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Futurist, Author Sir Ken Robinson Energizes Gonzaga with Ideas to Advance Education, Enhance Culture

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By Peter Tormey

SPOKANE, Wash. – Internationally recognized futurist Sir Ken Robinson, among the world’s top thinkers for his popular books on harnessing creativity to improve education, energized a crowd of Gonzaga University and community leaders downtown recently, sparking renewed discourse on topics including organizational culture and pedagogical practices.

Robinson authored “The Element,” which has been translated into 21 languages, and The New York Times best-seller “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.” His latest book is a 10th anniversary edition of his classic work on creativity and innovation, “Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative” (Capstone/Wiley). In his Oct. 17 presentation at the Davenport Hotel, the Peabody Medal recipient offered glimpses into the changing role he believes higher education must play to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving, technologically driven world.

“For the future we have to at least begin to think radically differently about what is the role of the higher education system that was once devised, as many of them were, in old universities to meet the needs of developing clerisy,” said Robinson, Ph.D. What higher education needs, he said, is a deeper and more enlightened appreciation of the talents of students and academics, and “a willingness to radically rethink some of the institutional algorithms that we’ve become used to.”

The beating heart of a new and more effective approach to education, Robinson said, will focus on creativity and a renewed honoring of “interdisciplinarity” – aims that will require a severing of old habits of mind that have become taken for granted, generally, in the academy.

“I have great confidence in our ability to do it,” he said. “I don’t think, even if we get it right, that we can predict the future. What we can do, though, is to face it, and anticipate and recognize that the future lies as much within us as it does beyond us, that our ability to tackle these challenges depends on the extent to which we foment the depths of our own talents, and I think that’s part of the mission, or should be, for the future.”

Robinson said Gonzaga is among those “great communities” filled with people who collaborate to meet common purposes. Great academic communities are “organic, they’re not mechanistic, and many of our metaphors for education are mechanistic,” he said.

“What makes an institution like this great, what will keep it alive in the future, is the recognition that culture is a living process that evolves, and when I say great companies have gone out of being it’s because they failed to recognize the organic principle, which is that successful organisms live in synergy with their environment. They benefit the environment and they enrich the environment.”

Organisms die when they lose contact with their environment, he said.

“That happens all the time. What will keep Gonzaga alive is being sensitive to the changes happening around it while respecting the traditions that brought it to this place now,” Robinson said. “That, I think, requires a thoroughgoing review of the core culture that makes you what you are. Culture is an organic term, and in the end it always comes down to great leadership.”

IN AN INTERVIEW with Gonzaga University News Service and Gonzaga student media, Robinson touched on best pedagogical practices, saying promising work is emerging to show students may learn better when they are taught more by each other – an approach known as the “flipped classroom.” The idea, he said, is something “kindergarten teachers have always known.” Click image below to watch excerpts from the interview.

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He called “mindset” the single greatest obstacle to creating a culture of change in higher education to meet society’s changing needs.

Robinson discussed helping to design an innovative and highly interdisciplinary curriculum for a new performing arts school in Asia. Upon returning to the school 10 years later, he was surprised to find few signs of interdisciplinary work. When he asked the deans why, a dean attributed the school’s “traditions” precluded an interdisciplinary focus.

“And I said, ‘What traditions? It’s been only 10 years,’” Robinson recalled. “What he meant, of course, were the traditions he brought in his head from his previous institutions.”

The most critical ingredient in a recipe to optimize and promote creative organizational culture is people, Robinson said.

“Rather than reify them, we should see them as organic,” he said. “They’re like organisms, they’re breathing, living systems of people. They’re not components.”

Changed environments will change organizational behavior – for good or ill, he said, adding it’s difficult to overestimate the importance of leadership, which he described as the principal source of an organization’s DNA.

“I’ve seen fantastic institutions go under when the new leader came in who didn’t get it. And a really bad institution flourish when a new leader came,” he said. “You see it all the time in laboratories, businesses.”

Gonzaga’s leadership, he said, is exemplary under President Dr. Thayne McCulloh.

“You have, by the way, I know, a wonderful leader here in President (Thayne) McCulloh and great faculty. But the role of the leader in an organic culture, is not, I think, commanding control, it’s climate control. It’s creating conditions where people can flourish and do their best work not by commanding them but by facilitating them, and that, I think is what will take education forward.”

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