Last time, we began our look at the place of education in the possible human-planet future, by getting to grips with the fact that while humans are natural learners, and weave meaning into all manner of daily life, our formal education systems don’t seem to be working as effectively as we might hope, with the classroom not easily fitting a lot of its human students around the world. And teachers not always loving their sacred role of inspiring young minds. So how might the classroom of tomorrow work a bit better for us?
LISTEN TO UNSEE THE FUTURE, EP14: EDUCATION, part 2
Sir Ken Robinson’s TED2006 talk Do schools kill creativity? has had over fifty million views. And he admits, when people ask him what he does for a living at dinner parties (if he’s asked to dinner parties) “the blood just drains from their face” he says. “But when you ask them about their education, they pin you to the wall… We all care about education” he states. And he may not be wrong there. His talk from a dozen years ago is supposedly the most viewed talk in TED’s history.
“It’s my contention that all children have tremendous talents. And we squander them. Pretty ruthlessly” he says casually up front.
I can see why it’s such a watched talk – it’s full of LOLz. Unlike most lessons you’ve ever been in. But his insight seems as depressingly relevant as ever – “My belief is that creativity is as important as literacy. And we should treat it with the same status.”
“Every education system on Earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Doesn’t matter where you go. At the top are mathmatics and languages, then come the humanities and at the bottom are the arts – everywhere on Earth.” And, he says, within the arts, ‘art’, in the traditional sense, and music – probably too, mostly in the traditional sense of learning an orchestral instrument – are normally given higher status than drama and dance. Yet, he says, do we not all have bodies? Why is dance not taught to everyone? Why are you sniggering at the idea – what would your relationship be with your body today if you’d had a natural school career of movement classes? And drama – why on Earth aren’t we all taught drama as core learning? The arts how to express yourself with your universally given instruments – your body and your feelings. Those pretty fundamental things driving all the problems that make up the Global Goals working plan to save humanity. ..Barely make any curriculum anywhere on Earth.
The result is, he says, we have an education system that, according to its evident outputs, is entirely set up around the world to try to make our children university professors. Abstracted academics. A teaching system that is all about the head in isolation, and just one side of it at that. University professors are generally, he said with affection, people who live inside their thinking. People who: “Look upon their bodies as a form of transport for their heads. A way of getting their heads to meetings.”
It’s a product of a global culture driven by industrialism in the 19th century – education only came into being as organised systems to meet the needs of it. “Benign advice” steers us away from creativity in a death by a thousand cultural cuts, and academic ability has come to define our idea of intelligence because, in the end: “Universities have designed the system in their image – the whole system of education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance.” And the net effect, he says simply, is that: “Many highly talented, intelligent, creative people think they’re not. because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued or was actively stigmatised. And I don’t think we can afford to go on like that.”
In the foundation of our education system, regardless of smeres of influence here and there over the years from alternative methods such as Steiner and Montessori schooling, there is still essentially only right and wrong. In the exams that really push the grades tables for schools. There is no interpretation in the learning of core subjects – the ‘proper’ subjects. So it looks to me, peering in through the steamed up window of the staff room from outside. I know how much my sister in law loves teaching RE because it’s one of the few places in the timetable that philosophical debate is encouraged to break out. Everywhere else, there’s no great need to teach children to assess interpretation. To equip them with more critical cognitive abilities. Or to take risks – everything has to be right.
But this is not exactly in alignment with the very businessy idea of entrepreneurism, is it? Because, as Sir Ken says: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you won’t come up with anything original.” And we run our companies like this, much like we run our education system. The creativity, and confidence to explore ideas with it, is educated out of us. Arguably leaving us a stunted version of our fuller selves.
More recently, buoyantly successful ex-Googler Max Ventiller’s Alt-School project looked like a suitably hopey-changey entrepreneurial starty-uppy reaction to the criticisms of education without tailoring to minds, teaching without creativity.
“The model we have for educating kids, it is a mass-production model” he says. “It doesn’t provide an individualised experienced to anybody.” Reading text books and taking quizzes on what they read, he says is: “teaching kids how to think like computers. And that’s not going to be very valuable when these kids actually grow up to be adults.” Because, y’know. We have, er, computers to be computers. And to do… increasingly everything. Better than humans trying to be computers.
His advocation of technology being the key to “curating a day-to-day education experience that meets (children) where they are” and not corraling them into boxes like bleating little sheep, will surprise your view of Californian tech culture thinking not one iota. You old rain-sodden cynic. And “allowing a child to decide in what order they do things” sounds like a recipe for making little monsters for expensively trained advanced techlearning strategists to deliver one-to-one permanent high-expectation pandering. But maybe being a rich kid’s personal slave, shackled forever to very well funded capricious whims, is a realistic job for more aspirational teachers to train for in a post-Forty-Five world.
