Category Archives: Creativity

Arts Education has a “Low Impact”

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If you click on the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkit’ webpage the first thing you come across is:

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click on this and you are informed that:

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What is the point of this? Why should the arts even be expected to work for the glory of other, maybe, more important subjects? For example, I cannot find out how participation in maths benefits arts learning, which is not surprising: Imagine the furore there would be if it was discovered that studying Maths made a child worse at writing poetry and making pots, maths departments would be immediately closed all around the country!  I jest. The whole point of studying maths is to get better at maths, is it too much to ask that people study the arts in order to get better and know more about the arts?

If it is true that some schools are squeezing their arts provision the EEF toolkit is just the sort of thing that gives ammunition to the utilitarian philistines who think the arts get in the way of ‘proper’ learning. What is the point of this sort of research? As the EEF say: transferability of learning “is not automatic and needs further exploration.” So why the Arts should be charged with such a task God only knows.

Please can we value the Arts for their own sake, a rich way to examine the human condition and our concerns rather than as a means to some other ends?

 

Get Kids Cultured

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To be cultured means to nail one’s colours to the mast, and those who fear what’s arbitrary in that (and run to theory for protection) fear culture itself.

Howard Jacobson

The importance of tradition, the great tradition, is not that it is the only possibility but it is the best one that we have. For Jacobson, his tutor at Cambridge, FR Leavis, opened up a world of education to him:

Leavis told a particular story about English literature. It’s not the only one. But we owe it to him to show that, so far, nobody has told a better one, or told it with a braver conviction of why it matters to tell it at all.

Being right isn’t what matters to Jacobson but it is the ‘nailing one’s colours to the mast’ that does. This is ‘being cultured’. The vision for education is important, to be involved in that conversation, to add to it, to argue, to say ‘yes… but…’ but not to dismiss and the involvement in the dialogue is lifelong.

It is telling that in a piece called:

Building 21st-century skills: preparing pupils for the future, that a life ‘after education’ is envisaged:

In an ever-evolving world, how can we ensure that future generations have the skills that will truly prepare them for life after education?

In the past I have called this type of progressive education ‘neo-progressivism’. Instead of being revolutionary it is tied to the interests of global capitalism. Instead of education being an ever-evolving involvement with a lifetime of reading and exploring the rich tapestry of culture, the neo-progresssive sees education as a finite vehicle for the good of global capitalism. In her sponsored piece in the Guardian Jessica Clifton, the marketing manager for Lego Education nails her colours to the mast:

…there is a certain expectation to simply fill students with facts and figures. However, this can actually hinder learning, limiting students’ potential to explore concepts and discover solutions for themselves. What we need to do is, quite literally, put learning into students’ hands.

Which, for Jessica is Lego. And I love lego, but it is not ‘Culture’. It is a great toy, and toys can be used for great art; through their knowledge of Goya, the Chapman Brothers, were driven to create works of ‘vertiginous obscenity’ by melting down toy soldiers, maiming, twisting and painting them. The art created is dystopian and disturbing. This is not the vision Lego Education has when it wants to put learning in students’ hands. The article sees education as far more sterile, it quotes Andy Snape, assistant head of sixth form at Newcastle-under-Lyme College, as saying:

“As a teacher, I want to give students the greatest opportunities to achieve and I have found hands-on, creative lessons to be the most effective. Why? Because this learning style not only enthuses and engages pupils, but gives them the chance to understand the purpose of what they’re learning… we use LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3 to teach engineering, mathematics and computing, as well as using it for an extracurricular robotics club. Using the central programmable “Intelligent Brick”, students can design and build robotic solutions to different scenarios and problems. This could be anything from a sorting system that organises items into distinct categories based on colour, or a prototype space rover that avoids obstacles and performs basic tasks remotely.”

Education as a means to an end, not a life within culture but one that sees education as having a predetermined purpose, to serve the needs of business. It is the misunderstanding of creativity that irks me most. Let us nail our colours to the mast, creativity is not a ‘learning style’, it can be downright dangerous and dirty, but as a great  education cliche it has become the clinical servant of capital. Lego education, Persil et al, who peddle this version of creativity are anti-education, anti-culture, and paradoxically anti-creativity. Creativity is a life force, central to humanity and not the servant of a utilitarian drive to get people into STEM subjects to prepare them for the jobs that have yet to be invented.

