These are my notes from Sir Ken Robinson’s opening keynote address at the 2009 ITSC (Instructional Technologies Strategies Conference) on February 15, 2009, in Portland, Oregon. MY THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS ARE IN ALL CAPS.

Sir Ken Robinson and Wesley Fryer


My autographed copy of Sir Ken Robinson's new book "The Element"


Sir Ken Robinson’s English WikiPedia page

“The Robinson Report” was published highlighting the need for addressing creativity in our schools

You don’t set out to do all these things in your life [REFERENCE TO HIS VITA]
– life only makes sense when you look at it backwards
– I didn’t plan all of this out when I was a kid in school

I traveled 8000 miles to be here
– I was in Madrid last week, for a conference focused on Creativity in the European Union

I now live in America
– I moved here 8 years ago with my family, we moved to Los Angeles, thinking we were moving to America
– Have you been to Los Angeles?

Quote from Frank Lloyd Wright: If you shake out everything that is loose from America, you would get what you find in Los Angeles

Until the past three weeks, our entire experience

Did you watch the inauguration? My favorite part was watching that helicopter take off. (I am speaking from an educational perspective.)


We found the curriculum was very similar to what we had left in England
– there were some things we don’t teach in England, for instance, “American History”
– Do you know how your Independence Day makes us feel? We arrived

We were told that Americans don’t get irony when we moved here
– but I know you do
– I am telling you because this is what some people are saying behind your back

We were told other things, like “Americans don’t like to be hugged.”
– we were given a book “How to behave in America.” (A bit of a contradiction in terms, if you want the book let me know

It’s a myth: like the “British are reserved”

First few weeks we were
– we were like refugees from “River Dance”

I knew that Americans got irony when I came across that legislation NCLB
– that is irony because it is leaving millions of children behind
– that is the effect of it

I admire the intentions of NCLB
– we all do
– it was a cross-party piece of legislation but forward by people acting in good faith, for what they believed to be the common interests

Problem: it is based on many misconceptions
– every country is reforming their education systems for economic and cultural systems
– leaders believe that we need to do better what we did in the past: just improve standards
– this becomes a mandra: “We need to raise standards”
– of course you have to raise standards, but WHAT standards

are current educational system is rooted in the 19th century
– an old economic model
– a necessary narrow model of intelligence

for the future, it is essential that we TRANSFORM education, not REFORM education

This is true wherever you live on earth

reform is not the objective: is should be transformation

key is a focus on human capabilities
– many people pass through education never realizing what they are capable of
– there is a way to fix it

Old book: “Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative” by Ken Robinson
– this book is really terrific
– beautifully written
– by me

New one: “The Element: Ho

I’ve been asked how long it took to write this book
– answer: about 8 months between the time I signed the contract and when the book country hired hit men to find me 🙂
– real answer is 35 years: ideas I’ve been passionate about for most of my professional life
– based on a perception that most people never really discovered a thing they are great at
– many people “just do their job”

I also meet lots of people who LOVE what they do and can’t wait to get to this thing that inspires them
– those people are “in their element”
– this book is about what makes that difference

It seems absolutely essential to understand this for 3 reasons:
1- for personal fulfillment, to connect to our sense of authentic self (you feel most yourself when you are doing that thing)
2- this is essential for our communities, lots of social distress and tension
– Al Gore spoke on the theme that become the movie “An Inconvenient Truth”
– I think there is another climate crisis: this one is particularly relevant to educators: a crisis of human resources, people who leave lives that are less fulfilling than they could be

the costs of cleaning up the world’s climate crisis are immense, and so are the costs of cleaning up this human capacity crisis

example: last year in California the legislature spent $3.5 billion on higher education, and $9 billion on the prison system
– I don’t believe there are that many bad people out there, but there certainly are people who are making bad choices
– I don’t believe there are that many psychopaths (you don’t need that many really, one goes a long way)

the human crisis and the natural crisis
– there are large commercial interests pitted against these changes in both cases
– the drug countries make a fortune from people having low grade

the testing industry driving education in America is a multi-billion dollar commercial enterprise
– SAT and other forms of standardized testing
– there is no public accountability for the testing industry
– there is more accountability in the pet food industry than in the educational testing industry

