Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education

One of the most influential voices in education shares how to transform the nation’s troubled educational system.

Home » Book Summaries » Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education

Karsen: From The Parent’s Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up by Sir Ken Robinson, PhD and Lou Aronica

In this title, the authors present a revolutionary reassessment of how to educate our children and young people. We’ll discuss how to bring the joyfulness, creativity, and love of learning back and inspire teachers, parents, and policymakers to rethink the real nature and purpose of education.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, who are the authors, and what inspired this book?

Vincent: Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is a writer, international speaker, and education advisor. He’s taught at the University of Warwick and advised the UK government on arts in schools. He is one of the world’s most influential voices in education, and his 2006 TED talk “How Schools Kill Creativity” is the most-watched presentation ever.

Lou Aronica is an American editor and publisher who’s written four novels and is the co-author of several works of nonfiction.

In this title, they focus the study of creativity and human potential on one of the most critical issues of our time: how to transform the nation’s troubled educational system.

Karsen: By human nature, all children love to learn and explore. So why do so many children dread school?

Vincent: To answer this question we should look back at the history of formal education. The conventional education system we know was a result of the need to deliver highly standardized knowledge to young people so they could work in factories. Beginning the Industrial Revolution, modern schools were formed to shape the needs of industry. And the need then was for workers to have some basic skills like the ability to read and do simple math and understand technical information.

Karsen: So mass education was organized solely to produce useful labor for factories. And, since industrial production relies on conformity, compliance, and linear processes, was education based on these too?

Vincent: Yes, schools themselves were designed like factories. This design is still in place today to make the nation’s workforce internationally competitive by holding education to firm guidelines and standards. This is called the standards movement. Schools give preference to teaching STEM or science, technology, engineering, and math subjects, regardless of a student’s strengths or interests. It’s structured like an efficient factory, setting out exactly what students of a particular grade should learn and how they should learn it. While their progress is assessed through standardized testing.

Karsen: It clearly worked for preparing workers for the workforce, so what’s the argument against standardized education?

Vincent: Robinson and Aronica argue that overly standardized education is highly problematic because humans can’t be standardized. They give an example; if you gave a brand new, unknown device to several different friends, you’d find that they all approach the object a little differently. Some of them would start by reading the manual, while others would search the internet for information, and still, others would simply turn it on and play with it. The point is that like your friends, schoolchildren don’t learn the same way, yet schools treat them as if they do. For example, students are taught by sitting in class and listening to teachers explain, even though this may not fit their personal learning styles. The authors argue that with what science knows about human development, not all students learn at the same level in all subjects, at the same age. Yet, all students are grouped by their age, not their skill levels.

Karsen: Given those points, it’s not surprising that the standards movement has failed to improve the outcome of education. How do the authors explain this in terms of the current day troubled education system?

Vincent: They say an education that’s based almost exclusively on exercises and tests, discourages students’ creativity and leads them to become disengaged.

Karsen: That makes sense for is why children resist going to school because it’s ‘boring.’ Disengaged students don’t learn well or see value in what they learn.

Vincent: Not only does this deteriorate their love of learning, but as you said, they don’t learn as effectively. The authors reference 2012 statistics that 17% of US high school graduates couldn’t read or write fluently. Also, 21% of everyone between the ages of 18 and 24 couldn’t even point out the Pacific Ocean on a map.

Karsen: Wow. That shows that the education system is definitely due for an upgrade. What about students with skills outside of the standard academic areas, like those who are great with their hands or are gifted musicians? How are they affected by the standards movement?

Vincent: They might also become discouraged by the constant assessments demanded by standardized education. They may retain the least value from their education and an extreme result would be they end up jobless or alienated by society.  One of the most important points the authors note from their research is that students from underprivileged backgrounds are even more likely to fail in the modern education system. And even if they do succeed, these days a college degree is no guarantee of a job.

Karsen: Clearly something has to change, what do the authors propose?

Vincent: As the authors compare the standardized education system to a factory, they compare a new education system to organic farming as a solution. Think of the standardized system as a factory farm, as long as the outputs are there, the pigs grow fast enough, factory farmers don’t care if the animals are sick or the farm is harming the environment. This exemplifies how mass education is focused on test results and the number of graduates produced.

