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A response to Sir Ken Robinson’s, “Changing Education Paradigms”

Sir Ken Robinson’s piece on “Changing Education Paradigms” is an alarming deconstruction of the roots of our educational system’s current malaise.

Born out of a crossbreeding between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, Robinson argues our public education system was formed out of a dual need within labor forces to educate the masses while effectively training the next generation of workers.  It was, as he calls it, “a revolutionary idea” and in theory a mutually beneficial one. But because our education system was “modeled on the interests of Industrialization and in the image of it,” we have a structural system of education built upon a shockingly outdated model.

The adherence to standardized testing has only further disabled the ability of educators to evolve and restructure our schools. Conformity is valued not just for student success but also for schools to maintain their accreditation and funding. As a result, we have created a massive chasm between those who have adapted to the constraints of the system, and those who have not.

But this archaic, inflexible thinking is not only prevalent in our educational system, but in the medical treatment of the often labeled “epidemic” of ADHD. Prescribing medication to children without addressing the root of their lack of focus perpetuates a system of need that only benefits the pharmaceutical industry. Perhaps the over-preponderance of big pharma on the east coast could be linked to the map that Robinson shows that indicates the number of prescriptions for ADHD in the country; the east coast is heavily overrepresented. Nonetheless, his argument that the rise in ADHD prescriptions is linked to a rise in standardized testing seems a bit convenient and not the biggest reason for the “anesthetizing “of our youth, as he so boldly puts it.

We have never before been surrounded by so many engaging tools at our disposal– and our children are growing up in this same environment. The technological innovations of the present have the power to connect and entertain, as well as to deeply distract. Although I have never personally been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD in my life, over the last several years I have noticed it has been increasingly hard to concentrate on singular tasks. By surrounding myself with more interactive and social technology, my mind has been trained and reinforced to operate in a global, reactive and perpetually shifting and broadening manner. Creatively, this is a tremendously liberating ability. Academically and structurally, it has become challenging to distinguish a distraction from another opportunity for engagement. How our educational systems are able to interpret the former from the latter will be pivotal in how and when we embrace the new technological tools at our disposal and how we distinguish, diagnose and treat our growing lack of attention.



531 comments to A response to Sir Ken Robinson’s, “Changing Education Paradigms”

  • Nancy

    “Academically and structurally, it has become challenging to distinguish a distraction from another opportunity for engagement. How our educational systems are able to interpret the former from the latter will be pivotal in how and when we embrace the new technological tools at our disposal and how we distinguish, diagnose and treat our growing lack of attention.”
    Great points… Also, here’s a question: What do you think kids should know and be able to do when they (are in 1st, 2nd, 3rd…..grade)(when they graduate HS).
    Then: what’s the best way to get kids to want to learn the things you want to teach?
    Then: How can we find out what people know and can do…on a massive scale without standardized tests…
    and, I have a few more questions, but start with those!

  • HanByul

    I agree with your point that educational surroundings are remained in spite of huge changes of reality. In recent days, I almost gave up totally concentrating on one thing at once. I already opened and closed two browser windows while writing these two sentences. Before, I was frustrated, but now I find some other kinds of values in being distracted including opportunity for engagement as you say. (Oh, I really like your expression ‘opportunity for engagement!) Perhaps, not only schools, but all of us have to change the conception of study. We tend to believe that learning can be done in front of the desk, with totally falling into some kinds of texts, but as we are learning in ITP, the way we learn somethings can be various.

  • kmb445

    This is really interesting. I too am constantly distracteed and have difficulty doing just one thing at one time! I have never been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD nor do I feel like being distracting and multitasking is a bad thing. Like you said, our technology promotes that kind of lifestyle and instead of trying to combat that mode of living it’d be much more interesting and productive to adapt to it and change our threshold and framework for education.

    The other week in class when Nancy mentioned how we should be “unitasking” instead of multitasking it really made me think about how it’s impossible for me personally to be doing one thing or thinking about one thing at once! This past weekend I went on a road trip and realized this is the exact reason I’m not excited about driving a car: I am so conditioned to be multi-tasking that it is hard for me to focus entirely on one thing like driving a car!

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts on what kind of reform you think would help schools to adapt to our changing social and technological environments.

