EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices

Educational Transformation: What’s so Virtuous about Virtuosity?

There’s a new video clip featuring Sir Ken Robinson posted on the CEA splash page. If you haven’t seen it yet, go take a look now. And then come back, because I would like to know what you think.

There’s a new video clip featuring Sir Ken Robinson posted on the CEA splash page. If you haven’t seen it yet, go take a look now. And then come back, because I would like to know what you think.

What was your immediate reaction to the message? This is certainly not the Sir Ken Robinson that many of us are accustomed to seeing, is it? It’s not the message of large-scale systemic change that we most often associate with the man who has, in many ways, become the official face of a vision of school that foregrounds creativity and passionate engagement. And it’s not the Sir Ken that is likely going to inspire many to think of educational transformation as something that is within our immediate grasp.

When I first watched the clip I was, quite honestly, a little disappointed. As someone who has supported Sir Ken’s message of change in the way we view and “do” school, I even felt a little betrayed by his call to be a virtuoso within the confines and constraints of the existing system.

After all, where’s the virtue in virtuosity, especially when you know that deep change is necessary? Where’s the motivation to push forward in the area of transforming our schools when at the same time you’re being encouraged to “know your limit and play within it”? Is Sir Ken gently patting us on the head and telling us to leave the real change work to the big people while the rest of us toil to perfect our craft within the very system that we’re hoping to change?

Photo by  Steffen Kørner Ludvigsen


Or is his message meant to be another type of call? In the opening part of the video clip, Sir Ken makes a rather sobering but essential point. He reminds us that, for the students and parents that we, as educators, interact with on a daily basis, our local school IS the education system. It is the here and now of school and, as such, it is also the locus of change for many of us. His call to virtuosity and excellence as “ground-level workers” is to understand that all systems have their constraints and that our day-to-day work on behalf of our students demands that we not throw up our hands and declare that nothing can be done until we get the rules that we want.

Sir Ken is very clear here. Excellence within the current system is both possible and desirable. Shakespeare achieved sonnet-writing excellence without changing the structure of the sonnet. And his writing continues to inspire to this day. Beethoven was a master of symphonic form, using that form to create works of art that have changed lives. Many other artists have achieved virtuosity not only in spite of the constraints placed on them, but because of them!

I have to admit that I’m still a little conflicted by Sir Ken’s message. On the one hand, I understand that, at times, the transformational “prize” may seem so far away that we can become despondent and inert. We certainly don’t want that. We want our schools to be populated with educators who, in fact, strive passionately to do the best for the students that they encounter TODAY. That is the right thing to do. We want virtuosity within our current system.

On the other hand, how do we strive for virtuosity and look for change at the same time? Is it possible for us to simultaneously play within the constraints of the current system while pushing against those same limits. Is this the natural tension of creativity? Is this what innovation is really all about?

How does Sir Ken Robinson’s message play out in your mind and in the work that you are doing? Does it resonate with you, or does it cause you to raise your eyebrows a little? Does it inspire you to excellence, or does it seem a little patronizing? Does it motivate you to continue working for change, or does it appear to be a call to maintain the status quo?

Let’s talk!


Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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