This is the tension between tradition and progress; on the side of tradition we have great art, literature and the humanities and a continual dialogue, a great cultural education. On the side of progress we have Lego, STEM subjects (not the subjects themselves but their adoption as ‘a thing’) and an education that finishes when the world of work has taken over your life, this education is anti-cultural. It is the philistine fear of a truly cultural education that drives much of the verbiage of the neo-progressive movement. For them it is all brands, futurology, and education for utility: ‘Mcdonaldisation’; it is the sort of education that will halt progress in its tracks, for it forgets the importance of facts and figures and the knowledge and richness of the past. For all their trumpeting of creativity the neo-progressives can’t create a better story than the one education has been telling for centuries.

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Pokémon Go! Must We be Servants of the Present Moment?

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Think how useless a teacher’s greatest labours are now, when he tries to lead one single student back to the infinitely distant and elusive Hellenic world, the true homeland of our culture, and an hour later that same student reaches for a newspaper or popular novel or one of those scholarly books whose style bears the repulsive mark of today’s educational barbarism!  Friedrich Nietzsche

In 1872 this was Nietzsche’s view, I wonder what it would be now? The teacher might wish to lead a student back to a time when they reach for a newspaper, a popular novel or even a ‘popular science or self help book’…

Or the teacher might have given up on even this meagre hope. Nietzsche has it in for journalists and describes newspapers as epitomising today’s [then] educational system with both as ‘servants of the present moment‘, taking the place of

the genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages

That is some teaching and learning policy, though he meant it more as a gifted and talented policy, I like to think of it as an aim for all…

I can only think a reincarnated Nietzsche would stare in horror at teaching as entirely a servant of the present moment as argued for by some who wish to ‘engage’ pupils in anything that will occupy their time at school rather than uncover their inner genius. Yet servants of the present delight in keeping up to date rather than exploring the ‘true homeland of our culture’, as one can witness with a cursory glance towards the latest ‘craze’ to hit the nation’s classrooms.

Pokémon Go is pushing Minecraft to the back of the class, Edtech magazine states there are ‘3 Ways Pokémon GO Can Create Meaningful Learning Opportunities‘ these are that it can ‘promote data literacy skills’, allow children to ‘explore the natural world’ and ‘inspire digital storytelling’. That what follows each of these is rather thin gruel seems not to worry the writer of the article. In fact in all three cases the game seems to lessen the activity rather than add to it.

Will it “help students start to become familiar with the data literacy skills of data processing, data manipulation, data presentation and data analysis”? How often will they have to play the game in order for this to occur? How many hours? Are there better ways of achieving these aims, and in more depth? In many ways this is its most obvious use, and maybe I could be persuaded but it seems little more than a passing activity. It could be argued that for autistic children it will help “research habitats that relate to where Pokémon can be found in your local area, as well as learning how to observe in a natural habitat and sketch the living creatures that you find there.” But will it get in the way of observation of the natural habitat, would the painstaking exploration of our natural environment take a backseat because of a fight in a Pokémon Gym? And finally, it might: “…fuel students’ creativity and promote language, research and technology skills by asking students to write stories around the Pokémon they capture in the game.” Or it might be a lesser way of doing that than approaching the same aim by grappling with great literature; is it better to play Pokémon Go or to read Lysistrata or the Oresteia in order to fuel creativity and promote language and research skills? As for technology, I am sure working on a production of a piece of Greek theatre will offer all sorts of opportunities for use of cutting edge technology if one would wish to really ‘Go’ for it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed seeing my daughter play the game, we have had fun exploring and noticing things but none of this is in the detail or depth I would call educational, nor is it edutainment, it is play, and that is fine as far as it goes; I love play. But I pity my little ‘un if she has to go back to school and comes across an enthusiastic teacher who has come up with a term’s work based on Pokémon Go in order to engage her interest, it will more likely enrage her to disinterest.

In the classroom, instead of Pokémon Go, can we have Pokémon No?!! And, instead educate for:

the genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages…

 

Is Dance as Important as Maths?

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This morning I attended a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson in which he argued that the discipline of dance was as important as that of maths. Now, let me nail my colours to the mast, I also believe that every school should teach the arts as well as maths, humanities, languages, sciences, design etc. I also believe that if you were to narrow the curriculum down by taking away one of those areas you would be doing harm to the education of children. That is because I believe education is an enquiry into what it is to be human and is an essential part of our pursuit of wisdom. If schooling was a purely utilitarian pursuit then one could argue maths was more important than dance but I believe that would be to demean the experience of our common pursuit.

