Wanderful Wisdom Walks: Sir Ken Robinson, Creativity Champion

Sir Ken Robinson

Wandering with Ken was never going to be straightforward. That’s because we both do a lot of it. And he’s generally one side of the world while I’m on another.

When we finally do coordinate, he is at home in LA and I am in Italy. So, this is going to be a virtual, online stroll. Being thousands of miles apart could be a problem were it not for Ken’s famous ability to tell a story and transport you to wherever and whenever his curious mind leads us. And yes, it’s a little odd for us to be wandering when we are both sitting down, but our immobility turns out to be quite appropriate, because the importance of movement – or the lack of it – is going to be something of a theme today.

To kick off our journey (literally), Ken takes us back to 1954 and a park in Liverpool where he is knocking a football around with his dad.

‘Until I was four, I was a strong kid, running all over the place. My dad was convinced I was going to be a professional footballer. He’d played as a semi-professional when he was young, so this wasn’t an idle fantasy. I was number five in a family of seven kids and Dad used to say, “he’s the one – he’s got it.” I felt it, too. As I watched football, I had all the instincts. My body understood how soccer worked.’

Ken was a quiet child. Knowing him today, it’s hard to imagine him not having a lot to say for himself. ‘I’ve definitely made up for it since!’ he admits. ‘I didn’t say much. Partly because I had a lisp. I didn’t even cry. Then one day, my mum came to pick me up from the speech therapist and I was screaming the place down. It was eerie. The doctor said it was flu, but this was in the middle of a polio epidemic and when I woke up next morning, I couldn’t move. I’ve had kids myself and I can only imagine what a disaster this must have been for the family. Anyway, I was whisked off to intensive care and was in hospital for eight months. I was completely paralysed to start with. But polio is a bit like a fire in a fuse box, it just depends where it gets to. If it affects your respiratory muscles, you end up in an iron lung, and worse, you can die.

I came out with calipers on both legs, crutches, a wheelchair, long blond hair and – a lisp. The poster child for cute. People spontaneously gave me money when they saw me.

‘I was the only kid on our street to get polio, despite my attempts to cross-infect everyone. I thought “you’re coming with me”,’ he chuckles. ‘Anyway, that was the end of the footballer dream. My parents didn’t have a plan B, but they were very clear. “There’s no way you’re ever going to make a living doing manual work so you’ve got to focus on your education.”’

And focus Ken did. Not only on his own education but on ours too, becoming one of the world’s leading thinkers and speakers on this most personal of subjects, a champion of creativity and an excoriating critic of educational close-mindedness.

‘A lot of what I have been trying to do,’ he explains, ‘is ask if we can create education systems which are consistent with the principles of human flourishing. That’s all about relationships, empathy, compassion. Seeing how things connect – not just disassociated and disconnected from each other. Schools are divided into subjects, the world isn’t. Schools divide the day into forty minute sessions, life doesn’t. Children in schools are divided by age groups. Outside, we don’t tell kids not to mix with people of a different age. These are organisational, not human or epistemological principles.

‘I was the one in the family under most pressure to get educated. And to be honest, initially I wasn’t keen. This was the era of Beatlemania and we lived in Liverpool. My brother was in a rock band and they would rehearse in the next room to my bedroom as I was having to study irregular Latin verbs.
‘I loved the precision of Latin,’ he confesses now. ‘I didn’t love the precision of German, which I was also studying. The difference is that you have all weekend to work Latin out whereas in Germany people expect a response almost immediately.’

But the enchantment with education came early. ‘When I was in elementary school, we lived in a small terraced house about two miles from the centre of Liverpool. Mum used to take me on the bus to where my calipers and shoes were made and just around the corner was this dark, crenellated, early Victorian building. I saw people swirling in and out in gowns and I was captivated. It was a school called Liverpool Collegiate. We didn’t have Harry Potter back then, but to my young self that school was, essentially, Hogwarts.

