A Study in Contrasts: Thoughts about Wisconsin Science Festival Keynote Speech by Sir Ken Robinson

Sunday, September 30, 2012, was a watercolor day in Madison. I strolled along the paths of the UW campus, and warm sunlight filtered down through the crisp fall air, scattering with it the occasional yellow or red leaf. It was a day perfect for writing and thinking big thoughts.

It was a day perfect for the keynote address of the Second Annual Wisconsin Science Festival, delivered this year by Sir Ken Robinson. The auditorium of the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery (WID), was lit in part by sunlight reflected from the concrete building across the way, creating a study in contrasts of the older, stone structure, a testament to the storied history of the place, with the new technological marvel of WID. The percussion piece (performed by the Western Percussion Ensemble) that preceded the keynote address was in itself a study in contrasts—a piece in which the plaintive call of horns pierced the delicate sounds of chimes and triangles.The keynote address was also a study in contrasts: the contrasts of what our educational systems are set up to produce with what our society and our children actually need.

In his talk Robinson, discussed the fact that overwhelmingly leaders at large companies have said that they need creative employees, employees who can solve problems, think original thoughts, and innovate. In my own experience in the corporate world, I have come to realize that right along with this creative thinking, we also desperately need people who aren’t afraid to show initiative and do things. My thought is that many societal and environmental problems would also be solved if people would show some initiative and actually do things as well.

In his book The Element and in his TED talks, Robinson has pointed out just how much the world is changing at an unprecedented rate as a result of transformations in technology and rampant population growth across the globe. Success for society, he says, in this unprecedented new world is going to require creativity.

Robinson described three basic principles of life and then showed how the current educational systems are set up in complete contradiction of those principles. First he says: Life is diverse. Each person is unique, with unique gifts and talents and weaknesses, and it is this very diversity that keeps life interesting. Second he says: Life is creative. We create and compose our life as a “conversation” between our talents, aptitudes, environments and circumstances. Nearly 80 to 100 billion people have lived on earth, but not one person has lived YOUR life. And finally he says: Life is not linear, it’s organic. It is created, it morphs, it doesn’t move in a straight line from birth to death—no matter how we might lay out our resume.

However, Robinson says our current educational system is set up to contradict those very basic principles. First, modern educational systems are highly influenced by the industrial production line, with students entering at point A, gaining this skill or that knowledge as they progress through the linear process—being encouraged to conform to the molds on the line as they age.

One of the questions he asks is why do we segregate classes by age? Why not let older students mentor younger students? Often I have thought, wouldn’t it be easier to accelerate students in a particular subject if a teacher had mixed ages in a classroom? Would the problems of “holding a student back” and “social promotion” become moot if students worked in age groups (4–6 for instance), where they could work at their own pace, going as fast as they wanted in one subject, but taking whatever time they needed in another? As a former college professor, I know that my students were often more effective at helping each other learn difficult concepts than I was at teaching them. One of our bloggers has even written about self-organized systems of learning: the ability of children to teach other children. As a parent, I know that my daughter does not learn linearly—she sees connections and patterns. She spends a couple of days intensely interested in numbers and drops books altogether, then the next day won’t get her nose out of a book, and in the middle of a soccer game stops playing and becomes intensely interested in a bug that she spots crawling on the ground. So, our education system is imposing a linear, production-line system on the organic, non-linear growth of the human mind.

Second, educational systems tend to strive for conformity among the students. Everyone has to do everything the same way. But everyone isn’t the same. Humans are diverse, and we should celebrate that diversity. We should celebrate that some people have to move to think. We should celebrate the fact that some people are visual learners, some people learn by reading, and some people learn by doing, and some people learn by writing.

Third, many educators mistake creativity as a free-for-all where everyone does as he or she pleases. Not so says Robinson. He makes the very clear distinction between imagination, creativity and innovation. Imagination, he says is critical, it is the seat of empathy in the human mind, but it is nothing without the discipline of creativity: original ideas (imagination) with value. Innovation is putting those ideas to work. Being creative is a process, it can be taught. But it can be lost in a system that quashes imagination, original ideas, or innovation.

When I was a college faculty member, we were developing our core curriculum for all students. One of our tasks was to make sure that courses that satisfied core requirements also satisfied over arching themes. One of those themes was developing creativity. When I suggested that the laboratory science courses satisfied “creativity”, I got a lot of push back from senior faculty who couldn’t see that observing the world around you, thinking an original thought about it (formulating a hypothesis) and figuring out how to test it, is one of the most creative acts a person can undertake. Robinson sums my experience nicely, by stating “anything that involves human intelligence can be creative.”

I am a product of a public school system, and I’ve done okay. But the reason I’ve done okay is not because of the system. I had a one or two really great teachers at key points in my education and parents and older siblings who helped me get around roadblocks that the system set up. In fact, I even remember one high school teacher characterizing me as an “over achiever with cut-throat ambition”, as if being a high achiever is a bad thing. It’s certainly inconvenient for the system, but high achievers are what society needs and employers want.

After becoming familiar with Robinson’s work and listening to this keynote address, I think that it may be time for a major paradigm shift in education. It may be time for the parents to get in touch with their imaginations, think some original thoughts, show some initiative and take change to the institution of education.

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Michele Arduengo

Social Media Manager at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Michele is the social media manager at Promega and managing editor of the Promega Connections blog. She enjoys getting lost in a good book, trumpet playing, knitting, and snowshoeing.


  1. Love the idea of mixed ages classrooms, Michele. And in today’s public school environment, think it would really help teachers. The country schools used to have mixed ages in a single room, but that ended when those schools were closed, to bring rural kids the improved (?) educational experience of city kids.

  2. Great post, Michele! Many schools are implementing mixed age classrooms these days, and I think the jury is still out on whether it offers advantages over the current system. Surely it will require slightly different training for teachers who manage these classrooms. I am with you on importance of creativity in learning and teachers employing a variety of teaching mechanisms to cater to different learning styles. I think one thing that holds up development with this model is that we still have to have some way to evaluate each student to ensure they are learning at the same level before they advance in school. If teaching styles in the same classroom are too diverse, it may be difficult for equally bright students to score at the same level on evaluation exams. Even though this is already an issue for students who process knowledge differently, I think the challenge is amplified by alternative teaching styles. I agree it’s probably important to move in this direction, but the metrics will need to be adapted accordingly.

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