In his talk and the Q&A after, which featured just one question from the audience, Robinson (no relation) seemed rather subdued, however he was at his most enthusiastic when he talked about Bertrand Russell and his enthusiasm for Calculus and how it lit up Russell’s life and I am glad he emphasised this because the subject maths can inspire pupils just as much as dance can put them off.

Overall his talk left me with various points of real disagreement:

He extolled the virtues of a dance education whilst dismissing the teach to the test approach of modern education.

He implied that dance and the arts were creative outlets.

He worried about the amount of anxiety caused by our system.

He thought dance could engage and motivate.

He believes that children learn lots and then they go to school and they cease to learn as well, the implication being that formal education ‘kills’ learning and not just creativity.

He thought that we could do away with tests, the curriculum, but we should never do away with good teachers.

He was concerned about the environment.

Robinson is absolutely right when he says that for the child their time in the classroom and in the school is the education system and that teachers and headteachers have a lot of power over how the system is experienced by those who are meant to most benefit from it but let’s look at some of his other assumptions.

Robinson  talked about dance as though it was intrinsically good for the child yet in the next breath he is arguing against teaching to the test. A lot of dance education in this country is precisely about teaching to the test, whether it is ballet or contemporary there are dance exams in much the same way as there are piano exams – the pupil is graded. Beyond that there are performances to rehearse which are as exacting as any test, if not more so as any error is not seen by one person but by an entire audience and you can’t put a line through your mistake and put the correct thing next to it.

This brings me to the idea that dance is inherently creative. Is it? It might be creative for the choreographer, but in much dance it is the strictest form of rote learning imaginable to humankind. This learning by numbers involves your entire physical, mental, emotional self in obeying a set of moves in time, maybe Robinson would prefer more ‘free-form’ dance but his examples included some extraordinarily disciplined approaches to the art, which is all to the good, but he uses an industrial metaphor and, maybe, some dance is quite industrial I wonder if he has a view as to whether this form of dance is a bad thing?

Robinson said he was worried about anxiety, depression and other forms of mental health issues which are affecting the young. Now there is evidence that dancing can ‘lift the mood’, however there is also evidence that dance can breed anxiety, eating disorders, affect body image, cause physical problems, historically, en pointe was particularly problematic for younger dancers, and there used to be a cliché that dancers smoked rather than ate. Performance anxiety is part of the performing arts experience, and stage fright is a known problem for quite a few performers.

Dance can engage and motivate people who like dance and by teaching it more people can find that engagement within them, however, there will be some, perhaps many, who will look at dance on their timetable with sheer horror, perhaps more than there would be for maths, I don’t know… What I do know is that any subject on the curriculum will have their share of those who don’t like the subject as much as they do other subjects even to the point of being demotivated and disengaged.

If children stop learning as much when they go to school and if this is a feature of formal education then Robinson should go the whole hog and suggest that we ban schools as they clearly have it wrong. Yet he says he supports teachers and schools but, actually, do they stop kids from learning, I doubt it. I would like to see a comparison between those who have formal schooling, in which I include home-education, and those who are left to fend for themselves. I expect those who receive some sort of formal* guidance do a lot better in terms of learning than those who have none.

My biggest disagreement came with his idea that we could do away with curricula and tests and that all we need is ‘good teachers’. This, I think, is one of the biggest problems in our current education environment, the idea that outstanding teaching is all we need. We need to accept that not all teachers are as good as other teachers and never will be. Even if all teachers were equally as brilliant to rely on them putting together ‘outstanding’ lessons all the time to prove how good they are would be a disaster. Our obsession with teachers as outstanding, the tips, gimmicks and tricks approach to short term lesson planning that comes from thinking that the teacher is more important than the curriculum has been a disaster. Ofsted has a lot to answer for. I believe the curriculum is far more important than the teacher. The curriculum can be designed and stand the test of time, encompass the pedagogical approach of a department and help make teachers more effective and, indeed, more likely to be good. Without the curriculum, well, you have nothing – no thing to teach. It is by being a drama teacher, outside of the national curriculum, that has made me most aware of this. Good curriculum design is central to good teaching and learning. If by testing we mean regular checks on what has been learnt and how it is being articulated then we are learning from the arts rather than against them. Good arts teaching is constantly checking to see how pupils have understood what they have been taught.

