Most political leaders seem to have something to say about education these days. President Obama outlined some of his thoughts recently when he greeted kids back to school with a "be responsible" message. One of his themes was that all children have talents they should strive to develop: "Every single one of you has something that you're good at," he said. "Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That's the opportunity an education can provide."
The president could well have been reading from a script supplied by educationist Sir Kenneth Robinson who has been pushing for years for educators to encourage students to pursue a passion in learning.
During an interview on the Australian television program, The 7.30 Report, Sir Kenneth summed up his views when he said that people need to love what they do. "An awful lot of people who did well after school didn't do well in school," he said. He offered the example of a music class in Liverpool that had half of The Beatles in it -- both Paul McCartney and George Harrison -- whose talents were never noticed.
"If you can find that -- a talent and a passion," he says, "well that's to say you never work again. And it is true, I think, that our current education systems are simply not designed to help people do that. In fact an awful lot of people go through education and never discover anything they're good at all."
Sir Kenneth was promoting his latest book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (Viking Publishing), which looks at the lives of a number of highly successful people whose talents went unnoticed at school.
He points out that it isn't that these people were born as celebrities. "They achieved some celebrity because of pursuing their own particular talent and their passion," he said. "And I do think we all have that in us. The people achieve their best when they first tune into their natural aptitudes -- and lots of people I have interviewed aren't musicians, they're mathematicians, they're business leaders, they're teachers, they're broadcasters -- they've found this thing that they completely get."
Sir Kenneth knows more than most about exploiting talents. Interviewed on television, from the waist up he cuts a strong, impressive figure. It is only when you see him shuffle across a stage to deliver a speech that you get any hint that he is severely disabled -- due to childhood polio. Although Sir Kenneth is barely able to walk, it has not stopped him from becoming one of the most influential people on the planet. His list of achievements would easily fill this article. He has headed some of the most influential educational bodies around the world and his opinions are sought by governments and corporations alike. He has produced reports for the UK Government, the Council of Europe, and government bodies in the United States. And thanks to his sharp wit, he is one of the most sought-after speakers in the world.
Where did this Liverpool boy -- one of seven children from a struggling working-class family -- get the inspiration that has propelled him to the top? He says it came from his family, particularly his father who became a quadriplegic after an industrial accident, but still continued to have an "active" life and to convince him that he should not allow his disability to define him.
After gaining a PhD from the University of London in 1981, Sir Kenneth was appointed to head The Arts in Schools Project between 1985 and 1989, and in 1998 he was chosen by the British government to chair the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education. Throughout the many roles he has played since then his constant theme has been to emphasise the key importance of fostering creativity and imagination among young people.
It is a theme he has pursued in several books, including Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative (Wiley & Sons) and The Arts In Schools (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation).
Sir Kenneth says he believes that getting the best from kids in schools is about understanding the way they think, as well as what it is they are supposed to be thinking about. He says it distresses him that most education systems have a hierarchy with maths, science and languages at the top and humanities and the arts somewhere near the bottom.
He says that the problem is that when money gets short, when politicians talk about tightening belts and raising standards, "they always focus on these apparently top subjects of maths and science and languages".
Although he accepts that these are very important subjects, he empasises that subjects like music, dance, art and poetry -- "all of those things which speak to the nature of what it is to be a human being" -- are important as well.
"A lot of the work I've done hasn't been to argue against sciences and maths," he says, "but to say we need a balance here. Some kids really excel in mathematics and some don't. And they should have the opportunity to do other things, not as a default, but as an entitlement. Because what ends up happening is we get this narrow focus ... some of our greatest scientists have been inspired by the arts and some of our best artists work on deeply scientific principles."
At the heart of Sir Kenneth's approach is an acknowledgement of individual talent and ways of inspiring it. He says we need to get back to what it is that drives people to learn and achieve in the first place.
"If we know anything about education," he says, "it's all about individuals, it's personal. I can't think there are any kids who get out of bed in the morning wondering what they can do to raise their province's reading standards. It's about energising them. I think the problem often is that politicians think it's like bailing out the auto industry or like refining a manufacturing process. And it's not. It's about cultivating individual passions and talents. And if we don't get that right, nothing else will ever work...
"What I would like to see is politicians giving teachers room to breathe and do the job they're being paid for. And instead, what they aim to do is to try to make education teacher-proof, as if it's all machine minding."
You wonder if the current crop of political leaders, Obama included, have this sort of thing in mind when they preach about the importance of education. For the sake of the next generation, you can only hope they do.