distracted by bees: Tom Bennett reviewing Ken Robinson

Like millions of others, I’m familiar with Sir Ken Robinson’s plea for more creativity in education. Sir Ken has come in for a bit of flak recently from those calling for a return to more traditional teaching methods. Tom Bennett’s TES review of Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up, upped the ante. I didn’t recognise the figure he describes as ‘Herod’s favourite educationalist’ as the guy who thinks schools should be more creative. So I read the book. Some of Tom’s criticisms are justified. Others aren’t. In his review, brickbats get hurled in many directions, often at the wrong targets. I think the review requires a response.

Sir Ken’s argument is that state schools were originally designed along the same lines as 19th century factories and the design hasn’t changed much since then. The factory model isn’t effective for education because industrial products are standardised but students aren’t. The factory model stifles the creative thinking we’re going to need on an increasingly crowded planet. As a solution, Sir Ken gives examples of schools that have radically changed their structure or function to foster creativity.

Tom will have none of this. For him, schools are stuffed full of creative activities so Sir Ken’s diagnosis is wrong. The proposed remedy is simply ‘the usual blend of personalised learning, project work, thematic curriculums, knowledge-light/skill-heavy lessons that we’ve come to love from the 21st-century education movement’, worthy only of contempt. His criticism of Sir Ken’s solutions is partly justified. As for the rest, I think he’s missed the point. I think he’s missed several points.

Victorian factories

Sir Ken claims that state education systems were based on the same model as Victorian factories; he’s right, they were. Hierarchical, bureaucratic, mechanistic systems regulated by performance measures were at the time considered to be the epitome of efficiency. That assumption has since been found wanting. To be effective, organisational form has to follow function, and standardised systems are not good at coping with functions that need a lot of flexibility, such as teaching children. Sir Ken isn’t saying that creativity doesn’t exist in schools, but that a standardised system militates against it. It’s quite possible to be creative within a standardised framework. Good luck if the standardised framework itself turns out to be horribly wrong.

Sir Ken’s analysis of the problem is grounded in organisational theory. So is his emphasis on the importance of creativity. The same can’t be said for how he deals with creativity itself.


There’s no doubt that creative thinking has enabled human beings to adapt to a wide range of environments, solve problems and develop sophisticated technologies. Creativity should be fostered in schools. But despite his awareness of its importance, Sir Ken doesn’t go into detail about what creativity is or how it solves problems, what it looks like in different disciplines or how it can be learned.

In Creative Schools, Sir Ken slips, imperceptibly and perhaps without realising it, from a fairly coherent analysis of the problem based on organisation theory to the scattergun ‘success story’ solutions so popular in management theory.

There’s a significant difference between organisation theory and management theory even though they overlap. Organisation theory looks at the big picture from a systems perspective. Management is only one facet of organisations. For many managers, success is whatever works – even if it works only briefly or only in some contexts. For organisations, success needs to take into account the whole organisation and its environment and to be sustained. So knowing that performing Shakespeare plays transformed one school and cultivating students’ interests turned round another might be useful, but you can’t just chuck those ‘solutions’ at schools and hope they stick. Sustained success is likely only with the right structure, the right educational programme and the right teachers for a particular situation.

Management books are replete with abstract concepts that aren’t operationalized and there are plenty of those in Sir Ken’s later chapters; creativity, vision, skills, incentives, leadership and climate. My guess is that management theory is partly responsible for Tom’s despised ‘21st-century education movement’, since they both focus on context-free abstract concepts.

The ‘21st-century education movement’ and Ken Robinson appear to have fallen into the trap of assuming that specific pedagogical approaches that have worked in one context will work in all contexts and that teachers can and should pick’n’mix them regardless. Tom appears to have fallen into a mirror-image of the same trap; of rejecting said pedagogical approaches because they don’t work in all contexts.

Having dismissed what he thinks is Sir Ken’s diagnosis and his remedy, Tom has a go at what he thinks is Sir Ken’s model of education.

not just pointless, but harmful

Sir Ken makes a living mocking the ‘lie’ that if you get a degree you’ll get a good job, but that’s a straw man. No one seriously claims a degree guarantees that.”

Actually, they do – or they come close. One justification for increasing graduate numbers in the UK was that as a ‘knowledge economy’ we needed more graduates – presumably for graduate level jobs. Another was that graduates earned more. Libby Purves on ‘The Learning Curve’ once tried to explain to Les Ebdon, now director of Offa, how increasing the supply of graduates might mean that graduate pay decreased. She failed to persuade him. But her prediction was correct.

