Monthly Archives: January 2018

Nothing Will Come From Nothing

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“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” Is a quote often attributed to Einstein which is actually from a piece by BF Skinner called “New methods and new aims in teaching”, in New Scientist, 22(392) (21 May 1964). The quote was retweeted into my timeline today accompanied by a tweet saying: ‘Focus on 21st century skills, character-building, and the big ideas of your curriculum. Memorization of large quantities of information is temporary–skills are forever. ‘.

I have come across the quote quite a few times before and always thought that it was saying something around the habits of mind one gets from school are the most important things but then I looked again at the quote

and again…

Now far be it for me to take on the great BF Skinner or pretend Einstein for that matter…

but

it’s nonsense.

What do we ‘learn’ at school? We learn many things, facts, skills, nuggets of knowledge, habits of mind, ways of behaving, when to laugh, when not to laugh… to cry… to think… all these things are things we learn.

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark define “Learning [as] a change in long-term memory” and if we are to accept this definition, which we might argue with should we wish (see Willingham here), then should all this learning be forgotten we could suggest the education received has been an expensive and monumental failure.

Perhaps Skinner is thinking about conscious recall of all the ‘facts’ we have learned but even many of those that we think we have forgotten sometimes find their way into our consciousness when we’re watching a quiz programme on TV or doing one of those time wasting click bait quizzes that crop up online. So do we ever ‘forget’ what we have learnt at school? Some of it. But if we are taught a lot and taught it well we will remember a lot more than someone who wasn’t. And, as the philosopher Julian Baggini puts it:

“…it can only be a good thing to know as many matters of fact as possible.”

So I would suggest changing the quote to:

Education is what survives when you have learned and not forgotten all of it…

As I was sourcing the quote I came across another one of BF Skinner’s bon mots:

“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading”

I could go on…

but I won’t.

Drama in Decline

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Apparently there are now 1,700 fewer drama teachers teaching in UK schools than there were in 2010. I don’t have any information as to how accurate this figure is and what the figures are in the constituent nations of the United Kingdom nor how it compares to other subjects, suffice to say it adds to a general impression that the arts are in decline in schools.

Many of the various voices who decry the decline use utilitarian arguments to make their points. I think this is a mistake.

If the arts were to be removed from the curriculum, would it be a bad thing? If we take a strictly utilitarian point of view then the bare bones of the curriculum would suffice. Literacy, Maths and Science are the subjects that seem to rise above all others in our hierarchical view of subject worth. Arguments for drama’s inclusion in the examined curriculum that suggest it is important because the entertainment industry generates a lot of wealth for the country are ridiculous. For a start you don’t need a GCSE in drama in order to become an actor; and though I’m sure studying ballet, piano etc. has a more obvious utility I expect most who study these arts don’t end up adding directly to our GDP through their work in the entertainment world. ┬áSome drama teachers don’t even teach drama in schools with the idea of developing actors. Which is where another utilitarian argument comes in, that drama develops the skills that employers want: collaboration, creativity and communication skills. Even if we put aside the notion that skills are not easily transferable, there is a leap of faith to be made that children who have, say, delivered the lines:

ESTRAGON
All the dead voices.
VLADIMIR
They make a noise like wings.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
VLADIMIR
Like sand.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
Silence.
VLADIMIR

They all speak at once.
ESTRAGON
Each one to itself.
Silence.
VLADIMIR

Rather they whisper.
ESTRAGON
They rustle.
VLADIMIR
They murmur.
ESTRAGON
They rustle.
Silence.
VLADIMIR

What do they say?
ESTRAGON
They talk about their lives.
VLADIMIR
To have lived is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON
They have to talk about it.
VLADIMIR
To be dead is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON
It is not sufficient.
Silence.
VLADIMIR

They make a noise like feathers.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
VLADIMIR
Likes ashes.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves. (2.98-118)

will be better at working for HSBC, McDonalds or at bricklaying than those who haven’t… The very idea is a bit far fetched.

Another argument goes like this – STEM subjects are important (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) so let’s stick an A in there too because arts are important too. This utilitarian approach falls apart very quickly. In the first place engineering hardly features as part of the curriculum in most schools. Technology is also in a parlous state. In fact STEM is all about S&M, but that makes a rather unfortunate acronym. To chuck in an A, seems to add to an already unsteady mix. Call it what you will but STEAM is not about giving the arts a privileged position in the school curriculum, it is about subsuming some shallow arts practices into an ‘integrated approach to learning’. STEAM is a cop out, entirely devoid of art, it is a corporate middle-manager’s idea of art, and is no way to ensure real arts practice remains part of the school experience.

Another utilitarian argument goes that the arts are important to mental health, they might well be, though there are clearly some people involved in the arts who have mental health problems so whether art makes them better than they would have been or adds to their problems I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess.

The arts are important on their own terms. Studying drama might help you become a great director, actor, and/or informed member of the audience. Beyond that the arts are a study on what it is to be human, they tap into our subjective experience of the world and help us to make sense of our lives. This enrichment of the subjective realm is difficult to quantify and by trying we reduce the very art we wish to protect. A school that shrinks the arts provision that its pupils are able to access is making a decision about what they think their priorities should be. If they are guided by utilitarian choices then it is easy for them to cut back on arts programmes because it is far less easy to justify the arts on these terms than, say, Maths. But if they are guided by the desire to educate their pupils as to what is important to them as human beings to make sense of the world and their place within it, then they will do their very best to ensure the arts have a proper and sustainable place in their curriculum.