Sir Ken Robinson – The Education Economy

It has often struck me that a conflict of interest exists across education systems, state or private, where the awarding bodies of high stakes examinations are also owned by the very same companies who sell the content, that must be learned, to pass the test.


Such an end to end business model would make a lot of sense for the entrepreneurially minded and quite possibly create very large enterprises as a consequence. The “big edu” of the learning sector, if you don’t mind indulging my conspiratorial whimsy for a moment longer.  Imagine if automotive companies were owned by the oil industry. We would still be driving around in cars that did 5 miles to the gallon with no sign of a real commitment to clean, sustainable energy in sight. End to end business models, cartels and monopolies tend to be bad for innovation and progress. Even Apple doesn’t own all the companies who make apps for it’s platforms.


A similar conflict in the education sector, if it existed, would surely mean that change would be slow coming and that our schools would be held in a kind of persistent groundhog day for, say, 200 years or more. Should there be a shift in technology then no doubt these advances would be deployed to maintain the status quo, whilst reducing cost and improving efficiency. Perhaps the content could be digitised and fed to children using advanced computer algorithms that search for patterns in the data trail of its usage so that there would be a feedback loop to ensure every kid past a standardised test. Teachers optional.


My musing on this subject may seem somewhat fanciful but we have undoubtedly entered a new age of “evidence based practice” where the data can not lie. I’ve often thought that “evidence based practice” was a clever slogan whose rhetorical effect was to discredit  opposition. After all, who could possibly argue with the evidence and the data or that practice could be based on intuition rather than “the facts.”?


Well that’s an argument for another day but whilst interviewing Sir Ken Robinson in Los Angeles for Learning {Re}imagined we discussed what we agreed was a “tyranny of testing“. The pre-occupation with high stakes testing at young ages, when kids are in high school or earlier, seems patently detrimental to learning and, of course, teaching, providing a false metric for the success of a school or indeed the nations that depend on them.


Here is an excerpt from my interview. Robinson draws parallels between “big education”, “big pharma” and even “big tobacco”, suggesting that there is gold in maintaining the status quo for those who stand to benefit financially. He says:


I do think we live under a tyranny of testing. I think there’s no question about that. It’s not totally benign. An interesting parallel to me is the drug industry. Depression is now a worldwide epidemic. It’s anticipated that within about 20 years, according to the World Health Organisation, I’m told, that depression will be the single largest cause of mortality among human populations. Depression.


Well, the drug companies profit hugely from depression and all that kind of related, ancillary commercial interests. It doesn’t seem to me that they’re very keen to cure depression. Why would they? It’s not that the people who produce acid reflux pills out trying to cure acid reflux. They want you to keep taking it, so you can keep buying their products.


Like cigarette manufacturers aren’t trying to wean you off cigarettes. There’s a kind of benign view of testing which is that it fulfils necessary purposes in relation to keeping track of standards, accountability in providing certification and qualifications for progress through the system. There’s a benign way of looking at them saying, well, it meets those important purposes in education, and there’s something to be said about that. What’s also true is it’s a massively profitable enterprise for all publishers. It’s one of the engines of the education economy.

Have a look and tell me what you think



gbm-faceGraham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.