Mindset over Matter: Does Higher Ed Understand Its Mission-Critical Role?

Published by Joana Jebsen
on Aug 21, 2019

In 2006, when Sir Ken Robinson struck a nerve with what is now the most viewed TED talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?,” climate change, the rise of AI, and other hot topics were not the focal points they are today. Now his argument vis a vis schools has expanded. Education’s role is not just mission-critical when it comes to addressing this century’s most troubling challenges, Robinson says it is the only institution that can successfully do so. In a recent Wired UK article, he states:

“We face existential challenges. We have immense capabilities to innovate, but the clock is ticking and education is the only key to unlocking these capacities – not the torpid system of testing we have now, but forms of education that celebrate and cultivate these unique powers deliberately.”

Sir Ken Robinson

But what does Robinson mean by forms of education that help students not only succeed but also cultivate their unique powers? His 2013 TED talk, “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley”, perhaps hints at the evolution his perspective would take. He discusses three principles necessary for human life to flourish and how the culture of education contradicts these. Paraphrasing Robinson, these three principles are:


Diversity – Human beings are naturally different and diverse. Education is based on conformity and determining what a child can do based on a narrow spectrum of subjects. A real education is personalized, teaching to the diverse strengths, talents and needs of the individual student.

Curiosity – Once the “spark of curiosity” has been lit, learning will happen naturally, without much further assistance. Education is about learning and without it, there is no education happening. By extension, for learning to happen, education needs to spark curiosity. But in place of curiosity, what we have is compliance. Robinson emphasizes, “Curiosity is the engine of achievement”.

Creativity – Human beings are creative beings. Imagination fuels creativity. But instead of fostering imagination, an education system based in tests, scores and standardization does the opposite. “We can create our lives and re-create them. It’s the common currency of human beings. It’s why human culture is so interesting and diverse and dynamic,” shared Robinson.

In his Wired article, he stresses a fourth: Collaboration. “And the human adventure can only be carried forward through complex forms of collaboration,” says Robinson.

If these four principles are necessary for humans to flourish in life, then it’s more important than ever to move away from the traditional higher education learning model and towards creating diverse learning experiences. Experiences that emphasize subject mastery over test scores. Experiences that are personalized, collaborative, and anchored in the learner’s needs, while leveraging a variety of learning tools and techniques to meet these needs.

With the majority of students arriving at colleges and universities lacking an education that supports these four principles, is it not our responsibility – our mission — to improve their learning in such a way that they’re fundamentally prepared to flourish in life vs. just succeed? And help their communities flourish vs simply survive?

Curious what Robinson’s views are now? He was recently interviewed by TED for an update. Link over to that podcast from here.

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