Tag Archives: Art

Dumbing Down the Arts



The Guardian gushes: At a time when arts are squeezed in some schools, teachers are embracing them as a tool to teach the environment without realising it is this insidious belief that the arts are merely a pedagogical tool that is leading to a paucity of engagement with great art.

The tragic figure of the starving artist in the garret eking out an existence is such a romantic image that it has informed great works of art like Henry Wallis’s ‘The Death of Chatterton’ and Puccini’s sublime La Boheme yet in the future our art will be a dreaded commercial enterprise trying to turn people into environmental warriors.

‘At primary school children are ‘learning songs about climate change and the environment… It’s a fun way to learn… we learn the ‘compost and growing’ song and produce artwork in relation to it, too. The arts and other curriculum areas are continually connected. Teaching the children to be sustainable has nice science, humanities and responsible citizenship links.’

Instead of singing the ‘Ode to Joy’ these children are singing odes to compost.

Instead of making pots inspired by Grayson Perry or Bernard Leach children are making:

‘footballs out of recycled paper, carrier bags and elastic bands, and they discuss global issues around poverty, fairness and fair trade…’

Instead of wrestling with Sophocles, Shakespeare and Sarah Kane pupils are engaged in:

“farmer drama” sessions have been encouraging students to put themselves in the position of those working within the supply chain.

Now of course Sarah Kane isn’t suitable for primary children, nor for adults if the Daily Mail review that called her first play a ‘disgusting feast of filth’ is to be believed. But primary schools are essential breeding grounds for artists and audiences, future amateurs and professionals and also the foundations for what Chesterton called the ‘soul of a society’. By embedding the arts in the service of farmer drama and compost songs, and by hiding real art in project based learning, children will not know the deep truths that making difficult art can uncover. This starts young, with specialised art teachers teaching art, to children, as subjects in their own right.

In primary schools pupils should have art, music, drama and dance lessons and not only in the service of the rest of the curriculum. If teachers want to teach ‘the whole child’ then do this through the depth of study not merely by ticking some breadth boxes in the name of arts coverage as ‘a useful tool in explaining subjects that may otherwise be considered complex or inaccessible’


Discovery Learning and the Art of Reading


Mortimer J Adler’s and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book sets out to assist readers who want to read well.

Our subject, then, is the art of reading good books when understanding is the aim you have in view

In order to help the reader to do this the authors compare teaching to reading. When you are in the presence of a teacher, they write,  you can ask him a question and if you are ‘puzzled’ by the reply: ‘you can save yourself the trouble of thinking by asking him what he means. If, however, you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself.’

The reader has to do the work of analysis and thinking for themselves.

This is the difference between a present and an absent teacher. For the authors this is summed up by the difference between learning by instruction and learning by discovery. If you have learned a fact, they argue, you have only exercised your memory and you have not been enlightened, this only occurs when:

in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.

You need to know what is being said, you need to know the fact, it is the:’prerequisite to being enlightened. The point, however, is not to stop at being informed.’ Instruction by itself is not enough.

Adler and Van Doren illustrate this with the following quote from Montaigne:

an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it.

The first is the ignorance of those who can’t or won’t read and the second is the ignorance of those we could refer to as sophomores, those who might seem ‘bookish’ but are in fact ‘poorly read’. The Greek ‘sophos’ meant ‘wise’ and ‘mōros’, ‘fool’. The fact that the Sophists were often accused of being fond of rhetoric more than reasoning or knowledge, might also serve our understanding here. Adler and Van Doren are at pains to point out the difference between being widely read and well read.

If you assume that discovery is better than instruction because it is active, you assume wrongly.

Learning by instruction is being taught by speech or writing, learning by discovery is learning:

by research, by investigation, or by reflection, without being taught… In both cases, the activity of learning goes on in the one who learns. It would be a mistake to suppose that discovery is active learning and instruction passive.

They then go further deeming that instruction is, in fact, ‘aided discovery… it is the student… who must do the learning.’ So the difference is between, what they now refer to as ‘aided and unaided’ learning. When discovering with the help of a teacher the learner learns by being taught, either from reading or listening. Unaided discovery is the ‘art of reading nature or the world’.

