Open letter to Sir Ken Robinson
Dear Sir Ken Robinson,
I was recently shown your video presentation done with RSA Animate entitled “Changing Education Paradigms.” In fact, it has now been shared with me in one PD session, from a fellow staff member on email, and tweeted to me by 4 other educators. I congratulate you on the strength of your brand and network. Your video is fairly persistent and has a good scope. I have written this letter though for another purpose. Twice on twitter, I have attempted to engage you in debate about your presentation. I have mentioned to you (@sirkenrobinson) and thus brought to your attention my objections in very brief form, but you have yet to respond. Perhaps in their brevity, they didn’t seem like serious enough concerns to warrant your attention. If that is so, I am hoping that the same concerns below in more robust form will elicit a response from you.
While I really enjoyed the animation style and thought the presentation was professional and polished, I was deeply concerned with its content. Lacking for rhetorical flourish, I will itemize my concerns as they appear in your presentation. I will try to refrain from addressing all my concerns and just focus on the aspects of your presentation that I find the most objectionable. I will use the version on youtube.com at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U with time references for anyone interested.
1) At 0:23 to 0:39 you state that every country on earth is reforming education. Why do you choose to start with a hyperbole? You go on to say the first reason is because of economics, but you then link this statement to how do we educate our kids to take their place in the global economy given that we can’t see what it will be like in one week. First concern: I am deeply troubled by the notion that the primary purpose of education is to produce people who can serve the economy. Is that the concern of every government? I would consider it a sad and troubling state of affairs if this was their concern. Is that your goal? Is there no government who is concerned about producing well-rounded and knowledgeable citizens who will be ready to take their place as citizens and participants in a democracy? Or as capable heads of families? Or as empathic and law-abiding adults? When Aristotle stated that knowledge was a good both with what one could do with it and a good unto itself was he merely talking about the economy?
2) 3:47 you start introducing your critic of ADHD. You first present a map of prescription rates across America. I am very concerned about your cavalier attitude towards your own source and as such, your limiting of your audience’s ability to be critical of it and to analyze it properly. We must accept your analysis because you so effectively deny us the ability to construct our own. I was unable to find your apparent source. Luckily for me, a colleague was able to find it. It can be found at: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/vol111/issue2/images/large/pe0235938002.jpeg and is copied below:
If this is the map you used, then I indeed have am quite troubled. First, you would lead your audience to believe that the States in white have no prescriptions, when the truth is that they have no reported prescriptions because they didn’t participate in the study. You would also have had to change the scale to be white = no data to 2.6 percent. Or you could have changed the scale to be non-standard. Either of these creative use of scale would be considered an abuse of data by most; when you are analysing data, don’t you prefer standard scales? Neither would get a passing mark were this to be a learning activity or class assignment. If this is the map that you used, then I think you need to defend your choices or admit your mistake. If it is not the map you used, then you should reference it so that we can see the data for ourselves.
3) At 4:00 you mention that you are not qualified to say whether there is such a thing as ADHD but that the vast majority of medical providers do believe it to exist. You then say that it is a matter of debate still. This is misleading. The main debate now is not the existence of ADHD, but how best to treat it and to categorize it. For example: is it ADHD or ADD-hyperactive? You misrepresent the debate to be about existence. The truth is, and it is a truth you must be well aware of, the existence of ADD hyperactive disorder is a well established medial fact. Why would you attempt to mischaracterize the debate in this way? To what end? Upon reflection, do you think it is defensible?
4) Your presentation that Ritalin is a medical fashion and that it is an aesthetic is deeply troubling. Ritalin is not prescribed because it is fashionable. That is a flippant comment and dismissive of the medical professionals that are dealing with real families and real children, and who are trying to help them. I think that you owe them an apology—perhaps your next TED talk.
My main concern with this section of your presentation, however, is your lie about Ritalin, presented at 4:26, when you put up the poster of a zombie, and later at 5:20-5:30 when you refer to it as an anesthetic. Ritalin, as you well knew when you made the presentation, or have been told and could have chosen to retract by now, is a stimulant. It stimulates the brain so that it can exercise control. As an analogy, when one is tired and acting silly, a coffee will sometimes help them control themselves. You are too well educated not to know the truth about Ritalin, and to know that when a child without ADHD (or ADD-hyperactive) takes it, it stimulates the brain. You know that the black market of Ritalin is used, not as some date rape drug, but by university students, or such, to stay up and study more effectively (or at least for longer). If you don’t know this, then I’m afraid you are guilty of negligence and as such, are still guilty of an academic error in this point. I think, however, that you are aware and that is the reason you try to distract your audience at this point with undeniably clever images and jokes (5:19-5:30) so that they are amused and not analytical (refer to 4:26 – 4:58). While a good rhetorical device in debates, I don’t think that it is academically honest and appropriate in your presentation. Do you? How do you defend your choices in this area of your presentation? I can only think of a Machiavellian defence; I am hoping you have another.
