Category Archives: Uncategorized

Assessment and the Arts

 

The anti-Ken Robinson Robinson talks about cognitive dualism, the need for the subjective and the problems that creates for schools in a high stakes assessment and accountability system.

If the arts are subjective how can they be measured fairly? If they are assessed more objectively can they be considered to be worthwhile subjects of study?

 

George Monbiot on Factory Schools and the Future of Education

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On his website George Monbiot writes that:

While you can be definitively wrong, you cannot be definitely right. The best anyone can do is constantly to review the evidence and to keep improving and updating their knowledge. Journalism which attempts this is worth reading. Journalism which does not is a waste of time.

Just as importantly, journalists should show how they reach their conclusions, by providing sources for the facts they cite. Trust no one, but trust least those who cannot provide references. A charlatan, in any field, is someone who will not show you his records.

This is good to know, in the light of an article he wrote called:

In an age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant

As a trainee Luddite I was quite hopeful when I saw this title, maybe it would be an attack on the mechanisation of our schools from the enthusiastic techno-warriors who try to ruin the environment of education by throwing technology at every child as soon as they have learnt to gurgle and cry. But no.

The piece opens with this paragraph:

In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines?

As Monbiot suggests, he cannot be definitely right when he writes this. Yet has he reviewed the evidence? Has he updated his knowledge? Has he provided evidence for the facts he has cited? Has he shown us his records?

Well, maybe he has a crystal ball, but I’m not sure he knows what the jobs of the future will be like. Although I’m surprised that he implies education is primarily for preparing children for jobs I wonder what jobs he is thinking of, I’d like to see his evidence for this assertion. Finally, evidence wise, which schools are teaching children to behave like machines? I only ask because Monbiot suggests I should:

Trust no one, but trust least those who cannot provide references…

Monbiot writes that:

…why is collaboration in tests and exams called cheating?

He doesn’t provide sources for the facts he is citing here, but as a drama teacher I can assure him that at A level and GCSE collaboration is not called cheating…

but, of course, it might be him referring to written exams only… but this misunderstands group work, sometimes children try to hide they can’t read or can’t do a task, assessment is important for the teacher to find out who can’t do something so that they might help the pupil. If every test was collaborative, would the education for the future that Monbiot has already described achieve his aim? But, oddly, Monbiot believes the schools we currently have are:

…designed to produce the workforce required by 19th-century factories. The desired product was workers who would sit silently at their benches all day, behaving identically, to produce identical products, submitting to punishment if they failed to achieve the requisite standards. Collaboration and critical thinking were just what the factory owners wished to discourage.

Yet if we do a bit of research we can see that in the 19th century, the schools which were designed to:

provide for England’s newly-industrialised and (partly) enfranchised society 

Were not ones in which

workers who would sit silently at their benches all day

 

In ‘Schools of Industry’ (As factory school as you can get):

The children were taught reading and writing, geography and religion. Thirty of the older girls were employed in knitting, sewing, spinning and housework, and 36 younger girls were employed in knitting only. The older boys were taught shoemaking, and the younger boys prepared machinery for carding wool. The older girls assisted in preparing breakfast, which was provided in the school at a small weekly charge. They were also taught laundry work. The staff consisted of one schoolmaster, two teachers of spinning and knitting, and one teacher for shoemaking. (Hadow 1926:3-4) In 1846 the Committee of Council on Education began making grants to day schools of industry towards the provision of gardens, trade workshops, kitchens and wash-houses, and for gratuities to the masters who taught boys gardening and crafts and to the mistresses who gave ‘satisfactory instruction in domestic economy’ (Hadow 1926:9).

Sounds like collaboration was needed, and not too much sitting in rows.

This is similar to Monitorial Schools:

The curriculum… was… the ‘three Rs’ (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) plus practical activities such as cobbling, tailoring, gardening, simple agricultural operations for boys, and spinning, sewing, knitting, lace-making and baking for girls.

Whereas in Infant Schools:

The first infant school was established by Robert Owen (1771-1858) in New Lanark, Scotland, in 1816. Children were admitted at the age of two and cared for while their parents were at work in the local cotton mills. The instruction of children under six was to consist of ‘whatever might be supposed useful that they could understand, and much attention was devoted to singing, dancing, and playing’ (Hadow 1931:3).

Elementary Schools:

The question of how to organise children above the age of six in elementary schools was first addressed in Great Britain by David Stow (1793-1864)… He believed that in primary education the living voice was more important than the printed page, so he laid great stress on oral class teaching.

All this information is freely available here. It gives a lie to Monbiot’s assertion about what the 19th century education was like.

