Surviving in the Modern World: In conversation with Sir Ken Robinson

Story bubbles on world map
Source: Ashoka


Ross Hall (RH): What skills are essential for humanity to thrive in the modern world?

Sir Ken Robinson (KR): Well, there’s a lot of talk these days about 21st century skills and I go along with a great deal of it, my only reservation about the idea of 21st century skills is that when they’re listed, they often include skills that were relevant at any time, in any century, it’s not that they’re a completely brand new set of things that people need to learn now that they didn’t have to learn before, but the context is very different.

We live in a world that’s growing very quickly in terms of population, which is producing great strains on the environment. It’s producing enormous cultural pressures, it’s changing the economic landscape. We’re challenging our relationship with the earth in a very fundamental way, we don’t know if we can continue for long this way so there are issues around needing to develop sustainability and new forms of economic practice, the world’s becoming more complicated in all sorts of ways.

The capacity for new thinking and for turning old ideas into new applications has really never been more important, and I think our kids ought to recognize how deep their capacities for creativity are. People often think it’s a rather vague term that can’t be defined. I’ve spend a  bit of time trying to convince people you can define it, it’s the process of having original ideas that have value, and it’s the fruit of imagination, it’s applied imagination and it can be present, evident, developed in almost every part of the curriculum. Not just the arts, but in science, technology, the world is crying out for fresh thinking, new ideas.

A second is compassion. Compassion is rooted in empathy and empathy is our ability to step into other people’s point of view to see the world as they see it. To try and take that perspective and it comes from the same power of imagination of seeing things away from our immediate circumstances. I think of compassion as applied empathy, so to speak, the executive wing of empathy, it’s one thing to empathize with  somebody else’s situation…it’s something else to do something about I, and to decide either to act on behalf of somebody or to prevent others acting against them.

So compassion to me is fundamental to our ability to be together as communities, as it’s this sort of cultural, glue that holds us together into communities. Active compassion to me is very important and that begins with self-understanding and it relates to mindfulness, which I think of as composure. I mean the ability to be centered in yourself. A lot of young people, and not only young people, all sorts of people, I think find themselves off balance in various ways. You only have to look at the figures for depression. According to World Health Organization, by 2020, depression will be the second largest cause of disability in human populations. This is in a world that’s growing materially better off all the time. What it points to is a spiritual deficit in our lives, and I don’t mean that in the religious sense, I don’t not mean it the religious sense, but I don’t mean it just in a limited faith-based way, whatever the faith happens to be. I’m talking about the sense of our internal energy whether we feel balanced or out of balance. Whether we feel whole or disjointed with ourselves.

And the fourth one I’d mention is collaboration. We do live in school systems, which are more and more based on competition and win-win and individualism, that’s an agenda that’s being sadly driven harder by the international league tables where kids are competing against each other for limited places in other institutions, and schools are being drawn to compete with each other for limited resources, and countries are competing with each other for dominance in these league tables, and there’s a place for competition, but there’s a much more important place for collaboration. This seeing we face common challenges and we’re more likely to solve them if we work together rather than push against each other.

All of these areas are actually rather subtle and complicated in themselves and people need to be trained themselves to do it. We get very used to these safety announcements on aircrafts, you know, when they tell about when the oxygen tanks shoot comes down, and they always say put your own mask on first, before you try and help somebody else. So one of the keys to developing these capacities in students is first to attend to helping teachers develop them in themselves.

Teachers have tremendous creative resources, but they’re often not encouraged or trained to develop them. They have their own needs to develop their capacities of composure and empathy, but they don’t have the techniques either, not all of them, but very many, it doesn’t feature in teacher education very much. Mentoring is, I think, an essential part of teaching, and of education more generally. A mentor is somebody who helps you identify your own interests, your own talents, your own strengths, and mitigate your weaknesses, but also it does more than that. A mentor is somebody who can also help you open doors, point you in a direction to move in, and I know in my own life that I’ve had all kinds of mentors that didn’t have mentor on the door, they were just people who took an interest in me, people I met, often teachers, who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, who took a shine to something I was capable in doing and encouraged it. Great teachers have always naturally taken on that sort of role. They take an interest in their students a recognize that to be a teacher isn’t just about teaching the discipline, in some direct way. Teachers also empower kids so they gain proper confidence in their own abilities. Seeing the professional growth of the teacher as part of the evolution of education, I think, is absolutely critically important.


This conversation was first produced as a video on Ashoka UK’s channel.