Leading a Culture of Innovation with Sir Ken Robinson

3753935-expressionless-young-woman-with-usb-cable-in-her-neck--ready-to-be-plugged-in-isolated-on-white-backYesterday I heard Sir Ken Robinson speak live at the EDUCAUSE conference in Anaheim, CA.  Readers may know Ken Robinson by his acclaimed talks about education on TEDx. Robinson, professor, author and advocate for education reform, is originally from Britain—his humour dry, self-deprecating, and quite funny. He did not disappoint on Wednesday despite the early hour of his keynote talk Leading a Culture of Innovation. Robinson spoke of culture and technology, technology’s influence on human behaviour, and in turn its impact on cultural values and norms. Culture, according to Robinson, ‘manifests itself in every part of our being’.  In response, cultures around the world are changing significantly. Though I’m not clear on what Robinson believes—whether its humans driving the change or if it’s the other way around. But the point is moot given that our ‘digital culture is transforming the face of our earth’, to the point that ‘information systems will soon merge with human consciousness’ according to Sir Ken. I found this idea quite disturbing. Not something I like to think about, but it seems we should. Robinson believes that machines, artificial intelligence, at some point will be able to make decisions independent of human intervention, in other words machines will potentially be as smart as, or smarter than humans. This concept is singularity; a theoretical point in time when robots are smarter than humans. It seems Bill Gates of Microsoft and Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google don’t deny that this time will come, though both are mum as to exactly when that time might be.

The statement made by Robinson in his keynote, ‘information systems will soon merge with human consciousness’ sounded familiar. I had just read something remarkably something similar last week. It was in The Global Village: Transformations in a World Life and Media in the 21st Century (1989) by Marshall McLuhan and Bruce Powers. McLuhan, (1911 – 1980) a professor communication theory, author of the critical text the Gutenberg Galaxy among other books, was a futurist in his own right. In the introduction, of The Global Village co-author Powers writes this:

“McLuhan believed in an investigation of this book’s precepts, his last collaborative work, would prove out his most profound thought: that the extensions of human consciousness were projecting themselves into the total world environment via electronics, forcing humankind into a robotic future. In other words, man’s nature was being very rapidly translated into information systems would produce enormous sensitivity and no secrets.”  McLuhan and Powers

Robinson’s statements about technology and its role in the future echoed McLuhan’s.  I found Robinson’s language somewhat softer, though the messages similar—technology is driving change around the globe, impacting how we communicate, how we relate to one another, and function in society.  What’s more, artificial intelligence will be a reality for better or worse. On the brighter side of Robinson’s talk, he spoke of creativity and imagination, referring to his recently re-launched book Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative. Originally published in 2001, the book has been revised and updated.  I wrote a review of this book a few months ago. It’s an excellent read.  Below are highlights of the other key takeaways from the keynote.

Key takeaways from Sir Ken Robinson’s Keynote:

  • How people use technology creates cultural shifts; impacts how people feel, think and act.
  • Conversely, human ‘feelings’ impact how technology is used.
  • Humans are unpredictable. How they use technology may go far beyond what the developers intended or imagined.
  • Imagination is unique to human beings. Imagination leads to creativity. Creativity is the act of creating something of value (to the beholder).

For Educators:

  •  Perception is everything when it comes to gauging the effectiveness of technological innovation.
  • We need to allow for creativity by not seeking the ‘right’ answer
  • What questions should higher education be asking?
  • Exercise in creative thinking: watch this  two-minute video on when there is a correct answer
  • Creativity—original thinking, most often comes when people ask a different question.

Video Sir Ken Showed in his Keynote: When There is a Correct Answer: Exercise in Creative Thinking

Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative with Ken Robinson

7113972I’ve watched several of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks about education, [as have millions of others] which is why I chose to read his book ‘Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative’. This version is the updated edition, published in 2011—”fully revised” from the bestselling 2001 version.  I enjoyed the book, but a warning to readers, the title is misleading. I’m not sure what I expected, but likely I was looking for detailed ideas and strategies on how to foster creativity. Though the content was interesting, at times thought-provoking, the ‘learning to be creative’ part didn’t appear until chapter nine and ten, the last two of the book. However, there is powerful underlying message for readers, especially for educators and parents—an education that includes instruction [not just experience] in the humanities—music, art, history etc. is essential, as are opportunities for games, personal interaction, play time and discussion. Though the message is perhaps a bit different from Robinson’s intent for the book:

“My aims in this book are to help individuals to understand the depth of their creative abilities and why they might have doubted them; to encourage organizations to believe in their powers of innovation and to create the conditions where they will flourish; and to promote a creative revolution in education.” (Robinson, 2013, p xvi)

Readers are likely familiar with Sir Ken Robinson. He is most famous for his TED talks about education.  He is also an author and educator, and considered an expert on creativity. In fact, he acquired his title of Sir in 2003 when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to the arts in education. Robinson has done numerous talks related to K-12 schooling and creativity, and not all with TED. My personal favorite is the one on YouTube  Changing Education Paradigms.  It’s done with RSA Animate, [perhaps this is why I like it so much], and focuses on “three troubling trends: drop out rates, schools’ dwindling stake in the arts, and ADHD”. I highly recommend watching it if you haven’t already [it’s 11:41 minutes], though this is not his most popular.  It’s the TED talk Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity from 2006 with 17,127,222 views that trumps all. This talk does touch on key points included in the book.

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Sir Ken Robinson’s talk “Changing Education Paradigms” on YouTube with RSA Animate

Robinson on Creativity
I looked forward to how Robinson would define creativity, and if he would describe for readers why we should be concerned about it. Creativity is closely linked to innovation, and innovation is a concept that our current culture places a high value on. Innovation and creativity are themes that many sectors appear preoccupied with—corporate organizations, the start-up community and education. Robinson follows this line of thinking, describing how creative thinking leads to generating new ideas and productivity (p 153). Robinson defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value” (p 151) and that creativity is always about “doing” something. I don’t agree with his definition per se but more important is Robinson’s argument for a revamped approach to education, and the need for the integration of humanities in education.

Book Highlights
In the first eight chapters of the book Robinson discusses creativity and education, or the lack thereof. He suggests our current education paradigm kills creativity in children, thus leading to a void in innovation and collaboration in workplaces. He describes the cause of the void as the “academic illusion”:

As the pressures of education continue to intensify, many students are simply not learning the personal skills they need to deal with modern life and the increased pressures of continual assessment and being examined at every level” (p 78).

Chapter nine, Being a Creative Leader offers numerous strategies for leading a culture of innovation. Though the chapter is also applicable to leaders of organizations in a flux of change—it does provide coping strategies in addition to proactive strategies. Robinson says, “the task of the creative leader is to facilitate a resilient relationship between the external and internal cultures” (p 224). It is fitting advice for any leader, though especially for those heading an institution that is resisting innovation.

Chapter ten Learning to be Creative focuses on creativity in the education sector specifically. Robinson provides many examples of schools successful in creating a culture of creativity, and identifies the barriers to creativity. Though readers could be discouraged in some ways as the changes required to instill creativity, require a district, even state-wide shift in approach to K-12 education, i.e. assessment methods, curriculum standards. However there are several ideas individual educators can implement into the classroom; Robinson identifies [and describes] the three tasks of teaching for creativity: encouraging, identifying and fostering (p 269).

Closing Thoughts
A good book overall, and a thoughtful read emphasizing the [dire] need for including arts instruction in education. If you don’t have time to read it, I’d suggest watching the TED talk Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity which encapsulates key concepts in twenty minutes.