Creative Schools: A Review and Rant

Like almost every educator in the world, in some shape or form we have either read, watched, or listened to the ideas of Ken Robinson. I always find his work fascinating(I don’t always agree) and he always provides much food for thought. It was without much thought that I had to read his newest book Creative Schools.

Below you are going to get my thoughts about certain pieces of the book. This is not a review so much as a reflection. To be honest, you should read this book. If for nothing else to make you think about your assumptions. You might agree with him and you might firmly disagree. The basis of a high quality read for me is when I read passages over and over, take copious notes, rethink my own thoughts, and do further research. This book lead me to do all of these things. I believe it is an important read for anyone involved in education to think about how you are going to use your voice and agency to make the changes necessary to transform schools. Please read it with hopes of inspiring a movement. There…that is my review. Now to my ideas

“In terms of teaching, the standards movement favors direct instruction of factual information and skills and whole-class teaching rather than group activities. It is skeptical about creativity, personal expression, and nonverbal, non mathematical modes of work and of learning by discovery and imaginative play, even in preschool.”

When I first read this I had to stop. I disagreed at first until I stopped and really read what he was saying. I still bounce back and forth, but I see a movement where as the standards movement continues to move forward there is this notion of teachers being on the same page doing the same things each day, comparing common assessments, comparing the same data, and making the same changes. Rinse, wash, repeat. In order to pull this off educators have no choice but to move to a very structured, whole class method of teaching in order to keep their sanity. Standards are important. I am not against them, but I am against the push of how people are wanting to cover the standards. We must not lose sight of the very skills that need to be developed in students. Yes, all the deeper learning components are messy with students at very different points of development, but the power of personalized learning helps students move at a pace that fits their needs. When this happens it is hard to teach like everyone else. We have a problem of once again trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.

“The problem with conformity in education is that people are not standardized to begin with.”

My favorite part of this book is his analogy for schools. Education is compared to industrial farming. The goal of industrial farming is to produce the highest yield of crops and/or animals and this has been done through an industrialized process. The process is very similar to the industrialized education model where we are seeking to produce the highest yield of test results and graduates. To do either of these is to develop a system where everything is programmed into a specific system, pumped with drugs/fertilizers, given artificial settings to create wave after wave of the same thing. This does not work as quoted above because we cannot be standardized. We are living, breathing beings that thrive in a variety of different settings based on who we are.

The question that is posed in the book and one in which I shared online while I was reading went something like this


Here is one response from a former student.

This answer is a pivotal answer because the very essence of what he is stating is clear. Schools are missing their marks. Do we really equip students to tackle the world when they are on their own? Are we teaching the things necessary to function as a positive contributing member of society?

The hard part of education is that it is very personal to everyone. We have all been through the system and walk out with a variety of opinions and experiences. Additionally, it is also a global issue and as the world shrinks through our connected means, it further makes the simple more complex. In the book he states the following

“Education should enable young people to engage with the world within them as well as the world around them.”

At first I blew by this statement until I later went back to digest it. We do live in two worlds. There is the world around us and the world inside our heads. As students grow up and figure out who they are they also have to juggle how to fit into the world around them.

As we look at schools at what needs to change the book really made me stop and think about something that we often overlook in education. Many aspects of a culture of school are voluntary, not mandatory. For example, using a bell system, classrooms organized by age groups, same period of time for all classes, desks in rows, math in math class, etc. Most schools have these in their operations right now, yet we are not told we must do it this way. We do it this way because we simply have always done it this way so why change?

Ken Robinson really makes an argument for personalized learning and the fact that we can and should go against the status quo. Whether you agree or not there is one statement he makes in the book that I think we can all agree on,

“….the fundamental work of schools is not to increase test results but to facilitate learning.”

I really like this idea. As I explore methods to enhance learning I often go back to my PLC training. The more I think about things I often wonder if we cannot use both personalized learning and high stakes testing to make everyone happy. Here is my question to you:

I have written about personalized learning before. The more I process the idea of personalized learning it only makes sense to begin to find ways to implement it in schools. For example, give everyone in your family a game controller and a brand new game to play. How would everyone respond? One might dive right in and figure it out. One might become discouraged and not try because it is too hard. One might go online to watch videos, read tutorials, etc. Another might not have a problem at all because their prior history has given them enough knowledge to already know what to do. The point of this example is that many of us could relate to this scenario. So why is it that we use a one method system in a classroom of 30 kids? That one student who fails your class, you question if they can learn and understand anything, they have no drive(you think anyways), is possibly the same kid who has 300 song lyrics memorized, can build a car engine, and can cook a mean steak. We must be cautious about our system and if it really works.

If I could go back to my question posed earlier about preparing students to be economically independent, then another part of the book resonates with me as well. Later in the book he quotes Andreas Scheicher who works for OECD. This quote I think is something that we as educators must focus on as we create our projects, develop curriculum, and make our classrooms the best opportunities for learning. He states, “The world economy pays you for what you can do with what you know.”  

This statement is deep. We must provide students with knowledge. There are certain things they must know. However, that is not enough. We must help them craft the skills needed to do something with what they know. They must be able to move into action and create and problem solve. As we look at our classrooms, many of them still focus on what to know. We focus heavily on content despite PD, trainings, research, and strategies. I am not suggesting we do away with all content. However, we cannot avoid helping students do something with the knowledge. We must help educators learn how to teach this way. In order to help students, we must help our educators. We must help our students be prepared for the knowledge and connected economy. This is a different world from 20-30 years ago. We must embrace this change and do what is needed.

In closing, we have another person pushing for change. A change that many of us know is needed and necessary. The key ingredient is how to go about doing this. It is easy to understand the theory, but quite another to make it work when you teach 150-200 kids every single day while balancing all the items on your list to do as an educator. What we are talking about here is a massive shift not at the classroom level or even school level, but district levels. It can be done. It will start to happen. While this develops I think it is worth your time to read the book, process your thoughts, develop your learning, and figure out what you can do at the grassroots level to help ensure learning for our students is what is needed to keep us moving in the right direction.

Other resources

Building Learning Power

Books referenced in the book that I am trying to locate and read.

Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher

50 Powerful Stories of Defining Moments in Education 

Leaving to Learn

No Homework And Recess All Day


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3 thoughts on “Creative Schools: A Review and Rant

  1. Thank you Aaron for this post. I bought this book when it first came out earlier this year. but it hasn’t made it to the top of my To Read pile. I am looking forward to reading it soon.

  2. Thank you for such a great review. This sentence stood out for me; “That one student who fails your class, you question if they can learn and understand anything…” I’m a recent student and don’t think teachers understand how much they undermine themselves by holding onto this one idea. Because students know each other better than any teacher knows any one of them, so they know the real talents/interests/passions their friends can’t show in a classroom environment, while the teacher tuts at his inability to do this one specific thing the system requires us to do. As a friend of students being judged like this, this is hard to witness. This scenario drives a wedge between students and teachers probably more than anything else.