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Transform Education? Yes, We Must

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As the new members of 111th Congress wander through the building looking for their desks and lockers, it may feel for some of them like the first day at school. They should hold on to that feeling. One of the biggest challenges they face is sorting out American education. Given the recession, the dire situation in the Middle East and the general state of the planet, education is probably not at the top of their to-do list. It must be soon. Transforming education has to be at the root of everything the new administration hopes to achieve, and nothing it does in the short term will be sustainable otherwise.

President-elect Obama swayed the nation on a promise of change and the renewal of the American Dream. I'm sure he knows that the dream itself has to change. The future for the American Dream is not the materialist coma that Edward Albee parodied in the 1960s, for which we're now receiving the check. It has to be the wide awake dream of people like Martin Luther King -- a passionate vision of social equality and personal possibility, of economic responsibility and cultural respect. Realizing this dream means thinking in radically different ways about ourselves and our children, about our relationships with the earth itself and about the billions of other people who are clinging to it with us.

All of this is the work of education. Not the sort of education we have now. The present system was designed for 19th century industrialism and it's overheating in a dangerous way. Reforming education isn't enough. The real task is transformation. America urgently needs systems of education that live and breathe in the 21st century. This is a large task and it can't be put off.

My family and I moved to America almost eight years ago. Before we moved I remember being told that Americans don't get irony. I never believed that, but I had the proof it wasn't true when I came across the education bill, No Child Left Behind. Whoever thought of that title clearly gets irony. The fact is this legislation is actually leaving millions of children behind. I can see that's not a very attractive name for an education bill -- "Millions of Children Left Behind" -- but it's closer to the truth and less ironic.

President-elect Obama has said that NCLB was well intentioned, and it was. He's said too that one of the major problems in implementing it has been the lack of federal funding, and it has. But he knows too that the problems with NCLB are much deeper than money. The whole premise of the act is deeply flawed. It's based on the fatal idea that to face the future schools just have to do better what they did in the past: they simply have to get back to basics and raise standards. Schools, and policy makers, should get back to basics. They should aim to raise standards too. Why would you lower them? But what are the basics now, and which standards should apply?

I said that the premise of the act is flawed. Actually there are three flawed premises. First, NCLB promotes a catastrophically narrow idea of intelligence and ability. The result is a terrible waste of talent and motivation in countless students. Second, it confuses standards with standardizing. The result is that schools across the country are becoming dreary and homogenized. And third, it assumes that education can be improved without the professional creativity and personal passion of teachers. The result is that too many good teachers are streaming out of the very schools that urgently need them to stay. All of this is holding America back in a world that's moving faster than ever.

To face the future, America needs to celebrate and develop the diverse talents of all of its people -- young and old alike. It needs to cultivate creativity and innovation, systematically and with confidence, in business, in culture and in rebuilding its post industrial communities. It needs to provide leadership at home and abroad in promoting deeper forms of cultural understanding and cooperation. These are the real basics. Basic to all of them is a different view of human talent and ability, and of the real conditions in which people flourish.

I'm always struck by how many adults have no idea what their real talents are, or whether they have any at all. Many people just do what they do with no particular passion or commitment to it. I know others who genuinely love what they do; who would probably do it for free if they had to, and can't imagine doing anything else. Understanding what makes the difference is essential for transforming education, business, and communities to meet the real challenges of the twenty-first century.

I've lost track of the numbers of brilliant people I've met, in all fields, who didn't do well at school. Some did of course, but others only really succeeded, and found their real talents in the process, once they'd recovered from their education. This is largely because the current systems of public education were never designed to develop everyone's talents. They were intended to promote certain types of ability in the interests of the industrial economies they served.

Economically and culturally, the future of America and of the rest of world lies now in a different direction. It will depend on the vitality, diversity and creativity of all its people. The good news is that there are many strong, practical and highly effective new forms of education that point the way. In future blogs, I'll say what some of the best of these are and the basic principles on which they're based.

The wholesale transformation of education is at the heart of the changes that are needed. It's not something that Congress, or the state governments, can get round to later on. If they put this off for too long, they may find that that they and the whole country are left behind. That would be too ironic.

Ken Robinson's new book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything is published today by Viking.

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