Sunday, February 27, 2022

Book Notes: Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up

This time around I am going to share notes of an extremely important book: Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up written by Sir Ken Robinson. This book is an eye opener when it comes to highlighting the problems we have with education system today. It also talks about what what we need to do now, to solve those problems. 

Who is this book for?

If you are a parent or going to be one, then you should read this book. If you are an educator, then you should read this book.  Lastly if you are loosely connected with the world of education, then you should definitely read this book. 

Usual Disclaimer

This post is by no means a summary of the book, the notes mentioned here are extracts from the book. If you find these interesting, please pickup a copy of the book and give it a go.

Book Notes


Learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills. Human beings are highly curious learning organisms. From the moment they're born, young children have a voracious appetite for learning. For too many, that appetite starts to dull as they go through school. Keeping it alive is the key to transforming education. 

The aims of education are to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals active, compassionate citizens. 

Back To Basics

Why is education a hot political issue? 
  • The first reason is economic. Education has huge implications for economic prosperity. 
  • The second reason is cultural, Education is one of the main ways that communities pass on their values and traditions from one generation to the next. 
  • The third reason is social. One of the declared aims of public education is to provide all students, whatever their backgrounds and circumstances with opportunities to prosper and succeed and to become active and engaged citizens. 
  • The fourth reason is personal. Most statements of public policy for education contain ritual passages about the need for all students to realise their potential to live fulfilled and productive lives. 

Formal education is made up of three main elements: curriculum, teaching, and assessment. The basic strategy is to standardise them as much as possible. Many countries now have firm guidelines for what schools should teach, usually year by year, in some sort of national curriculum. 

Because the standards movement emphasises academic study, it places less value on practical disciplines like art, drama, dance, music, design and physical education and on "soft subjects" like communications and media studies, which are all thought to be nonacademic. 

In terms of teaching the standards movement favours direct instruction of factual information and skills and whole-class teaching rather than group activities. It is skeptical about creativity, personal expression, and nonverbal, non-mathematical modes of work and of learning by discovery and imaginative play, even in preschool. 

When it comes to assessment, the standards movement emphasises formal, written examinations and extensive use of multiple-choice tests so that students answers can be easily codified and processed. It is skeptical too of course work, portfolios, open-book tests, teacher evaluation peer assessment, and other approaches that are not so easily quantifiable. 

The smart kids go to college. The others may leave school early and look for a job or apply for a vocational course to learn a trade of some sort. Either way, they have taken a step down the status ladder in education. This academic/vocational cast system is one of the most corrosive problems in education. 

The standards movement is not achieving the objective it has set for itself. Meanwhile, it is having catastrophic consequences on students engagement and teacher morale. 

The best ways to raise standards are to improve the quality of teaching, have a rich and balanced curriculum, and have supportive, informative systems of assessment. 

Changing Metaphors 

Industrialism needed a lot more manual workers than it did college graduates. So mass education was built like a pyramid, with a broad base of compulsory elementary education for all, a smaller sector of secondary education, and a narrow apex of higher education. 

The purpose of industrial manufacturing is to produce identical versions of the same products. Items that don't confirm are thrown away or reprocessed. Systems of mass education were designed to mould students to certain requirements. Because of that not everyone makes it through the system, and some are rejected by it. 

The principle of linearity works well for manufacturing; it doesn't for people. Educating children by age group assumes that the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. In practice, different students learn at different rates in different disciplines. 

The students who feel alienated by current systems of standardisation and testing may walk out the door, and it's left to them and others to pay the price in unemployment benefits and other social programs. 

  • Education should enable students to become economically responsible and independent. 
  • Education should enable students to understand and appreciate their own cultures and to respect the diversity of others
  • Education should enable young people to become active and compassionate citizens 
  • Education should enable young people to engage with the world within them as well as the world around them

Changing Schools 

Learning comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, kid can't all be taught the same way, when students are taught in a way that best fits the way they learn and what interest them most, they can make enormous leaps. 

Education is best seen not as an industrial system but as an organic one. More specifically, it is what is known as a "complex, adaptive system". 

The heart of education is the relationship between the student and the teacher. Everything else depends on how productive and successful that relationship is. If that is not working, then the system is not working. If students are not learning, education is not happening. 

