Sir Ken Robinson is Wrong…or a blog post with a title just to motivate you to read it ;)

Sir Ken Robinson is wrong…kind of…

I like to play games by boiling things done to their essence.  For example if we are talking about the Bill of Rights in Class I like to ask the kids you had to keep only one, which one would it be.  With my curriculum I like to try to think about what is the one thing that is most important.  Lately I have been thinking about distilling teaching down to a single word.  What is the most important thing a teacher can do in a classroom.

Now I teach 8th grade.  And by the time they get to me they have had at least 9 years of institutionalized education.  There is some research that is starting to show that “who” you are at the end of 8th grade is “who” you will be as an adult.  So what is the most important thing I can do with my kids?

I used to side with Sir Ken.  I thought one of the most important things I could do was to get the kids to be creative.  To rekindle those creative juices that reside in each of them.  This summer I really questioned whether or not that was possible.  Can I really teach kids to be more “creative?”  No I can’t.  I can make them “look” more creative, but not be more creative. The facts are that many kids are much more creative than I am.  Even if they are not “being” creative they still are more creative than me.  Someone can be a much better piano player than me even if they stopped playing nine years ago.

School don’t squash kids creative abilities, it crushes their motivation.  Without motivation you do not have creativity.  The most important thing we can do with kids is to motivate them to find that curiosity, imagination, sense of exploration, and creativity that they had when they were little.  I should state that in my Schooltopia world motivating kids would not be the most important thing to do, but with the current students and the current system it is.

Do you motivate kids?  How do you do it?  When you present a new unit do you mention that it has to get done for a grade?  If someone is not behaving appropriately do you motivate them to improve…or threaten them with coercive actions.  If they are not paying attention, or are bored do you have little tricks to get them to do what you want them to? Out students inner sparks have been extinguished by years of coercive motivation.  That inner spark is necessary for creativity.  Many slog through school dragging from class to class.  Tough question for you…are students happy to come to your class each day?  What are you doing about it?  Kids that you have motivated to come to your class in a psychologically sound frame of mind will be more creative.

This is regardless of the skill level of the class.    If you foster an atmosphere of passion and interdependence creativity blossoms.  Creativity is not connected to test scores or AP classes.  Quite frankly most of the highest scoring kids I have met have been the least creative…and the least motivated…and the hardest to motivate.

I sit in many meetings each year as we try to figure out strategies, accommodations, and modifications to help kids.  Most of the time we are just trying to come up with something that will get the kid to do the work and get a better grade–almost everything that we come up with is a way to coerce the kid into learning something when we want them to, and doing what we want them to do when we want them to do it.  We believe that the more work we do, the more teaching we do, the more methods we employ, and the more brain research we weave into our lessons the better off the kids will be.  Because, after all, without us they wouldn’t be able to learn right?  We force them to follow our system, rules, and teach them what we think is important.  Keep in mind that this occurs from they time they are born, until the time…well…when does it end.  We get upset that kids in the system are not motivated, don’t do work, and aren’t creative.  Why would they be?  How could they be? Now getting kids to do work does not equal motivation.  Someone just tweeted an article entitled  “10 things to do to increase participation in your class.”  Motivated kids don’t need to get tricked and coerced into participating.  One of the 10 ways is “Teach Students How to Collaborate Before Expecting Success.” I am watching my 6 year old daughter collaborate with her friends to play a very intricate role playing game.  My older daughter enters and seamlessly fits right in and collaborates with them to continue the activity.  I think we have to remember that much of what we think we need to teach kids isn’t because they never knew how and it’s a new skill, we have to teach it because they have not been allowed to continue using many of the skills that they were born with.  We have schooled out of kids most of the traits that we want then to have, and then try to coercively school them back in.  We make learning an unnatural activity.

Watch little kids play.  Give a little kid an object and let them do whatever they want to with it.  I can guarantee you that by the time they are done it will be in pieces.  They are born tinkerers.  They learn by experimenting, taking things apart, and if it does not work try it again. Schooling teaches them to make no mistakes, keep things neat, and if you do something and it doesn’t work you fail and move on.  We have replaced tinkering as a way to learn with following directions and repeating what they are told.  We give them knowledge and skills.  Learning now equals getting knowledge and skills from others.  “What did you learn in school?”  Essentially means what did you get from your teacher.  Kids have learned to walk into school to and consume.  Kids who grow up tinkering produce.  It is no wonder we have a wonderful nation of consumers, kids and adults who expect that school is a ticket to eventually consume all sorts of fancy goods.  Educators push school and college onto kids why?  So that they will produce great things for the world?  or so that they can get a good job and live happily, which equals owning certain consumer goods. Tough question…do the kids in your class consume or produce?  Do they produce anything that is not for you?  That is not intended for the garbage can?

When my class walks into our room for the first time Tuesday they will have spent nine years being told that they need to do what I tell them, they believe I know best.  They will have spent nine years being told how to behave, and believe that I will tell them how to behave.  They will have spent nine years being given the answers, and believe that I will have all of the answers they need for the next year.  They will have spent nine years learning that school is a place where you are told what to learn, how to learn it, and when to do it, and when they have to prove to someone that they have “learned” something they answer rote questions on a piece of paper that 24 hours later will be placed into a garbage can. They believe that it will continue I my class…it doesn’t.

