Time for a radical shake-up

Piecemeal change is not enough. The real need is still for a sustained, systemic shift to entirely n

Most people now accept that there is a major crisis in the world's natural climate and that it's got something to do with how human beings have been behaving for the past 300 years. In the interests of industrialism, we've looted a selection of the earth's resources and imperilled all of them. One climate crisis is probably enough for you. But I believe there is another one whose origins are the same and whose consequences are equally perilous. This is a crisis of human resources.

The evidence is growing that we are systematically wasting the talents and the sensibilities of countless people, young and old and that the social and economic costs are immense. Education is at the heart of the problem. Why is this and what are the implications?

Governments everywhere are busily trying to reform education systems. This is good but it is not enough. The real challenge is to transform them.

There are many attempts all around the world to do just this. Some of these are coordinated by networks of educators, like the International Network for Educational Transformation; others, as in the UK, by government agencies like the Innovation Unit, by private philanthropy like the Paul Hamlyn and Gulbenkian Foundations, by independent think tanks such as the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), and by specific programmes like Headteachers into Industry.

Transforming education means questioning some of the basic features of education that are often taken for granted. One of them is the distinction between academic and practical education.

Current systems of mass education are an awkward hybrid of 18th-century cultural aspirations and 19th-century economics. They emerged in the 19th century to meet the demands of the new industrial economies. Those demands had a profound effect on the organisation of mass education. But the culture of education was moulded by the intellectual preoccupations of the Enlightenment. These two forces, the one economic, the other a view of the mind, have often been at odds with each other. Over time, the tensions between them have buckled and distorted the systems they created.

Organisationally, education systems were not only developed in the interests of industrialism but in its image. For example, they are front-loading. They focus on young people, purportedly to prepare them for something that happens to them later. They are based on standardised curricula and systems of assessment that promote conformity not diversity. They are linear, with students grouped by age, progressing through the system in batches. It seems the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture.

They are also driven by assumptions of economic utility. This is one of the reasons for the hierarchy of subjects in schools: maths, languages and sciences at the top, the humanities and the arts near the bottom. Teaching beyond primary schools is based on the division of labour among separate specialists. To this extent schools function something like assembly plants. I could go on.

The organisation of mass education may be modelled on industrialism, but its intellectual culture owes more to the Enlightenment. Ironically, although public education emerged to meet practical, economic needs, it is rooted in a view of the mind that venerates theoretical knowledge over its practical application. The hierarchy of subjects is based in part on assumptions about economic utility. Students are often steered away from arts courses, for example, on the basis that they won't get a job as a musician, artist, writer or dancer. But there is another force at work.

On the whole, students are not discouraged from doing mathematics on the basis that they won't find work as mathematicians. This is because our education systems are dominated by particular ideas of academic intelligence. Students are divided into sheep and goats on that basis. The other abilities of many students are stifled or squandered. This is why some of the smartest people in the country passed through the whole of their education thinking they weren't. At the heart of the system is an intellectual caste system, which is educationally bankrupt, economically inadequate and culturally corrosive.

Transforming education means thinking in radically different ways about human capabilities and acting differently to cultivate them. This was the essential message almost 10 years ago of All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education, the report I chaired for the UK government. Although at the time the government's embrace of the report was less than rapturous, the principles it promoted have been surfacing in bits and pieces in national educational initiatives ever since. But piecemeal change isn't enough. The real need is still for a sustained, systemic shift to entirely new styles of education.

There are three main processes in education: the curriculum, which is what students are meant to learn; pedagogy, which is how learning is facilitated; and assessment, which is how judgments are made about progress and achievement. Transforming education involves all of these. At the heart of this movement there has to be a sharper understanding of what really motivates people to learn at all and of the multiple talents through which human beings thrive and communities prosper. It means a shift from conformity to diversity, from standardisation to personalisation and from a hierarchy of subjects to a genuine ecology of talent.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to be given the Benjamin Franklin medal by the RSA. The RSA was founded in 1754, at the height of the Enlightenment and in the early days of industrialism. Franklin was one of its early members. An inventor, entrepreneur and political visionary, he was always the first to question what other people took for granted. The systems of education that emerged from that period may have been right for their times. They are wrong for ours. Reinventing education for the 21st century means challenging assumptions that too many people take for granted now. If he were living in our times, I've no doubt that Franklin and his kind would be leading the charge for change.

Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognised leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources. He has worked with governments, international agencies, Fortune 500 companies, not-for-profit corporations and some of the world's leading cultural organisations. His new book, The Element: A New View of Human Capacity, will be published by Penguin in February 2009