Review of “Out Of Our Minds” by Sir. Ken Robinson

I have recently finished reading Ken Robinson’s book Out of Our Minds as part of my plan to read a book related to my personal development every month this year (going ok, not great). Out of Our Minds is a critique against the current state of education in the west (though the book mainly covers the English and American systems) and Robinson’s perception that a lack of an appreciation of the Arts and Humanities in general and creativity as a skill in particular is damaging education, the economy and the chances of individuals living a fulfilled life.

Ken Robinson has three main themes he considers in his book:

  1. We live in times of revolution

  2. To survive we must think differently about our ability

  3. To harness this ability we must have different organisations and especially a different education system.

When Robinson talks about living in revolutionary times he mainly talks about three familiar themes the effect of the internet, a rapidly growing global population and the associated problems of scarcity and the general problem of prediction. He picks up on the rapid increase of change in society and how this change is speeding up. This change mainly comes in the form of how globalization and the internet are profoundly changing the level of connectivity on life and the amount of change these new relationships are put through. Robinson concludes by pointing the need to have an education system capable of living with this level and speed of change. He quotes H.G. Wells “Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.”

This introduction brings us on to the central topic of the nature of education. Robinson’s claim is that we have an outmoded frame of reference underpinning our education system which needs to be re-considered. He focuses in on two main pillars of the current education system which he presents in the form of metaphors.

  • The shop floor- Ken Robinson points to how much of our Education system is formed during the same period of time as the Industrial Revolution. As this point in history public education was designed to meet need of a workforce to power the industrial revolution. This meant a workforce that was 80% manual and 20 % administrative and professional. This led to a Pyramid like structure with technical education at the bottom and doctoral students at the top. As well as the needs that education was trying to meet an industrial logic seeped into the education system. Industrial production, as most famously described by Adam Smith and his pin factory analogy, focuses on a universal linear process aiming to encourage conformity and leading to standardized outputs.

  • The Ivory Tower – Robinson points to how at the same time that the Industrial Revolution was taking of the Enlightenment was establishing itself in Western thought with its focus on rationality and deductive processes. Robinson describes the Enlightenment as having a dual focus of aiming to take nothing for granted and to only accept knowledge that had been rigorously tested to ascertain its empirical basis. This created a strongly linear process around how truth was described by which knowledge was reduced of all it’s unproven assumptions and then built up again through a process of observation and scientific experimentation (not the similarities with the industrial revolution described above). This led to a number of key ways we see intelligence and so education today. Firstly the belief that intelligence can be quantified and tested and secondly the focus around two types of test, the ability to recall proven information (as in Mastermind) and the ability to use logical deduction to reach conclusions (as in an IQ test).

Robinson critiques this model of education mainly for being reductive. The pyramid structure of industrialism and the reductive tendencies of rationalism ended up putting a wedge between Sciences on one hand with arts and humanities on the other. Robinson looks at three modes of education; personal (what is good for me), cultural (what expands my understanding of the world) and economic (what creates a strong workforce). Robinson asks whether in terms of these three areas an education system based around industrialism and rationalism actually delivers in these three areas.

Robinson complains that the rationalist tradition has driven a wedge between intelligence and emotion and between the sciences and the arts on society at large. He complains that this means we don’t recognise people’s ability and so disenfranchise them from the educational process and as a society we do not face the future with the wealth of human abilities that we could produce.

So what is creativity and how could it be used to help us? Robinson defines three linked aspects of the creative process

  1. Imagination – this is the ability to in abstract imagine things that are not in front of us, it especially focuses on the ability to imagine complex and varied items.

  2. Creativity – creativity is the application of imagination to a particular form, it is make our imagination concrete. It could be the application of imagination in the field of painting, drawing or dance but it could also be having imaginative (different) ways of expressing ideas in computer programming, mathematics or accountancy.

  3. Innovation – as the the final step in the process innovation is using creativity towards a certain goal. This using creativity to solve a problem or to achieve something. Another way of looking at this is to see it as the way we value our creativity to see how useful or pleasing the creativity is.

Ken Robinson concludes this section by focusing on the power and usefulness of creativity,

“The capacity for creativity is essentially human and it holds the constant promise of alternative ways of seeing, of thinking and of doing. It means, as George Kelly put it, that no one needs to be completely hemmed in by circumstances.”

(p. 166)

Analysis and Application

The last few chapters in the book cover the importance of culture in allowing creativity to flourish as well as how to lead or develop creative cultures. I wanted though to turn aside at this point though to look at Ken Robinson’s central premise about the importance of creativity in education.

I felt that Robinson’s general view has the ring of truth about it but does not entirely carry its punch. I found myself often reading section and thinking that I wanted to believe him or liked the idea of what he was talking about but was not clear if his arguments had entirely carried the day. I felt I was unclear exactly what difference more creativity in education would have and how it would benefit the three areas Robinson lined out (economic, cultural and personal). I agreed in general with what he sees as the two main pillars of western education but would have liked to see more around the effect it was having beyond just saying that it limits intelligence and does not allow alternatives to flourish. Robinson often states that the current education system is failing without backing up this claim and really expanding on how and why it is failing or linking this failure enough to the issue of creativity. I felt that most people see education as having some problems so it is a bit easy to nod along in agreement. I just wanted a bit more bones on some of his arguments. I felt that he was slightly in danger of preaching to the choir at times.

That said I really appreciated his concepts and wanted to draw out three descriptions he made that I feel are particularly of value to the field of careers development.

Educational Pillars – Robinson’s analysis of education being developed under the influence of C19th progress in the areas of economics (industrialization) and the philosophical thought (the enlightenment) has got me thinking about how these two forces sit behind lots of Careers Education programs. Phil McCash’s work around DOTS has equally highlighted the dominance of a industrial frame of reference on the matching metaphor often used in careers education. I feel that the linear rational process this focuses on is ill-suited to careers education in a number of ways. This has been challenged in careers theory by constructivist and chance (chaos and happenstance) based perspectives. I have a question I want to write more on about how creativity could be used to develop some of these critiques further.

Role of Education – I found Robinson’s three perspectives on education really compelling and useful. I feel asking how education benefits at the economic, cultural and personal levels really worthwhile. I feel that increasingly education is pursuing the economic above the other two and that Careers Education has ignored the cultural almost entirely and increasingly the employability agenda and Gove and Hancock’s policies are shifting towards the economic and only view the personal as a gateway to enabling the economic. Robinson challenges Careers Educators to consider the value and the means of engaging with all of these areas.

Defining Creativity – Creativity is often banded around without being really understood. Robinson’s three stages (imagination, creativity and innovation) have been very helpful for me conceptualizing this more. It has made me want to do some more work around the place of these three ideas in Careers Education and Guidance. I feel they may be productive in exploring this topic further.

As a Post Script if you’ve not read the book watch the RSA/ TED Talk embedded bellow.

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