‘I was in special education at the time. If you had any kind of infirmity in those days, you went into Special Ed. There were only two types: schools for mentally handicapped and physically handicapped. They hadn’t really got the hang of euphemisms back then. There were kids in my class with all sorts of difficulties – cerebral palsy, heart problems, partial sight… I think I said in one of my books, my class looked like the bar-room scene from Star Wars.’

Ken is no fan of educational metrics. ‘I’m not against measurement per se. Thanks to measurement the house is standing up. We’re talking over Skype because someone figured out the mathematics of the system. Numerical measurement is necessary but it’s an insufficient conception of human intelligence.’

However, it was the so-called eleven-plus exam (essentially an IQ test that’s been used in the UK to assess eleven- to twelve year- olds for entry into secondary education) that was his passport to a new world.

‘I was coached through the eleven-plus and was the first person in my school to pass. When the acceptance letter from the Liverpool Education Committee plopped through our door, I discovered I’d been allocated to the Collegiate.

‘I loved it. There was this big, oak-panelled assembly hall. And I was intrigued by the teachers. They would swarm up and down this central staircase like bats with their black gowns flowing behind them.’

But Ken’s educational progress was about to experience another shocking jolt. ‘My dad had an industrial accident. He broke his neck and was paralysed. We had to leave Liverpool for Widnes. That’s about twelve miles outside the city – but a universe away. Liverpool was the city that gave rise to two great football teams, a generation of great comedians and the Beatles. Widnes was a small chemical town where the main sport was rugby league. We might as well have emigrated.

‘So, at the age of twelve, I used to get a train every school day from Widnes to Liverpool Central and then get the bus up to school. Our classroom was on the fifth floor up these big, hard Victorian stone stairs. My calipers at the time were a bit primitive so I was getting all these pressure sores. It didn’t bother me at all, but it bothered the teachers. They contacted my parents and said, “We think this is really too much for him.” I was kicking and saying, “No no no I don’t want to leave the school – I don’t want to go.”’

Ken was ultimately reallocated to the Wade Deacon Grammar School in Widnes, but his passion for education had been kindled. That said, the future professor had his doubts about classical academia even back then.

‘Though I have written a lot about the limitations of the academic approach, I love academic rigour and I like the company of academics, but I just find it a limited view of intelligence and culture.

‘I used to hang around in coffee bars and then pubs, talking about the Big Questions with friends, including my prematurely bald but precociously side-burned mate Alan. (Sidesy O’Brian we called him. Witty, I know.) I liked to debate with him but his default line to end any argument was “logically that doesn’t make sense”. One day I asked him why he was so invested in the idea of logic. His answer was “logic is the heart of intelligence”. But is it? It seems to me that formal logic doesn’t touch a lot of the things that matter most to us.

‘This isn’t to say I am against Reason. But part of what I have railed against in education is the preoccupation with a certain type of reasoning. The logical, linear process of building one idea on another and cross-validating them has been tremendously productive in our lives. It has its own beauty but it’s an inadequate conception of how the mind works. There are other forms of apprehension and cognition that together constitute the full complement of human intelligence. There are all kinds of rationalities, within which different types of ideas may be entirely coherent. There’s the rationality of a painting, for example. Logic can’t tell you what blue means if you put it next to violet.

‘Our preoccupation with one, limited form of reasoning has marginalised our capacities in other areas, which turn out to be at the heart of what it means to be a human being.

‘A few years ago, the BBC did a programme where they took me back to my special needs school. Sarah Montague, the interviewer, challenged me on something I’d said in a TED talk – “dance is just as important as mathematics.”

‘She couldn’t believe I was serious – after all, “How many children in school are going to go on to become dancers?” she asked me. I could have asked her, “How many kids doing maths are going to go on to become mathematicians?” But that’s not really the point. Maths is invaluable in human culture in countless ways, as it were. But we are embodied creatures.

Our intelligence isn’t just between our ears; it’s distributed throughout our bodies. If we are to educate people cognitively, spiritually, emotionally, physically, they have to move.

