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The Consequences of Not Listening to Sir Ken

Sadly, Sir Ken Robinson passed away this week, I am sure I speak for us all when I say that he will be sorely missed. His voice is one of the first I heard in education that truly challenged the status quo and challenged my thinking about the purpose of education.

His talks are inspirational, challenging and demand acting upon. He highlights the Great Educational Lie “work hard at school and you will succeed at life.” Something that simply isn’t true. A lie that has significant consequences on us as individuals and as a society.

Why lie about education?

In a society that alleges to value truth and honesty we are remarkably willing to lie about some pretty important things and to accept those lies from others. So why do we do it?

Is it compassion?

When we lie, it is because we are giving something more value than honesty, often this is because of compassion – we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. It is a sociable action that builds bonds with other people, oddly people are more likely to trust you if you tell prosocial lies than if you tell the blunt and unvarnished truth. Perhaps we like lying to ourselves a little too much too. So, is compassion the reason we tell the Great Education Lie?

Our job is not to be liked, although being liked makes our job easier, it is to prepare children for an unknown future. We can’t do this by only giving them positive praise and encouraging them to work towards something that is simply not true.

What is gained?

Another common reason for lying is for material gain, there is something in it for us. We will be better off in one way or another and the modern education system is partially built on this premise. 

Education is building the workforce of the future, it is the currency of our economy, the more skilled the workforce, the more money in the economy and the better off we all are… Well, the better off those of us at the top of the economic food chain are.

So, we keep telling this lie to fill the factories with useful workers… Some of you may have spotted the flaw in this thinking already. The economy has changed in last 150 years. The same model doesn’t exist as it used to.

This model has morphed in recent years to one where universities are now funded by debt. The burden of paying for the education that you are told you need to get ahead is passed on to you. You become trapped in a cycle of debt that is extremely profitable to someone…  just not you.

Noam Chomsky puts this better than I ever could with this quote.

"Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt, they can’t afford the time to think. Tuition fee increases are a “disciplinary technique,” and, by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the “disciplinarian culture.” This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy."

Noam Chomsky

Who does the lie make feel better?

People also lie to make themselves feel better. The future is unknown, uncertain and unpredictable. The Education Lie ignores this, it provides certainty in the face of the future. After all, it worked for our grandparents, our parents and for us, so it will continue to work for those that follow us.

Think about that for a minute.

"Nobody has a clue what the world will look like in five years' time. And yet, we're meant to be educating children for it."

Sir Ken Robinson

The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly shown that the world can change rapidly, ignoring our efforts to maintain the status quo. How can we continue to do what we have been doing? How can we continue to believe and foster that lie?

What are the consequences of lying?

This is complicated, different lies have different results in different contexts. For some, the current education system works. Usually those from a middle-class or higher background with a wider network of support and opportunities. 

The education system can create some wonderful opportunities for those able to take advantage of the prosocial lie that helps them build these networks. Education is just one thread in a richer tapestry of life for them. These are the people who then go on to become the politicians and academic leaders who believe in the current system, because it works for them. 

The lie has become the social norm, so it becomes contagious and encourages others to lie too. If you are rewarded by the lie, whether directly or indirectly,  the lie becomes part of your social currency, it becomes embedded in who you are. It becomes harder to identify as a lie and you are less willing to face up to it.

Others have a different experience of the education system and the results that it promises. They feel lied to and lose faith and trust in the system that failed to deliver. The lack of trust in education is not something born by the politicians and policy makers who reinforce the lie, but by the establishments and educators themselves. The school failed them, or the teacher failed them. All of which undermines the ability of the education system to do a very difficult job.

Social norms are hard to break, when lying becomes a social norm it appears everywhere – it causes gaping divides in our society, not caused by colour, gender, sexuality, place of birth or religion, but by the lies that are told about each of them.

A culture of fear and the death of creativity

With a focus on a meritocracy measured by exams, there are dangers in being wrong. If you are wrong you fail. The education system encourages this fear and kills creativity. Sir Ken is much more erudite in his explanation of this idea. But if we take it a step further, the consequence of this is that we fear change, we fear being blamed for being wrong. Maintaining the status quo is safer, whether we believe the lie or not, it is better to keep things as they are, that way we won’t make it worse or be blamed for that.

We value innovation, but mostly because we are too afraid to be the one that innovates and takes the risk and is prepared to be wrong.

A consequence of the lie, is that we can’t change or we are too afraid to change. Global warming and climate change and our inaction to do anything on that front are glaring examples of this fear, a fear perpetuated by our education systems. 

A consequence of the Great Education Lie is that mankind is closer to extinction than it has ever been before.

We can’t keep doing the same things and expecting different results. If we keep teaching the same things in the same way then we can’t expect things to change. 

My grandma’s favourite saying whenever we failed to do something was always. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Unless we expose the lie and genuinely explore alternative ways to prepare children for their future, not ours, then there may well not be one for any of us.

There is more than one way to skin the educational cat.

If you haven’t yet seen any of Sir Ken’s talks, or you simply want to refresh your memory. Take the time to view them again. It is time to lead the change.

In Memory of Sir Ken Robinson

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