Eight years ago, British educator Ken Robinson gave a TED Talk on how schools stifle creativity by way of an education-industrial complex that manufactures university professors and shames the inventiveness out of children.
The talk is now at 27 million views — a full 8 million more than the next.
Let’s pull apart Robinson’s talk to see how he’s been able to pull heartstrings, open eyes, and stir souls at such a massive scale, revealing a handful of techniques that you can apply to your next presentation.
1. Understand your audience’s emotions — and speak to them.
In “Talk Like Ted,” his book that distills the secrets of the best TED Talks, Carmine Gallo says that you can’t just rely on a logical argument to be an engaging speaker. Rather, the way to a listener’s ear is through the heart, which is why the most effective public speakers — from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Adolph Hitler — had ridiculous levels of emotional intelligence.
Knowing this, Robinson grabs the listener by sketching out the unspoken tragedy of our education system: Kids lose their creativity because they’re scared out of being wrong.
What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original — if you’re not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity.
They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatised mistakes.
And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.
In a few seconds, Robinson has shown the scale of the problem — and gives a hint to how we might address it. Education is broken because it shames kids out of their creativity.
Here are the highlights in five minutes. The full talk is below.
2. Give the audience something they haven’t heard before.
Research into how the brain produces memories reveals that new events serve as ‘anchors’ for memory — when something surprises you, you remember it most.
Some speakers rely on props to be novel and thus memorable: Bill Gates released mosquitoes into a crowd when he wanted them to look up from the smartphones and pay attention to malaria.
But Robinson, the understated Englishman, relies on wit. He talks about how he grew up near Stratford-upon-Avon, home of William Shakespeare. And the Bard, too, was once a kid in danger of having the artist educated out of him.
Shakespeare being seven? I never thought of it. I mean, he was seven at some point. He was in somebody’s English class, wasn’t he? How annoying would that be? (Laughter) “Must try harder.” Being sent to bed by his dad, you know, to Shakespeare, “Go to bed, now,” to William Shakespeare, “and put the pencil down. And stop speaking like that. It’s confusing everybody.”
This works because we all know Shakespeare, even if we never made it through Macbeth. Robinson takes that familiarity and turns it on its head, yielding a surprising and memorable revelation. The greatest writer in the history of the English language had to navigate the obstacle course of the education system in order to find his craft — and then employ it, which is the message of “The Element,” a book of Robinson’s.
3. Tell a story.
At the close of his talk, Robinson tells the story of “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera” choreographer of Gillian Lynne, who provides a case study in the way most education systems hold children back — and how finding a pedagogical fit allows kids to become their most fully-formed adult selves.
Here’s the story Lynne told him over lunch one day: When she was in school in the ’30s, her school wrote to her saying that “We think Gillian has a learning disorder.”
She couldn’t sit still; she distracted other kids.
Heeding this, Lynne’s parents took her to see a specialist. Her mother told the doctor about all the things that were going wrong in school: her fidgeting, her always being late. So the doc tells Gillian that he needs to speak with mum privately — and before going out of the room, he turns the radio on.
“When they got out the room, he said to her mother, ‘Just stand and watch her,'” Robinson says. “And the minute they left the room, she said, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, ‘Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.'”
“I can’t tell you how wonderful it was,” Lynne said to Robinson. “We walked in this room and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.”
After that, Lynne went onto the Royal Ballet — and onwards.
“Lynne’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theatre productions in history; she’s given pleasure to millions; and she’s a multi-millionaire,” Robinson says. “Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.”
While he doesn’t say it explicitly, Robinson’s point is clear: The major problem with our education system is that we don’t allow for different kinds of learners.
By now, Robinson’s perspective has been related to many millions. All because he understood his audience’s emotions, gave them something new, and told them a killer story.
Watch the full talk below.
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