While many Canadian educators struggle to find the solution to students’ declining math scores, there’s one expert who says we may be looking at the problem the wrong way. Sir Ken Robinson – education guru, author and adviser – says relentless testing and the push for standardized scores are destroying students’ imagination and talent. He argues that schools are stifling instead of nurturing kids’ creativity.

Sir Ken’s 2006 TED talk, How Schools Kill Creativity, has had 47 million views and become one of the most popular talks in history. He was in Montreal this week for the Einstein Youth Forum, and sat down for an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Your visit to Canada coincides with another round of hand-wringing over declining math scores. Only half of Grade 6 students in Ontario are meeting provincial standards. Yet you say we put too much emphasis on standardized testing. What’s the solution, then?

It bothers me when politicians or administrators look at these raw figures across a massive education system and say, “Math scores are going down, what do we do? Let’s grind out more math exercises.” And the system itself is what’s creating the problem. Fathom the trend before you start making the prescription; work out what’s going on. Speak to the kids. Talk to the math teachers. Talk to the school. The answer is not always to sit people down and drill them endlessly on the thing they’re failing at.

Part of your prescription would be to place greater importance on subjects at the bottom of the curriculum hierarchy. You’ve argued that dance is as important as math. How so?

There’s mounting evidence that kids’ achievement across the board improves when we engage them physically. [There are] a number of schools where kids who were taking dance programs improved in all their other work, including in mathematics. Their math scores went up. It’s not just in dance; it’s in physical education generally. So, to me, the answer is not to obsess about mathematics and say, “Let’s get them doing more and more mathematics.” What we should be looking at is the whole balance of the curriculum and what it is, if anything, that is suppressing kids’ appetite and curiosity for learning.

You say another part of the problem is that we take a narrow definition of what constitutes intelligence and achievement.

I know people who succeeded in all sorts of occupations who didn’t do particularly well at school. I’m not saying you have to fail at school to do well later on. But all kinds of people who’ve done very well did not find their talents when they were in the education system, and very often they didn’t feel they were very smart when they went through education.

We need to recognize that children have a huge range of natural abilities and they all have them differently. Our education systems are designed to focus on a small band of those. If you have a narrow conception of ability, you end up with a very big conception of disability or inability.

Intelligence is very diverse. It’s like the world’s natural resources. Everyone’s born with immense natural resources inside them. And like the Earth’s natural resources, these things often have to be discovered. Kids can go through their entire education, and adults can go through their entire lives, never knowing what they are capable of because their talents remain hidden.

You’ve illustrated this point with Paul McCartney. You say he went through his entire education without anyone noticing he had musical talent.

I asked him if he enjoyed music at school. And he said he didn’t like it at all. I said, “Did your music teacher think you had any talent?” He said, “No, not at all.” George Harrison was at the same school, and the music teacher didn’t think George had any talent, either. Well, I think it’s a bit of an oversight. You’ve got half the Beatles in your class and you don’t spot anything.

You argue that standardized testing is just making matters worse. You describe schools as exam factories.

A lot of the problems in schools come about because we ignore the interior world of kids. We’ve got disengagement, anxiety, stress, appallingly high suicide levels among teenagers in schools. It’s not all the fault of schools, obviously. The kids are living in a pretty toxic environment at the moment, culturally. But schools shouldn’t be contributing to it. And one of the contributing factors is this insane pressure of testing. I think we’ve lost our minds about this.

But do we just abandon standards?

There is a difference between standards and standardization. Yes, we need to raise standards. But we don’t do it by standardizing everything. You end up with McDonald’s if we do that. The way to raise standards is to get kids motivated, curious, engaged and interested. And that will get standards as high as you want.

What country is doing things right?

The one that’s commonly quoted is Finland. There’s no testing to speak of in the Finnish education system, yet it regularly comes out at or near the top of these international tables that everybody obsesses about. They don’t focus on a narrow band of academic skills in Finnish schools, and they have a broad approach to the curriculum. The Finnish education system is based much more on collaboration than competition.

Montreal-based Correspondent
The Globe and Mail, September 7, 2017