Kate Robinson and Co-Author of Imagine if — Creating a Future for us All
“As we face an increasingly febrile future, the answer is not to do better what we’ve done before. We have to do something else . . . We must urgently re-imagine education and schools.”— Ken & Kate Robinson in “Imagine if…”
You might know Sir Ken Robinson from his TED Talk Do Schools Kill Creativity, which has been viewed 72 million times and is the most-watched talk of all time.
He dedicated his entire life to transforming education systems and remains the education role model I most look up to.
In this interview, his daughter Kate shares more about their new book “Imagine If… Creating a Future for Us All.”
You co-wrote Imagine if… with your father, Sir Ken Robinson. What do you think he wanted to accomplish with this book?
Imagine if… is designed to be a short manifesto of my father’s core messages and beliefs, as well as a rallying cry for the education revolution he advocated for. In his own words, it is a “distilled view of the challenges we face, the changes that are needed and the practical steps we can take.”
In your Foreword, you say you made a promise to continue your dad’s work. What made you want to do this?
There were a number of reasons.
Dad and I had worked closely together for several years before he passed away. My background is also in the creative revolution in education, and I have written and spoken about it for a long time. I was founding Editor in Chief of HundrED, a Finnish initiative that shares global innovations that are already changing the face of education, and my company Nevergrey operated as Dad’s global head office for the past several years.
I had worked with Dad on many of his previous books, as well as several campaigns such as the “Dirt is Good” campaign for real play led by Edelman and Unilever, and The World’s Largest Lesson, which is part of Richard Curtis’ initiative “Project Everyone” for the SDGs. So, in many ways continuing his work is continuing the work I have been doing and that we were doing together for all these years.
Another reason is that he had such an impact on the world. He changed the lives of millions of people, and in doing, so created a legacy that deserves to be honored and to be continued. His message is too important on a societal level to just let go.
Millions of people have been touched by his work, and there are millions more who will be. There are still so many people who need the support and the confidence that he gave: that they are not broken but that the system is.
And a more personal reason is that it was important to him- his work was a fundamental part of who he was. He lived and breathed it, and the best way to honor his memory is to continue it.
In keeping his work alive, I can keep a part of him alive. We sat together and talked about it a lot in his final days, particularly about his manifesto…, and that brought him comfort. It brings me comfort when all I want in the world is for him to still be here.
Dad once wrote that “What you do for yourself dies with you when you leave this world, what you do for others lives on forever.” He dedicated his life to helping others, and the ripples of that will live on forever. He was a shining light for so many people, and it is my privilege to be able to keep that light shining.
Dad once wrote that “What you do for yourself dies with you when you leave this world, what you do for others lives on forever.”
Your dad devoted his life’s work to education and fixing broken education systems. He became the Pied Piper, leading millions of followers along the way. In fact, his TED talk is still the most viewed in TED history, still watched on average over 17,000 times per day. To what do you attribute his enormous impact and popularity?
This is a question that I have thought about a lot in mapping out Dad’s legacy, and I think there are three reasons for his enormous impact and popularity.
The first is that his message resonates. As he says in his first TED Talk (he did three full TED Talks and several smaller TED Events), if you tell someone you work in education you can see the blood run from their face, but if you get them talking about their own education they pin you to the wall.
Education runs deep with people — most people spend at least 22,000 hours in formal education, and so naturally it has a big impact on each of us. For far too many people, the impact isn’t as positive as it should be.
When people first saw that TED Talk, it gave voice to something they knew deep down but perhaps couldn’t name — that it wasn’t them or their children or their loved ones who were broken, it was the system.
It lit a fire because the issue is so universal and yet so deeply personal.
One of the first activities Nevergrey did was a campaign called “10 years on” to mark the 10th anniversary of that first TED Talk. We asked people to send in what the talk had meant to them, and we received thousands of messages. One of my favorite quotes was from a woman in Germany who said, “I felt heard even though I hadn’t spoken.”
The second reason is that he was so wonderful, and I say that with as little bias as humanly possible! Dad was funny, he was kind, and he was affable. He had a unique style of public speaking that wasn’t overly polished or rehearsed, that didn’t rely on visual support or excessive moving across the stage.
When he spoke, he connected with people on a human level. It shouldn’t stand out as being a unique approach, but these days it does. He also made people laugh — someone once said that listening to him felt like listening to a friend tell funny stories, and it was only when you walked away at the end that you realized you’d actually been told something deeply profound.
While I was finishing Imagine if… I read a number of books that had been influential to Dad, and while they are brilliant books, they’re also dense and difficult to get through. I found myself re-reading paragraphs multiple times to make sure I understood what they were saying.
Dad had an incredible gift for being succinct, he took big concepts and translated them in ways that were understandable to anyone. He took the very complicated topics of the education system, of the human brain, of intelligence and creativity, and made them digestible.
And the final reason is that he was authentic. He didn’t have a stage persona or an act. The man people saw on stage was the same man I saw at the breakfast table. In the “10 Years On” campaign many people referred to the first time they watched the TED talk as being the first time they “met” Dad.
