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What Sir Ken Robinson Can Teach You about Thinking and Reading Critically

Despite what we know today about multiple intelligences, dominant learning styles, learning disabilities, attention spans, and neurological and developmental differences, much of education expects students to respond and behave the same way.

From standardized testing to uniform assignments and in-class lessons, sameness is our normal. And it’s not just what and how we teach in school, it’s how we expect students to progress during and after school. In fact, the accepted formula for success in America also resembles a straight line: graduate high school, go to college, get a job. And if you're not the exception to this rule of progression, I bet you know someone who is. 

There the well-known stories, remarkable stories of CEOs, like Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college, athletes, like Lebron James who skip college to play professional sports, and even Nobel Peace Prize winners, like Malala, who change the world before they finish high school.

If you’ve ever wondered if there’s more than one path to greatness, you’re not alone. But if you’ve ever wondered if we’re worse off for considering these stories exceptions rather than examples, then you should meet Sir Ken Robinson.

In Robinson’s viral TEDtalk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” he examines how the structure of traditional schooling and the preconceived notions around intelligence and achievement are keeping students from fully embracing the complexities of their own talent.

In fact, what the Lebron James and Steve Jobs and Malalas of this world demonstrate is that talent, even wisdom, is beyond age or prerequisite. If the trajectory of high school graduation to college graduation to a lifetime of success is not necessarily the route, while high school graduation and college graduation is sometimes the route, what do the stories of James, Jobs, and Malala teach us?

Well, in its simplest form, we can see they are both routes. In fact, Robinson says the ability to imagine alternative solutions to the same problem (How will I become a happy, healthy and productive adult?) is called divergent thinking, an “essential aspect of creativity.” Robinson argues divergent thinking is sorely undervalued in traditional  education and urges educators and parents and frankly all of us to press for reform, and it is certainly needed. 

Divergent thinking is one of the core abilities writers need in order to reach their audience. From selecting a strong introduction (What are some great ways to start my story?) to writing a poetry analysis (What are the literal and figurative meanings of this line of poetry?) writers practice how to think through possibilities in order to write with conviction about their topics.

What Robinson calls divergent thinking is much like slowing down and exploring possibilities when we read. In our race to complete research or to finish a book, this micro-thinking gets lost, and for many of us that means finishing the reading but not absorbing the importance or meaning of what they’ve read. The work went into our brain (we read) but we didn’t have a conversation with it.

In Robinson’s talk, 98% of kindergartners in a study conducted by NASA scored in the genius level in a test designed to measure creativity of rocket scientists and engineers. As the test famously reports, these same students, who were measured again and again throughout their education, saw their creative problem solving scores plummet to 12% by the time they graduated high school, suggesting more schooling means less ingenuity. As discouraging as these results are, I believe that adopting the mindset of the small child can help us foster the very imaginative skills we need to grow as readers and writers as adults.

Below are strategies anyone can use to deepen engagement and strengthen comprehension. Try these simple techniques to improve your skills with new reading, which will set you up for better writing.

DIVERGENT THINKING DRILLS FOR BETTER READERS AND WRITERS

BOOK COVERS

Always consider the book cover of new reading. Since the cover often contains images, think about your own associations with those images. Before reading, ask yourself what you think the book will be about based on the cover? As you read, negotiate your preconceived notions with the actual content of the story.

TITLES

In the age of electronic and audio books, you may not have the luxury of a cover. This next divergent thinking drill can help you with or without an image. Consider the title of the book, article, poem, etc. Before you read, jot down:

  1. a) the literal meaning (s) of these words
  2. b) your associations with these words.

Then, as you read, pay attention to any ways the title manifests in the story. Also, can you find the very place the author says or implies the title? Typically, this title reference identifies an important theme or motif the author addresses in the story.

PASSAGES

As you read, pause after a few pages. Jot down 5 examples of words, images, or phrases that strike you—cause you to feel (marvel) or question (why/how). Then select 2-3 to explore by:

  1. Identifying their literal meaning. For example, what is a “dark shadow” literally? It’s the dark image that trails behind us when we’re in the sun. It’s a place where no light shines.
  2. Then, explore how the author is using the image of the dark shadow in the passage. For example, the dark shadow trails behind the main character not only because he’s in the sun but because it’s a side effect of the decisions the character’s made in the story that he doesn’t want to see. These decisions live in a kind of ‘blind spot,’ where no light shines.
  3. Finally, connect your example to a bigger part of the story—a theme, symbol, or motif. In the dark shadow example, the image could support a theme like “the past is never over” or “unexamined history can still hurt us.”

CONVERSATIONS

As you move through your reading, jot down when you hear you voice asking “why?” or “how?” 

Why is Von Rumpel in Antony’s Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See obsessed with finding the elusive diamond?

Why does Atticus in Harper Lee’s Catcher in the Rye take Tom Robinson’s case when he knows he will lose?

Why does the community in The Giver eliminate color from society? 

If you’ve read any of these novels, you’ll recognize how these questions naturally arise as you move through the reading. But what you might not know is the answers to these questions highlight recurring themes in the books. Is that why I wrote them down as I was reading? No. I wrote them down because I was curious. But by exploring various answers to each of these questions, I would not only be practicing Robinson’s divergent thinking, I would become more engaged and prepared for a discussion, presentation, or book review, not to mention transforming my intellect through philosophical inquiry and growing my language IQ by noticing the variety of meaning housed in the tiniest words and phrases.

As you moved through formal education, reading and writing assignments became routine. It may seem that today there is no time to slow down and catch the abundance of your thoughts in a net. However, skipping intellectual engagement—a kind of reader’s mindfulness—is more like videotaping an important experience rather than actually living it. 

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