Yes Ken, dance is as important as Maths in a broad curriculum but I’m not sure that if we follow the logic of your arguments through that you are making as clear a case for ‘creative schools’ as many seem to think. I would go so far as to say that much arts teaching is extraordinarily traditional in many ways; highly disciplined, lots of whole class teaching, following a classical or very structured curriculum with ‘great’ set works, and testing the artist in very public ways by sharing their work regularly with a critical audience and examiners. If we can agree on this then I believe that schools based on an arts model will be very different to what many consider a creative model of educating to be, and that though I think play, as your Persil campaign puts it, and creativity is an important part of that model it is not the whole story by any means.

Which brings me to your mention of the environment, is Persil environmentally friendly nowadays?

 

Can You Teach Creativity?

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Yes, you can.

I could finish this blog there. But, excuse me going on a bit, I want to look at how you might teach it by exploring the relationship between knowledge and doing.

I suppose, for some, this is a chicken and egg issue, what comes first creativity or domain knowledge? Others argue you need a lot of domain knowledge before you can be creative, whereas others argue that one is creative intrinsically and learning domain knowledge can knock that creativity out of you. Creativity, the art of creating something, is an active idea. A child can ‘create’ something using paints on a piece of paper, but so could a machine. I wouldn’t call either of these activities creative; they might be fun or playful in the case of the child, whereas for the machine, it doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Knowing why is important.

The dichotomy between knowledge and doing goes back to the ancient Greeks. It is interesting to look at how Plato explained the difference. At first, in Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues the ideas of knowledge (epistêmê) and craft, art or skill (technê) are used interchangeably. The interchangeability continued in Plato’s early Socratic dialogues but it is later developed, and, although there is often a good deal of overlap it is interesting to explore how they began to have different emphases. What follows is by no means a full explanation of these terms and I am taking a rather simplistic approach to them. Technê is said to have a goal or ergon and becomes associated with ‘doing’ whereas epistêmê becomes associated with theory. For Plato an  epistêmê or theory of the goal of the technê or art suggests an understanding, or gnôsis. The understanding of the art is tied up with knowing what you want to achieve. This is a distinct practice rather than just doing it. The Philosopher King is an illustration of this idea, the craft of Kingsmanship tied to an understanding of why one is doing what one does (the philosopher). I would suggest this connectivity of the practice and the understanding of it is essential in creative work.

I would argue that creativity includes epistêmê, you need to know the theory of the domain in which you are operating and other, associated, areas. It includes technê, you need to be able to do the art, which is the practical knowledge and/or skill of the art itself. The need for the goal or ergon, gives a reason behind what you are doing and I think that all three together lead to an understanding, gnôsis, of what you are doing. This gnôsis is where creativity lies.

Teach kids the theory, the how and the why, but what of chickens and eggs? If I am right and epistêmê, technê and ergon need to coexist for creative understanding and, indeed, creativity to take place, then does it matter in what order they take place? I think, no. As for whether one should be taught for a long time before the others are brought in, say a lot of epistêmê, before any technê then I would expect a truly creative approach will be lost. Twelve years of music theory before you touch a piano would be a disaster. However, the amount and the order of each will be domain specific and the likelihood is that simultaneous exploration might be taking place at any one time or a good deal of movement between the technê and epistemê. Interestingly, gnôsis, by itself does not mean you will remain at your creative peak – the need not to understand what you are doing fully, can help drive the creative urge. An understanding is reached at the point of creation but this doesn’t mean one fully understands the art.

 

Conformist Schools for Creativity

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 “…there just aren’t enough fizzy people around.”

Tham Khai Meng
co-chairman and worldwide chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather

In a ‘Supported by the Best Awards’ piece in the Guardian Tham Kei Meng writes that “Young children fizz with ideas. But the moment they go to school, they begin to lose the freedom to explore, take risks and experiment.”

Now I don’t necessarily wish to burst Tham’s bubble but what is he talking about? Is this a suggestion that every household in the world is full of children experimenting, taking loads of risks in a state of absolute freedom? Are there no helicopter parents hovering around to stop a child from falling off a swing? Are there no parents telling a child when to go to bed? Are there no carers ensuring that little children keep within parameters and, maybe, garden, nursery or park walls?

Is the school the place where children begin to lose freedom or is it part of the natural state of childhood? Man is born in chains and the process of parenting and schooling can help the child become ‘free’. Tham writes:

We need to do two things to address this. First, we have to debunk the notion popularised by Hollywood that the creative artist is cut from a different cloth than normal folk – that creativity is something mysterious, elusive and cannot be taught.

We are not talking about high art, but empowering people to use their imagination. Not everyone can be Mozart, but everyone can sing. I believe everyone is born creative, but it is educated out of us at school, where we are taught literacy and numeracy. Sure, there are classes called writing and art, but what’s really being taught is conformity.

