Shifting Paradigms

A friend just showed me this video, an RSA Animation take on highlights from one of Sir Ken Robinson‘s talks (upon accepting the Royal Society of Art’s Benjamin Franklin Medal in London in 2009). Some of his main points, if you don’t have 12 minutes, seem to be:

  • our model of schools is supremely outdated, as it is emerged from Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution ideals
  • ADHD may not be so real, or at least it is causing too many kids to be over-medicated and “anesthetized” to school
  • we need to work on developing divergent thinking
  • we need to change the way we think of “academic” vs. “non-academic”
  • we need to change schools to make them more of a natural learning environment

I don’t know about his claim that ADHD may or not be a real thing – I thought it was – but I agree that the medications that work for some kids are tragic for so many others, and that they are prescribed to way too many.

The divergent thinking study is too depressing. Basically, kids start out as geniuses, and school makes them dumber, or forces them to forget how to think in that creative way.

He says, “We should be waking them up to what they have inside of themselves” instead of putting them to sleep.” He says, “Collaboration is the stuff of growth.” I like both of these.

I watched this directly before my 9th graders came into my classroom. And things like this, while inspiring on one level, also often have the converse effect on me. How am I, one teacher in one classroom, supposed to successfully teach my students if the whole paradigm of our school system is dysfunctional? I can’t change the whole system. I can’t ignore the standardized tests (whose rise in popularity, he notes in the talk, has coincided with the explosion of ADHD diagnoses). I can’t reorganize all the students in the school so they are grouped by ability instead of by age (which, according to Robinson, is proof of the school system being “modeled on the interests of industralism, and on the image of it….It’s like the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture”). I can’t ignore the bells and the school’s tardy consequences (which he points to as another example of schools being “organized along factory lines”).

But still, with his argument fresh in my mind, as I embarked on some dreadfully boring but collaboratively-agreed-upon grammar exercises, I felt like I did have some significant power to change things up within my own classroom. I saw them sitting their in their ridiculous little desks, and it seemed all wrong. It seemed like one of the things that Robinson says “isn’t because teachers want it this way; it’s just because it happens that way. It’s because it’s in the gene pool of education.”

So it’s not like what I did was so brilliant, but it worked. To review the grammar exercise (identifying subjects and verbs…yay!), I projected the document on the white board and told the whole class to stand up (this was with my small class. For my large class I did this in groups of 10). Each student took a turn identifying the subject or verb with a dry-erase marker while the rest of the group, huddled around them at the front of the room, gave encouragement or advice like they were on “The Price is Right.” It was kinda fun. One student even said, “We should do every grammar exercise like that,” and several others agreed.

And my first instinct was, “No, we can’t do that every time, only once in a while.” And then I thought, why am I saying that? Is that the gene pool of education speaking? Is that a vestige of Industrial Revolution-era, assembly line values?

Here’s one of his TED talks from 2006. And here’s the follow-up.


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  1. #1 by Shawna Martin on September 4, 2011 - 9:43 am


    It’s good (fine, even) to see you blogging on here. I’m excited to start following you in Google Reader.

    I’ve seen Ken’s TED talk (and I love the RSA animations – they turn something on in my head) and I agree that they have the same inspiring/depressing effect on me. The whole idea behind paradigm shifts is daunting. How can you be sure that you are living through one? How can you tell which way the paradigm is shifting? Aren’t paradigm shifts only really visible from hindsight and far perspective. The entire idea that we can “call for” a paradigm shift or somehow “create” a paradigm shift from inside our classrooms can seem as absurd as asking an astronaut to get out of her space ship and push it back to on course if it is headed in the wrong direction.

    Remember Ian Jukes and the Committed Sardine analogy? Some days I worry that the commitment is, or should be, of a different variety. Or as my old friend Chris (who preceded me as Yearbook Moderator) used to ask, “Dedicated, or Medicated?”

    Keep up the good blogging.

    • #2 by yoni on September 5, 2011 - 1:42 pm

      Thanks Shawna!
      Committed sardines…that didn’t ring a bell, but, after some expert internet research on part, I now understand the analogy. And he says it doesn’t take an overwhelming majority of sardines to change the direction of the school (ah! schools! the analogy gets better!), but only 15-20%. And there are probably more than 15-20% of teachers/administrators who want to embrace edtech, but they are all moving in different directions so it’s hard to get the rest of the school(s) to follow. Maybe? I’ve confused myself.

      Yes, seems easy to call for a paradigm shift after recognizing that something doesn’t work. I like your analogy, too. You should start a blog called “Pushing Space Ships.”

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