  • Colin Narver


    I still think there should be some standardization in testing basic concepts in school. With that said, I would advocate for exams that are more adaptive. Whether it is a more auditory or visual form of test taking or more screen based and less paper based, examinations should be malleable to each student’s way of learning. Identifying what this strength is and how to maximize it is challenging. Schools across the country are already strapped for cash in such a major way that teachers are often forced to pay for school supplies out of their own salaries. But by refusing to teach to a simple standardized test, there could potentially be more room to investigate each student’s particular strength.

    During my senior year of high school, my French class had exams that were broken into three sections: one part was written, one part private conversation (with the professor), and one part was presentation. As a result, we were forced to showcase our mastery of the material in multiple ways. I wasn’t always the best with the written section, but I could convey a mastery of the topics covered/being testing by speaking it simply in conversation and via presentation.

    Even if there is only one correct answer in an exam, it can be reached in many different ways. Giving kids enough options to find the academic vehicles that serve them best only helps to embolden their own creativity, drive and empowerment over their education.

  • Talya Stein

    “Inflexible thinking is not only prevalent in our educational system, medical treatment of the often labeled “epidemic” of ADHD. Prescribing medication to children without addressing the root of their lack of focus perpetuates a system of need that only benefits the pharmaceutical industry.”

    Towards the end of my army service, I was sent through the army to a camp in Clayton Georgia as an instructor. I was in charge of a group of 15 girls aged 14. Needless to say it wasn’t easy…
    Each day, at the end of lunch I had to take all the girls who were subscribed medication down to the pharmacy. I was quit surprised discovering at the first day that half the group was subscribed some sort of medication. When we actually reached the pharmacy, the feeling was changed to feeling disturbed, for half of the camp was standing in line.

    Growing up, I was very hipper active. If I were growing up today, for sure I would have been heavily medicated.
    My teachers never knew what to do with me. They usually just let me leave the class. They just didn’t wan’t me to disturbe. Usually, I went to the art department and develop pictures, or just start running around.
    I feel so lucky that I was taught to tunnel my energy, rather then be given a pill and calm down. I would have ended up a totally different human being, and probably a much more frustrated.

    I’m not saying no one needs to be medicated, it seems every second kid is being medicated, and these kids need to learn how to behave in the world. If at the early stage in life they are tranquilized, how will the know how to behave later on in life with out all of this medication? Not to mention the dosage will probably just get higher…

  • etb273

    I completely agree that the educational model is outdated. Being diagnosed early in my education as being “Learning Disabled” I was placed in certain classes and guided through my initial education in a certain way. This had the effect of a “Misdiagnosis” which lead to a “mistreatment”. The effect was that I never learned how to learn certain skills with as it turns out I am quite good at naturally. I have noticed this to great extent at ITP. It is amazing when one starts to undo the limitations of being told they aren’t good at something and figures out how to learn it. Fortunately this system is changing and we are rapidly gaining an new understanding about how to better educate our unique individuals. It is in that difference between learning styles that we nurture diverse thinkers.

    I feel that ITP is on the right track in this area. Nurturing collaboration and peer learning as well as an atmosphere of “by any means necessary” has been critical in my education at ITP. It has allowed me to break down the barriers that were put in place in my early education.

    The other day I saw a few teachers on a field trip with their kindergarden. They where walking in four groups with the kids holding hands from left to right. This was a great start. I grew up with going places in school in a strict line with a strict hierarchy. I loved seeing that these kids were traveling in a “networked way” rather than a hierarchical way. The future will be networked and one can see its advantages for us as a whole.

  • esw290

    In regards to the discussion of ADD and ADHD, to be controversial for the most part I don’t think it should be treated with pharmaceuticals at all. And as a tangent, I think the fact that we are giving young children derivates of methamphetamine so they can fit into a certain system is absolutely ridiculous. It seems to be indicative of a larger problem in the educational system in general. Education (as so beautifully exemplified with ITP) needs to be flexible, creative, and understanding. What is going to work for some kids isn’t’ going to work for others. Also, I would argue that it’s not just a matter of learning the material but also how kids feel about themselves after the fact (and the emotional intelligence they are left with). I think Collin’s point about the educational system being able to re-interpret in terms of a changing environment is spot on.