Debunking the Romantic notion of the artist in ‘his’ garret is one thing, knowing this is not a Hollywood invention is another but, oddly, in three sentences Tham writes that he wants to rid us of the idea that the creative artist is cut from a different cloth, that he is not talking about high art and then writes that not everyone can be Mozart, but everyone can sing. What does he mean by all this? High art is for the genius? The rest of us can join the chorus? Is singing a song creative? Is speaking creative? Is a conversation creative? Where does Tham draw the line? Clearly he thinks Mozart is cut from a different cloth and, I suppose, high art is different to creating adverts, but are creative people who have not had it educated out of them at school, school refusers? Are they all rebels with a creative cause? Sure there was learning to write and do a bit of art but what’s really being taught is conformity, what does he mean?

I hate the terms literacy and numeracy, but why not learn to read and to write, and to count and calculate, these things don’t ‘kill creativity’. When Tham worries about conformity does he mean conformity in using the alphabet? Conformity in the use of watercolour, charcoal, pastels and clay? Conformity to a tradition? Don’t we learn to do art by copying the way of the ‘geniuses’ of the past – read some Rowling then write a Harry Potteresque story of your own… learn the form, challenge the form, create your new(ish) or derivative form?

When we try to knock the creativity out of people, what happens? Try confining them in, say, a prisoner of war camp – put them in real chains. What happened when people tried pushing conformity onto the prisoners in ‘Colditz’ Castle? The first British officer to escape from the High Security Prison was educated at Eton and Oxford, he escaped through the trap door in the theatre during a production of a play, then dressed as a German soldier, Airey Neave, escaped to Gibraltar with his comrade in Arms the Dutch officer Anthony Luteyn.

Later Neave got a job with MI9 as an Intelligence Officer – here he was in charge of another old Etonian Michael Bentine who went on to create the mad world of Potty Time and work with the Goons. Fellow Goon Spike Milligan attended a Convent School in Poona and St Paul’s High School in Rangoon, these schools didn’t knock the creativity out of him. Peter Sellers attended the Catholic St Aloysius College before he fell in the water… Harry ‘Seagoon’ Secombe, attended Dynevor school in Swansea and, yes, he did sing in the choir of St Thomas Church. These schools taught conformity maybe, but one needs a sense of conformity to appreciate the ridiculousness of it. Anyone who has listened to the Goons appreciates that the art grew from a sense of knowing a lot about conformity.

Bluebottle: ‘Ere, why ain’t you got no clothes on?
Eccles: I’ve just been making a phone call.
Bluebottle: You don’t have to undress for that!
Eccles: Ha, ha! We learn something new every day!

Conformity, dressing for dinner, putting on a ‘telephone-voice’, trying to do ‘the right thing’, in a world without rules, ‘proper behaviours’, we have nothing to laugh at… the problem for Tham is that actually we fizz with ideas at the very point of constraint, when people try to put us in chains we are at our most ‘fizzy’. Try being in a staff room when a new initiative is announced, the dark humour, the ‘taking the piss’, the ideas on how to undermine the new order.

Tham writes that the school:

…system worked well for blue-collar workers – people who clocked in at factories and stood on production lines making things such as automobile engines. But in a world driven by search engines, the system is a busted flush. We must teach creativity at school as a matter of urgency.

No doubt the system also worked for advertising creatives, who are these people in advertising who learned how to sell product? Are they all mad men? Are they cut from a different cloth? Did they go to special creative breeding schools, or the same schools as those blue-collar workers? And these factory workers – why teach them to read? Why risk that they might be able to read the 1945 Labour Manifesto (written by Toby Young’s dad) and what it said about education?

And, above all, let us remember that the great purpose of education is to give us individual citizens capable of thinking for themselves. (Labour Manifesto 1945)

This is the point: school doesn’t educate the creativity out of people, instead it educates to give them the wherewithal to be free, to be creative and think for themselves. Without constraints we are left to wander, without the imprisonment of a place we can’t think how to escape, without the sonnet form we can’t write poetry that lasts for centuries, without the alphabet… hey here’s twenty-six letters – write a blog! Without the idea of constraints how would advertising work? Without a client, a product, the need to be concise and connect different media both ‘old’ and ‘new’ they don’t have an ad campaign…

NB: Teaching creativity in school is not about ‘free activity’, as this piece, from the wonderful Joyce Grenfell shows very well.