Reading is therefore allied to ‘instruction, being taught, or aided discovery.’ In order to be an active reader one ‘thinks’. This is where people go wrong. The writers posit that people believe thinking to be an ‘unaided’ process of discovery which, they concede, it probably is when one reads merely for entertainment or information. However, it is not true of more ‘active reading’. This type of reading cannot be done ‘thoughtlessly’. The wise-fool would find the next step a challenge because it asks the reader to be be more involved.

During the activity of reading one also thinks, observes, remembers and constructs ‘imaginatively what cannot be observed’. The authors give us this lovely example:

many people assume that though a poet must use his imagination in writing a poem, they do not have to use their imagination in reading it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. They go on to say that all the same skills that are said to be required in ‘unaided discovery’ learning are needed for reading. Reading is discovery learning with ‘help instead of without it’. In order to do this best:

we need to know how to make books teach us well.

This requires effort, observation, imagination, memory, analysis and reflection. Reading is an active process. The rest of the book teaches the reader how one might read, actively and intelligently.

Arts Education has a “Low Impact”


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?


The Importance of Teaching ‘High Culture’


“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” Gangsta’s Paradise: Coolio

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Psalms 23:4 King James’ Version

The other day I was working with some teachers coming to the end of their training, the conversations were rich and rewarding and I have a good deal of faith that they will become great teachers. I was opening up debate by offering some provocations, including saying that it is important to not only teach ‘great’ work but also to help children develop a sense of what ‘great’ might be. Whilst emphasising the subjective nature to these judgements, I was arguing that children need to develop an ability to take part in the conversation and not feel excluded. One ITT suggested that this could occur from popular culture quoting the ‘Coolio’ lyric above. I pointed out that if someone did not know the biblical quote they might not recognise the reference. A biblical reference transcends class and race, and a child who has access to some words from, lets say, the King James Version of the Bible has a rich vein of material they can draw on throughout their life, whether they believe in the Christian God or not.

If I am educated in the works of High Culture my cup runneth over and I dwell in a world in which I can articulate thoughts I wouldn’t even have had if I didn’t know anything about it. I can enter into conversations with people I would have no business even being in the same room as them. I can change my life. I remember as a teenager being snubbed in an Oxford college because I was a mere ‘townie’, not for me the privileged discourse of the ‘gownie’; instead of obsessing about myself… my narrow obsessions… I could’ve thrown that mirror to the floor, and let my image, distorted, scream back at me: “Just learn about what you know, limit your life, and forever hide the inner you…”

If you only know popular culture and the most accessible aspects of it, then what do you know of the world? I’d warrant you’d know a lot but there would be a whole lot more you wouldn’t know. This is where school comes in, there is no point in teaching children what they already know, at school it is the inaccessible that should fascinate us, the downright difficult, the stuff we wouldn’t ordinarily come across or would find difficult to access. The stuff behind heavy oak doors, or in secret gardens. Yes, children might be scared of the things that schooling might put them through but this education can touch and enrich their ‘inner you’. High Culture is looking for recruits, children salute! If this education is only for the rich, or only for the geeks then what do we become? Weirdly bereft of a whole tranche of human knowing, we scatter ourselves around the basement, debased, not wholly aware of what or why we might be. We’re weird.

Weird people from the basement need to climb to the roof; You know the people on the bus and the people on the street people like you and the people like me! Weird people! Geeks! Whoever! People like you and me. A little mix of high culture with our lived lives enriches us, it expands us, it opens up possibilities. By denying high culture on the grounds of class, or any other, demeans the person denying that knowledge to others, because they ‘know’ of it but decide not to tell. In whose interests is it to not teach children the supreme works of humanity?

Then I hear the refrain: “But who is to say they are the supreme works?” And with that quip ‘high’ culture is dismissed; easily ignored and hated as elitist it becomes ever more elitist by denying it to our children. In the basement they can dream of climbing to the roof, but they know it’s not for the likes of them and the effort might be too much on their own. If only a great teacher would sing: “But it don’t matter who you are, you can be who you wanna be,” with an education that sees no reason not to teach great works a child can be comforted in the knowledge that can restoreth their soul.