Monbiot’s assertion also ignores the social pioneers who pressed for reform throughout the 19th century, resulting in more schools educating the poor, educating girls, and also providing education education for ‘special needs’ children.

As for other schools, for the more ‘well-to-do’ the 1868 Taunton Report recommended, along class lines that schools should be seen as three different types:

first-grade schools with a leaving age of 18 or 19 would provide a ‘liberal education’ – including Latin and Greek – to prepare upper and upper-middle class boys for the universities and the older professions;
second-grade schools with a leaving age of 16 or 17 would teach two modern languages besides Latin to prepare middle class boys for the army, the newer professions and departments of the Civil Service; and
third-grade schools with a leaving age of 14 or 15 would teach the elements of French and Latin to lower middle class boys, who would be expected to become ‘small tenant farmers, small tradesmen, and superior artisans’. (The Commissioners treated these schools as secondary schools because the Elementary School Code of 1860 had fixed the leaving age for elementary schools at 12).

The Elementary Schools act of 1870 which took up to 20 years to enact is one where schools:

catered for children up to 14;
were for the working class;
provided a restricted curriculum with the emphasis almost exclusively on the ‘3Rs’ (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic);
pursued other, less clearly defined, aims including social-disciplinary objectives (acceptance of the teacher’s authority, the need for punctuality, obedience, conformity etc);
operated the ‘monitorial’ system, whereby a teacher supervised a large class with assistance from a team of monitors (usually older pupils). 

Perhaps these are the schools Monbiot meant? Some of which were only around for the last decade of the 19th century. These schools were not preparing children for the 19th century factory but, maybe, the 20th century one. Yet they were also doing something socially extraordinary, if we look back to 19th century Sunday Schools in which no child was taught:

writing or arithmetic or any of the ‘more dangerous subjects’

because they were:

‘less necessary or even harmful’

The fact that poorer children were being taught to read and write and do their sums was a great advance. Yet even then, at the end of the century, further social reformers were looking to improve the academic level of education for the poor, which led to many great schooling innovations in the twentieth century.

I have a great deal of sympathy with many of Monbiot’s sentiments, but his inability to provide much evidence at all for his assertions in the first half of his piece then leads to worries about the singular nature of the evidence he provides in the second half of his article.

In fact the whole piece reads as though instead of

constantly reviewing the evidence and keep improving and updating his knowledge

it looks as though he already had a conclusion in mind and went on social media to provide ammunition for his prejudices.

Surely he wouldn’t have done something like that?

And yet on the 8th February Monbiot had tweeted this:

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Next time, wouldn’t it be interesting if Monbiot followed his own advice and tried to produce (I paraphrase):

Journalism that is worth reading.

 

NB The image above is from the USA somewhere between 1900 and 1920

Confine Post-truth Education into the Dustbin of History

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Two arguments have been prevalent in education discourse for a number of years: one, that the content of the curriculum is just a reflection of power relations and two, that all truth is relative. The arguments are often expressed as questions: ‘whose truth?’ And ‘whose knowledge?’ These ideas are then used to back up the idea that the curriculum should be personalised and that everyone is entitled to an opinion as all opinions are valid, so what we teach is less important than how we teach it.

The challenge to such thinking in education comes with two changes that occurred during 2016: our relationship with ‘Europe’ and the oft repeated claim that now live in a post truth age.

Whose knowledge? Imagine a curriculum that celebrated the importance of European culture, had explored the work of Beethoven, Goethe, and Dante, in which all children had been taught about classical civilisation, the languages of ancient Greek and Latin, they had been imbued with the philosophy of Hegel, of Machiavelli, of Descartes, and had tried to understand Kant, had felt the passion of Puccini, the splendour of Wagner and the brilliance of Mozart… and Napoleon… imagine a curriculum where children were now looking at Putin through the eyes of children who had been introduced to Tsarist Russia through the words of Tolstoy.

In education we have for too many years not given enough credence to cultural, artistic, philosophical and political understanding of our European home. Isn’t it a shame the referendum debate lacked a position on the cultural history of our continent, our place within it, its Christian history, as well as Jewish, Muslim and Pagan, its architecture and geography…? Instead these things have been frowned upon for years by a significant number of educationalists. Much of our shared European culture has been seen in our schools as a colonialist history, full of white male domination including, of course,  Hitler. Instead of some sort of communal European identity and feeling, our place as Europeans is absorbed as problematic. And whether you were for Brexit or not, Europe is a part of all our lives. Especially as our island story has an uneasy relationship with the continent, we should teach for a better cultural understanding of our shared and different histories.

