6 Questions with HighEdWeb 2018 keynote speaker Sir Ken Robinson

It’s not often in our daily lives that we get to hear from somebody as accomplished (or knighted!) as Sir Ken Robinson, one of our keynotes at HighEdWeb 2018. In advance of the talk by this internationally recognized authority in creativity and innovation (and TED Conference rockstar) on Wednesday, Oct. 24, we had the opportunity to make him our latest 6(-ish) Questions feature.

1. You write on your website: “Many of our institutions evolved in earlier times to meet different needs than those we face now.  Many of them are failing the people they’re meant to serve and the energies of those who work in them.” It’s hard to read that and not think of higher education. How do you think our colleges and universities are performing today?

There was a time, not so long ago, when relatively few people went to college. Now it’s seen as the automatic next step after high school. One of the consequences is that the value of college degrees is declining as more and more people have them. On top of that, the costs of going to college are rising and there’s a mountainous tide of student debt. The result is that colleges and universities need to rethink some of the basic propositions on which they have thrived so far: for example, that college degrees lead to secure professional jobs; that academic programs are inherently superior to vocational programs and that teaching students is the price that academics reluctantly pay for doing research. Some colleges are rising to the challenges of reimagining higher education, for example with far-reaching innovations in cross–disciplinary teaching and collaboration. There is much further to go before higher education as a whole adapts adequately to the turbulent social and economic changes that are swirling around it.

2. You’ve discussed the idea that K-12 schools aren’t addressing the concept of play enough. Does higher education have to address play in a better fashion?

Play is not a trivial pursuit. For growing children especially, “real play” fulfills vital roles in their social, physical, cognitive and emotional development. By “real play,” I mean rough and tumble, undirected play in which children make up and play games together and explore imaginative worlds of their own devising for the inherent pleasure of it. The evidence is that in recent years, children engage much less than previous generations in this sort of play. There are various reasons. One is the spread of digital culture and video games; another is the pressure of homework testing and standardization in education. The net result is a “play deficit,” which affects more and more children and young people. Some of the intense pressures on K-12 students are to do with current entrance requirements for college and the need to “make the grade” through narrow tests of academic ability. As higher education evolves, it’s essential to look again at these selection procedures and how disastrously they hamper the rounded education of children in elementary and high schools, including their vital need for play, pleasure and fun.

3. As the web matures, adherence to standards and codes has become more prevalent and impactful on design. Is the web still a place where creativity can flourish?

There are many misconceptions about creativity. One is that it’s a freewheeling process, which is inhibited by rules or constraints. I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. Creativity is possible in any field of human endeavor: in any activity that involves using our intelligence, from math to music, engineering to cuisine and all points in between. At some points in the process, it often is important to think freely about the ideas or challenges at hand. Just as often, it’s about coming up with ideas or solutions within specific constraints. When the US government committed in the early 1960s to putting a man on the moon and bringing him safely back to earth “before the end of the decade,” it unleashed a ferment of creative collaboration, which involved thousands of people in hundreds of organizations. The goal was realized with time to spare. No one asked if the moon could be brought a bit closer to earth, to make things a little easier. The constraints drove the achievement and the creativity it required. There are new standards and codes on the web, but that needn’t inhibit the scope for genuinely creative work.

4. For an audience that works in higher ed–not necessarily teaching but often imparting lessons –what’s your advice in how we can help inspire creativity?

I make a distinction between general and personal creativity. By general creativity I mean a repertory of techniques and processes that enable us to approach questions and challenges of all sorts in fresh ways. For example, group discussions – and especially in committees – are often blocked by fixed attitudes or preconceptions that people bring to the table. There are techniques to avoid these roadblocks, which can lead to more productive, creative outcomes. There are other protocols and techniques that we can all learn to enable us to think and work together more productively, which could be more widely promoted in higher education. Personal creativity involves being engaged in activities that resonate with our own specific talents and interests. Education in general could do much more to help all students discover their personal talents and their individual creative potential within them.

5. Many professionals who are part of HighEdWeb are also involved in various creative activities and the arts on the side. Why do you think these creative pursuits — whether writing, making art or playing music — are so important to satisfaction in our day jobs?

A few years ago, I published a book called The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. It’s about the diversity of human talents and interests and the importance in our lives of finding the points at which they come together. When we do things we love and have a talent for we typically do our best and most fulfilling work. Some people make their living from doing what they love: others can’t and some don’t want to. Either way, finding time in our lives to be in our Element is essential to finding that elusive work/life balance we hear so much about. 

6. You’ve provided so much great advice over the years. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I was born in Liverpool, England, in 1950 and was a teenager there when the Beatles burst on the scene and led the British invasion of music and popular culture of the 1960s. My brother was in a rock band, which rehearsed in our house. I wasn’t very interested in education then, certainly not my own. My parents insisted I took my education seriously and stayed focused on it. It was great advice and I’m glad I took it. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this now or speaking at your conference in Sacramento in October. 

6a. This is a dorky question, but what’s it like to be knighted? We don’t get to ask that question very often.

What can I tell you? It was a great honor and means a huge amount to me and to my family. I was especially pleased because my wife and partner, Terry, and I have lived and worked together for over 40 years. When I became Sir Ken, she became Lady Terry, which is a proper recognition of our partnership. Going to the Buckingham Palace for the investiture was something else. I’ll tell you about that over a drink.

While we ponder how to get that drink with Sir Ken, you should ponder registering for HighEdWeb 2018, Oct. 21 to 24, in Sacramento, if you haven’t already. Join us for some luminous lessons, powerful playtime and networking with wonderful humans.