  • The focus of education has to be on creating the conditions in which students will want and be able to learn. Everything else has to be arranged on that basis. 
  • The role of teachers is to facilitate students' learning.
  • The role of principals is to create the conditions in their schools in which teachers can fulfil these roles
  • The role of policymakers is to create conditions - whether at the local, state or national levels for which they are responsible - in which principals and schools can fulfil these responsibilities. 

Natural Born Learners

Prepositional knowledge is sometimes called knowing that and is distinguished from procedural knowledge, or knowing how. Procedural knowledge is what we use in making thins and getting practical work done. Academic studies are unquestionably essential and should form part of every student's education. But they are not enough. They are necessary but not sufficient to the sort of education that all students now need. 

Many problems that young people experience in motivation and learning are caused by the system itself. Change the system, and many of these problems tend to disappear. 

The process of personalisation seems to be everywhere, but it has yet to take root in education. This is ironic, because it is in education that personalisation is most urgently needed. So what does that mean?
  • Recognising that intelligence is diverse and multifaceted
  • Enabling students to pursue their particular interests and strengths 
  • Adapting the schedule to the different rates at which students learn
  • Addressing students in ways that support their personal progress and achievement. 
Human young, when they are unencumbered by other responsibilities, play much more than other mammals, and that they benefit from this tremendously. If the system doesn't work, don't blame the people in it. Work with them to change it so that it does work.

The Art of Teaching 

Formal education has three main elements: curriculum, teaching, and assessment. Typically, the standards movement is focused on curriculum and assessment. Teaching is seen as a way of delivering the standards. These priorities are entirely back to front. 

The core role of a teacher is to facilitate learning. It may seem unnecessary to say that, but much of what teachers are expected to do is something other than teaching. A great deal of their time is taken up with administering tests, doing clerical tasks, attending meetings, writing reports, and taking disciplinary action. 

Good teachers create the conditions for learning, and poor ones don't. Good teachers also know that they are not always in control of these conditions. Expert teachers fulfil four main roles: they engage, enable, expect and empower. 

The key to raising achievement is to recognise that teaching and learning is a relationship. Students need teachers who connect with them. And above all they need teachers who believe in them. 

Great teachers are the heart of great schools. In their various roles, they can fulfil three essential purposes for students:
  • Inspiration: They inspire their students with their own passion for their disciplines and to achieve at their highest levels within them. 
  • Confidence: They help their students to acquire the skills and knowledge they need to be come confident, independent learners who can continue to develop their understanding and expertise. 
  • Creativity: They enable their students to experiment, inquire, ask questions, and develop the skills and disposition of original thinking. 

What's Worth Knowing?

The curriculum is a framework for what students should know, understand, and be able to do. The obvious purpose of curriculum is to provide a map of what students are meant to learn. But the curriculum has another purpose. Schools need a curriculum so that they can work out how to use their resources and how to arrange everyone's use of time and space. In principle, the curriculum should shape the schedule. In practice, it often works the other way around. 

Human achievement in every field is driven by the desire to explore, to test and prod, to see what happens, to question how things work, and to wonder why and as, what if? Young children have a ready appetite to explore whatever draws their interest. When their curiosity is engaged, they will learn for themselves, from each other, and from any source they can lay their hands on. Knowing how to nurture and guide students curiosity is the gift of all great teachers. 

The ability to think clearly, to consider arguments logically, and to weigh evidence dispassionately is one of the hallmarks of human intelligence. Critical thinking involves more than formal logic. It involves interpreting what's intended, understanding the context, fathoming hidden values and feelings, discerning motives, detecting bias, and presenting concise conclusions in the most appropriate forms. 

We are social beings. We live and learn in the company of others. Outside schools, the ability to work with others is critical to the strength of communities and to meeting the challenges we collectively face. Yet, in many schools, young people largely work on their own; they learn in groups but not as groups. 

Compassion is identifying with the feelings of others and especially with their suffering. Compassion is rooted in empathy. It begins by recognising in ourselves the emotions that others are feeling and how we would feel in the same circumstances. Many of the problems that young people face are rooted in lack of compassion. Bullying, violence, emotional abuse, social exclusion, and prejudices based on ethnicity, culture, or sexuality are all fuelled by failures of empathy. 

