Monthly Archives: November 2017

Creativity and Collaboration

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“In the popular imagination,” writes Tim Blanning in his wonderful book ‘The Romantic Revolution’, “Beethoven was the romantic hero par excellence: the lonely, afflicted, uncompromising, utterly original genius, ‘a man who treated God as an equal’…” This vision of creative minds echoes down the centuries. The tortured artists in their garret, often poor, wearing black, maybe, ‘in mourning for their lives’…

The great artist, driven, mad eyed, wandering lonely as a cloud, the true artist rises, like poetry for Goethe: ‘like a hot air balloon… and gives us a bird’s eye view of the confused labyrinths of the world’…

But back on earth the ‘four Cs’ of the 21st Century ‘soft’ skills that are paraded before teachers as what is needed for children to succeed in the soon to come world are: communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity.

If we look at visions for the 21st century classroom we see primary colours, bean bags, formica topped tables with groups of children engaged with some screens and smiling and laughing as they work on some group activity. The assumption is collaboration = creativity.

The contrast with the tortured artist, alone in his garret, shouting at the falling plaster from the ceiling, couldn’t be more stark. Is ’19th century’ creativity, a joyless lonely affair, that accidentally produced great art…?

It was with little surprise that I read: “…there is substantial scientific evidence that collaboration, rather than sparking creativity, results in group think and mediocrity. What does result in creativity? Simple: solitude.”

The Washington Post reports that:

The more social interactions with close friends a person has, the greater their self-reported happiness. But there was one big exception. For more intelligent people, these correlations were diminished or even reversed. More intelligent individuals were actually less satisfied with life if they socialized with their friends more frequently. 

In an Inc article Geoffrey James reflects that:

being around other people keeps keep creative people from thinking new thoughts. Indeed, there are few experiences more mind-numbing for a creative person than being forced to interact with dullards on a daily basis. 

Even if your office is full of geniuses, they’ll be less creative en-masse than if they can work and think alone. In short, it’s difficult and maybe even impossible to “think out of the box” when you’re literally inside a box (i.e. an open plan office) that’s full of other people.

Isn’t this the problem with the four C’s approach to teaching and learning? It is not modelled on great creativity produced over centuries by our greatest geniuses, rather it is fashioned by a fifth c: the ‘Corporate’ vision and the schools that follow this approach rather than ‘unleashing creativity’ will find themselves producing conventional corporate types who won’t upset any apple carts but will fit into group think activities so beloved of the open plan, group work, trendies that inhabit the world as portrayed so deliciously in the comedy programme W1A.

If you want great creativity, nurture great artists and teach them how to express themselves, rather then flood their minds with group work overkill in every lesson.

Lenin and Rand: Why the Need to Disrupt Our Schools?

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When I was growing up a significant number of people on the left were intent on destroying capitalism. They loathed its focus on the individual and extolled the virtue of the collective. They were suspicious of new technology, worried that it would take away jobs. They were protective of their own and were intent on battling the bosses. Some looked to Russia for inspiration.

It has fascinated me for sometime how a significant number of contemporary leftists far from wanting to destroy capitalism seem to want to reshape society in its image. Instead of capitalism making the proletariat who are ready to bring down the bourgeoisie the ‘nouveau leftist’ seems content to throw in their lot with global capitalism; they love the tech companies many of which originated in ‘silicon valley’. Instead of finding common collective ground to resist the Californian dream they want to alter our world to fit in with the silicon vision. For many this seems to begin in our schools, where the technophile leftist believes in individualisation, choice, preparing children for a world of uncertainty and having to follow an uberfication of the workforce, neatly summed up as jobs that haven’t been invented yet and twenty first century skills. The only thing that some of our nouveau technophile leftists have in common with their more luddite comrades from the past is that they still look fondly upon Russia.

How can this be?

The leftist technophile leader in a school who introduces iPads to every classroom or insists on a ‘google has changed everything approach’ might not know it but she has connections to Ayn Rand, Lenin, Julian Assange, Trump, Putin, Steve Bannon and others. Arguably she is the unwitting agent of unfettered capitalism and companies which sometimes seem to belong in the pages of 1984 and Brave New World. Far from wanting to bring down these ‘neo-liberal’ global conglomerates, she has been kite marked as an apple and pears educator, a micro-hard missionary or a googley grandee.

