Death Valley is commonly known as an area where nothing grows. But in the Spring of 2005, seven inches of rain fell, creating the right circumstances for a carpet of bright yellow flowers to blossom. It also proved that Death Valley isn’t really dead.
“Right beneath the surface are seeds of possibility, waiting for the right conditions to come,” said Sir Ken Robinson, who told the tale to draw a parallel between the valley’s environment and the one that can be found in some American schools. Sir Robinson is the internationally renowned author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative and The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.
Robinson conducted the keynote speech during the 10th anniversary celebration of the Common Ground Speaker Series at Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, California. With the nonchalant confidence of mild-mannered grandfather who has grown impish with age, he encouraged listeners to recognize that serendipity plays a huge role in the development of a child.
Linear academic programs often stifle children into feeling as though they aren’t good at much, he said, when in fact their true talents need only to be recognized and nurtured to flourish.
“Life is inevitable…with a different energy and a sense of possibility,” he said, tilting his head slightly for emphasis.
About a thousand educators from 26 Bay Area schools packed the Michael J. Homer Student Life and Science Center, some sitting Indian style on the floor below the stage, while others stood for the duration of his two-hour talk about novel ways to think about the relationships that students develop with their teachers and parents.
“This is about creating a culture of achievement and a culture of possibility, not a culture of standardization,” he said, saying that the current paradigm kills creativity in children, which he defined as "applied imagination."
A lot of school districts in America place a very high value on the results of standardized tests, which is not the ideal way to measure the success of an educational endeavor he said. He highlighted the educational system in Finland as a model that schools in the United States could emulate, citing its lack of standardized testing as one of its strengths.
Afterwards, one of the parents in the audience stood up and asked how Robinson would measure the success of a school without those tests.
Sir Robinson replied with a few ways: retention rates, graduation rates, and other less tangible things such as the spirit of the school. The enthusiasm with which students and teachers alike go to school would also be good indicators he said, clarifying that he was not against standardized testing.
“Some things can be reasonably tested,” he said, “If I have a medical exam, I want a standardized test.” But, he said that placing such high values on achieving a grade is corrosive.
If all students are getting out of a school is a grade, that is a failure of the system, he said. Schools ought to be geared toward discovering a child’s element, that seemingly elusive scenario in which the student “feels like they’re at Disneyland.”
Educators say that task is not easy.
“Raising children who are healthy, confident, and resilient may be the most challenging responsibility most of us ever face,” said Norm Colb, head of Menlo School, which is a Common Ground Speaker Series member.
“Over the past decade, Common Ground has provided thousands of parents and faculty in the region with outstanding educational opportunities that have been invaluable in addressing this challenge.”
The Speaker Series hosts about 13 events a year, all of which are free for member schools, which also include , Phillips Brooks, Woodside Elementary, Pinewood, Charles Armstrong, The Priory, and Waldorf School of the Peninsula.
“Ten years ago, we developed this consortium to expand upon the notion of a ‘village’ by extending parent education, professional development and the definition of a ‘community’ beyond the confines of any one school campus or neighborhood,” said Faye Star, co-founder of the Common Ground Speaker Series.
“Encouraging educators and parents from different school communities to learn and share together is a critical part of our mission and our success...We can all benefit from pooling talents and resources as well as from building a shared vocabulary,” she said.
Robinson’s ideas tended to align with hers. Teachers need to be given the license and freedom to innovate and to re-invoke the creativity of the teaching profession, he said, otherwise opportunities to recognize the true talents of students could be lost.
“We can’t predict the future, but we can create one that we all want to live in.”