Remembering Sir Ken Robinson, the educationalist who changed thinking on schools

Sir Ken Robinson died on August 21 of cancer at the age of 70.

Sir Ken Robinson giving presentation

Sir Ken Robinson

  • Robinson was a world-renowned educationalist who promoted creativity and more diverse and individualized curricula.
  • Robinson's 2006 TED Talk "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" remains the organization's most popular presentation.
  • He also authored five books and advised numerous organizations around the world.

Do schools kill creativity?

That was the central question of a wildly popular TED Talk given by Sir Ken Robinson, the world-renowned educationalist who argued for more holistic, diverse, and individualized schooling throughout his four-decade career. Robinson died of cancer on August 21 at age 70.

To those outside of education, Robinson is perhaps best known for that 2006 TED Talk, which remains the most popular TED video to date. In his presentation, Robinson argued that people don't "grow into creativity," but rather "we get educated out of it" by schools.

Robinson said the world's education systems are built upon a hierarchy that places mathematics and languages on top, and arts on bottom. This results in schools that are great at producing university professors. But dancers, painters and comedians? Not so much.

"And I like university professors, but, you know, we shouldn't hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement," said Robinson, who worked as a professor at Warwick University from 1989 to 2001.

The stifling nature of modern education may also contribute to what Robinson called the "crisis in our human resources." Robinson proposed that one of the reasons so many modern people feel disengaged, depressed, and anxious is because they're not pursuing goals or activities that put them in their element.

If schools prioritize certain pursuits over others, some people may never discover what their element is. In 2013, Robinson told Big Think:

"You can spend your whole life completely oblivious to some talent you may have because the opportunity never showed up for you to discover your resolve to develop it."

Robinson wasn't saying the world's problems would disappear if everybody found their passion, but that it could help reduce psychological suffering.

"My long-term conviction has always been that we all have deep talents, and the potential for engagement, and we should explore it."

One force that could make it harder for people to find their element is the modern education system's tendency to stigmatize mistakes. That's a problem, Robinson argued, because if you can't accept being wrong, original thinking becomes virtually impossible.

As such, Robinson argued we should move away from a standardized educational system that mines "our minds in the way that we strip-mine the Earth for a particular commodity," and toward one that encourages each individual's natural strengths and interests. In other words, schools are best framed as organic systems, not mechanical ones.

In his speeches and books, which include "The Element," "Out of Our Minds," "Creative Schools" and "You, Your Child, and School", Robinson promoted several key ideas on education:

  • Create a more diverse curriculum that focuses on individualization.
  • Teach kids in creative ways that encourage curiosity.
  • Find unique ways to awaken creativity within each student.

More holistic education

After growing up in a poor neighborhood in Liverpool, Robinson earned a Bachelor of Education degree at Bretton Hall College, which he said specialized in the performing arts, the humanities, and education. Robinson went on to chair Artswork, the UK's national youth arts development agency; become an advisor to multiple international arts and education organizations; and be knighted in 2003 for his service to the arts.

In a 2018 interview with Top Hat, Robinson said:

"I don't claim to have originated all the ideas and principles I promote. People have been arguing for them from ancient days. From the beginnings of mass education in the 18th and 19th centuries, there have been passionate advocates and practitioners of more holistic, humanitarian, progressive forms of education, which take account of the complex creatures we are and of the conditions in which we do best. I'm one of many who've taken up that torch. I continue to wave it because the need to act on these principles is becoming more urgent, not less. The nature of education is not an academic debate for me. We're dealing with people's lives and it's vital to get this right."

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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