Our technophile seems full of contradictions yet if we go back a few years into pre-Russian revolution times we find the roots of this contradiction and how some leftists of today can extol the virtues of global capitalist brands and insist our entire education system should be disrupted to serve a techno capitalist future. Just like some of the old leftists our nouveau leftist is drawn to the works of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin but also, more surprisingly, it is the thinking of the controversial capitalist thinker Ayn Rand who has influenced many of those who argue for new ways of teaching and learning in our classrooms.

Inspired by the book: What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Lenin intended to destroy things as they were and to replace them with a Soviet ‘scientific utopia’ which was to be run by rational ‘technical experts’.

That Leninism was inspired by Chernyshevsky’s book is one thing, for it also to inspire Ayn Rand is another… the arch communist and arch selfish capitalist make, at first sight, a bizarre couple, but what united both, apart from their motherland, is Chernyshevsky’s main character, Rakhmetov a revolutionary who believed in ‘rational egoism’. According to Adam Weiner:

Rational egoism, though actually built on an immovable foundation of determinism, indulged its followers with the idea of endless personal freedom, depicting again and again an almost miraculous process of transformation by which socially inept people became like aristocrats, prostitutes became honest workers, hack writers became literary giants.

Dostoevsky wrote ‘Notes from the Underground’ as an attack on rational egoism:

“who was it who first proclaimed that man does nasty things only because he does not know his true interests, and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his true, normal interests, then man would immediately stop doing nasty things, would immediately become good and noble, because being enlightened and understanding where his true interest lies, he would see that his own interest lies in goodness, and it’s well known that there is not one man who can act knowingly against his own personal gain, ergo, so to speak, he would be compelled to do good deeds? O, the babe! O, the pure, innocent child!”

Lenin also named his first major publication “What is to be Done?” And Rand seemed to borrow from the same source, her heroes in the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged share many traits with Rakhmetov and rational egoism had many features in common with her philosophy of ‘objectivism.’

In 1967 Herman Kahn, a foremost nuclear thinker from the Rand corporation, predicted a world in which ‘pocket phones’ and home computers were commonplace in which each user would have a private file space in a central computer and, according to Thomas Rid in his fascinating book the Rise of the Machines: ‘Computer access would be used to reduce crime, as police can check immediately the record of any person stopped for questioning’. He predicted a rise of bionic machines with creative capacities and ‘as the distinction between man and lesser creatures and machines begins to shade off, the uniqueness of man and the rights that are attributed to this uniqueness may begin to attenuate.’

The writer Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian about how Rand influenced the Silicon valley entrepreneurs:

Rand… might just be “the most influential figure in the industry”. When the CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, had to choose an avatar for his Twitter account in 2015, he opted for the cover of The Fountainhead. Peter Thiel, Facebook’s first major investor and a rare example of a man who straddles both Silicon Valley and Trumpworld, is a Randian. Meanwhile, Steve Jobs is said by his Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, to have regarded Atlas Shrugged as one of his “guides in life”

Among these new masters of the universe, the Rand influence is manifest less in party political libertarianism than in a single-minded determination to follow a personal vision, regardless of the impact. No wonder the tech companies don’t mind destroying, say, the taxi business or the traditional news media. Such concerns are beneath the young, powerful men at the top: even to listen to such concerns would be to betray the singularity of their own pure vision. It would be to break Rand’s golden rule, by which the visionary must never sacrifice himself to others.

Seemingly, we find the west coast libertarian children of Rand as the fellow travellers of those who seek to disrupt traditional education with a rational, technical utopia where children are educated by brand new machines.

According to Andrew G Kirk in his extremely interesting book ‘CounterCulture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism’, ‘Cyber-libertarianism’ as a philosophy is a hybrid fusion of left and right, it blends:

the individualism and liberal social values of the counterculture with a traditionally western distrust of big government and centralised authority… [it embraces the] technology unique to their generation while rejecting the national orientation and emphasised on collective achievement that characterised the Right and Left… [They value] individual agency over communal action and [champion] the free flow of information and access to tools as the best means of empowerment and change.

