Originally from a working class Liverpool family, Robinson now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children.
Born in Liverpool, Merseyside, to James and Ethel Robinson, Robinson is one of seven children from a working-class background. One of his brothers, Neil, became a professional footballer for Everton, Swansea City and Grimsby Town. After an industrial accident, his father became quadriplegic. Robinson contracted polio at age four. He attended Margaret Beavan Special School due to the physical effects of polio then Liverpool Collegiate School (1961–1963), Wade Deacon Grammar School, Cheshire (1963–1968). He then studied English and drama (BEd) at Bretton Hall College of Education (1968–1972) and completed a PhD in 1981 at the University of London, researching drama and theatre in education.
From 1985 to 1988, Robinson was Director of the Arts in Schools Project, an initiative to develop the arts education throughout England and Wales. The project worked with over 2,000 teachers, artists and administrators in a network of over 300 initiatives and influenced the formulation of the National Curriculum in England. During this period, Robinson chaired Artswork, the UK’s national youth arts development agency, and worked as advisor to Hong Kong’s Academy for Performing Arts.
For twelve years, he was professor of education at the University of Warwick, and is now professor emeritus. He has received honorary degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design, Ringling College of Art and Design, the Open University and the Central School of Speech and Drama, Birmingham City University and the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. He has been honoured with the Athena Award of the Rhode Island School of Design for services to the arts and education; the Peabody Medal for contributions to the arts and culture in the United States, the LEGO Prize for international achievement in education, and the Benjamin Franklin Medal of the Royal Society of Arts for outstanding contributions to cultural relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. In 2005, he was named as one of Time/Fortune/CNN’s “Principal Voices”. In 2003, he was made Knight Bachelor by the Queen for his services to the arts. He speaks to audiences throughout the world on the creative challenges facing business and education in the new global economies.
In 1998, he led a UK commission on creativity, education and the economy and his report, All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education was influential. The Times said of it: “This report raises some of the most important issues facing business in the 21st century. It should have every CEO and human resources director thumping the table and demanding action”. Robinson is credited with creating a strategy for creative and economic development as part of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, publishing Unlocking Creativity, a plan implemented across the region and mentoring to the Oklahoma Creativity Project. In 1998, he chaired the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education.
In 2001, Robinson was appointed Senior Advisor for Education & Creativity at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which lasted at least until 2005.
A popular speaker at TED conferences, Robinson has given three presentations on the role of creativity in education, viewed via the TED website over 34 million times (2015). Robinson’s presentation Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity is the most watched TED talk of all time (2014). In April 2013, he gave a talk titled “How to escape education’s death valley”, in which he outlines three principles crucial for the human mind to flourish – and how current American education culture works against them. In 2005, Robinson was named as one of Principal Voices (A Time Magazine, Fortune, CNN joint initiative). In 2010, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce animated one of Robinson’s speeches about changing education paradigms. The video was viewed nearly half a million times in its first week on YouTube and as of April 2015 has been viewed more than 12 million times.
Robinson has suggested that to engage and succeed, education has to develop on three fronts. First, that it should foster diversity by offering a broad curriculum and encourage individualisation of the learning process; secondly, it should foster curiosity through creative teaching, which depends on high quality teacher training and development; and finally, it should focus on awakening creativity through alternative didactic processes that put less emphasis on standardised testing, thereby giving the responsibility for defining the course of education to individual schools and teachers. He believes that much of the present education system in the United States fosters conformity, compliance and standardisation rather than creative approaches to learning. Robinson emphasises that we can only succeed if we recognise that education is an organic system, not a mechanical one. Successful school administration is a matter of fostering a helpful climate rather than “command and control”.
Critics of Robinson have stated that he has “exercised an extremely corrosive and destructive influence on education while contributing almost nothing to its improvement” and that “a close analysis of his view shows that he believes students have no minds of their own and are incapable of acting independently of their teachers or of being held accountable for their own success”, and “Sir Ken’s ideas are incredibly seductive, but they are wrong, spectacularly and gloriously wrong.” In the Times Educational Supplement William Stewart wrote, “Teachers initially dazzled by his lectures have later given thoughtful responses that question whether the witticisms and seeming insights amount to anything of substance that they could use in the classroom”. Robinson has responded to this criticism in his 2015 book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, by encouraging his critics to look beyond his 18-minute TED talk to his many books and articles on the subject of education, in which he lays out plans for accomplishing his vision.
Learning Through Drama: Report of the Schools Council Drama Teaching (1977) was the result of a three-year national development project for the UK Schools Council. Robinson was principal author of The Arts in Schools: Principles, Practice, and Provision (1982), now a key text on arts and education internationally. He edited The Arts and Higher Education, (1984), co-wrote The Arts in Further Education (1986), Arts Education in Europe, and Facing the Future: The Arts and Education in Hong Kong.
Robinson’s 2001 book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (Wiley-Capstone), was described by Director magazine as “a truly mind-opening analysis of why we don’t get the best out of people at a time of punishing change.” John Cleese said of it: ‘Ken Robinson writes brilliantly about the different ways in which creativity is undervalued and ignored in Western culture and especially in our educational systems.’
The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, was published in January 2009 by Penguin. The element refers to the experience of personal talent meeting personal passion. He argues that in this encounter, we feel most ourselves, most inspired, and achieve to our highest level. The book draws on the stories of creative artists such as Paul McCartney, ‘Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening, Meg Ryan, and physicist Richard Feynman to investigate this paradigm of success.