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Ken Robinson, Who Preached Creativity in Teaching, Dies at 70


Ken Robinson, a dynamic, influential proponent of stimulating the creativity of students that has too often been squelched by schools in the service of conformity, died on Aug. 21 at his home in London. He was 70.

His daughter, Kate Robinson, said the cause was cancer.

A British-born teacher, author and lecturer, Mr. Robinson viewed large school systems as sclerotic, squeezing the creative juices out of children by overemphasizing standardized testing and subjects like mathematics and science over the arts and humanities.

“There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics,” he said during a TED Talk in 2006 that has been downloaded 67 million times, the most in the lecture organization’s history. “I think math is very important, but so is dance. Children dance all the time, if they’re allowed to.”

But, he added, “Truthfully, what happens is, as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads.”

An often humorous performer whose renown expanded after the TED Talk — the first of three he delivered — Mr. Robinson consulted with governments and schools around the world, conducted workshops and wrote books, including “Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative” (2001) and “You, Your Child and School: Navigate Your Way to the Best Education” (2018), with Lou Aronica.

He preached that schools needed not only to broaden their curriculums but also to support teachers as creative professionals and to personalize learning by breaking large classrooms — artificial environments that invite boredom, he said — into small groups.

“Kids will take a chance,” he said in the TED Talk. “If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong.” But, he added, “By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity.”

Mr. Robinson insisted that creativity can be taught — not through direct instruction, but by giving students opportunities, inspiration, encouragement and mentoring.

The educator Salman Khan said that his popular online website Khan Academy draws on Mr. Robinson’s teachings in part by personalizing curriculums to meet individual students’ needs.

“He opened our eyes to an educational system that isn’t fair to a lot of kids and holds back their potential,” Mr. Khan said in a phone interview. “He helped a lot of educators, including myself, say, ‘Hey, look, this is a time to change.’ ”

Kenneth Robinson was born on March 4, 1950, in Liverpool, England, the fifth of seven children of James and Ethel (Allen) Robinson. His father ran a pub, was a longshoreman and played semipro soccer. His mother was a homemaker.

When Ken was 4, he contracted polio and was hospitalized for eight months, dashing dreams of one day playing soccer professionally. Five years later, his father was paralyzed from the neck down when he was struck by a derrick. (Mr. Robinson started using a cane 10 years ago because of complications of polio.)

After leaving the hospital, he attended a school for children with disabilities for several years, then enrolled in a staid grammar school, where a rigorous curriculum did not include much art, drama or music — an educational experience that would inform his later career. But at a second school he attended he found excitement in a group that staged plays, one of which the teacher who helped the students asked him to direct.

“I thought: ‘I can’t direct the play. I’ve never directed a play’” Mr. Robinson said in an interview with Top Hat, an education blog, in 2018. “I expected the others to agree, but they all nodded and said, ‘Yes, would you do it?’ Given the unanimous vote of confidence, I agreed and loved the whole process.”

Mr. Robinson graduated from Bretton Hall College of Education, in Yorkshire, in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in education and drama and English. In subsequent years he pursued a Ph.D at the Institute of Education at University College London, wrote a report on arts in schools for a Portuguese foundation, directed an effort to develop arts education in England and Wales, and headed a youth arts development agency in Britain.

In 1989, Mr. Robinson began 12 years as a professor of arts education at the University of Warwick. He chaired a national education commission whose 1999 report was a clarion call to create a national strategy focusing on creative and cultural education.

The report argued, in what reads like Mr. Robinson’s voice, that the national debate on education in Britain had been expressed as a series of failed dichotomies — “as a choice between the arts or the sciences; the core curriculum or the broad curriculum; between academic standards or creativity; freedom or authority in teaching methods.”

His call to use the arts as an engine for educational creativity derived from a historical perspective. Public education, he asserted, had been built to meet the needs of 19th-century industrialization, giving priority to academic subjects that would be most useful in the workplace.

“So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that,” he said during the TED Talk. “Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist. Benign advice — now, profoundly mistaken.”

Mr. Robinson was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Marie-Therese (Watts) Robinson, an educator who is known as Terry; his son, James; his sister, Lena Gannon; a granddaughter; and hs brothers Keith, Derek, John, Ian and Neil, who played for the Everton soccer club in England’s Premier League in the 1970s.

Kate Robinson, who ran her father’s London office, said he had recognized that school systems would resist changing curriculums but had hoped that teachers would be moved to action by his philosophy.

“He’d tell teachers that they are the system, and that if you change your approach to teaching you’ve changed the system,” she said in an interview.

Mr. Robinson served on the advisory board of Blue School, an independent private school in Lower Manhattan that promotes developing creativity in the young. It was founded by the original members of the performance troupe Blue Man Group and their wives. Although they did not know Mr. Robinson when they opened the school in 2008, he became a powerful presence.

“He has made us so much better,” said Renee Rolleri, the school’s chairman. “His work has guided how we educate the whole child. We all believe deeply in the arts as a means of expression for students. He’s informed and validated our work.”

Brandon Busteed, an executive of the educational services company Kaplan North America, said in an interview, “I’ve heard from countless teachers over the years who reacted to his talks, and they say he was their inspiration to think outside the system and outside the box.

“What he provoked in teachers” he added, “is that just because a system or principal prevents you from creating a more creative opportunity in the classroom, they could still do it.”

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