Being educated about education

Summary of “Creative Schools” by Sir Ken Robinson

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Watch his TED talks btw

What are the purposes of education?

At the start of the book, Sir Ken Robinson states the four main purposes of education:

  1. Cultural: education is a way to pass on cultural values to the next generations, and to allow students to appreciate their own cultures as well as others’
  2. Social: education teaches students to be active, responsible and compassionate citizens in order to drive society forwards
  3. Personal: education teaches students to “deal with the world within them and the world around them”, helping them to cope with their internal emotions, goals and values, as well as external events and people

What’s wrong with the current system?

Students are unique. There is no one single curriculum that suits all students. That’s an easy enough concept, yet it is difficult to realize once you factor in money and politics.

Dominance of academic subjects

There is a widespread superstition that intelligence equals academic work and academic success equals educational success. As described in the book, current education focuses heavily on theoretical analysis, where it involves:

Test-driven learning

Instead of actual learning, students are confronted with tests after tests. For easier marking, tests are designed to contain multiple choice questions and closed-end questions. The skills needed for doing well in exams do not translate into skills needed by the modern society, where qualities such as critical thinking, independence and creativity are imperative.

“We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it”

In addition, the feedback given to students are often non-constructive (e.g. a simple letter grade that doesn’t explain how a student can improve) and delayed (test results are only available days or weeks after the assessment, by then the student would have already moved on to the next topic), which does little to help a student’s development.

Inflexible schedules

A day at school is divided into equal chunks. Each subject takes up a fixed amount of time and when the bell rings, everyone leaves what they are doing and go on to the next subject. A curriculum at school is divided into subjects. Everyone studies the same subjects. It’s not until the last 3 or so years in students’ secondary education when they can start to choose from a small pool of electives. This industrial-style education turns learning into a dull and painful chore.

What have people tried?

The book goes on to talk about the different creative approaches to education that have shown promising results. High Tech High is a high school that has a project-based interdisciplinary curriculum that combines technical and academic education; A+ schools teaches through the arts; the Learning Record gives a personalized documentation of learning process to each student; Big Picture Learning Schools aim to allow students to learn in real-life situations by sending kids to work in the community under the guidance of mentors. Of of these approaches resulted in more engaged students, fewer disciplinary issues, more effective learning and, perhaps not so important anymore, better test scores.

  1. Flexibility of framework: None of these approaches are hard guidelines. The success of one A+ school does not mean it will work in any school. Schools are welcome to study and implement the frameworks in their own ways.
  2. Making learning fun and personalized: For some reason, there’s a notion in today’s education that “studying” and “playing” should be two separate activity. Yet all of the examples have shown that students are more engaged in learning when they enjoy the process and can choose what they want to learn.
  3. Application of knowledge: similarly, students are also more engaged when they can apply their knowledge in real-life situations and be involved in the community. As Sir Ken puts it, “students need to leave schools to stay in school”.

What else?

There are two final things people should keep in mind:

  1. Tests / assessments / exams aren’t inherently bad: tests should be designed to be diagnostic (to point out areas of improvement), formative (to gather information on students’ work to supprt their progress) and summative (to show students’ overall performance). Sir Ken isn’t against testing. Problem only arises when testing hinder learning itself by devouring valuable learning time and putting students in unnecessary stress.


Creative School is a clear, comprehensive and well-researched guide to changing education. Besides the content summarized above, the book also delves into topics such as school leadership, parenthood and politics. This summary covers far from what the book has to offer and I encourage everyone who’s interested in education to give it a read.

Who am I to change the education system?

I’d like to leave you with one final quote:

“If you’re a teacher, for your students you are the system. If you’re a school principal, for your community you are the system. If you’re a policymaker, for the schools you control you are the system.”

By extension, if you’re a student, you are the system. Don’t stop learning. Don’t stop dreaming. Do what you love and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

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