They may never have met him in person, and yet they felt they had through the video. In being authentic, he connected with people around the world in a way that made them feel as though they knew him, and they were right to feel that way.
According to Imagine if…, the future will be grim unless we take action to change the course where we’re heading. What actions need to be taken and what needs to be done and how? Where do we start?
The first and most important step is to embrace a richer conception of human intelligence. Like any ecosystem, our cultural ecosystems depend on a wide variety of talents, interests, and capabilities to thrive. Therefore, we must actively encourage each person to connect with and make the most of their own abilities and passions.
Imagine if… is Sir Ken Robinson’s manifesto, summarizing his key points and passions. What are some of the bigger ones and why were they important to Sir Ken?
At its core, Dad’s work was a love letter to human potential. It was a celebration of what we as a species are capable of achieving in the right conditions. In writing the book, we highlighted ten “Manifesto Statements” that really summarize the key points the book is making.
The main themes of them are:
- we are all born with immense creative capacities
- our incredible powers of imagination are what separates us from the rest of life on Earth
- Education systems are based on conformity
- real life thrives on diversity
- we are in the midst of two climate crises: the crisis of the Earth’s natural resources, and the crisis of our human resources
- and no matter who you are, you are the system — if you change your behavior, you have changed the system, and when enough people commit to changing the system, we have a revolution that will change the world.
No matter who you are, you are the system — if you change your behavior, you have changed the system, and when enough people commit to changing the system, we have a revolution that will change the world.
The relationship between intelligence and creativity is raised a few times. What is this relationship and how is it applied? What are some of the myths surrounding both intelligence and creativity?
Dad said that creativity and intelligence are blood relatives: you can’t be creative without using your intelligence, and the highest form of intelligence is creativity. We have perpetrated several myths around both.
We confuse “intelligence” with academics and IQ. Academic work is one way to use our intelligence, which primarily focuses on facts, critical analysis, and desk studies. We can experience anything from mathematics to theater in a purely academic way, it just describes one way of looking at something.
The idea of an IQ assumes that we are each born with a certain amount of intelligence that there is not much we can do about it. We know much more about how the brain works than we did in the early 1900s, when the IQ test was developed, especially about the plasticity of the brain and how it strengthens and adapts depending on how we use it.
Intelligence is far richer than the concept of IQ can begin to grasp.
There are certain myths surrounding creativity, including: only certain people are creative; only certain subjects are creative; and you’re either creative or you’re not.
In reality: we all have immense capacities for creativity; you can be creative in absolutely anything, and many subjects that are traditionally thought of as being not creative, like mathematics, actually require huge amounts of creative thinking; and like intelligence, we aren’t each born with a set amount of creativity — if we neglect our creative capacities, they lie dormant, but we can grow and develop them through proper use.
What would Ken say is the core purpose of education and what would he include under this umbrella?
We each live in two worlds: the world around us — the physical world that we were born into, which was there before you were born and will be here (we hope) after you die; and the world within us — the world of our inner thoughts and emotions, our beliefs, and values, that came into being only because you were born and that will end or change when you die (depending on your beliefs).
These two worlds are intimately connected — how we relate to the world around us is constantly affected by our inner world, and who we are on the inside is shaped by our experience of the world around us.
Dad’s contention was that the core purpose of education is to help children and young people understand each of these worlds and the relationship between the two.
To do that, education should expand their consciousness, capabilities, sensitivities and cultural understanding. He also strongly felt that there is a new and urgent challenge to provide forms of education that engage young people with the global economic issues of environmental well-being.
Your dad compares traditional methods of formal education to an industrial factory/industrial farm. What did he mean by this?
Comparing traditional methods of education to industrial factories is a common analogy and one that makes sense. Education systems as we recognize them today were born out of the industrial revolution, to suit the requirements of that time.
Both industrial factories and formal education systems focus on yield and depend on standardized processes to develop standardized output. There is a fundamental difference between the two, however, which is that factories produce inanimate objects, whereas schools do not. Screws and bolts do not have opinions on what is happening to them during production, children and young people do.
Dad made the case that the more accurate metaphor is an industrial farm. Industrial farms also focus on yield and create unnatural conditions to create their products, but unlike factories, they are concerned with the production of living things.
Both industrial farms and industrial methods of education have success in their pursuit of uniform outcomes, but with hazardous repercussions. As Industrial farms are stripping the Earth of its diversity of natural resources, our education systems are stripping our children of their diversity of human resources.
What does he mean by rewilding education? What does this entail?
The process of rewilding focuses on creating the conditions for natural ecosystems to thrive and then stepping back as they do. The promise of rewilding offers hope in the battle for the Earth’s natural resources.
To rewild education we must create the circumstances for our human ecosystems to thrive. As the natural world depends upon diversity to flourish, so do our cultures, including our education systems.
Dad often said that great gardeners know they do not make flowers grow, they create the conditions for flowers to grow themselves. In the same way, great educators know they don’t make children learn, they create the conditions for learning to happen.
