Posted by: chrisdavis | September 2, 2010

Reforming Public Schools: A response to Ken Robinson & Marty Nemko

My response to Ken Robinson’s “Revolution in Education”


Marty Nemko’s“A Blueprint for Reinventing Education”

Ken Robinson says millions have listened to, and agreed with, what he has said about public education. I admit to being one of these millions.

So, what do I disagree with?

For clarity, I will try to restate what I think Dr. Robinson says is wrong with public schooling:

First, Robinson says public school is obsessed with what he calls linearity which he describes as a straight-line approach to education that begins with the earliest educational age and progresses in a straight line all the way to college. He says public education has college as its ultimate goal when, in actuality, college may not be for everyone (or “not for everyone now”). Education, says Dr. Robinson, is not linear, but organic.

Second, Dr. Robinson says that public education is obsessed with conformity, or standardization, and, that “standardization impoverishes the human spirit.”

The analogy Dr. Robinson uses to describe conformity is that of a fast food restaurant which only serves a small, predetermined, menu that can be served up instantaneously. Dr. Robinson also calls this a factory model of education (an analogy which homeschoolers have used for years). What is preferable to a factory model of education is an agricultural model in which “an environment exists for each student to be able to thrive in a personal curriculum that, also, contains enough external support for what is ‘natural’ to grow” [emphasis mine].

To return to the restaurant analogy, a personal curriculum would be analogous to a restaurant offering only what the customer wants to eat.

Relating to conformity, Robinson says that “human communities depend on a diversity of talent rather than on standardization”.

Third, Dr. Robinson says that public education is obsessed with batching which he describes as placing children in homogeneous groupings rather than realizing that it is the child’s natural talents—energized by his passion—that makes true education possible for each individual.

One of Dr. Robinson’s main “fixes” is to require public schools to personalize education. “I think we should be personalizing everything in schools. We should be looking at ways of making education relevant to each individual child. And there’s no other way of improving standards. Actually, there’s no other way of doing it on the grand scale.”

Robinson continues, “…the problem with it [standardized testing] is that it fails to do the one thing we know works if we want to improve standards in schools, which is to address personal development.”

I am one of those in agreement with Dr. Robinson’s diagnoses of the problems of public education. We, in the homeschooling community, simply use other analogies: we speak of an assembly line form of education and we speak of how public education treats all children of the same age as “generic” human beings—the very thing that kills creativity and ignores the individual.

Now, to my areas of disagreement:

When Dr. Robinson speaks of education being analogous to a fast-food restaurant, I want to ask him three questions:

First, why are fast-food restaurants so popular?

Second, why do fast-food restaurants offer the menu choices they do?

Third, why do they serve their food so quickly?

There are questions that drive all public education:

First, “Since we want to produce an ‘educated individual’, what is an ‘educated individual’?”

Second, “What instrument will best tell us if we have succeeded in what we have set out to accomplish?”

Third, “How do we accomplish this within budget (i.e. most efficiently)?”

Fast-food restaurants have removed one of the most time-consuming responsibilities adults face (everything that has to do with feeding one’s family). Second, they have figured out how to do this in a financially efficient manner.

In the same way, public schools have removed one of the most time-consuming responsibilities parents once considered their personal domain. However, public schools are continually seeking to do this in a financially efficient manner—and this, in my opinion, is one of the reasons they must fail.

Ken Robinson and Marty Nemko never speak to the issue of whose responsibility it is to raise and educate one’s own children. They see the problems children face in school and they see how the country is failing because of what is happening to children in public schools. However, since public school is a given, these men are left looking for ways to “fix” public education. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the very responsibility with which public schooling is tasked mitigates against them being fixable.

So far, I have never heard anyone address the fact that the driver of all mass enterprise has to be financial efficiency. This is true of fast-food restaurants and it is true of public education.

Since efficiency requires ever greater conformity, Dr. Robinson’s solution of “a revolution in education that is oriented toward the individual young person and which prioritizes each individual’s internal talents” will never happen in public schools. The money doesn’t exist except for a very small, subculture of students.

And, Marty Nemko’s list of ways to fix public education—although some may beneficially tweak the system—also cannot work, because no “system” will ever produce what the individual human being needs to be productive in his or her own life. In my own experience, what Nemko describes as the “chronically disruptive students [who] must be placed in special classes” are usually those students who are simply more honest about the “nakedness of the Emperor” and who are unwilling to be treated as generic human beings but want to express their god-given talents and gifts in a way generic education won’t allow.

When I ask public schooled students what they do in their spare time, the “best students” invariably tell me they don’t have any spare time because they must do well on The Test (which could be the end of semester test, the ACT, the SAT, etc.). Efficiency has mandated that doing well on The Test is the ultimate goal because The Test has become the ultimate evaluator of every student, every educator, every school, and every school system. Public education is not set up to allow for freedom to be an individual because every young person’s future depends on what the writers of The Test questions have determined an “educated individual” to be.

I don’t believe the public school can be revolutionized. So, what is the alternative?


  1. If only the reason most “chronically disruptiive students were recognizing that many emperors have no clothes. Alas, there are many reasons kids are chronically disruptive–only a few of whom are wise enough to know that. For me, the core to “revolutionizing education” is that one size does not fit all. We are not all created equal nor have equal potential nor learn the same way. The most important key to quantum improving learning and human outcomes: Computer-based, highly immersive, interactive, INDIVIDUALIZED instruction, led by world-class, fascinating transformative teachers (possible if we have a national online education program, say starting in high school.

  2. Oh. my project to make this happen:

    The Wikipedia version:

  3. I totally with your statement, …that one size does not fit all.” I am concerned about the move toward computer-based learning because I have seen it up close. It tends to pass EVERY child through the same program and some of the programs are either very boring, too repetitive, or irrelevant to a particular child. Most of what I’ve seen is the public school Scope & Sequence in a computer program. If it’s Christian based, then it’s Christianized public school Scope & Sequence in a box. But, perhaps you mean something more than I’m reading…

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