Farewell and Thank You, Sir Ken Robinson

August 27, 2020
8 min read

In the summer of 2011, I attended the BbWorld conference in Las Vegas (Blackboard’s annual event). It was my first corporate conference, and having only otherwise attended small conferences on literature and rhetoric hosted by public universities, I was in complete awe of the financial investment made by the organizers. Quite a few memories from those three days have, contrary to popular belief, stayed with me rather than in Vegas. The Blackboard reception was unlike any other I’d been to at that early point in my career. There were Elvis impersonators, free gin and tonics, a rave-like dance party, and brand-new iPads were tossed into the writhing crowd of glowstick-wreathed higher ed. professionals on the dancefloor.

However, it was Sir Ken Robinson’s closing keynote address that had the most impact on me then and in the years that followed. Robinson’s talk not only opened my mind, encouraging me to consider different ways of approaching the same old problems, but honestly, it helped shape me as a leader over the next decade.

During his keynote, Robinson talked a lot about revolutionizing and transforming education, but two points stood out to me. The first was a projected image of grass meeting a concrete pathway on a college campus. The symmetry was perfect—the sidewalk boasted a perfect 90-degree angle turn around a neat square of grass. However, as Robinson pointed out, the grass in the corner near the angled concrete was brown and trodden upon. While I can no longer recall Robinson’s exact words, the message I took away was that students (and honestly, most of us), don’t naturally make 90-degree turns just because a landscape architect thought it would look sharper to design them that way. The students on the campus in the image simply walked right over the grass, ignoring the angled turns of the intended path because it was a more direct route to the door of their building.

Robinson challenged the audience to think more like these students. Just because the concrete route suggests that one should use it to get where they are going, simply by the fact of its existence, does not mean it is the smartest path to take. To this day, I see the same trampled grass footpaths shirking clean corners on campuses, in parks, at the dentist’s office; and I think of Robinson and how right he was. Why wouldn’t the landscape designer have forged the paths for efficiency and curb appeal? For many years as an academic and administrative leader, those little footpaths served as physical reminders to forge a new path when it was likely an improvement upon the existing one.

The second and my greatest takeaway from Robinson’s entire keynote was that we need to value ourselves and our students’ natural abilities and nurture the places in which we are bound to thrive. As Robinson points out often, this is incredibly challenging within the current system of education, which was designed during the enlightenment period and modeled after industrial economics—think about it, we call our primary structures of learning “institutions” and they are often designed like factories. In another presentation, Changing Education Paradigms, Robinson (2010) says “I’ll give you a couple of examples. Schools are still pretty much organized along factory lines. Ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects.” There is often no alternative to a degree—it is either graduate or drop out. That line of thought resonated intensely with me and early in my career I was frustrated because so many of my colleagues were entrenched in history and tradition.

At the highest levels of government and academic administration, students are assigned a dollar value and educators are directed to mold and shape them for output into society. This is not to say that most faculty and administrators don’t have students’ best interests in mind, nor that they only encourage conformity. It’s just that transformation is hard and changes often take years to implement if they come to fruition at all. Unfortunately, when it comes to public education, we all must bend somewhat to help our students meet the required standards and outcomes mandated by accreditation standards, not to mention the ever-changing bills and mandates from state legislators regarding education.

In a way, Robinson gave me permission to step outside the box drawn by the old guard, to challenge those who deem themselves the protectors of academe as a static entity. I thought of Robinson many times over the years—for example, a few years later, while serving as the Director of Online Education, I introduced the concept of micro-credentialing and digital badging at a faculty senate meeting. It was 2015 and our public university prided itself on skillsets. I was surprised at how many in attendance saw the concept of alternative credentialing as a threat to the integrity of academia. I saw digital badging as an opportunity for growth at a school threatened by decreasing public funding and enrollment, while having the additional and fantastic side effect of arming our students with skills that could help them in the short term to find work or personal enrichment.

This TedTalk from around the same time as the BbWorld Conference echoes much of the keynote I attended in Vegas. One thing Robinson profoundly points out is that “I meet all kinds of people who don’t enjoy what they do, they simply go through their lives getting on with it. They get no great pleasure from what they do, they endure it rather than enjoy it, and wait for the weekend” (Robinson, 2010).

When, in 2019, I decided to leave my executive leadership role in higher education, Robinson’s words on transformation resonated with me yet again in regards to education: “Not evolution but revolution” (Robinson, 2010). I felt that I could have more positive impact on higher education in the peripheral rather than within the institution of academia. While COVID-19 has somewhat slowed my ability to actualize that impact, as most of the conferences I planned to attend on behalf of Millennium have been cancelled, I’m still confident that my decision was the right one and look forward to a time when I can engage and network with others seeking transformation on their campuses.

Over the years, I followed Robinson’s writings and talks, and without him ever knowing it, he helped me to keep forging ahead, even if I didn’t follow the rigidly defined pathways paved by those before me, and for that I will be forever grateful. I was very sad to hear of Robinson’s death at the age of 70 after a short battle with cancer. The loss of Sir Ken Robinson to the education community creates a hole in the fabric of both K-12 and higher education that cannot be mended, but his teachings will surely continue to resonate for decades to come, and for that, I will always be grateful.

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