The great American technical companies: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and others have managed to unite libertarian philosophy, green ideology, hippy idealism, into a utopian message of uniting the youth into a sub ‘brave new world’ utopianism where we all choose to indulge our egos in social media bubbles. That they are doing their best to shape schooling around this ego driven individualism should come as no surprise. Technology and schools is a huge market. This market intends to disrupt schools in the same way as UBER disrupt taxi firms.

Perhaps the best example of rational egoism we have today is Julian Assange, described by Hilary Clinton as a ‘kind of nihilistic opportunist’ he is, according to David Aaronovitch:

someone for whom the destruction of existing beliefs and institutions is more important than the question of what replaces them… one man’s disruptor is another man’s innovator…

Aaronovitch goes on to compare this tendency with that of Lenin who represents:

tearing the place up and putting something else there instead…

He adds that Steve Bannon described himself as a Leninist quoting him as having said that:

“Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all today’s establishment.”

Of course Assange, it transpires, tried to angle a job allied with the Trump administration. Yet he is also a hero of many leftists – Chomsky, Ken Loach, Michael Moore, Pilger and others have all supported him. Despite Assange’s rational egoism seemingly to know of no boundaries – he maintains support from the left because he is seen as a disruptor of the tradition.

That Russia is accused of being in cahoots with the spreading of misinformation, alternative facts, and various methods of disruption on social media, the leaking of emails, and having connections to Assange and Trump might come as no surprise to students of how modern politics, beyond left and right, is conducted.

But for others ‘progressive cyber libertarianism’ seems to confuse. In a world where dichotomies between left and right, liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional, no longer seemed to sum up our politics this ‘new’ politics is difficult to come to terms with.

It disrupts us.

Yet if we go back to ‘What is to be Done?’ we can see how some on the left and the right, have come together through a philosophy imbued with a ‘rational’ use of technology, rampant individualism and a Leninist disruption of much that many held dear. Trumpism and Brexit have been mentioned as symptoms of this desire to disrupt, as have new technologies and the global capitalists who make it all possible.

And it is this reach into the political world that has made some people edgy, yet, at the same time, it is this philosophy that reaches into our classrooms.

In today’s education landscape there are many echoes with the idea of rational egoism and disruption in the work of libertarian individualists and technophile lefties who seem to want to achieve many of the aims articulated in the book ‘What is to be Done?’

The rational argument is steeped in language of the workplace and twenty-first century skills. Personalisation of the curriculum is the lead in for the individual focused ‘egoism’ around which all else must be built. These two pursuits seem to require that the school as currently realised is disrupted. Instead of classrooms looking like they do (the (wrong) argument suggests they are based on a 19th century factory model) these classrooms should be replaced by children roaming in a much freer way – though harnessed to the ‘objective’ machine – wired for google… so rational, so technical… so egocentric… And, with it’s connections to the Californian ideology conversant with Randian objectivism and the countercultural thesis born from publications like the Whole Earth Catalog it is the thinking of technophile ex hippies that has become so mainstream for many who extol the uses of technology and regularly use it shape their world view.

At first sight it seemed  bizarre that Alison Peacock the CEO of the College of Teaching found herself talking to a leftist disruptor with an interest in technology, Graham Brown Martin, who works for technology company Pi Top, about the need to disrupt traditional western education models on a programme called ‘Are the Kids Alright?’ ,made by ‘Renegade Inc’. and broadcast on Russia Today, the programme asked:

‘Western education curriculums are still preparing pupils for a standardised world as rising inequality, an ageing population, exploding levels of individual and government debt begin to bite, how does a stagnating education system reinvent itself to equip students to solve these problems and prepare them for a workplace that doesn’t yet exist?’

Our ‘stagnating education system’ needs to be disrupted in the name of future oriented workplaces that don’t yet exist.

Renegade Inc describe themselves as:

…an independent knowledge platform for people who think differently. We find thinkers, writers, leaders and creators in search of the best new ideas, businesses and policies. Many more people are now questioning the conventional wisdom of modern life and asking a simple question: How do I live well during the age of uncertainty? Renegade Inc. was founded to answer some of those questions.