Now we hear about how disgraceful it is that we live in a ‘post-truth’ age from the same mouths who have for many years asked but ‘whose truth?’ and stated that: ‘there is no truth…’ How they can suddenly believe that we have lost something they thought we never had is beyond me. Derrida and Foucault, dead European men both, have infected the discourse in the arts and humanities for too long.

It is precisely in the Arts and the Humanities that we should regain a sense of truth, of truths, of the need for a pursuit of truth and some sense of a common history. Education  should reaffirm its purpose of introducing the cultural and philosophical conversations through time to children, we can use education as a way of bringing us back together through all our differences to at least understand that, in the words of Jo Cox MP, “we have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

If the arts and culture are merely taught in terms of reflecting privilege and power and all is relative so there is no truth, we will struggle to raise children who can see a value in the arts, apart from an X Factor money making and fame generating opportunity. If the arts and humanities abandon the pursuit of truth and leave that noble aim to science and maths, we will struggle to understand!

This means stop pursuing ‘personalisation’, everyone is different, tailor-made approaches in which children are merely customers exercising consumer choice. Instead it means teaching the great works, thoughts, and ideas of the past, restoring a sense that some things are better than others. It means we should teach about our cultural history, the agreements and the clashes of civilisations and ideals, the wars and the peace, but ensure, into our great tradition, we include a wide range of voices, including the dissenting ones to enable new voices to feel that they have a stake in continuing the conversation.

Value the tradition and value the pursuit of wisdom and truth. Confine the wrecking questions of whose truth? and whose knowledge? to the dustbin of history.

 

Boris ‘Two Articles’ Johnson

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The Sunday Times has published an article by Boris Johnson arguing the case for remaining in the EU, that it was written a mere two days before he announced he would be campaigning for Brexit has led to a good number of people bemoaning Boris’s hypocrisy. First there was ‘two Jags’ Prescott, now there is ‘two articles’ Boris and people of twitter have not been slow in putting their opinions forward about Johnson being caught trying to look after his own interests rather than the interests of the nation.

Far from being a sign of Johnson being in two minds and coming across as a political charlatan, his two articles are really a sign of a good education. There is one sign early on when Johnson, as his his wont, uses a classical allusion:

“…like Hercules bringing Eurydice (sic) back from the underworld.”

But it is not just his ability to play around with classical knowledge that is of interest, it is the well known technique of getting pupils to see both (or more) sides of an argument that matters. As I argue in the book ‘Trivium in Practice’ :

…get children to explore… debate through a technique known as a dissoi logo. Through this method a pupil would be encouraged to look at two sides of an argument – or more – and be asked to write… [giving] equal weight to the ‘rightness’ of both sides. This is the process through which instant opinion is ‘shelved’ and stronger, educated opinion begins to be formed

As it says in Wikipedia the dissoi logo ‘considers each side of an argument in hopes of coming to a deeper truth’ and that ‘The Dissoi Logoi was found amongst the works of Sextus Empiricus who lived between 160-210 C.E… In ancient Greece, students of rhetoric would be asked to speak and write for both sides of a controversy.’

Johnson is not showing his hypocrisy arguing for both sides of the debate in writing, rather he is showing what a good, classical, education he had. Actually, I can think of no better rhetorical technique for someone in the Foreign Office, I wonder if he has a few scribbled notes in praise of Putin in his pocket?

NB: I will be speaking on this and other Classical education ideas at the wonderful Battle of Ideas at the Barbican this Sunday coming, come along, it’s a great line up!

Should White Men Get Awards?

And should the curriculum be white?

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In today’s Guardian is a piece bemoaning the award of the Nobel Prize for literature to Bob Dylan; as an idea that is perfectly acceptable however, the piece argues that the reason for not awarding Mr Zimmerman the Nobel should be because of his whiteness and maleness.

The Nobel prize in literature is infamous for its conventionality and the limits of its imagination. In its 115-year history, only 14 women have been awarded the prize, and only four of those women have been writers of colour. The Nobel prize has one of the worst gender ratios in any major literary award, which is troubling given that its internationality means that it is viewed as the most prestigious literary award around. 

There are some very important points being made here, the figures might suggest that the members of the awarding committee have been guilty of racism and sexism over the years yet it is equally possible that they might not have been. Bearing in mind Dylan’s Jewish heritage it was interesting that the writer, Natalie Kon-Yu, didn’t mention how many Jews have received the award. She goes on to say:

Prizes are subjective measures, but they are important: they reinforce the standards of great writing in our culture, with a focus on quality rather than popularity.

