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'Creative Schools' Is Disappointing

There's no doubt that Ken Robinson's Creative Schools (Viking, 2015) is going to be a bestseller. Who wouldn't want to read about "The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education"?  I say that as a fan who was looking forward to his new book. But Robinson breaks no new ground.

Perhaps my standards for originality are too exacting.  After all, few things under the sun are entirely new. Moreover, Robinson acknowledges that many of the principles and practices he advocates have been in operation successfully, albeit in limited ways, throughout the history of education. If so, then what is his contribution other than  the recent examples of schools and teachers defying the odds that he cites? They certainly deserve recognition and praise.  But high-flying schools are not new, as Karin Chenoweth's It's Being Done (Harvard Education Press, 2007) demonstrated.

Let me point out just a few examples why I found the book to be a let down. I provide the page numbers so that readers can put Robinson's statements in proper context.  

Sixty five years ago, Gilbert Highet wrote The Art of Teaching (Vintage Books, 1950). He argued that "teaching involves emotions, which cannot be systematically appraised and employed, and human values, which are quite outside the grasp of science." Robinson: "If you agree that they're going in the wrong direction, I hope you will become part of the movement to a more holistic approach that nurtures the diverse talents of all our children," p. xvii.

Fifteen years later, John Keats made an important distinction between education and training in The Sheepskin Psychosis (Delta, 1965). While they sometimes overlap, they are not the same. Education is concerned with concepts; training is concerned with techniques.  Robinson: "Training is a type of education that's focused on learning specific skills," p. xx.

In 1999, Peter Sacks warned in Standardized Minds (Perseus, 1999) that standardized testing was destroying creativity in the classroom. He explored what he called the "nation's unhealthy and enduring obsession with standardized mental testing and how this tool of the so-called meritocracy affects us all ... ." Robinson: "Of all the topics we're covering in this book, I don't think any generates such an emotional response as high-stakes, standardized testing," p. 158, and then "Instead of being a means of educational improvement, standardized testing has become an obsession in itself," p. 160.

The same year, Alfie Kohn stressed in The Schools Our Children Deserve (Houghton Mifflin, 1999) that learning is much more than acquiring specific skills and bits of knowledge.  He urged teachers to identify the individual interests of their students and design lessons accordingly. Robinson: "Personalization means teachers taking account of these differences in how they teach different students," p. 88.  

Then in 2002, Deborah Meier wrote In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization (Beacon, 2002). She emphasized the importance of schools as a humanistic endeavor and how it is undermined when the corporate model is adopted. Robinson: "Some governments are now encouraging investment in education by private corporations and entrepreneurs ... to intensify competition," p. 13, and then "As I said, education is one of the world's biggest businesses," p. 13.

The point is not that Robinson's comments are irrelevant.  On the contrary, they are vital. However, what will readers learn that other writers before him haven't already said?  If the book were written by anyone else, it would not be getting the same media attention. But he is an idol whose words are revered by his countless fans. They deserve to know the full story about creative schools. Unfortunately, they're not going to get it in his latest publication.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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