Organic farming is based on 4 principles: Health, Ecology, Fairness, and Care. For example, a system based on health, ecology, fairness, and care is designed to improve the lives of everyone involved and work in harmony with nature and the environment. And, since organic farming is founded on fairness and care, it strives to provide good living conditions for both present and future generations.

Karsen: Organic farming is the better option but how do the authors apply this to education?

Vincent: Applying these principles to education means organic schools care about the development of the whole student into a physically, emotionally, and intellectually healthy person. Another key distinction is that organic education also relies on the school community environment to foster every student’s abilities.

Karsen: Can you give an example of how an organic school functions?

Vincent: Yes, the authors look at Grange Primary School in Nottingham. This school is run like a town by its students. It has a council, a newspaper, and even a food market. As students work at the school and interact with one another, they learn a wide range of abilities from social skills to mathematics.

Karsen: Wow so they learn how to function within society and life post-school.

Vincent: Exactly. And it is fair because it appreciates all students, not just those with academic gifts. In addition, teachers and mentors treat students compassionately to provide the best conditions for their development. They really care for the students.

Karsen: Although that sounds ideal, what if you’re a teacher at a school that’s not yet so creatively organic? What can every teacher do to ensure their students learn while remaining curious and growing their creativity?

Vincent: The authors emphasize the evolutionary fact that children are natural-born learners. Think of babies for example. They are so eager to explore the world that they grab any new thing they can reach. They also soak up language, often becoming fluent by the time they’re two or three.

This curiosity for learning goes beyond childhood too. The authors site an experiment done by a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University. He installed a computer in the wall of an Indian slum and observed children’s reactions to it. The interface was only displayed in English, which none of them knew, but within just a few hours the kids figured out how to use the console to play games and record music.

Karsen: This is a great illustration of inherent curiosity, but if learning has been shown to take place simply by nature, what is the role of teachers?

Vincent: The authors say it’s up to the teachers to foster this curiosity and guide them. It may help to think of the teacher, or parent, as a gardener. They can’t force the children to develop, but they can nurture their natural inclination toward growth.

Karsen: Could you give specific steps or examples of how to nurture the natural tendency to learn?

Vincent: Yes, as a teacher and guide, first get the students to engage by leveraging their natural curiosity, creativity and eagerness to master new skills. One way to do this is by addressing students’ interests. For example, someone who’s obsessed with baseball will appreciate physics if they can use it to calculate the best way to hit a curveball.

A teacher’s expectations and relationships with the students are also key. That’s because a student will work much harder if their beloved teacher expects her to.

Beyond that, great teachers also understand that different students require different kinds of teaching methods. For example, a basketball coach might realize that one student needs to demonstrate a shot rather than just describe it. Catering toward the individual is vital.

And finally, teachers need to empower their students to believe in themselves by showing them that they can deal with difficult and uncertain situations as long as they remain calm, confident and creative.

Karsen: That is so helpful in understanding how to execute the role of gardener. Going back to the content schools should be teaching, what do the authors think curriculum looks like in the reformed education system?

Vincent: The authors say that when approaching education, it’s important for us to consider what exactly we want our kid to learn.

Karsen: Like how the education system was originally set up to tailor the needs of the Industrial Revolution.

Vincent: Right. The authors say until now, we’ve answered this question with a never-ending list of subjects from French to algebra. But to guide students in later life, we need to teach them competencies, not subjects. They say this because the future is uncertain and there’s no way to know if the subjects we teach students today will help them in the real world tomorrow. So, a better strategy is to teach skills that will enable them to learn what they need while dealing with whatever social or economic situations they might encounter.

Karsen: It seems simple in theory but how would schools implement this and do so successfully?

Vincent: Robinson and Aronica accounted for that question. They say it just requires schools to teach students 8 core competencies. This is what they call the 8 Cs.

The first is curiosity, which we already know kids have a lot of. Here the school’s job is to develop the natural curiosity of children by encouraging them to pay attention to the world and ask questions about what they find.