 

Shakespeare’s Schooling

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Shakespeare’s Trivium, ‘The whining schoolboy …creeping like snail unwillingly to school’

It is not too hard to see Shakespeare in the schoolboy creeping snail-like to school – but thank goodness he didn’t play truant. The education he received at Stratford Grammar School is reflected in his plays. The aim of the school would have been to teach Latin and provide a solid grounding in classic Roman, Greek, and biblical texts, as well as teaching ethics and religion. Classes would begin at six o’clock in the morning, with breakfast at nine. This would be followed by more study from quarter past nine to eleven. There would then be school dinner and a break from study until one o’clock, after which there would be further study until five. Finally, this extended school would serve supper, and six or seven pupils would formally present what they had learnt that day – or, on Fridays and Saturdays, review the week’s learning. One week every school year would be devoted to the pupils reciting their learning for the year.

The method of learning was through the trivium. Grammar would generally be studied first, in order to learn the precepts. As Shakespeare got older, he would have moved on to logic as a tool of analysis and rhetoric as a method of composition. Texts would be studied to look for evidence of how they used the three arts of the trivium (grammar, argument, and style), and then little William would have practised using the arts through copying, writing, and speech making. It is likely that his schoolmasters also taught contemporary literature and debate rather than just logic.

Such exercises in exploring rather than solving arguments are just the sort of thing that might have inspired a young dramatist in his playwriting. Clearly, Shakespeare uses this exploratory art in his most famous speech, ‘To be or not to be’, in which Hamlet goes through self-reasoning, or anthypophora, a rhetorical device he may well have learnt at school. In her superb book, Shakespeare’s Uses of the Arts of Language (2005[1947]), Sister Miriam Joseph explores how Shakespeare’s education – and, in particular, the trivium – is reflected in his plays…

Could the underlying method of Shakespeare’s education, the trivium, offer a blueprint upon which to build a contemporary approach to teaching and learning?

I answer this question in the book: Trivium 21c (spoiler: the answer is yes)…

And further explore in the forthcoming book: Trivium in Practice due to be published at the end of May 2016.

The above extract about Shakespeare’s schooling is taken from Trivium 21c, I reproduce it here on the event of the 400th anniversary of his death. 

Independent, Critical Thinkers and Schooling

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‘We are only puppets, our strings are being pulled by unknown forces.’ Danton’s Death: Buchner

The French playwright, Olympe de Gouges, the writer of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,’ criticised the French Revolutionary Regime, complaining ‘equality’ did not seem to include female suffrage. She wrote that: “My aim IS TO SPEAK TO YOU FREELY” and that: “The free expression of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of woman…” She continued: “Let us move on and reflect on the frightful position that women held in society; given that a system of national education is now being contemplated, let us see if our wise Legislators will be rational in their consideration of the education of women.” She was guillotined for her fearless and outspoken words during ‘the Terror’ on 3rd November 1793. How tolerant of free expression can a society be?

How independent and free to think critically do we want our students to be? How far can they be free to disagree with their teachers? If the teacher is able to let go and is truly able to teach the student to be free of them, then we are performing a service that might be deemed ‘child centred’, in that the child, once free of the institution, has it within their grasp to be, forever free of that institution. Can the institution, the school or university tolerate individual freedom whilst the student is part of the institution or, in the name of equality, tolerance or respect, will it be stamped upon?

We might believe, strongly, that the values of the institution are the right ones for that child and that our institutional values will see that child through into adulthood but if we forever want that child to reflect the values of the institution this is far from a child-centred education, it is more ‘institution-centred’.

Can a school shape a child? Boris Johnson and David Cameron are known as ‘Old Etonians’ – no matter what they do they will find it hard to escape the epigram OE that is knitted into our consciousness of them. Is it that that school had an impact on these two or is it just the prejudices of we onlookers wishing that OE means something, maybe, privilege?

To what extent should a school go to deny freedom to those who want to go against the grain? Jenny Beavan the Oscar and Bafta winning costume designer for the Mad Max ‘Fury Road’ movie shows that standing out, going against the grain, still causes ructions… But as she says: “I am British with a slightly rebellious character…” implying that the nation of her birth and rebelliousness have a symbiotic relationship, if she had worn those clothes every day to school, what would have become of her?