We live in two worlds: the world within us and the world around us. The standards-driven curriculum is full of the outer world. It does little to help young people fathom the world within them. Yet how we act in the world around us is deeply affected by how we see and feel about ourselves. 

In planning the school curriculum, I much prefer the idea of disciplines. A discipline is a mixture of theory and practice. In my view, a balanced curriculum should give equal status and resources to the following: the arts, humanities, language arts, mathematics, physical education, and science. 

The arts are about the qualities of human experiences. Through music, dance, visual arts, drama, and the rest, we give form to our feelings and thoughts about ourselves, and how we experience the world around us. 

The humanities are concerned with the study of human culture. This education broadens and deepens students understanding of the world around us.

Articulate language is one of the hallmarks of human intelligence. As children learn to speak, they learn how to think, reason, and communicate. 

Mathematics is the abstract science of number, size, quantity, and space and the relationships between them. 

We are not brains on legs. We are embodied beings, and our mental, emotional, and physical well-being are intimately connected. Physical education and sports are bound up in many different cultural traditions and practices and evoke powerful feelings of values, both in relation to the games themselves and through the sense of collective activity and belonging they can generate. 

Science is the systematic search to understand the world around us. The natural sciences, including physics, chemistry, biology, earth science, and astronomy are focused on exploring and predicting phenomena of the natural world. The social sciences, including psychology, sociology and economics, are focused on the behaviour of individuals and societies. Science education encourages an understanding of evidence and the skill of objective analysis, gives access to existing scientific understanding of the processes of the natural world and the laws that govern the, and provides opportunities for practical and theoretical inquiry, by which existing knowledge can be verified or challenged. 

If the schools are to meet the four purposes we've outlined and various competencies they imply, it's important that the curriculum as a whole has these characteristics.
  • Diversity: It should be broadly based to cover the shorts of understanding that we want for all students and to provide proper opportunities for them as individuals to discover their personal strengths and interests. 
  • Depth: It should provide appropriate choices so that as they develop, students can pursue their own interests in proper depth. 
  • Dynamism: The curriculum should be designed to allow for collaboration and interaction between students of different ages and teachers with different specialities. 

Testing, Testing

Millions of words have traveled through the blogosphere detailing the stress, anxiety, frustration, and collateral damage inflicted by high-stakes tests. The uproar against the proliferation of standardised tests has never been louder - and yet they continue to dominate education landscape. 

The most worried over standardised test of all is the SAT. For most of the past nine decades, the SAT has been the primary hurdle students must clear on their way to college. The SAT has caused such anxiety in the lives of American high schoolers that it has spawned a test-prep industry that generates nearly a billion dollars in yearly revenue. 

It's very hard to assess creative skills if you give a student a problem that is already written out on paper and you ask them to write their responses on the paper. Creative problem solving skills really have to do with you interacting with the problem and the nature of the problem changing as you interact with it. That is only possible in a computer simulated environment. 

Assessment has several roles. 
  • The first is diagnostic, to help teachers understand students aptitude and levels of development. 
  • The second is formative, to gather information on students work and activities and to support their progress. 
  • The third is summative, which is about making judgements on overall performance at the end of a program of work. 

Assessment is an integral part of teaching and learning. Properly conceived, both formal and informal assessment should support students learning and achievement in at least three ways:
  • Motivation: Effective assessment spurs students to do well. It provides constructive feedback to help them understand how they are doing and to encourage them to improve where they can. 
  • Achievement: Effective assessment provides information on what students have actually done and achieved. It also provides relevant comparisons with how others have done against similar criteria so that students and others can make their own judgements of their progress and potential. 
  • Standards: Effective assessment sets clear and relevant standards that can raise students aspirations and contribute to the guidance and practical support they may need in reaching them. 

Principles of Principals

At the centre of any great learning experiences are two essential figures - a learner and an educator. For a school to excel, a third figure is critical: an inspired school leader who brings vision, skill, and a keen understanding of the kinds of environments where learners can and want to learn. 