Renegade Inc was co-founded by Megan and Ross Ashcroft, award-winning film producers and co-founders of the advisory and investment business Motherlode.

Megan – was previously the Associate Director of UBS Investment Bank and consultant at Lloyds TSB. 

Ross is a strategic advisor to businesses in different sectors and currently advises Asymmetric Return Capital.

Renegade Inc broadcast their programmes on Russia Today.

This is the new politics, in which, in Marx’s well worn phrase: ‘All that is solid melts into air” takes centre stage. With the need to question the conventional wisdom of modern life    disruption is the order of the day, technical expertise is needed for the soon to come scientific, pragmatic, free individuals who will be connected to ‘the singular cloud’ in some sort of blissful utopia in which all will have their eyes opened to their true interests and man will ‘immediately stop doing nasty things, would immediately become good and noble, because being enlightened and understanding where his true interest lies, he would see that his own interest lies in goodness’ . That many try to propagate this technological individualism in our schools should come as no surprise, imbued with the ‘neutral’ ‘pragmatic’ language of ‘what our businesses need’ and ‘creativity’ allied to ‘whose knowledge?’ ‘who says what is truth?’ the attempt to disrupt the western education, tradition, is clearly within their remit.

Whether you approve of this political turn or not it is interesting to trace its roots back to Rational Egoism and a Russian book which enabled West to meet East and the ‘Leninist’ Left to find itself in cahoots with the Libertarian, ‘Randian’ Right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Knowledge Based Liberal Arts and Sciences Curriculum. Curriculum Series Number Seven.

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A liberal education is focused on teaching knowledge ‘for its own sake’.

The two words ‘liberal’ and ‘arts’ might stand somewhat awkwardly in our current landscape, the phrase implies freeing the human being through a study of a curriculum exposing pupils to a wide range of influences, arts, ideas, opinions and facts so that they can acquire an understanding of the human condition and reach their own conclusions and judgements. An education for freedom.

Many ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum programmes claim to embrace the ‘liberal arts’ but fail to understand the enormity of teaching knowledge ‘for its own sake’. It has been said that the aims of a liberal education are to have ‘no aims’. And, on occasions when aims are proscribed for the liberal arts they are often wooly enough to encompass all sorts of interpretations, for example  the aim for the liberal arts that Daniel Denicola suggests is: ‘the activity of living as a human being and one’s life as a whole’. Or, in one word, ‘flourishing’.

In the title I have added the word ‘sciences’ as the ‘arts’ in their original meaning covered areas that were to later become ‘science’. However, it is useful in our understanding of knowledge for its own sake to see why the addition of ‘sciences’ to the liberal arts can be problematic. In The Closing of the American Mind,  Allan Bloom writes of the destructive nature of ‘modern’ (enlightenment) science. He paraphrases Jonathan Swift and his idea that modern science has lost the human perspective, and that science should ‘understand man as a man, and not as a geometric figure with flesh on it.’ A liberal arts and sciences education would restore, as Bloom puts it: the ‘self consciousness’ about science that is connected to ‘poetry’. This is echoed by Michael Oakeshott who makes the rather disparaging comment that ‘chemistry has never outgrown its character as a sophisticated kind of cookery.’ He makes this distinction: science that is liberal is science that is taught as ‘one of the great intellectual pursuits of mankind,’ rather than in fulfilling a utilitarian need for more ‘first class surgeons, engineers, chemists, psychologists, social scientists etc…’

This is what sets apart a liberal arts and sciences education. It is resistant to utilitarian, managerial, instrumental, vocational and simple ‘utopian’ arguments as to why we educate. Knowledge for its own sake is anti-utility and training. It is against the idea of knowledge as cultural ‘capital’ or ‘literacy’. It resists the ideas of knowledge for social justice or mobility. This impacts on the choices made for what is ‘in’ the curriculum.

Raymond Williams drew a distinction between the ‘industrial trainers’ who want to train the working classes for jobs, the ‘public educators’ who want a common curriculum for all and the ‘classical humanists’ who want to preserve high culture through a liberal arts education for the elite. These distinctions are salient, we still hear their echoes. The training for jobs that don’t yet exist – soft skills – vocational qualifications; the need for all to have a common core curriculum; and the threat of having to dumb down an education based on the finer things in order to make them accessible for the children of the majority – even a struggle for Matthew Arnold who wished to transform as many people as possible by providing them with access to ‘the best that has been thought and said’.

