Nineteenth Century composer Gustav Mahler was rehearsing a new composition when one of his students interrupted him to ask what the new music was about.
“It’s about this,” Mahler answered, and then proceeded to play the music over again.
Sir Ken Robinson told the Mahler story during a talk to Mira Costa High School teachers and administrators last Wednesday in the school cafeteria.
The previous evening the knighted author of The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything addressed 1,300 Distinguished Speaker Series subscribers at the RedondoPerformingArtsCenter.
Robinsonn earned international recognition as a progressive educator in 2006 when his TED Conference address was viewed on YouTube by an estimated 200 million people.
“What that demonstrated,” he told his SouthBay audiences, “is a global anxiety about the direction of education.”
In both talks, Robinson made heavy use of anecdotes and British humor to ease the sting of his critique of current education.
In the United States, 30 percent of ninth graders don’t graduate from 12th grade, he noted.
“In any other business, if you were losing 30 percent of your customers, you’d be asking, ‘Is it me?’” he quipped, not so humorously.
Robinson compared education to the two models of restaurant management.
One is the fast food, standardization model, where customers are guaranteed the same food at the same prices at every restaurant.
“You know exactly what you’ll get — horrible food that is contributing to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes,” Robinson said.
“The other model is the Zagat or Michelin model, which says, Here are the criteria for excellence. But they don’t say what needs to be on the menu or how the staff needs to dress. They depend on the creativity of the staff to make it work.
“The results are all different and all much better than fast food.
“When we buy cars, suits, entertainment, we want choice, we want diversity. But in education we settle for standardization.
“If it worked, I’d have no more to say about it, but it doesn’t,” Robinson said.
The present school system fails teachers, as well as students, he noted.
“We have a massive turnover among demoralized teachers, whose creativity is limited by cultural standardization, and a huge turnover among principals. But the system has been a bonanza for the pharmaceutical companies.”
He likened attention deficit to the 1950′s belief in removing tonsils to prevent colds.
“A lot of kids are restless and bored because school is boring. Before we reach for the prescription pad, shouldn’t we have the kids up and moving around. Instead, we cut physical educational, sports, and dance and make them sit for eight hours doing clerical work.
“If a business with 400 employees made the employees move to a different room every 40 minutes the business would soon be broke,” he said.
“We are living in revolutionary times, but our educational system is a relic of the 19th Century Industrial Age.”
He blamed the educational system, in part, for the U.S. having the largest prison population of any country in the world.
“The idea of decreasing funding at the front end [schools] and increasing at the punitive end [prisons] is bizarre,” he said.
“Governments,” he added, “have come to believe that the only way to improve schools is to take control of them. That is exactly the wrong strategy.
“The awkward truth is that life flourishes, not through conformity and standardization, but through diversity.
“Finland’s celebrated school system has a no proscribed curriculum and no standardized testing, but comes out way ahead of the United States. Finland’s drop out rate is essentially zero. Their explanation, he said, is “if a kid is struggling, we help him.’”
“People say to me it’s unfair to compare Finland to other countries because they only have 5.2 million people. But that’s bigger than some states, and bigger than the Los AngelesUnifiedSchool district [640,000 students].”
Robinson said he recently met with LAUSD superintendent John Deasy, who told him the district is experimenting with allowing kids to choose the subjects they want to study.
“This is called alternative education. But if the problems are everywhere, we don’t need the word alternative,” he said.
“Everyone who has children knows they are all different from one another. But in our education system, what matters most is what they have in common.
All you need is love
“I went to school in Liverpool. When I was 15, I wanted to study art and German. My teacher told me I couldn’t. I thought it was because of a conceptual reason, that art and German were incompatible. I said, ‘I’ve seen films of Germany, they have art.
The teacher explained that the two subjects clashed on the class schedule. He suggested German.”
Robinson followed the advice, failed his German oral exams and returned to the study of art.