In schools, great principals know that their job is not primarily to improve test results; it is to build community amongst the students, teachers, parents, and staff, who need to share a common set of purposes. 

Great schools are continuously creative in how they connect to the wider communities of which they are part. They are not isolated ghettos; they are hubs of learning for the whole community. 

These are the three core areas that every school leader needs to address:
  • Collaborative leadership: creating a shared vision, developing a defined and sustainable improvement plan, identifying meaningful roles among staff. 
  • Personalising school environment: banishing the culture of anonymity that allows so many students to slip through school virtually unnoticed, developing personal plan for students
  • Curriculum, instructions, and assessment to improve student performance: prioritising depth of knowledge over breadth of knowledge, offering alternatives to tracking and grouping, providing students with real life connections to material they are learning. 
Schools that flourish have their own particular dynamics. In general, they all promote these essential features of an empowering culture of learning:

  • Community: Its members all feel part of a compassionate community that supports each other's needs and aspirations. There is a strong sense of shared identity and purpose that extends beyond the gates of embrace and aspirations of all the families it serves and all the organisations with which it collaborates. 
  • Individuality: Its members feel respected as individuals, each with his or her own talents, interests, and needs. They are encouraged as individuals to develop a deeper understanding of themselves, of their own values and aspirations, and of their fears and anxieties. They all feel part of the larger community but know they will not be lost in the crowd. 
  • Possibility: The school provides hope and opportunity for all who are part of it. It recognises the great range of talents in its members and provides multiple pathways to fulfil their aspirations. It provides opportunities for what everyone needs to know in common, as well as for everyone to excel on their own terms. 
The main role of a school's principal is not command and control, it is climate control. The culture of schools is also deeply affected by the more general climate in which they work. Creating the best opportunities for schools is the essential role of policymakers in education, and we will be coming to that shortly. 

Bring It All Back Home

Children and young people typically spend more time out of school than in it. Parents and families have a major influence on their achievement in school. When schools, parents, and families work together in the right ways, there are all kinds of benefits for everyone involved, and they apply across all social and economic groups. 

Out children are always sending signals about who they are becoming. It is critical for us as parents and teachers to be vigilant and to pay attention. Parents engagement in their children's education has a direct relationship to motivation and achievement, regardless of socioeconomic standing or cultural background. 

Over-parenting occurs when parents adopt the "helicopter" mode: "hovering over their child incessantly and swooping down to the rescue when the first hardship occurs. The lessons students learn from such over-parenting is life long dependency: I'm not capable of fighting my own battles or accepting the consequences of my bad behaviour, so thank God my parents will rescue me. 

When children aren't given the space to struggle through things on their own, they don't learn to problem-solve very well. They don't learn to be confident in their own abilities, and it can affect their self-esteem. The other problem with never having to struggle is that you never experience failure and can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others. Both the low self-confidence and the fear of failure can lead to depression or anxiety. 

Changing The Climate

If the students are not engaged at school, everything else that goes on in the name of education is pretty much besides the point. The cost of students turning off or dropping out are far higher than those of investing in schools that excite students to learn in the first place. 

The role of teachers is to facilitate learning, and that is an expert professional task. This is why all high-performing school systems put such a premium on the recruitment, retention, and continuous professional development of high-quality teachers. There is no system of education in the world that is reliably better than its teachers. 

Healthy systems work holistically; each element sustains the others. Education should be the same. In a complex system like this, with many subsystems and dynamics, the constant risk is that the preoccupations of different interest group become misaligned. In quality systems, the vision of education is closely aligned with practice across all phases and levels of the system. 

  • People need a vision of the future they are being asked to move towards. They need to feel that they are capable of change and have the skills that are needed for it. 
  • They need to believe that there are good reasons for changing and that the place they aim to be will be better than where they are now, and that it will be worth the effort of making the transition. 
  • They need to have the personal and material resources to make the transition. 
  • And they need a convincing plan of action to get them there; or at the very least, one that will get them on their way, even if it changes as they go. 


This book has strengthened my views about how education should be, how schools should function and what kind of education really matters. The part where it talks about "helicopter" mode of parenting - it is my personal favourite. I think its a must read for any parent, educator, school administrator or a policymaker!
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