The Learning Revolution, Circa 2012

Six years ago, a funny Englishman gave a stirring speech about how schools were stifling the creativity of their students. Today, Sir Ken Robinson is a worldwide celebrity, and his TED talk has been seen by as many as 100 million people.

How did that happen, exactly? And what is the state of the learning revolution Robinson urged us to launch?

The first answer has a lot to do with TED, and the ways it has become an unparalleled global phenomenon and idea accelerator. But it has more to do with Robinson, and the ways he was able to – clearly and cleverly– articulate our education system as it is, and as it ought to be. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original,” he argued. “By the time we get to be adults, most of us have lost that capacity. We have become frightened of being wrong. We’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

The second answer has a lot to do with the impact of those words, and the ways in which our education systems have started to move – slowly but surely – in the direction of Robinson’s recommendations. In particular, I see three trends worth noting:

  1. Shifting Endgoals – In 2006, it would have been impossible to suggest that anything other than content knowledge was the desired endgoal of a quality education. The rest was fluff, and if you couldn’t measure it, it didn’t matter. Today, however, there is an increasing recognition that content knowledge is actually the means by which we acquire a quality education, while the endgoal is a set of life skills or habits we can rely on throughout our lives. This paradigm shift was foretold by Robinson, whose talk centered around one of those skills – creativity. It has since expanded to include a rotating cast of others, from critical thinking to collaboration. And it will continue to reshape how schools see their work, both strategically and morally, requiring a new wave of creative thinking about how we assess both student and teacher learning and growth.
  2. Growing Grassroots – Robinson was right to urge people to stop waiting for policies to change before they themselves change. The only way a learning revolution will begin is if we heed the advice of Myron Rogers, who advised us to “start anywhere, and follow it anywhere.” That means recognizing each individual school is, as Ken says, its own school system, and insisting that educators start being more proactive in how they reimagine the structure and purpose of school. Scores of networks and organizations are already doing just that – from Expeditionary Learning to the Institute for Democratic Education in America. More communities are joining every day. And eventually, the policies will have no choice but to catch up.
  3. Emerging Leaders – In schools and districts across the country, a new wave of leadership is emerging with the confidence to speak publicly against the dysfunctions of the current system and think strategically about how to transform education for the long haul. Montgomery County superintendent Josh Starr is one such example – the leader of a massive network of schools and educators, a passionate believer in working collaboratively with all stakeholders, and an astute communicator who relies on everything from podcasts to Twitter to community book clubs. “I see my work being as much about helping people understand how we learn as it is about balancing budgets or driving student growth. These are community-wide conversations we all need to be having, and my job is to help seed those – and to keep learning alongside everyone else.”

It’s instructive that the most watched TED talk in history is about public education – despite the mainstream media’s ongoing reluctance to provide anything more than cursory coverage. Sir Ken’s talk is a reminder that people everywhere recognize that there is no issue more important to our future than the education of our newest generations. And his message, fittingly, is that we are the people we’ve been waiting for all along.

(NOTE: This article also appeared on Huffington Post as part of its TED Weekend series.)

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