Sir Ken Robinson: U.S. education system ‘broken’ |

Sir Ken Robinson: U.S. education system ‘broken’

Sir Ken Robinson speaks to members of the Eagle County community on education, Friday, at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards. Robinson was brought in through Vail Symposium's "Educate!" program on how we need to change how we educate youth.
Chris Dillmann | |

By the numbers:

$9 billion: Approximate annual revenue of the National Football League.

$11 billion: Approximate annual revenue of the U.S. film industry.

$16 billion: Approximate annual revenue of the U.S. standardized testing industry.

Source: Sir Ken Robinson.

EDWARDS — There’s always talk in education circles of getting back to basics. But Sir Ken Robinson believes not enough people understand what those basics are.

In a presentation on Friday sponsored by the Vail Symposium, Robinson, a noted author and educator, spoke to a large audience at Battle Mountain High School about education’s past and prospects for its future.

Mixing humor, anecdotes and serious content, Robinson talked about his view of basics, what’s required to keep students engaged and ways to unleash creativity in education.

During both his presentation and a brief interview session, Robinson said that the U.S. education system is based on a 19th century model intended to prepare students for life in an industrializing world. That system, along with a desire for efficiency and a short-term view, has led to today’s system.

In short, that system simply doesn’t work, Robinson said.

“I’ve been advocating to think differently about educating our children,” Robinson said. “Most educational systems weren’t designed what they need to do.”

Robinson said Eagle County Schools is starting to change, and change in a way that unleashes the minds of students who learn in different ways.

‘Passion projects’

In a brief presentation before Robinson took the stage, Battle Mountain ninth-graders Maggie Skidmore and Troy Rindone showed a pair of brief videos about passion projects a middle school program geared to engage students with different skills.

Rindone said he’s a more traditional learner, able to take tests and write essays. Skidmore said she works best with a more hands-on approach.

“The goal is a curriculum that works for all students,” Rindone said.

That means allowing students to choose projects that help them achieve a common goal.

“Choice is such an important part,” Skidmore said. “It gives you a chance to speak from the heart.”

That’s the sort of learning Robinson advocates.

Learning is innate, Robinson said. Humans want to learn. The reason kids burn out on school somewhere between the ages of 9 and 11 is the system they’re put into.

“Many features of schools we’ve become used to we’ve confused with education,” Robinson said.

That’s why so many U.S. school districts lose 25 percent or more of their ninth-grade students before they enter twelfth-grade.

That failure rate isn’t the students’ fault, or even that of the teachers, but of the system itself. A business wouldn’t blame a 25 percent failure rate on the deficiencies of its customers, Robinson said.

Back to basics

The answer is getting back to basics, but not in terms of curriculum or test performance. Using an example from theater, Robinson talked about the essence of that field. In the end, theater requires an actor and an audience, even if it’s only two people in a darkened room.

In the same way, education at its core is the relationship between a student and a teacher. Testing has little, if anything, to do with that relationship.

And testing is perhaps the top target of Robinson’s efforts to re-create education.

The standardized testing industry has exploded in the years in the early 2000s, when the federal No Child Left Behind Act was passed and signed into law.

That law “has done nothing to move the needle” in terms of student achievement, Robinson said. But the standardized testing industry is now nearly twice the size in revenue as the National Football League.

Testing has done nothing to help student achievement, and, Robinson said, it’s also been a factor in the decline of the teaching profession.

The pressure of standardized testing has also led to kids spending more time in class. That’s unhealthy, too, Robinson said.

Born in 1950, Robinson grew up in an age where nearly every kid ended up having a tonsillectomy.

“You didn’t dare clear your throat,” he said.

Today’s epidemic is attention deficit disorder, with millions of students being prescribe hyperactivity drugs.

Kids can’t sit still because they’re sitting in classrooms six hours a day with too little time to run around, Robinson said.

“You haven’t got a medical problem, you’ve got childhood,” Robinson said.

While politicians too often say there are quick fixes, Robinson said answers to a failed system will take years, perhaps decades.

Finland is now thought of as a model for education. It wasn’t that way 40 years ago, Robinson said. But a long-term approach has paid dividends.

That’s where places such as Eagle County, and programs such as the middle school passion projects can have an effect.

“If you get it right here, people will beat a path to your door,” he said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, and @scottnmiller.

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