What people actually claim is that possession of an academic education is valuable in itself in order to be an informed member of the human race; plus it offers some advantage over those who don’t. Is there anything more sad than the sight of someone denying children the right to an academic curriculum and the fruits thereof, than from someone who is the very pinnacle of such an education?

What does ‘the possession of an academic education’ actually mean? A good education means that you have a good knowledge about how the world works and the skills you need to respond to change. An education isn’t a commodity that you ‘possess’, it’s something you experience. And why specify ‘academic’? If ‘academic’ refers to the education it’s a tautology, and if it means book-learning only it’s questionable. Tom also frames education solely in personal terms; an education makes individuals informed members of the human race and, interestingly, offers them a competitive advantage over others. He doesn’t seem to think of education as a common good. What’s crucially important isn’t the level of education we have as individuals, but as a community. The ‘possession of an academic education’ doesn’t guarantee anything as far as individuals are concerned; one only has to look as far as the track record of some government ministers.

Although he attacks Ken Robinson’s model on the grounds that it will damage children’s prospects, Tom himself doesn’t appear to have a very high expectations of children:

“…while the groovier end of the education spectrum may lend value to a small subset of very able, mature and supported children, for the most part they do not. If you set a child with low literacy an independent study program to boost their grammar skills, some will flourish… But most will give up when it gets hard, or a bee flies in the room. If you only ask children to study those things that they are interested in, would anyone be surprised if they only study things that appeal to them and forego anything difficult or remote?

Well yes, if you suddenly foist a badly designed programme on a kid who’s not prepared for it or don’t give them a clue why things that look difficult and remote might turn out to be useful and interesting. But that’s explicitly not what Sir Ken advocates. Some of his success stories, even if cherry-picked, are about schools that have adopted long-term strategies to re-engage previously disaffected students. There’s no indication that the turnaround applied only to very able, mature and supported children. Tom then goes on to say;

It’s not a stretch to believe that children are naturally curious, they kind of are – what they aren’t is naturally self-disciplined. Curiosity isn’t a good in itself; it is only a good when directed in a structured way that eschews novelty and distraction….You could have visited a Montessori school a hundred years ago and felt perfectly at home with the homilies preached therein, and here.

They ‘kind of are’ curious? Seriously? Tom obviously hasn’t experienced a class of 5 year-olds close up. And curiosity ‘is only a good when directed in a structured way that eschews novelty and distraction’? The whole point about curiosity is that it’s a response to novelty and distraction. It’s what prompts us to acquire new knowledge and skills. It’s there, young children have it in spades, so teachers might as well cash in on it.

As for Tom’s sideswipe at Montessori schools… The Montessori approach dominated primary education in the UK for the best part of a century. It’s still widely used, very effectively, in early years and special education settings. Maria Montessori trained in physics, mathematics, medicine, philosophy and anthropology. She based her educational approach on work done by French physicians Itard and Seguin with children with hearing impairments and learning difficulties. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. To dismiss her approach as preaching homilies is… well, for once words fail me.

a dismal model of education

Tom’s review of Creative Schools is entertaining and colourful. He makes his points very clearly. Some of them are accurate. But I get the impression his model for education is based on a reaction to the status quo, rather than a rigorous analysis of educational models. He ignores the fact that a standardised, performance-based model of education had been largely abandoned in England by the end of WW1 – because it hadn’t worked. He overlooks the fact that organisational theorists have figured out why. He mistakes Ken Robinson’s reference to similarities in the deep structure of schools and factories for a reference to their surface features.

What Tom probably has seen fail miserably is a bunch of badly thought-through, poorly implemented (21st-century education movement) attempts to develop children’s learning. He appears to see the movement as monolithic and assumes anything that remotely resembles it must be part of it. That includes underlying assumptions about schools being designed like factories or children’s curiosity being powerful enough to make them want to learn anything and everything. If the 21st-century education model is the wrong one, the right one must be the opposite.

I agree that the 21st-century education model is pretty dismal, but I find Tom’s model equally so. It assumes most children aren’t motivated to learn anything hard, nor are they able to ignore distractions. That they’re not interested in things they perceive as difficult or remote. That they are ‘kind of’ curious, but their curiosity is worth nothing unless it oxymoronically eschews novelty and distraction and is constrained in a straitjacket of self-discipline and structure.

I think Tom overlooks the fact that many of the children he’s taught will already have had their curiosity and interest in learning squashed out of them by a standardised, performance-based system that has tried to educate children using a context-free skills approach. If neither of those models works, it’s not surprising kids get distracted by bees. I suggest Tom spends a bit of time with a class of pre-schoolers. He might see things differently.