Rewilding education means focusing on creating these conditions. To do that we must reinvigorate the living culture of schools themselves. Imagine if… explores how best to achieve that in detail.
Imagine if… asks, so what does a thriving school ecosystem look like? What is the answer? What would his ideal education system and school look like?
It would be counter-intuitive to be overly prescriptive in what an ideal school looks like — as a school is made up of unique individuals and circumstances, each school as a whole is naturally unique.
That said, there are certain attributes that they may have in common. An education system is not successful because of tests and output-driven hurdles, it is successful when individuals are recognised, and diversity of talent is celebrated.
It is successful when students are fulfilled. To do that it must encourage a mixed culture within schools — of disciplines, of individual passions and the unique pathways they each determine, of the circumstances, each school is situated within. At its core, a successful education system celebrates and values the interconnectedness of our human ecosystems.
At its core, a successful education system celebrates and values the interconnectedness of our human ecosystems.
In Imagine if… you argue that it is possible to personalize education for every student, much like we do with cars, diets, and phones. Can you expand on this idea?
The first thing to say is that education IS personal for every person involved in it, in particular for students. Arguing against personalized learning is to argue against the very essence of education and learning.
Any educator knows that you cannot force a person to learn, they must learn for themselves. One of the primary arguments against personalized learning is that it is too expensive. In Imagine if… we make the case that it is an investment rather than a cost. T
he price of rehabilitation programs, re-engagement programs, and alternative education programs is sky high, and most of them rely on personalised approaches to re-engage young people with their education. If education was personalised to begin with, far fewer students would dis-engage in the first place.
There are many programs (such as Big Picture Learning, amongst others) that have been creating the conditions for personalised learning for a very long time. They are easily incorporated into school models and are highly effective.
Advanced technologies have made it even easier and have created more options and pathways. This isn’t a pipe dream — there are brilliant schools all around the world implementing techniques to personalise learning every single day — even within rigidly traditional models. It just takes the drive to do things differently.
Your dad was an environmentalist and naturalist. He had a deep respect for the planet and its delicate balance. Can you speak to this passion of his?
Dad often said that when we talk about saving the planet, what we mean is that we have to save our own existence on it. The Earth still has a long time to go before it crashes into the sun, but in the meantime, it might decide to shake the human race off like a rash. He had great faith in humanity and what we are capable of as a species.
I think a big part of his love for the planet stemmed from his love of people, but he also recognised the damage we are causing with our self-centeredness. He was a believer in Holism — that we are all interconnected and while we each exist independently, we depend upon the health of the whole. In order for life to thrive on Earth we have to take care of it.
In 2016 he contributed to a book by the Genius 100 Foundation celebrating 100 years of Einstein’s theory of relativity. It features 100 living geniuses, of which he was one (he is now a “Genius Inspiratus,” which I think is beautiful).
He wrote: “The lesson we most need to learn is that there is more to life on Earth than human beings, and more to being human than self-interest. Our futures all depend on learning this lesson by heart.”
The lesson we most need to learn is that there is more to life on Earth than human beings, and more to being human than self-interest. Our futures all depend on learning this lesson by heart.
Imagine if… is a call to arms for a revolution for a global reset of our social systems. How can this be accomplished?
The systems we often take for granted: political systems, education systems, healthcare systems, how we structure our companies, the way our cities are designed, etc. — are all human made systems.
Over centuries we have created them to suit our purposes, to solve our problems or facilitate advancements. The problem is that as a species we have progressed to the point that many of our systems are now outdated or obsolete entirely.
The good news about human systems is that because we created them, we can re-create them, and at this point in our evolution we urgently need to. To do this we have to harness our creativity to a more compassionate and sustainable vision of the world we want to live in, and the lives we hope to lead.
The beauty of the phrase “imagine if…” is that it is open ended. It is provocative rather than prescriptive, and endlessly adaptable. A primary goal of the book is to empower people to re-imagine our world for the better, so that we can begin to create a future for us all.
Imagine if… says that education must be revolutionized from the ground up and there is a natural ecosystem of responsibilities in creating change and identifies teachers, principals, policy makers, children and young people, and parents as the frontline. Is there a way for these sometimes-divergent groups with different goals to work together?
Absolutely, and they must work together. Education is a complex, adaptive system — there are multiple systems within the system, which constantly interact with each other. Without this communication, the system breaks down.
A big step in creating a healthy dynamic between groups is to align, so that they all share a common goal– and ultimately the primary goal of an education system must be to enable its students to understand the world around them and the talents within them, so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens.
Real power is with the people. By recognising that and by nurturing compassionate collaboration, we can redesign and rebuild our ‘normal’ in a way that is fit for purpose — for both our wellbeing as a species, and the wellbeing of the planet we call home.
Get the book, Imagine If . . .: Creating a Future for Us All by Sir Ken Robinson PhD and Kate Robinson. Published by Penguin Books, March 1, 2022.