The next necessary aspect for schools to foster is creativity, or the ability to form new ideas and put them into practice. After all, from the invention of written language to the rise of the internet, creativity has been central to all cultural progress. The authors make a good point that it’s only going to become more important when the students of today face ever more complex problems that they’ll only be able to solve creatively.

The third competency relates to the information overload we face today, which demands the ability to separate facts from opinions and relevant information from irrelevant noise. So, it’s essential to teach students criticism, or the desire to question the data they observe and draw their own conclusions.

Karsen: That is 100% something I agree is very important in our digital age. Being able to process information and consume content with skepticism is something that I wish I learned sooner.

Vincent: Me too. The final 5 competencies help students become better team members and citizens. The authors reference the functions of education to ensure we get what we expect and deserve out of school. The 4 main functions of education are: the personal benefit to the students by helping them build on their individual talents. Second, it’s meant to boost the economy by generating innovative, well-qualified new workers. Third, it helps young people understand their culture and appreciate the cultures of others. And fourth, to produce politically engaged, educated, and compassionate citizens.

Karsen: And I’m guessing these functions won’t be fulfilled without the last 5 competencies?

Vincent: Yes, that’s what the authors say. The next core competency - the 5th C -  is the ability to communicate. After all, the ability to express oneself is key and it goes far beyond writing skills. It also includes the ability to speak clearly and confidently in public and convey information through things like art and music.

The next C is the ability to collaborate, not simply compete.

Karsen: Looking back, all those tedious group projects did prepare me for situations working with difficult people.

Vincent: True, that’s why the authors say that good schools have students work on team projects where they learn to organize, compromise and resolve conflicts as a group.

Next is to teach students compassion, or the ability to feel empathy for the feelings of others. That’s because an empathetic child won’t bully others since they know how terrible it is to be bullied and wouldn’t want to feel that pain themself.

It’s also important to teach children composure through meditation and other mindfulness practices that help them connect with their feelings while developing inner balance.

And finally, while conventional schools might teach the theoretical aspects of politics, like how elections work, what’s really essential is to teach citizenship. Doing so will help students oppose injustice and use politics to benefit their communities.

Karsen: Exactly like the earlier example of Grange Primary School, where the students run their own town council. How can other schools replicate this new education structure?

Vincent: The authors acknowledge that implementing this takes a community. For example, take the role of a principal who wants to implement reform. Great principals also work hard to invite everyone in the school to share their ideas, which also helps to build community and show people that they matter.

Karsen: But principals aren’t the only ones who can shape the vision of education; policymakers can also help improve our schools.

Vincent: Yes and the authors say this is true but policymakers need to collaborate with schools and communities to give the school the freedom and resources it needs to transform itself. It really does take a village to raise a child.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this title is that conventional education is all about maximum efficiency, and it’s not working. After all, humans are individuals, and our teaching methods should be personalized too. We need an education system that fosters each pupil’s natural curiosity and skills. As a parent, you can be a guide for your child outside the classroom to foster learning from their experiences and the world around them.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki.

Vincent: And I’m Vincent Phamvan.

Karsen: We’ll see you next time.


Ken Robinson is one of the world’s most influential voices in education, and his 2006 TED Talk on the subject is the most viewed in the organization’s history. Now, the internationally recognized leader on creativity and human potential focuses on one of the most critical issues of our time: how to transform the nation’s troubled educational system.

At a time when standardized testing businesses are raking in huge profits when many schools are struggling, and students and educators everywhere are suffering under the strain, Robinson points the way forward. He argues for an end to our outmoded industrial educational system and proposes a highly personalized, organic approach that draws on today’s unprecedented technological and professional resources to engage all students, develop their love of learning, and enable them to face the real challenges of the twenty-first century.

Filled with anecdotes, observations, and recommendations from professionals on the front line of transformative education, case histories, and groundbreaking research—and written with Robinson’s trademark wit and engaging style—Creative Schools will inspire teachers, parents, and policymakers alike to rethink the real nature and purpose of education.

Leave a Comment