My job is to motivate them to once again believe that they are powerful.  Henry Ford was once asked how he got such great production and creativity out of his staff.  He replied, “I don’t do much, I just go around lighting fires underneath other people.”  That is my quest this year, to motivate my kids this year so that each leave me with a fire burning underneath them.  Almost all the kids realize, and many complain in the beginning, that I don’t do much teaching, but somehow they end up learning.  It is possible to be a teacher and not “teach.”  It is possible to have a student learn without being “taught.”

Sir Ken you are right that schools do not support creativity, but it is because they crush kid’s motivation first.  Intrinsic motivation is the heart of creativity.  It’s hard being a teacher, it is hard to stay motivated, it is hard to motivate. The title of teacher that I am labeled with is very ambiguous.  It’s a  title that tells me more about what I don’t have to do rather than what I have to do.  This year I am going to include restoring my student’s motivation as one of the things I have to do.

PS–by now many of you will have seen that Mr. Pink’s TED talk on motivation.  I can assure you that he did not motivate me to write this.  I do think it is great that it took me so long to finish this post so that I can end with his talk.


  1. I was one of your students and I’m not going to lie. Your class was my favorite. I loved going into an environment so different from my other classes, yet so familiar in the way I naturally thought. You provided thought provoking work rather than the spoon fed information of my other classes. I can’t say I learned an immense amount of history in your class, but I did learn much about myself that year. I think that’s the most valuable information I’ve ever acquired and held onto in a classroom, even now. You’re right. The way you end eight grade is usually how you’ll end up for the rest of your life. I believe I’m a living, breathing example of that, and that I owe it to your teaching methods.

  2. Don’t know that I have anything significant to add after Anonymous. Wow, what an endorsement!

    All I can say is both of those videos are excellent. My class & I are reading Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” book. I highly recommend it. It explains where the world is heading. Here’s a summary:

    Why are we reading this book? It is all about creativity, and how important creativity is to the future. I think you are correct in that we drive the motivation out of kids to be creative. We teach them never to be wrong, which is in essence telling them to never be creative. The creative process is a series of trials & errors, but when you are conditioned that it doesn’t pay to fail, we avoid the trials because we don’t want any errors.

    Michael Wesch calls it the “Crisis of Significance.” Read his cool anti-teaching paper here.

    Wesch says: “When students recognize their own importance in helping to shape the future of this increasingly global, interconnected society, the significance problem fades away.”

    Paul, I think you’re on the right track by empowering your students and making them to see how powerful they really are. Good luck this school year. I really envy your students & wish there were more teachers like you out there.

    1. Ahhh…thanks for the Wesch recommendation. I had not seen that before.
      “We teach them never to be wrong, which is in essence telling them to never be creative.” I have never heard it put quite like that. Putting that on my page of quotes!

  3. I think you are right about the 8th grade being a huge milestone…Institutionalized schooling: my greatest regret thus far as a parent. I hope my son will recover from all the years of institutionalized schooling.

    Near the end of his 8th grade year he became extremely stressed and unhappy. This is how I became interested in the idea of unschooling. 1 1/2 years later he quit high school, got his GED and is now taking a few classes of interest at our CC.

    Most schools and teachers do more harm than good. Unfortunately my son was a compliant student and always did as he was told and that’s about it.

    Slowly, he is healing and finding himself again.
    That includes finding his inner motivation and creativity.

  4. teaching boiled dow into one word is preparation. you need to prepare kids for life. you need to prepare kids to prepare for life. it all boils down to the ol’ boy scout motto, “be prepared”

  5. STudents who have never had me before are always a little shocked when they find that not only do I not give them the answers, I don’t have the answers. We have to figure this stuff out as we go along. Most of my teaching is done with projects,and often there is no right way to do it. Learning is messy.

  6. I’m basing my comment on the ending video and the experience that I had in the past year that prepared me for life.

    Teaching students by a text book resources will not open our eyes to other advanced resources. Memorizing the facts will not help us to make new ones. Learning about what has happened in the past will not prevent it from happening in the future for history’s past is not our past. It will not help us with decisions we will need to make nor will it supply us with our necessities for this life. But it will only show how much this life has improved drastically.

    By having teachers assign students a clean cut project with various rules, a strict topic, and an exact final destination, leaves no room for creativity to even exist. And if there is no way possible of even having the opportunity for creativity, then what’s the point of even bothering to motivate a kid? Life isn’t going to hand you a piece of paper telling you exactly what to do, so why bother practicing that format in school? “Exacts” demolish creativity and without creativity there is nothing worth motivation for.
    Instead of handing us a candle problem for dummies, hand us something more challenging. Hand us something with multipal answers. Hand us something that will motivate us to find something other then the “expected answer”.
    When teachers hand us something that lacks the norm factor, teachers will receive something that lacks the “i dont care, i just want to get this done” factor. And there’s your motivation.

    In your class I learned more then any other class, because I could actually use the knowledge right then and there. Your class prepared me for life by making me think outside the box rather then giving the clear answer. Your class made me want to learn by giving us something we could experiment with rather then just something we could conclude.Your class was deeper and more useful then what the surface actually shows.

    Thank you Mr. Bogush.
    Your class was very motivating with it’s own unique style of learning.

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