If we teach a child to adopt, forever, the beliefs of an institution so that they might forever obey those beliefs then we are not inculcating an education for freedom but one of servitude. If we dictate and impose the ‘British’ values of ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs…’ by repressing the individual liberty of someone who pushes the boundaries of what might be meant by ‘mutual respect and tolerance’ we act in a way that Olympe de Gouges might have recognised. Mutual respect and tolerance, can be an imposition, in much the same way as ‘equality’ was after the French Revolution, as one might be denying ‘individual liberty’ in order to ensure that ‘tolerance’ is shown. This is why we end up with such utterances as ‘intolerant of intolerance’; a moral dilemma that ought to be discussed rather than taken at face value.

Character education, values, beliefs, all sound great when they are values and beliefs you agree with and character traits you can warm to, but if schools have the power to shape the values, beliefs and characters of the next generation would we want everyone to be carbon copies of each other? How much freedom would we deny the school leaver in order to ensure they were carbon copies of a school values statement?

The rogue, the anarchist, the egoist, the sceptic, the awkward outlier, the shy, the introvert, the gritless, the witty and the witless… How many of these awkward cusses would survive in a new world order made out of the demands of school centred values? With a broad curriculum, a range of teachers and approaches and experiences, most children can find their niche, but in a narrower curriculum faced with the same old, same old, the same old children might struggle to find a ‘home’.

What about the rude, the right wing, the vile… according to Wikipedia, Kew-Forest School in New York: ‘provides a safe, nurturing, and intellectually vigorous environment that inspires every student to explore and expand creative interests, to apply courageous and innovative thinking, and to become an ethical contributor to ever-widening communities. Kew-Forest students develop the skills necessary for pursuing higher education and for acquiring the essential competencies of a responsible citizen.’ At thirteen years old, due to behaviour problems, Donald Trump had to leave this school (though I’m sure its mission statement was different in those days…) he attended instead the New York Military Academy which ‘was founded in 1889 by Charles Jefferson Wright, an American Civil War veteran and former schoolteacher from New Hampshire who believed that a military structure provided the best environment for academic achievement, a philosophy to which the school still adheres.’ Now, maybe, Trump was formed by his educational experiences, but would we want his character, beliefs and values to be tempered and formed by his school(s)? Would the world be better off if Trump was a different kinda guy? (Don’t answer that…)

Maybe a school can help with, socialisation, ’emotional intelligence’ or ‘manners’, within the microcosm of society that the school represents, but ought it encourage independence of thought? If a child is free to leave an institution so that they can then go ahead and forge their own way, even if that way flies in the face of the values that the school might have wished them to have, is that not preferable to a conveyor belt of similars being produced to a design deigned to be correct in the staff room?

How much freedom can an educational institution endure? Free speech, we’re banning it; the right to offend, we’re offended by it; eccentricity, we can tolerate it as long as it’s in your own home, in your own time, it’s not on Facebook and nobody knows about it… if not, there’s probably a therapist for it; politically incorrect? There’s a punishment for that…

When we say we want independent, creative and critical thinkers do our schools really have the power to achieve this and, if they do, can we tolerate a good degree of freedom within our walls to show we value these aims or do we wish to turn out independent, critically thinking clones of ourselves who agree with our every value and utterance?

An education that fosters individual liberty is a difficult aim to have, I wonder if it is an achievable one.

Bowie, my Gatekeeper, RiP

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“I’ve always cited who my influences are. I felt it was important for people to be able to see how things are put together at any given stage. I let people know what’s going through my head. I’ve been quite vocal about that through the years… I’ve always loved the process – to see how things are put together.” Bowie

Bowie was a gatekeeper for me. He opened gates into interesting worlds, ever interesting he was interested… A polymath, interested in art, all art… A truly Romantic figure, avant-garde, he opened gates into even more avant-garde worlds.

My school daze were a disappointment, I left formal education under several clouds at sixteen, but thank God I had teachers in the wider ‘popular’ culture around me and Bowie was my way in.

Heroes, the first album I bought of his, in 1977, was followed by Low then Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory… I trawled his back catalogue for extraordinary sounds, discordant then melodic, with a suburban south London drawl.

And the gates he opened for me… most importantly: William Burroughs and writing from cut-ups; Lindsay Kemp and his creative dance/mime; Bertolt Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble. Diamond Dogs opened Orwellian gates and a fascination with the dystopian, it was a Brave New World. Nic Roeg, Man Who Fell to Earth ‘weird’ movies; Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, Kubrick, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence; Camus, The Wasteland, Greil Marcus, Colin Macinnes, Andy Warhol, Pop Art; Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and the Velvet Underground; and Eno, Roxy Music, Robert Fripp; Bolan, Nina Simone, Scott Walker, Brel … all of these people, interested and interesting opened ever more gates. From Kraftwerk to Kafka to Kabuki, even his nightmarish cocaine fuelled thin white nazi caused confusion – ‘how could he?’ This leading to Rock Against Racism… and  the ‘bible’ of all this, and the burgeoning punk scene, was the NME – Charles Shaar Murray, Jon Savage, Nick Kent, Parsons and Burchill and Danny Baker… The Clash, Pistols… more gates opened as this boy looked at Bowie, at Johnny, at Joe, at Patti, and my walk on the wild side.

