice.”
3. Criticism – “The ability to analyze information and ideas and to form reasoned arguments and judgements.”
4. Communication – “The ability to express thoughts and feelings clearly and confidently in a range of media and forms.”
5. Collaboration – “The ability to work constructively with others.”
6. Compassion – “The ability to empathize with others and to act accordingly.”
7. Composure – “The ability to connect with the inner life of feeling and develop a sense of personal harmony and balance.”
8. Citizenship – “The ability to engage constructively with society and to participate in the processes that sustain it.”
I’m confident that Sir Ken would agree that our education system missed an opportunity during the past two-plus years. Instead of seizing the chance to examine, reflect, plan, and implement significant, and much needed, transformational changes to our national and local systems of education, system leaders allowed themselves to be distracted by masks, which books to ban, arguments about critical race theory, renaming schools – important, perhaps. But, in the final analysis, when schools reopened last fall, they looked, and functioned, as they had prior to the pandemic shut down. Robinson is correct when he advises that necessary solutions “are not in the rearview mirror.” The time lost must never suggest or reinforce the idea that the status quo is sufficient. It’s not.
Sir Ken’s manifesto is a deliberate and clear call to action. One that empowers and challenges anyone connected to, or with an interest in, education to get about the task of reimagining and redefining “how schools work.” To his call, I would add: Leadership is not about protecting the status quo. That is management. Leadership is having the vision, a clear course of action, and the gumption to act as circumstances demand that change is called for. The time for that is now.
I encourage any and everyone to go to their local book seller (also available from Amazon) and secure a copy of Imagine If ….. Creating a Future for Us All by Sir Ken Robinson and his daughter Kate. Not only will it be an enlightening read, it will offer a genuine sense of hope and confidence as we strive to reimagine schools so that they provide the education kids deserve.