I think standardized testing can be very important
– example: my cholesterol level
– I don’t want it measured against some idiosyncratic

standardized testing is not the problem it is how it’s become the objective and not the means in education

human resources like natural resources are often BURIED deep
– not always out in the open
– example: I was born in Liverpool, England, in 1950

across the city center there was another school where Paul McCartney of the Beatles was a student
– that is now a performing arts school
– I returned

I asked Paul if he had enjoyed music at school
– he said no, he went through his entire school career and no one thought he had any musical talent

another student at that school was George Harrison
– no one thought he had any musical talent either
– so there was a music teacher in the late 1950s in Liverpool with half the Beatles in his class, and he didn’t notice


My wife and I had our 25th wedding anniversary
– we went to Las Vegas to get married again at the Elvis Chapel
– she has a lifelong passion for Elvis: there are 3 of us in this marriage, my only advantage is that I am alive
– other than that we’re neck and neck
– we had the “Blue Hawaii” package: 4 songs, a hula girl (optional, I opted for it), and smoke as you went into the chapel
– for another $100 we could have had

Elvis went to school in Tupelo, Mississippi
– he wasn’t allowed in the Glee Club there, because he would ruin their sound

We can all multiply these stories
– there are many people in this book who really did well only when they recovered from their school experiences

I don’t mean to say you have to fall flat on your

dropout rate in US schools are appalling
– levels of disaffection are extraordinarily high
– there are other problems which plague educators and those working in educations

There are many brilliant schools, but there is a systemic problem in the culture
– it is made worse by policymakers who believe there is a straight comparison by fixing the school system and fixing the auto industry
– seeking to weed out the waste, and force more conformity
– all the manufacturing analogies seem to be drawn from industry and applied to schools
– based on linearity: start at one end, out the other “puff”

why are we so obsessed about going to college, by the way?
– maybe people don’t need to go to college to do what they want to do, or to go right now?

There is a tremendous schism between academic work and vocational work
– as if we either work with our heads or our hands
– I want to Danville in Northern California

I was signing these books, and someone came and I asked him what he was
– He said he was a fireman, and he had always wanted to be one
– he said he had one teacher at school who understood I didn’t want to go to college and said I was stupid, I would never amount to anything with that attituide

a society and a culture needs multiple talents
– we have become obsessed with a particular kind of academic achievement

academic” is

we are living in times of revolution
– it is important to recognize some things we have believed are true are no longer true

this idea of linearity
– I saw a policy paper which included the following statement: “college begins in kindergarten” was in this paper
– no it doesn’t
– kindergarten begins in kindergarten
– school “The Ark” – founder said a 3 year old is not half a 6 year old
– kids are competing to get into kindergarten in some areas, producing resumes

People are going to sit around and look at these resumes saying things

Story of Bart Connor
– when he was 6 he found he could walk as easily on his hands as his feet
– this was socially entertaining
– he could walk up and down stairs
– when he was 8 she took him to the local gymnasium
– Bart said in Martin Grove, Illinois, he was astonished: a combo of Santa’s grotto and Disneyland, it was totally intoxicating

not everyone has that feeling when the go into a gymnasium
– when I go in a gymnasium I want to become intoxicated

At Montreal he become the most decorated US gymnist
– Bart lives in Norman, Oklahoma, has an amazing gymnasium school there

several points about that:
1- someone else might have told Bart: Will you stop with the hands thing and get on with your homework
– but she didn’t, she encouraged him
2- His mother couldn’t have possibly seen where that was going to lead him

Human live is not mechanical, it is not linear
– it is not a manufactured process
– that is why the linear process in education does not work

your life changes as you become different yourself
– it is a synergistic process, an organic not an industrial process, a living and breathing thing

I think it is vital we get a hold

education is not a mechanism, it is an organ (?)