Building British Values, Character and Resilience in Every Child


The recent white paper Educational Excellence Everywhere states that the Government is set on: “Building character and resilience in every child” It continues by stating that:

A 21st century education should prepare children for adult life by instilling the character traits and fundamental British values that will help them succeed: being resilient and knowing how to persevere, how to bounce back if faced with failure, and how to collaborate with others at work and in their private lives.

A gradual process of establishing the fundamental British value of knowing how to bounce back if faced with failure, a kind of ‘Dunkirk Spirit’, if you will, finds itself nestling in with collaboration, perseverance and resilience. I suppose those might be British values or, indeed, the character traits of adults, the traits that clearly do not feature in Ian Duncan Smith’s personality as his resignation proves he is poor when it comes to perseverance. His resignation letter also proves a damning indictment of the character of Osborne, implying that collaboration is an issue for the ex St Paul’s boy as he is unable to fashion the spirit of ‘we’re all in it together…’

The character of these Government ministers does not display the stated fundamental British values, is this a failure of their education? Is this the sort of thing that this white paper will ensure never occurs again? Will everyone pass the British character test?

The white paper continues:

These traits not only open doors to employment and social opportunities but underpin academic success, happiness and wellbeing… There are many different methods and the government has no intention of mandating a particular approach.

Fundamental British values underpin academic success? I’m not sure if this is borne out by the evidence, immigrant communities seem to perform well, if anything the long tail of underachievement, as it has been known as for years, seems to be fundamentally a trait of the indigenous population.

Maybe these traits – character and British values belong only to the successful and retrospectively we can blame misery on the lack of collaborative work and lack of resilience… Sorry, let’s think this through… Failure seems to be important, if you are able to ‘bounce back’, Chumbawumba did a song about it:

I get knocked down
But I get up again
You’re never going to keep me down

Pissing the night away

Fundamental British values of getting drunk, knocked down, getting up again… The value of failure – in an economy that is struggling at best, to put everything down to individual character is harsh to say the least but getting up and smashing the system might be a show of character…

But that would be anger… the white paper seems to extol the idea of happiness. The positive psychology movement and the smiley yellow self help gurus with their books are making their mark, but is ‘happiness’ a fundamental British value? Isn’t a good degree of pessimism or ‘mustn’t grumble’ grumbling the reasonably positive traits for those of us born in these Isles? Our sense of humour delights in our collective misery, our ‘happiness’ might depend on an attitude towards tragedy and the rocks that are hurled at us in the every day. Unbridled happiness might diminish the attitude of stoic irony that sees us through the downsizing economy and the efforts of our ‘Betters’ to ensure we are ‘happy’.

Many schools across the country already offer a wide range of imaginative, character-building opportunities to their pupils and our vision is for schools to increase their range of activities, based on strong relationships with local and national businesses, and voluntary and sporting organisations.

I’ve got nothing against this, it’s all to the good, though, depending on the business and what it intends to do with the child to ‘build their character’. It might be that the youth build their character through shifting trolleys around a windswept car park, which does indeed ‘build character’ and it might build a sense of ‘stoicism’, though it would be stretching it to call it happiness. This is where the ‘science’ comes in…

…we will work with the Behavioural Insights Team and What Works Centres to develop tools that schools can use to identify the most successful approaches to building character in their pupils, and to track how well those approaches are working. We will also work with expert organisations to provide a platform where teachers can share best practice about character development, evaluate new ideas, find professional development materials and contribute data to build the evidence base.


We will ensure evidence-based approaches to character development are built into initial teacher training programmes; and work with networks like teaching schools to spread the most effective approaches to developing character in schools. Finally, we will deliver a new round of Character Awards, recognising the schools and organisations which are most successful in supporting children to develop key character traits.