The liberal arts approach is anti-training because it refuses to leave children with the impression that there is only one way to think, rather it wishes young people to realise they are free to think and reason. The pupil becomes free. As William Deresiewicz describes it:

Creating a self, inventing a life, developing an independent mind…

An independent mind is not developed if your school has trained you in certain skills for the jobs market. An independent person free to ‘invent’ their life cannot do so if their curriculum has reduced their thinking due to a narrow range of subjects. One can’t create a self if one is subject to a daunting regime that wishes to stifle your individuality.

RS Peters identified three different strands in liberal education:

  1. Knowledge for its own sake.
  2. Broad and balanced.
  3. Non-dogmatic – because authoritarianism restricts the reasoning power of the individual.

Any approach to the curriculum that wishes to prepare children for the world of work cannot be described as a ‘liberal arts’ approach. Neither can one that intends to drive children towards certain outcomes such as being socially mobile, or in competing with the outcomes from other countries. An education driven by technological imperative or a diet of knowledge that is to enable school leavers to become high earners cannot said to be liberating. Any outcome which is to improve the lot of the nation economically or socially is not liberal because this reduces the self to a ‘geometric figure with flesh on it’.

Education as commodity, with qualifications as capital to be exchanged for certain vocations is anathema to a true education for its own sake which is a cornerstone of a liberal arts and sciences approach to curriculum. All acronyms such as STEM or STEAM are anathema as they are endowed with economic justifications. Culture as capital leads to children muttering: ‘Why am I doing this, is it in the exam? Why am I doing this it’s not relevant to the job I’m going to get? Will this make me more likely to get a top job?’ In answer to the question: ‘why do this rather than that?’ RS Peters suggests:

It is… the attitude of passionate concern about truth that informed Socrates’ saying that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.

The focus should be on the curriculum they are being taught, not some far off abstract aim. Pupils are learning to engage fruitfully with knowledge to examine their life, our life, and the expression of those lives.

This is why, in the liberal arts, there is an emphasis on the pursuit of truth. This truth is to be found in ‘great’ books, authentic experiences and a discursive ‘dialectical’ method of teaching. Children learn important knowledge, they have great experiences – cultural, physical, thoughtful. They learn to debate, write, make speeches, play sport and make art, they learn other languages for the joy of having their minds expanded by different ways of seeing and interpreting the world. And they learn sciences to explore the wonder of the world. Through the breadth of curriculum experiences or, as Arnold called it, ‘the whole circle of knowledge,’ they are expected to learn the importance of truth – and that there are different ways to truth – some more objective and logical, and some more subjective, spiritual and emotional.

The central problem for a liberal arts curriculum is the charge that it is only for the leisured elite. James Burke recently suggested on the Radio 4 PM programme that most jobs will be taken by Artificial Intelligence within thirty years – algorithms networked and learning by themselves for themselves. What will education for humans be for if we are all part of the leisured class? He added that it is ‘our open ended self awareness that makes us sentient and creative humans.’ It is this ‘humanist’ echo that reverberates throughout a liberal education.

But I digress.

The liberal arts curriculum has a moral imperative behind its construction. It is taught through direct instruction, through dialogue, debate and discussion and through pupils creating their own responses to drive the conversations forward. The essay form is central as are other means of subject specific communication. The whole curriculum being subject based means there is also a need for ideas to be brought together through, what Christine Counsell refers to as, ‘intelligent inter-disciplinarity’ rather than ‘crazy cross curricularity’.

A liberal arts education is an aesthetic education. As Keats put it:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

It is rooted in the realm of passing on beauty, on truth but not in a way that just admires the ruins of the past. It is a conversational education. What is included in the curriculum are not pieces of work – the ‘best’ as suggested by what might be talked about at a middle class dinner party or broadsheet newspaper – the best here is something that defines us, a pretence to the universal maybe – but it helps us work out who we are – what it is to be human. It is subjective in this sense but is given a moral imperative through its underlying pursuit of wisdom and truth.