Being in your element means 2 things
1- you are doing something for which you have a natural capacity

Example: I was given a guitar about the same time Eric Clapton got his first guitar

Terrance Tout: at age 2 he taught himself to read watching sesame street
– he has a particular accent as a result
– age of 3: he was doing double digits equations
– more stats on his rise to McArthur Genius Award and the Mathematics Field Award

Lots of people in the book who got the hang of their passion

in our work with children: we have to try and help them learn about their natural aptitudes
– I don’t mean some things won’t be a struggle
– when people get better at things they like and love, they get better at everything

2- you have to love it

Story of keyboard player Chaz
– the sweet spot: If you love it you will do it
– if you find that thing, you never work again
– what stops that from happening is often the things we take for granted about ourselves


Audience question: how many of you are over 30
– who is wearing a wristwatch?
– did you agonize about that this morning?
– do you even remember putting it on?

Probably not. That is because you take it for granted
– what is happening is that many things we take for granted are not true

Common sense (the things we take for granted) is the big obstacle for innovation

Ask a group of teenagers this same question
– most teens don’t wear watches
– people under 25, time is everywhere
– time is on cell, iPod, laptop: there is no need to wear a separate device to tell the time

Daughter asks about this: Why would you wear it? A single function device? How lame is that?
– I respond: But it tells the date!

Digital information systems, digital culture, is transforming everything
– very interesting to hear Jennifer talk about the 10 year

I just started twittering actually
– I had my first tweet this morning actually

Amdist all this,

Why should we transform education with creativity at the heart of it?
How many senses do you have?
– First five have organs that do it?
– it’s not clear what does “intuition” if it is a sense
– it seems to be a “spooky sense” that girls have more of

“Culture and the Senses” book focusing on people in Ghana

“WE” didn’t count senses until the 19th century until we had this growth in the natural sciences, when we were counting and naming everything

6th sense to that culture is “balance”
– sometimes called the vestibular sense, the inner ear
– if that gets damaged by alcohol, as it likely will this evening, or by infection, you know it
– you take that for granted

A physiologist will say you have 9 senses
– if you take many of those for granted

I think we take our abilities for creativity for granted

On a scale of 1 to 10 how creative do you think you are?

On a scale of 1 to 10 how intelligent do you think you are?

If you do put your hand up, there are no social consequences for ME

top of that curve was about 7?
– for both straw polls

How many of you gave yourself different marks?
– reason: we often think there is a difference between creativity and intelligence
– I am concerned to make creativity and intelligence operational ideas in education

problem is: there are lots of misconceptions
– my argument: creativity is the highest form of intelligence

I define creativity as: “process of having original ideas that have value?”

1- it is about special people
– that is wrong
– that is not true for literacy either
– everyone is born with creative capacities

2- it is about special things
– some people say “I’m not very artsy”
– anything can be creative: Maths, science, cooking, arts, etc.
– I think we have to link creativity to an idea of diversity

3- there is nothing you can do about
– actually there are MANY things you can do to encourage people to be creative

The culture of standardized testing stifles creativity in our world today
– think of an analogous field: catering
– 1 model: standardizing, that is what is used by the fast food industry

BTW: what ARE chicken nuggets?
– I have examined live chickens for their nuggets, and they are not to be found
– they are either internal or have been removed

2nd way to provide quality assurance: the Michiline guide (?)
– here are the criteria
– if you meet these standards, you’re in the guide
– result: they are all agreat, and they are all difference
– difference is they have high standards, but not standardized

Problem is we’ve been sold the standardizing
– excellence comes through customizing
– dealing with these teachers, these students, these parents

the enemy of raising standards is conformity
– politicians have confusion over standardization
– all the great orchestras, bands, and scientists are great because they are different

we need to vault over the standards

how many of you have had your tonsils removed?
– you haven’t been asked that recently have you? does that come up often?

