Sir Ken Robinson is the kind of person who has always been good at school. He spent more than a decade as a professor of education after earning his Ph.D. He led a national commission on creativity, education and the economy in the United Kingdom. And he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his service to the arts.
But he is now one of the most vocal advocates for unconventional types of education that foster creativity and champion students who aren’t wired for worksheets and standardized tests. He allowed his daughter to leave high school at age 16 to pursue a self-designed curriculum. And he wants other parents to consider that a nontraditional education — even dropping out — might be what’s best for their children. To be sure, Robinson, a strong proponent of public education, does not believe that’s a solution for everyone.
“I studied for a Ph.D. I write books. I was a university professor. It’s not as if I’m some outcast from the system who thinks it’s all awful,” Robinson told TIME. But he notes that there are too many people for whom the current education system doesn’t work.
“We have cultivated a very narrow conception of intelligence, and while academic work is important in itself and rewarding for the people who enjoy it, it should not be seen as the sole measure of intelligence,” he said.
Robinson is urging parents to rethink how they define a good education and consider other types of learning for their children. He also wants them campaign for change within school systems that he thinks have failed to adapt in the 21st century. That’s the focus of his new book, released Tuesday — You, Your Child, and School: Navigate Your Way to the Best Education.
“A common misconception among parents that I’ve spoken with is the idea that the best thing they can do for their kids is go along with this — encourage them to get all the GPA scores as high as they can and get into the best college, and everything will be great,” he said. “What I’m arguing is there are many other routes to success, and that one is not as tried and tested as it used to be.”
Robinson — whose 2006 TED Talk, “Do schools kill creativity?”, has been watched more than 50 million times and is the most-viewed TED Talk ever — remains troubled by the high rate of standardized testing in schools, the emphasis on STEM disciplines over arts and humanities programs, high levels of student stress and anxiety and the trend toward more homework and less recess.
Some education leaders, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have championed school-choice initiatives and charter schools, arguing they give parents more decision-making power over their children’s education. But Robinson is critical of voucher programs that draw funding from public schools, raising concerns about the “proliferation of charter schools of mixed quality.”
He argues that a good school — whether public, private or charter — should have a broad curriculum that incorporates language arts, mathematics, science, arts, humanities, physical education and life skills, including financial literacy and nutrition. If a curriculum lacks that breadth, he encourages parents to work with teachers and principals, help balance their child’s learning outside of school, or consider an alternative type of education altogether, rather than force children to adapt to an education system that doesn’t fit.
“You should have a good sense of whether your children are fundamentally happy at school,” he said. “Our kids are giving us signals all the time about their interests and who they are.” All children might play with Legos, for example, but it’s a future architect who will use them to construct an entire community. All children might draw, but it’s a future cartoonist who will make detailed doodles in the margins of every notebook.
Robinson’s daughter, Kate, who is now a consultant on innovation in education, used to line up her stuffed animals in rows and give them lessons. But she struggled with the traditional structure of school. She has described the challenge of attending a competitive high school in Los Angeles, where students aspiring to attend Ivy League schools would “literally cry if they got 95% on a test.”
She left high school at 16, when her parents gave her the option of pursuing a job, volunteer work or other educational opportunities instead. She started taking courses in jewelry design and sewing, enrolled in childhood psychology classes at a community college, studied the music business through extension courses at UCLA and started working in the music industry. “My life began. I soaked up everything I could. I learned so much. All my lights came back on, and I was happy,” she said in a talk about education last year. “Everything started from the moment I left school.”
In 2012, there were an estimated 1.8 million homeschooled children in the United States, according to the U.S. Education Department — more than double the number there were in 1999, when those estimates were first reported. Ken Robinson predicts that homeschooling will continue to grow, along with the practice of “unschooling,” a type of unstructured education based on student interest. If children say they hate school, lose interest in creative expression, or never come home excited, Robinson said those could be signs that an alternative type of education would be better.
When it comes to higher education, too, Robinson thinks parents should be open-minded about alternatives to a four-year university, including vocational programs, entrepreneurial pursuits and gap years.
“I just think it’s a lovely thing when a parent wakes up to who their child is rather than who they’re hoping they’re going to be. And it’s not always easy,” he said. “Parents naturally want to do the best for their kids, and they often assume the best thing is to drive them through the system as it is.”
“Keep an eye on your kids, and see what it is that interests them,” he added. “And if you’re constantly pushing them down a path that they’re resisting, rethink that.”