If the focus is to be on quality of the work and not on the race and sex of the person who makes the work anomalies might happen. Any accusation of sexism and racism would have to look at the quality of the work in order to prove that other work was better but, as Kon-Yu also points out, this is very much a subjective judgement. If the committee feels that Dylan’s work qualifies for the prize I am sure they are able to justify it in qualitative, subjective terms. Art should not be measured ‘objectively’. However, the argument in the piece doesn’t offer qualitative points about the art, instead it suggests that:

The Guardian listed Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Don DeLillo and Haruki Murakami as favourites to win the prize this year – and all of those would have been a better choice than Dylan. There are also plenty of women, accomplished novelists, essayists and memoirists who could have won.

What about Atwood, who has written poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and whose work has been endlessly republished, studied around the world, and awarded major prizes for decades? Or Joyce Carol Oates, who has published more than 40 books of fiction as well as novellas, plays, poetry collections, short stories and non-fiction?

Or, if the Nobel committee really wanted to be radical, it might have given the award to Ferrante, who has achieved incredible commercial appeal for books that examine the sexism and classism of Italy in the 20th century.

Kon-Yu writes that: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Don DeLillo and Haruki Murakami would have been a better choice than Dylan but doesn’t suggest why, yes there are plenty of women who could have won, that they didn’t might be that in a subjective argument about quality it was felt their work did not to match up to Dylan’s oeuvre. Maybe next time?

It is interesting that the argument given tries to reach for objective facts, the numbers of books published, awards awarded, times republished, and on all these scales Dylan is hardly surpassed as an artist. In many ways Dylan is such an icon he is difficult to ignore. Whether he deserves the Nobel prize for literature is an argument worth having because, qualitatively, his work doesn’t necessarily stand up on its own terms as great literature:

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

On its own this lyric doesn’t read well, yet put it with a guitar, a tune and a gravelly voice it works wonders, maybe the Nobel institute could look at making awards in a wider range of categories, though I am sure it is possible to pick out lyrics from Dylan’s many years of writing which stand up there with the world’s best literature, it’s his role as a singer songwriter and of the influence he has on others that makes him truly great.

His greatness should not be ignored because of his race or gender, the award should be for the work, nothing else. The same problem arises when choosing what to study in schools, is it the quality and historical importance of works that should be the reason for study or the gender and race of the writer? I would argue strongly for the former. However as a white male, if I was sat in a room of entirely white males, with similar backgrounds, putting together a curriculum, we could rightly be accused of having a view that is too narrow; the opinions heard must include voices that represent people whose class, race, sex etc. are truly representative of all, not because that would necessarily mean that the choices made would be different, though they might well be, but that we could be sure that the choices made had a universal, qualitative, importance. That some of this work might be produced by white European males should not exempt it from study, as the great black Marxist writer CLR James put it:

“I denounce European colonialism… but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.” ‘The Making of the Caribbean People’

I think that quality of work, rather than the gender and race of the writer, should be our touchstone, however I also think the members of committees who are in positions of power when designing curricula should be more reflective of the nation and in the case of international awards, the world.

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…

 

A Call for Competence!

Ss this too much to ask?

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Do you remember the days when people voted Conservative because of economic competence, calmness in the face of a storm, ability to know what to do when faced with a crisis and an utter belief in the importance of tradition and the need for strong institutions, and a strong and United Kingdom?

Well, those days seem to belong to a bygone age.

Economically incompetent, panicking in the face of a storm, no idea what to do, pissing on institutions, breaking tradition and disuniting our Kingdom, these Conservatives have certainly broken away from anything that could be remotely classed as competent.

However, not to be outdone, Labour seems intent on trying to keep hold of the title of the most incompetent Party in Britain today.

What an absolute shower, a plague on both your houses!

Come back when you either know what you are doing or you have all resigned en-masse…

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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?

 

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.

 

Don’t Panic About Tests

Trivium21c

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‘In some ways I don’t feel like a teacher at all anymore. I prepare children for tests. They’ve not enjoyed it, I’ve not enjoyed it, but we’ve done it : and one thing my children know how to do is answer test questions’  Zoë Brown

Zoe and her fiancé Tim Paramour have both made a big thing of quitting teaching – with articles focussing on their reasons published in ‘The Independent’. Paramour wrote that:

2012 was the turning point. Ofsted’s obsession with results and the threat of no-notice inspections for schools whose test scores dipped engendered a culture of fear. Terrified by the threat of losing their jobs in an academy takeover, headteachers made more absurd demands of their teachers’ spare time.

This is telling, Headteachers are making absurd demands because of the perceived threat. Now I’m not denying that the threat exists but I do wonder if making absurd demands is the…

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