People of my generation routinely had their tonsils taken out
– at the first sign of a sore throat
– someone would pounce on you and whisk your tonsils out
– millions of people had their tonsils removed during that time?
– what happened to their tonsils? what are chicken nuggets? You can’t tell me that’s a coincidence.

Doctors have now thought better of that
– they don’t routinely take out tonsils
– it was a false epidemic

this generation of kids don’t suffer from the epidemic of tonsilectomies
– it only happens in critical cases

Our kids suffer from a false plague of ADHD
– I don’t say there is no such thing as ADHD
– some people probably do need help with it,
– I question that it is a national epidemic
– many markets are living in a more vibrant, interactive, more enriched with information than ever before
– their minds are moving and 1000 miles per minute, and we are penalizing them for getting distracted

Aesthetics is being fully awake in the moment
– Anathestic is the opposite experience: shutting down your senses

what we should be doing is making the program more interesting, and waking them up

study done a few years ago on divergent thinking
– not the same thing as creativity
– this is seeing multiple answers
– opposite of linear thinking
– divergent thinking often involves cross-disiplinary thinking, seeing multiple answers

question: how many uses can you think of for a paper clip?
– people who make great progress often question the question

gave a series of these tests to 1500 people
– what percentage of these people do you think scored at the genius level? they were kindergardeners
– 3-5 year olds scored at genius level: 98%

reason I share this study is because it was longitudinal
– 5 years later
– on the eastern seaboard of the United States


Ages 8-10: 32%
Ages 13-15: 10%
Adults over 25: 2%

We are all born with these capacities, but they fade over time
– we are all born with this cornucopia of talents and abilities

if you live in a culture where only one answer is being promulgated, people start to diminish their own capacities
– same with languages
– kids who grow up in a home where 5 languages are spoken learn

now showing map of ADHD in the United States
– this
– apparently by the time people
– this is a pattern of prescriptions, which is a bounty for the drug companies


Do you know the Blue Man Group?

We must move from thinking of education and schools as a manufacturing system based on conformity, to a new paradigm
– good news is you can start it tomorrow
– we’ve beleievd talen and creativity is limited
– we have to reconnect intelligence and creativity, and you can do that if you celebrate diversity


Quote from Bertrand Russell: “Is a man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he seems to Hamlet? Or is he both at once?”

I got interested with the “small bit”
– image from the Hubble Space telescope
– distance is measured in light years

that is an image of the Megallanic Cloud
– overs 170 million light years
– that is info you say “wow” with

So how big is the earth in reference to this?

images that have been retextured from the Internet
– like a team photo of the earth with some of its pals


Now comparing the Sun to Sirius to Pollux and Arcturus
– ow bringing in Betelgeuse and Antares (our Sun is one pixel)

We are infinitesimally tiny from one point of view

1- whatever you woke up worrying about this morning, get over it
– make the call, apologize, and move on
– it was probably your fault anyway

2- All that may be true, but what is also true is we are none-the-less the species which produced Hamlet, 6000 languages, the jet engine, the Cistine Chapel, etc

– we may be insignificant, but we have the power of imagination to bring to mind things that are not present, sets us apart to degree than every other animals
– animals sing but don’t perform operas
– they communicate but they don’t

the scale of our capacities as human beings is extraordinary and unique
– we can’t afford to let it fail us
– it only flourishes under certain conditions

Now going to show you this brief movie

Blue Man Group have started a school called “The Blue School”
– they were a community of friends looking for something interesting to do, and some principles we shared
– we just knew we were going to explore these ideas using this character
– one idea was that we call could be creative
– we had gone through our educational careers not being told we could be creative

This led to an idea there is no separation, there is a conciousness of everything you do
– our story is proof Sir Ken Robinson is right

we wanted to be post-modern…

traditional school: like train cars that are silos which are going to be filled up

We wanted to create a launchpad where kids are the rockets, and we are trying to

having the entire brain alive, tingling with life force

when we are kids everyone paints
– but we tend to get rid of all of that

Blue man message: don’t hide your creative side, letting it out lets all this creativity out, having the courage to let all of that out

This school is “The Blue School”
– people wanted to make a change
– the change is there to make
– the shift there is fundamental

our schools are based on a manufacturing model
– if you look for the management chart for most organizations it looks like a wiring diagram, a mechanical drawing, people talk about their functions
– a human organization depends on values, aspirations, attitude, etc.
— are much more like organisms, which flourish under certain conditions according to the environment they are in

a better metaphor for education is not manufacturing, but is agriculture
– a farmer can’t MAKE a plant grow
– what good farmers and gardeners do is know the conditions under which growth is most likely to happen, where they are most likely to flourish

what is holding education back is the deparsonalization of it, the confromity
– every great school is different
– we can’t talk about achievement without talking about the individuals doing the achievement
– no kids get out of bed thinking about what they can do to raise their state’s aggregate reading scores

I live close to Death Valley
– nothing grows there because it never rais
– summer of 2006 7 inches of rain fell
– photo of Death Valley in the spring of 2007

that illustrates that Death Valley isn’t dead, it is dormant
– right under the soil are the seeds of possibility
– if the conditions are right, then life can flourish
– if the conditions are hostile, then life won’t flourish

if the conditions are different, people fourish different
– we must look at each school as an instance of cultural possibilities, every classroom different
– this has implications for curriculum, assessment, and technology

I think our conversation should

real change always comes from the grassroots
– that is what made this recent election what it was
– it is the change in the schools which is promulgated

with digital technologies, there is a great opportunity for cross-promotion of these ideas

great quote from Michaelangelo from making the sculpture of “the David.”
– I can’t take responsibility for making the David, all I did was uncover it. He was there all along.

I think this is true for our students as well.

Wherever good teachers gather, every child is a potential miracle if we help change their self-expectations
– despite all the political rhetoric that surrounds education, we need to recognize that teachers are in the miracle business

Sir Ken’s Q&A will be in Adams room.

Sir Ken Robinson at ITSC 2009

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8 Responses to Sir Ken Robinson on Creativity and Transforming our Schools (ITSC 2009)

  1. Josh says:

    Thanks for the notes. I have tickets to see him in Omaha in a few weeks. I’ve also started reading his book in the last few days. The first 25 pages have already changed my life. Great information! thanks!

  2. Brian Crosby says:

    A video of a talk he gave in England recently … many of the same stories here:

    I just got The Element too!

  3. […] sense (the things we take for granted) is the big obstacle for innovation Wesley Fryer has a post summarising a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson. I’m pulling out a few relevant […]

  4. Forth says:

    In an interesting and incredible confluence of events I blogged about Sir Ken Robinson’s TED speech this afternoon. Does anyone know if (and where) this keynote will be put online? I’d love to see it.


  5. Charlene says:

    Great job capturing this keynote Wes! You’ve made it easy to “hear” Sir Ken’s delivery from your notes. Favorite quote…”teachers are in the miracle business!”

    Here’s a link to an ADHD map –with a breakdown of the details at — not sure if this is the one shown.


  6. craigr says:

    The study Robinson references is a 1968 study by George Land and Beth Jarman (Breaking Point and Beyond).

  7. […] GabCast and VoiceThread. This is the VoiceThread participants created, sharing their feedback about Sir Ken Robinson’s Sunday night keynote as well as their overall “takeaways” from the […]

  8. readerdiane says:

    Sir Ken Robinson was wonderful and humorous. My copy arrived last night. I am hoping his writing voice is as wonderful as his speaking voice.

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