This is where things might get sinister. As Theodore Dalrymple puts it:

The inherent tragic dimension of human existence [is] a dimension that only literature (and other forms of art), but not psychology, can capture, and which indeed it is psychology’s vocation to deny and hide from view with a thin veneer of science. Without an appreciation of the tragic dimension, all is shallowness; and those without it are destined for a life that is nasty and brutish, if not necessarily short.

This thin veneer of science will be placed over ‘character’ as though we can define it, measure it and judge whether the building of it is successful or not. What arrogance! This is government with a missionary zeal to convert your very self, not materially, but personally. This is government that feels its superiority, that is government by the Übermensch and they will use science to fool you into thinking that there is one way to be if you wish to be successful. This is shallow. It is also a sign of a culture in crisis. A confident culture can tolerate difference, opens itself up to conversation and argument about different ways to be, a society that tolerates, that knows it takes all sorts to make up the values that we could ascribe to be British or, indeed, human.

Who is to say what are the ‘key character traits’? This would imply cracking the human code, knowing the answer to what it is all about. Knowing the why and implying that we can codify these traits and all agree what that code might mean in practice. What nonsense, do we want a society where our very characters can be categorically measured against others?

To develop character the school day will be extended to include:

additional activity to help develop young people’s character… high quality instruction and coaching in sports and the arts, alongside activities such as debating, scouting and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.



knowledge-rich curriculum [will be] complemented by the development of the character traits and fundamental British values that will help children succeed

That knowledge of the arts and great literature can bring depth and richness to the conversation about what might constitute values and character traits that could be considered positive I do not doubt but to write these things in stone will not add to human knowledge, indeed it will surely diminish our knowing of these things. Imagine the shopping list of traits and all schools buying into the lesson plans provided by some well meaning ‘virtuous’ entrepreneur who determines to sell us the super scheme of character work. Imagine the character passports. Imagine the inset day with the humble consultant extolling the value of humility or whatever the list comprises. Hubris.

The white paper continues:

A 21st century education also promotes integration so that young people can play their part in our society. Schools and other education providers have an important role to play in promoting the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual tolerance and respect of those with different faiths and beliefs, while developing the knowledge, critical thinking and character traits that enable pupils to identify and challenge extremist views.

Mutual tolerance of those with different beliefs, but not ‘extremists’, does that include UKIP? Identifying and challenging extremist views does that mean taking on Jeremy Corbyn?  Why not identifying and challenging views, critical thinking is not just about some uncritical idea of what is extreme and this is not, critical thinking is a continual process, it can’t be written down as a list of acceptable opinions. Tradition can provide parameters for us but it should not be above critique. The, so called, British value of Individual liberty is a nonsense if you tell people what to think, what opinions they should have, and how their very character should be constituted.

What is British, maybe, is that, like our language, these things come from ‘below’, through our civil life. Character and characters, awkward and harmonious, come to us from our living life and by allowing everyone the fullest life possible by opening up opportunity and education to all throughout their life can do much to encourage the richness of this process.

There is much in the white paper that can help, including the extolling of programmes like the Duke of Edinburgh award, the national voluntary service, debating, sports and the arts. Put money into all of this. Invest in teaching not just Maths until eighteen but a breadth of subjects and, most importantly, the arts as it is the discussion around great art that can add so much to our understanding of ourselves and what it means to be human. A liberal arts approach to the curriculum, crowned by a baccalaureate with breadth and depth might be a good way to help deliver a richly humane education.

But, please, spare us the character ‘science’ and the pursuit of British values, it just isn’t , well, very British.



Bowie, my Gatekeeper, RiP


“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.


Is Teaching A Profession?


(One of the arguments for a College of Teaching is that it will raise the status of teaching as a profession. Do I want teachers to have higher status as a profession?     


From the oldest profession to the newest ones ‘professionalisation’ takes its toll. Wage slavery sucking the life blood out of the servile ones, judging and being judged with payment justifying all crimes against the humane. Do we really see teaching as a profession, all tied into targets, managerialism, and ‘deliverology’? This is the lowest common denominator. What we want is the humane and wonderful, and for all to flourish in the day to day, by teaching children to know, to think, to question, to practice, to take part and to tell.