5) At about 5:00 you talk about the rise of ADHD and the rise of standardized testing-you seem to conveniently conflate and confuse correlation and causality. While I don’t wish to defend standardized testing, I do wish to defend academic honesty. Surely, you know the difference between correlation and causality. Why then, do you try to imply a causal relationship without argument? Surely ADHD and standardization tests are only correlated (unless you have data that you wish to share that I don’t have access to—can you share it if you do?). This is especially true since ADHD is a medial fact and not ascribed to taking a standardized test. There are equally strong correlations to internet use, global warming, the popularity of American idol, the return of breeding pairs of seals in the North Atlantic and the sales of Katy Perry albums. I wouldn’t wish to imply a causal relationship in such instances, by what defensible position do you?
6) One of my 2 most serious areas of concerns happens at 6:59-7:30. While your charge about conformity and the role of standardized tests has some merit, and we should ever strive to bring the individual out of the child, your other points are seriously misguided if it is an attempt to value children.
First, we teach kids in batches based on their “date of manufacture” because schools are their primary public of socialization and public to socialize. Students are with their peer groups. They develop relationships and the ability to have relationships at a more or less equal footing. This is why we no longer fail students, because we value their emotional and social well being (not just their future economic role or function). To put them in skill groups regardless of age does 2 destructive things. First, it destroys peer groups and emotional well-being. Students who are struggling get left behind and socially isolated. They don’t fail, they just go with the younger students. Your picture shows the advancing talented child, and not the struggling left behind child. Secondly, that child, left behind with younger children loses his peer group. Are these new age-gapped peer learning groups beneficial? An advanced 5 year old with a struggling 13 year old? Will they socialize normally? Will they make good study partners for health?
The second most tragic consequence of your model is that we take the misguided belief we have for adults: that being, you are your success / job and we transfer it to our children. They are no longer a peer group or age, they are no longer a stage in life, and they become their academic ability. They become their relative success in school; if you’re advanced, you move forward, if you struggle, you stay. Friendships, self identity, development, are trumped by academic success (sounds more like an economic model than the one that you are criticising). This is a shameful attack on the existence of childhood (refer to Neil Postman’s the disappearance of childhood). Have a moment to consider the ramifications of your vision. Value the peer relations of students, value the socializing mechanisms in school, and value the whole child. Don’t sacrifice these benefits to put good 5 year old readers with struggling 13 year old readers.
7) You state that creativity is not the same as divergent thinking. Fine, you get to set the terms because it is your presentation. Thank you for taking the time to clarify; however, the only difference is that creative seems to be the ability to filter out ones divergent ideas that don’t have value. I think this is a fair extension of your definitions. Am I wrong? If I am correct, then why would we value divergent thinking (if the product is perhaps valueless?) so highly? Why would losing divergent thinking, and perhaps replacing it with creative thinking, be bad? Why is the number of ideas better than having good ideas (maybe on an initial brainstorm but as a blanket hierarchy)? What if kids get more creative as they get older—as they replace divergent thinking with creative/critical? Only ideas that have value, not just stupid ideas. How is that bad? The trend of lowering percents of divergent thinking – I agree it probably was being educated that did it – since you define creativity as ideas that have value, education has probably developed them from the randomness and uselessness of divergent thinking into the useful ability of creative thinking. Why do you present that as bad?
8) At 9:18 you state that 98% of kindergarteners scored at a genius level according to the tests protocols…hmmm… you might have to standardize those protocols. No kindergartner at my school would come up with 200 uses for paper clip…no one in my school could even focus on the question that long. So what does it mean? How is it scaled? How was that scale determined? Further, what does genius mean if 98% of people are that? How can 98% of people be well above average? Did the other 2 % score well into the negative 200 % range? Isn’t it the case, that with valid testing, a bell curve is produced? How do you bell curve 98% genius? What is the standard deviation?
9) In the end, I think that the most troubling aspect of your presentation is that it doesn’t present a new paradigm. What exactly are you advocating? I mean specifically. What exactly should we change? Why is your system better (what is your system?)? In the end, we can’t argue against you or the values of our preferred system over yours because you haven’t really presented us with a system. Lots of talk – no real vision. You have left me with a lot of questions, not so much against the current system, but about the nature of your proposal. A lot of problems for no real benefit. How can we justify your talk? What is its value?
Is your talk about treating children as individuals? To quote you, ok…”Yah let’s do that…I mean, why wouldn’t you. I haven’t heard any arguments to not doing that….” The only other thing I can construct from your talk is: no Ritalin, let them work in groups, but not about academic topics-then about what? I don’t know; you never say. Perhaps it goes back to how best they can serve the economy. By not knowing any content, but by knowing how to get along with others, they will be capable lemmings ready to follow the group over whatever ledge industry (or educational presenters) may want them to. By the way, into what do you invest your money?
I look forward to your response, regards;
Father / Teacher