Bowie has left us many a canon beyond just the music, for example his list of 100 books. For me he points to something essential that those in both popular, high, wider culture have a duty to open gates for those who have been somehow lost to education. Our public life, where we come together, needs to be interested and interesting and magpie like picking on a wide range of references – thoughts, ideas and works.

I did a ‘gig’ at a school the other day and was congratulated for my ‘polymathic presentation’, how I had included a wide range of references, thoughts, reading and examples, which included Bowie. It is him I have to thank for helping to broaden my horizons.

Heroes.

Creativity, Education and Punk

The greatest punk manifesto:

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This image was from the fanzine ‘Sideburns’, though in common memory it is usually remembered as being associated with Sniffin’ Glue but it wasn’t that fanzine wot done it. Punk a reaction against the skilled overblown prog rock of the early to mid seventies was an attack on ability and artistry, it was a sonic and visual kick in the groin for the hi fi geeks listening to their ELP whilst smoking a joint and sitting on bean bags. Mark P begins his editorial in the first edition of Sniffin’ Glue like this:

The Ramones were in London this month and to realy [sic] get into the fact we’ve put this little mag/newsletter together. It’s a bit amateur at the moment but it is the first go isn’t it, I mean we can’t all be Nick Kents over night can we.

This was the ethos. Just do it. It’s this excitement that the best free schools seem to have – a kick back against the big prog establishments – and it’s why I like them. They get on with it, and find their way. They are creative institutions. They don’t wait for education experts, they won’t go knocking at the door of the edu equivalents of Roger Waters or Rick Wakeman to ask them what to do and how to do it, they’re going to do it their way and do it now. Here are three likeminded people, none of ’em are Nick Kents – now form a school.

Yesterday, I was fortunate to attend an excellent day of debates at Michaela Community School. Each debate got me thinking as each one covered critical ground. It was the one between Guy Claxton and Daisy Christodolou that got me thinking about the theme of this blog, how much knowledge does one need before one can be creative?  When is one ready ‘to do’? Clearly after three chords it would be impossible to form Genesis but it might be possible to form a band. Will the band get better, will they live long in our collective memory, will they produce work of quality, will they last in the competitive world of the pop business? Will they be better than Genesis?

How much do you need to know before you can begin to learn to do? In my book, Trivium 21c, this becomes a crucial question, I interviewed Ferdinand Mount about it and he said that although children need to learn how to think and argue that this should not be something that occurs before the age of 16. He went on to say:

The golden years of maximum brain activity should be spent in absorbing, in reading and listening to every conceivable source of knowledge. And rote learning, in all its forms, is an essential discipline in acquiring intellectual muscle. [p.184]

When should a child, in a school, begin to think, argue, test out, and/or refine their work? At what point do we move from the absorption of knowledge to the questioning of it? At what point do we know enough in order to *be* creative? Is this subject specific? Is this down to the individual teacher? Should this be enshrined in a curriculum? Is there a difference between practical and more traditionally ‘academic’ subjects in how teachers might approach the now or never or later of getting pupils to be creative?

Is it better to learn to be a teacher by studying the theory for a few years or by stepping into the classroom as soon as is possible? “Here are three ideas about how to teach – become a teacher…”  Or are the years spent absorbing the subject a good enough grounding in order for you to be an expert from day one?

I don’t think any of the answers to these questions are easy but if you believe that creativity is an important outcome of schooling then what you do might influence how creative your students might end up in your subject. If a music teacher just teaches her pupils to read music and play all the notes in the right order then her charges might be good musicians but should she teach them how to create, should she teach her pupils how to compose music and, if so, when? If she leaves it until they are sixteen is it too late? It certainly is too late for those who gave up her subject at the end of year nine…

What of those who know next to nothing, can they be truly creative with only three chords at their disposal? I would say they can be, they might be able to make a blistering song or two but their oeuvre might be somewhat limited after a time. Even the Ramones used more than three chords.

But Genesis were always dreadful.