Many people fall into teaching, it seems to discover them rather than they discover it; for many it might be a last ditch attempt at a form of respectability and a regular wage. Then they discover a relationship with the work. Can one love teaching? We all hate it sometimes, but love it many times too. Teaching is emotional.

Teaching is not a profession, if it is anything it is a vocation: a calling (even a ‘falling’) it involves dedication which has its own sense of worth through its very nature. A vocation has more status than a mere profession. A vocation has a claim towards a teacher’s autonomy from the managerial machine. This machine likes to manipulate professionals, it requires efficiency and delivery and it won’t tolerate imagination or eccentricity. The machine is systematic and is therefore susceptible to the worst effects of science, whereas a vocation responds to emotion and is more at one with the arts. A teacher answering the call of vocation is drawn to Athena, she loves her subject and wants to share its knowledge, rather than the professional who submits to and obeys the machine, no matter what…

The machine should only exist to allow the best teaching to occur, unfortunately the machine has a voracious appetite and tries to gobble up the humane and replace it with mechanical instruction. It goes so far that many theorists of the machine led view of education want to replace teachers entirely with technology and its way of working. Sir Michael Barber thinks: “The learning revolution will lead to fewer teachers and an ‘explosion’ of data.” He wants us to follow Singapore rather than tradition and embrace a new paradigm. In this new paradigm professionals are clearly replaceable. Professionals are replaceable, that’s part of the deal.

People who have answered a call to become teachers are not replaceable. A vocation is a way of being, Barber cannot stop teachers teaching no matter how much data he can accrue.

Will an explosion of data lead to fewer parents? Will data bombs lead to fewer artists? Will data splat eradicate emotion?

The vocation of teaching would never see children or their parents as customers, a school is a valued institution, not a business.


Teaching is an art, not a science.

Teachers must love science but not be in thrall to it.

Teachers must value the machine that frees them, not the one that defeats them.

Teaching is a vocation, not a profession.

Data will not replace teachers… Don’t even let ‘them’ try.



(added 14th Dec. 2014) This post has generated a lot of debate on twitter, it is probably my most controversial posting so far, therefore I thought the following might help the debate…

The Oxford English Dictionary (online) defines profession as: A paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification: ‘his chosen profession of teaching’; [TREATED AS SINGULAR OR PLURAL] A body of people engaged in a particular profession: the legal profession has become increasingly business-conscious

And it defines vocation as: A strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation:
not all of us have a vocation to be nurses or doctors; A person’s employment or main occupation, especially regarded as worthy and requiring dedication: her vocation as a poet; She was also a teacher in inner city London – a vocation which requires real dedication. The teacher does not hold the prospect of wealth but is accorded respect for his vocation and dedication to the care of the young.

In the longer version of the online dictionary profession is described as vocation and vocation includes profession, over time they have become synonymous.

In the Chambers dictionary of etymology vocation is defined as a noun meaning: occupation, profession. Both profession and vocation have religious roots, profession, before about 1200, was the vow made by a person entering a religious order. Before 1430 vocation was a spiritual calling. Profession was a public declaration and a calling… in 1541 it took on the meaning of an occupation requiring professional skill or qualified training. In 1553 vocation is recorded for the first time as meaning one’s profession. 

Interestingly profession is connected to the word ‘professor’ e.g. a person who professes to be an expert in art or science and teacher of the highest rank.

Here is a piece about ‘vocation’ from a Catholic viewpoint.

There is clearly much confusion around and so when I try to separate the meanings difficulties arise. However, I believe this is a conversation worth having. I am making a distinction between the two, vocation, to me, is profession plus, profession, to me, is vocation minus… Meaning that the feeling one has for teaching is vital, the calling if you will. In a spiritual sense, in a secular age, I am thinking about how this calling should be about the ‘pursuit of wisdom’, the calling is from ‘Athena’ as defined in my talk: ‘Athena versus the Machine’.

As for whether education is an Art or a Science, this is an ongoing debate. Daniel T Willingham has an interesting video addressing this question.