“Schools divide subjects into useful and not useful. Useful means getting a job. The assumption behind this divide is that life is linear. The conceit is that you can plan your life. You can’t. How many people live the life they anticipated in high school?”
“Guttenberg didn’t anticipate the novel when he invented the printing press. Steve Jobs and John Casey didn’t anticipate an app to play blues harmonica when they invented the iPhone,” Robinson said.
He compared schools to museums, where insects and animals are exhibited in separate areas. In the real world subjects, like insects and animals, intermix, he noted.
“My experience is that life is organic, not linear. You invent your life as you go along. What you do depends on discovering your real talents, what excites you.”
Robinson told a story from parent orientation when his son entered USC.
The professor who addressed the parents advised them to “spare your kids your advice.”
The professor’s son had started USC as a classics major. Then he told his parents he wanted to major in a more useful subject and switched to philosophy. Then he changed his major to art history.
After graduating, his knowledge of the classics and art history and the mental discipline he developed in philosophy landed him a job he loved, traveling the world for a prominent art auction house.
Another story Robinson told was about a Danville firefighter he met at a signing for one of his books.
The firefighter told Robinson he had wanted to be a firefighter since childhood. The problem, he said, was that in grammar school, every kid wanted to be a firefighter, so no one took him seriously. At the end of high school, when he joined the fire service, his teacher told him he was foolish, that he was throwing his life away.
Robinson’s talk at the book signing, the firefighter said, reminded him of a car accident he had responded to six months earlier, when he saved the life of the teacher who had called him foolish, and the teacher’s wife.
“Communities need all kinds of talents. We make a big mistakes when we prejudge others’ choices,” Robinson said.
“Talents are diverse, but often hidden,” he said, in prefacing stories about the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
“Paul McCartney went to a school across from my old school. When I interviewed him for my book, I asked if he enjoyed music in school. He hated it. His music teacher didn’t think he had any talent. George Harrison was a few years behind McCartney at the same school. The music teacher didn’t think Harrison had any talent, either. So, it’s fair to say that this music teacher had half of the Beatles in his class, and missed it.
“Elvis wasn’t allowed to sing in the Tupelo glee club. He was told he ruined their sound. And we all know what great heights the Tupelo glee club went on to.”
“The risk to remaining tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom,” Robinson said, quoting writer Anais Nin
Back to basics
Robinson was teaching drama in 1987 when Tony Blair was elected prime minister of England.
“Blair promised if he became prime minister, that he would have three priorities — education, education, education.
“Then he got elected and presided over measures similar to President Bush’s “No child left behind,” a phrase, Robinson said, proves that contrary to popular wisdom, Americans do appreciate irony because the program leaves so many children behind.
“The arts were being pushed out, so I contacted Blair. I told him the arts are not more important than math or science, but they are just as important, and that this cult of mass standardization was not good, even for his core subjects.”
Blair responded by asking Robinson to head the country’s national literacy plan. The plan he came up with, he said, was inspired by theater director Peter Brook.
“Brook wanted to make theater more powerful. He began asking what is theater, and what can you remove and still have theater. He took away the curtain, the stage, the script, the stage crew, and the building.
“The only things he found you can’t remove are the actor in a space where someone is watching.
“It’s the relationship between the performer and audience that makes theater. If you add anything, don’t do it unless it helps that relationship.
“The heart of education is teachers helping students learn about themselves and the world around them. But over time, the national system has become encrusted with vested interests, distractions, national standards, national curriculums and bargaining rights, which are all distractions from education.
“We need to regenerate the relationship between teachers and students,” he said.
The next Distinguish Speaker Series talk will be presented by Caroline Kennedy, attorney, author and only remaining child of President John F. Kennedy, on Monday, February 11. She will be followed by paleontologist Dr. Louise Leakey on Tuesday, March 5, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday, April 15 and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps on Tuesday, May 21. All talks are at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. For more information, visit SpeakerSeriesLA.com. ER