‘In general education, kids should be moving and connecting. Student achievement across the board improves when they are able to move. A lot of the problems we have in schools are to do with social awkwardness and fear, which can be hugely mitigated through physical activities and particularly dance. Of course, there’s a lot about mathematics in dance and, as it turns out, various studies have shown that children who are encouraged to dance in school often do better at maths too.

‘One of the problems in our Western systems of thought is that we’re taught that thinking is essentially about making distinctions. Some Eastern philosophies see thinking as more often about making connections. What you and I do is as much about associative thinking as linear thinking. That’s what the experience of walking around and being conscious teaches us. People are much more likely to think differently if they move differently. If you sit them in a circle and ask “what do you think?”, they will go into their heads. That’s why I love what you are doing with Street Wisdom. You get them out on the street and ask a different set of questions. They can’t help being stimulated by the new experiences.’

Ken’s journey has been a stellar one. But, as he points out, he had help. From a mum and dad (‘they were fantastic’). And from an extended family (‘funny, noisy, our house was basically mayhem’). But one or two people also showed up at exactly the right time. Without them, life might have been very different.

‘I was sitting one day in the special needs class and this guy came in. He made his way around the class and ended up talking to me for a while. I didn’t pay much attention but a few days later I was asked to see the head teacher and this fellow was there again. I learned later he was Charles Strafford, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools for Special Needs. He had seen something in me – some potential – and told the school, “I think you should be pushing him harder.” I was moved into a different class where the teacher – Mrs York – was a real tartar but brilliant. She coached me through the eleven-plus and I was on my way…
‘Charles later became a friend. He was an upper middle-class figure, noted in the cultural scene of Liverpool. An ex-major, he’d served at D-Day. He was a real Francophile, too, bilingual with a house in France. And a bit of a gourmet. He made me my first ever properly tossed salad. Amazing. A very sophisticated, charming, urbane man. I’d never met anyone like him. It was as if he opened a portal into a whole new universe. ‘I owe him! Him and Mrs York.

‘People like them are so important. They are mentors in a way they may not even truly understand. Charles Handy is another. Inspirational. They’re signposts to something, but they don’t just show you the way but actually help you to make that step if you’re willing to take it.’

We saunter on conversationally, but Ken is dwelling on those early years and the inspirational influence his father had on him.

‘My dad was fundamentally a very optimistic guy. Very street-smart. Very funny. Not educated, but wise. Then came the industrial accident. Imagine. Here’s a working-class guy, very physical, who breaks his neck and suddenly he has no money, seven kids in a working-class house in Liverpool. He lived another eighteen years as a quadriplegic through sheer strength of mind and he spent those years as the life and soul of the family. You just wanted to be in this man’s company.’

‘Maybe it’s because of him but I think I always had a positive view of things. I always thought that I would do something I found interesting and was important to me. I think it’s who I was.’ Ken didn’t expect to be one of the world’s most celebrated, in-demand (and, believe me, funny) speakers. But, as he explains: ‘I have always had a thing about not walking away from things that frighten me. If there’s something that scares me, I tend to go towards it.

‘The last thing I thought I’d be doing is standing up and speaking to rooms full of people. But in 1963 our cousin Brenda was getting married. My brothers Keith and Ian and our cousin Billy decided to do a drag act, lip-synching pop songs speeded up to sound like Pinky and Perky. They needed someone to introduce them and I was suggested. I was thirteen. I overheard my parents saying, “Kenneth won’t get up in front of a crowd like that.” I thought, “You’re bloody right.” But I did. I didn’t do too good a job, but I was up there – on my way.’

Our wander together ends where it began, with a four-year old kicking a ball with his father. ‘I knew I could have done the footballer thing. If I had, we’d probably be having this conversation in a sports bar. But life is a kind of conversation between circumstance and disposition, isn’t it?
‘There’s that lovely line from George Kelly – in A Theory of Personality – Experience isn’t what happens to us, it’s what we make of what happens to us.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *