Modernizing Education

We must abandon an Industrial Age education system that rewards compliance and stifles creativity.

Ezra Klein submits this 11:40 video by Sir Ken Robinson on the need to transform education.

He contends that Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder is either a complete myth or grossly overdiagnosed. Rather, the problem is that we’re expecting kids used to being constantly stimulated to sit around and keep quiet in an educational system no longer relevant to the modern world.

This may be slightly overblown but I think he’s largely right.  Indeed, it reflects my own experience as a student thirty-odd years ago — in an age when the modern technologies that have accelerated the problem didn’t exist.

Incidentally, I agree with Ezra that the illustrated version of the lecture is quite novel and “revolutionary” apart from the message of the video.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    This is an infinitely more coherent version of what I’ve been saying about education.

    The very last things we should be doing are more testing, applying more pressure, depriving kids of sleep, politicizing curricula, attempting to shut the computer out of the school. Virtually everything we’re doing is wrong. And every way we’re trying to “reform” actually makes the situation worse.

    I’ve been on book tour which involves me going to two or three schools a day. And I have kids of my own — 13 and 10. The 13 year-old is home schooled because I couldn’t bear to watch his mind be hobbled by “education.” My 10 year-old is in a small private school only a bit larger than a one room school house, and only there at all because she’s a kid who needs to be surrounded by other kids.

    When I talk at elementary schools I warn the kids that adults will attempt to destroy their capacity to imagine. In middle schools I tell the kids to ignore well-meaning efforts to turn them away from books they enjoy and push them onto books they despise but that are “good for them.” And I always point out that while my work day averages maybe 4 hours, theirs runs more like 10 hours.

    Lately I have begun asking teachers not to “shush” the kids, to let them respond to what I’m showing them. It’s as if, in some schools, they fear the laughter of children.

    I am more and more of the opinion that school is a form of child abuse. Let the kids sleep, let them play, offer them opportunities and enticements and amusements not tests and work sheets.

    And I would suggest that if there is one group in the educational system that should be asked to plan reforms it is not administrators or teachers (and sure as hell not politicians or ambitious parents) but the school librarians.

  2. EJ says:

    I’ve been saying something along these lines for quite a while now. We have a 15th century based liberal arts education system designed originally for the very few who were actually interested in academic life mixed with a 19th century manufactured delivery system. Its time to start discussing how the system can be fundamentally changed. Throwing money at this ancient framework for the past 40 years has nothing.

  3. Steve Plunk says:

    Hasn’t some of this been tried with experimental schools? Are there results to back the claims before we embark on a top to bottom restructuring? It makes sense to look at different methods but it also makes sense to try them out on willing participants before changing them for everyone.

  4. john personna says:

    Two words: Maker Movement

    And related to that, Forrest M. Mims III tells a funny story of staring at a rotating fan in English class, coming up with a science proejct, and the start of a career. He says that if that had happened today he would have been treated for ADHD and ended up somewhere worse.

  5. john personna says:

    Also, I think I mentoned “unschooling” before. I found it in a “maker” book. I see that the concept has a wikipedia page as well:

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    This is only possible if you can imagine an entire hierarchy of people who got where they are via compliance and allowing their own creativity to be stifled implementing it.

  7. Janis Gore says:

    What “this” Mr. Schuler? The original post?

  8. john personna says:

    This is only possible if you can imagine an entire hierarchy of people who got where they are via compliance and allowing their own creativity to be stifled implementing it.

    Must be why, at 22, I found Ayn Rand to be such an antidote.

    (Janis, I take him to mean an educational system staffed by people who are products of, and lovers of, the educational system.)

  9. BillinChicago says:

    Love the illustrated lectures, but they obviously missed a spot here where Robinson relied on his slides to tell the story. The percentage of divergent thinking “geniuses” in that longitudinal study dropped to 32% and then to 10%, as a simple Google search would have revealed:

    Looks like somebody just got “schooled”!

  10. Janis Gore says:

    I’ll wait for Mr. Schuler to explain himself.

    I don’t know how he was educated in school, but I’ve picked up enough of his biography to know that his lovely mother worked within the system to the best of her ability.

  11. john personna says:

    Both my parents, as it happens.

  12. Janis Gore says:

    I don’t have children, never have. But Chris is a 41?-year-old mother of seven, secular, previous homeschooler, who put her children into public schools in Austin:

  13. Janis Gore says:

    At any rate, I was able to plan my escape from high school, which I hated. Took a summer civics class, transferred to the big magnet school in Dallas, and graduated a year early in ’74.

  14. michael reynolds says:

    A kid asked me whether I thought my dropping out of high school hurt me. Of course there’s no definite answer. Had I stayed in school and gone on through college I might be a better prose stylist. But I’d probably have a less fertile imagination. It’s the imagination they kill first in school.

  15. Janis Gore says:

    The answer to that is that you write for money and I don’t, Mr. Reynolds.

  16. Janis Gore says:

    Let’s put this better, you’re paid for your writing, and most of us are not.

  17. michael reynolds says:


    I’ve been lucky.

  18. JKB says:

    The schools educate automatically. They train the absorbing powers of the brain, but fail to cultivate the faculties of assimilation and re-creation, and neglect almost wholly to develop the power of expression.

    Thus written in 1883 regarding the deficiencies of education. Sadly, we seem to have made little progress. What has changed I believe is the rapid expansion of the sources of information. It is long past time that the schools emphasize not collecting facts but assimilation, re-creation, re-use and expression. Or the “critical” thinking and writing James says a university liberal arts education provides. A bit late in the game and wholly neglecting the other forms of expression by hand, namely drawing and manual arts. How many high school student has lamented the uselessness of what they are being forced to ingest. A lament formed from the complete lack of training or opportunity to use their new found knowledge in any form other than regurgitation.

    Not to mention the almost complete emphasis on the abstract and mental, which is easy to falsify either by error or malfeasance. The goal should be to incorporate the abstract into manual output that will reveal the lies. Not a goal I expect to be embraced in the “progressive” education with it’s denial of objective reality.

    It is possible for the mind to indulge in false logic, to make the worse appear the better reason, without instant exposure. But for the hand to work falsely is to produce a misshapen thing—tool or machine —which in its construction gives the lie to its maker. Thus the hand that is false to truth, in the very act publishes the verdict of its own guilt, exposes itself to contempt and derision, convicts itself of unskilfulness or of dishonesty.

  19. Dean Fairbanks says:

    This video and Robinson’s main points explain to me why I find students coming from Waldorf private or public charter schools to universities to show us a a fruitful educational direction. If Steve Pluck wants some evidence visit the data on the Waldorf educational system developed by Dr. Rudolph Steiner after WWI. Many of this educational models methods work well with children, but they do not fit in well with an assessment minded state or federal system. Its not about the test!

  20. Trumwill says:

    <i.Many of this educational models methods work well with children, but they do not fit in well with an assessment minded state or federal system. Its not about the test!

    Did some reading on it (thanks for introducing me to it). It looks promising! Of course, the only gauge I have to judge it on is a test. (SAT, for instance, or state standardized tests in Milwaukee) Undesirable as they are, they’re still kind of helpful in determining what works and what does not.

    I’d be interested to see it tried on a larger scale. Some of these programs work well in smaller settings (under particularly motivated teachers and administrators) but have scalability problems. Of course, even if it doesn’t scale, it sounds like a pretty good deal for those that can get access to the programs. And, of course, the only gauge with which to tell if these kids are doing well is a test of some sort, somewhere in the process.

  21. Alex Knapp says:

    I have said this before, and I’ll say it again. The failure of our education system has nothing whatsoever to do with the system and everything to do with the fact that we live in a culture that does not value the intellect, does not value learning, and does not value knowledge.

    We live in a culture where polls show, time and time again, that the most desired profession is “celebrity.”

    We live in a culture where many prominent “intellectuals” argue that the Internet has invalidated the need for learning, because it’s made it easier to just look stuff up “when you need it.”

    We live in a country that, despite being saturated with more computer users on a percentage basis than any other, nevertheless has to import computer programmers from other countries–because our culture is thouroughly uninterested in understanding how things work or how to do them.

    We live in a country where accepting the facts of the world around you has become part of identity politics. Where political candidates from both parties try to paint their adversary as being “elitist” by virture of how educated they are. Where experience and knowledge are seen as a detriment to ability.

    Even in the parts of the culture where education is “respected”, it’s not respected for its own sake, but rather for the value of the CREDENTIALS it supplies. College and Postgraduate diplomas are only respected insofar as they allow you to get the right kind of job–not because they are symbols of mastery of a particular set of skills or knowledge.

    Children inculcate the values of the culture they grow up in. When you live in a country as thouroughly anti-intellectual, anti-knowledge, and anti-education as ours, is it any wonder that the education system sucks so bad?

    Nothing the government or the market can do can fix education except on the margins. It’s the culture that’s the problem.

  22. Ian Monroe says:

    I dunno, when I see those stats about a decently large group of people don’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun it doesn’t make me think that schools should stop trying to get their students to memorize basic facts. There’s some stuff everyone should know. A basic model of “where I am” in relation to geography and astronomy is one of those.

    Related to the video: I’m a child of the 90s and certainly group projects, though often loathed, where quite common throughout my entire schooling from as early as I can remember to college.

    Also as a child of the 90s my teachers were sometimes a fan of this idea that different children learn differently (split up by senses: visual, auditory, kinesthetic etc). I think it appeals to our sense of egalitarianism, as does this “blame the school, not the child” attitude of this guy. So some kids don’t do well because they are kinesthetic leaners and the modern classroom doesn’t have much of that, goes the theory. That doesn’t make it true and recent studies have shown that its not really.

  23. john personna says:

    Good rant, Alex. You’ve captured a part of the truth there.

  24. Andy Raffle says:

    Great presentation, with a lot of good ideas. But he lost me when he said that ADHD drugs are anaesthetics. They’re not… they’re stimulants, specifically designed to WAKE UP the brain.

  25. Janis Gore says:

    Alex, I take issue with your rant. It is elitist.

    Doing any refurbishing lately? Do you know how hard it is to bed and tape sheetrock cleanly?
    Had a chair recovered?

    Can you listen to your car engine with the hood up and know off the bat that the car is stalling because a vacuum hose is loose?

    Beyond gentle conversation, do you give a good damn whether any of those people can recite Shakespeare?

  26. Alex Knapp says:


    I think that people should be able to intelligently discuss Shakespeare WHILE bedding and taping sheetrock or changing their own oil. Shakespeare may have lived in the Elizabethan era, but his understanding of human nature is remarkable and understanding him enriches your life whether you’re an actor or a bricklayer.

    However, this country values neither abstract knowledge NOR practical knowledge. Your average guy on the street can neither change his own oil OR recite Shakespeare. He can’t because we, as a culture, have decided that both sets of skills and knowledge are useless. (However, the ability to humiliate yourself on camera is amply rewarded, so there’s that, I suppose….)

    I hold this Heinlein quote near and dear to my heart:

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

  27. Janis Gore says:

    That’s a lofty notion, but doesn’t it argue for quickness rather than staid educational environments?

    Setting a bone, a bone. Where is Mother’s Morris Fishbein?

  28. Alex Knapp says:

    (a) Lofty goals are the only one’s worth pursuing. 🙂

    (b) Yes, but you can’t put the cart before the horse. If the culture doesn’t care, it doesn’t matter how awesome the schools are, because kids will only learn if they want to.

  29. Janis Gore says:

    So you have a new person, and congratulations and good luck with him/her, so what are your plans?

  30. john personna says:

    Learning is a fundamental drive. Everyone seeks skills, knowledge, and experience of one kind or another.

    For a “high” or “low” society it just depends on how we channel it. Shakespeare or Snookie.

  31. michael reynolds says:

    I agree with pretty much everything Alex says, and I love the Heinlein quote, so thanks for that.

    The problem with schools is the parents. Just as the problem with our politics is not our politicians but our voters. Alex is right that we have a cultural problem. We don’t focus on what matters, which is actual education as opposed to schooling.

    It’s the parents who could force schools to back off their obscene work load, that could demand an end to mindless age-norming, that could insist on music and art and philosophy, that could require teaching methods that integrate technology rather than fearing and rejecting it. Unfortunately the parents focus on the largely mythical benefits of a path that goes from straight A’s to Ivies to a job in banking or law. In pursuit of that ambition parents willingly sacrifice their kids. And of course, all the while use schools as a stage upon which to act out their own peculiar political and religious issues.

    But I have to say that it is a scary thing to defy all educational norms as we’re doing with our son. There’s the difficulty of explaining to others — and in my case going into schools and finding a way to explain that we’ve rejected school for our son. There’s the haunting feeling that we’re simply wrong, that we’re hurting his long-term interests.

    But again and again we’ve come back to this: we want him educated, not schooled. And no matter how we look, no matter our willingness to throw money at the problem, we can’t find a school that will simply educate him without in the process destroying his interest in learning.

  32. Janis Gore says:

    I ran smack up against a block at Reed.

    I eschewed my humanities impulse and majored in biology. Liked it fine, and did okay. Until I took the physics course where they required me to program a computer. What was I going to do?

    That was ’76, Alex. They still used punchcards.

    No one gave me a clue as to how I would go about it . Not a reference to a soul in the whole school who would help me. That’s when I opted out there.

  33. Doug BAynton says:

    Robinson’s critique of public education is no doubt correct. It is also as old as public education. The problem is not just that the model was designed in the 19th century — critics in the 19th and early 20th century had very similar criticisms — but that assembly line education is much cheaper than individualized alternatives.

    Robinson knows even less about ADHD than he does about the history of education. Drugs like Ritalin do not “anesthetize,” they wake up the brain’s executive function, which allows people with ADHD to consider consequences of actions, to choose among alternative actions rather than acting impulsively, to deliberately follow a course of action. In short, they allow them to be effective in any setting, not just school –to carry on reasonable conversations, make and keep friends, drive safely, do well at their jobs. This is why such people have a strong tendency to self-medicate with nicotine and caffeine, though less effectively than with prescribed medication.

  34. Janis Gore says:

    That might all be true, but the boys are screaming for Sun Tzu, not Louisa May Alcott.

  35. Leila says:

    I don’t quite agree with the summary of the history of education.

    A true classical education — which can can be had with the Bible, Shakespeare, and Euclid, pretty much — isn’t the same as a traditional public school education.

    But the conclusions I agree with.

    That’s why I homeschool.