Back at Less Desireable Catchment Area Secondary Modern, you may well be used to the idea of meeting more individual needs in the classroom. But with a plethora of now labelled ‘conditions’ children arrive badged with from toddler years, never mind the different personalities all engaging with your lesson differently, this idea may be a stressful extra level of fantasy in the management of your learning outputs as a teacher. Am I right? Don’t say I’m wrong, just differently outlooked. But I bet I’m right.
“Allowing a child to have agency” for you might mean classes constantly disrupted by especially challenging individuals. You might be feeling that if there’s one thing children need more of in modern life, it’s not choice – good lord, not more choice – but discipline. Spare the rod, mate. Well spare me your spare the rod speech, grandad. There has to be a way to instill consistent boundary steps in exploratory young minds without having to beat children. Apart from at Monopoly. Those little animals will take you for everything you’ve got if you don’t swipe Park Lane first.
It’s an interesting conundrum my generation’s essentially created for itself. We wanted to break out of all the repressed emotions and casual sadism we perceived in the old school classroom, but in wanting to get a lot more feely (and a lot less touchy) than some especially bad school experiences of decades past, we became the worrysome helicopter parent generation, hastening the collapse of a benign planetary environment by nervously and harrasedly driving our children absolutely everywhere in lightly armoured military grade vehicles to keep to a strict timetable of learning opportunities outside school hours. The endless clubs and activities and social engagements imploding our savings and taking more transport management than a minor royal visit. Every day of the week. Until they leave for college. At which point you sell the house to put them through a stratospherically expensive university course they’re not entirely sure about. And which won’t guarrantee them a job like you were always told university degrees would anyway.
Still. At least they weren’t breaking into abandoned buildings and burning tyres on the common. Or getting bored. Eh? Where the bloody hell’s the iPad lead…?
The truth is, of course, we have sort of found ourselves here. Like all parents. Because more parents than ever have more choices to offer their children than ever, even while the poverty divide is widening alarmingly for families across the UK, the US and many economies. Who of us, still functioning within emotional norms, wouldn’t want to give our children every opportunity we can? More than we had. And who wouldn’t want to keep them safe in a very dark-seeming world? But, long years after leaving school, I do wonder. Are some of us still just a little burdened by peer pressure? The competetion of the playground?
It’s a time of strange extremes for children in developed countries; a time of broken homes and material abundance all juxtaposing in our high streets. Of some parents who never learned how to love in their own childhoods, and others who half drive themselves crazy with loving emotional hopes for their children. Somewhere between these weirdly ordinary extremes today, the classroom often seems chaotic with social challenges, as all those little humans try to make sense of it all and express themselves.
So is the problem simply that we’re not teaching kids the right things? Should we not be getting more arty-farty-floaty-interpretive-dancy but simply more techy, in the classrooms we already have? Teaching them the tools of tomorrow for an impending new world looking increasingly post-flabby-old-human. Let’s ditch the chalk and slates for goodness sake and get in some VR headsets – come on, man! Don’t embarrass me with your old school. As one person portentously said of coding at a conference I was at a few years back: “There will be whole nations of peoples serving maitais on the beach because they don’t know this stuff”. Thanks, Agent Smith; that is the smell of economic inevitability. And the reassuring old whiff of cultural condescention.
Writing for Inside Higher Ed, John Warner takes a reasonably whithering swipe at such ideas. As Vivek Wadhwa bemones the failure of one Next Big Thing In Education, MOOCs – or Massive Open Online Courses – in which everyone was just going to dial in to collossal Skype School in their pants, I think, Warner takes sardonic delight in debunking Wadhwa’s next Next Big Thing In Education: Clifford!, the artificial tutor, plugging into young minds with a refreshingly futury blend of “virtual reality, artificial intelligence and sensors”. No, that’s not your What’sApp reading group getting excited about the new Ernest Cline, it’s your Futury Buzzword Detector pinging it’s little heart out.
Clifford! has a human assistant called Rachel. Who is supposedly and therefore ironically not a replicant. She watches over Clifford! to see he doesn’t terminate the students when they go rogue with his teaching paramaters. Presumably.
Wadhwa’s vision for Clifford! says this: “Clifford has been with the children for years and understands their strengths and weaknesses. He customizes each class for them. To a child who likes reading books, he teaches mathematics and science in a traditional way, on their tablets. If they struggle with this because they are more visual learners, he asks them to put on their virtual-reality headsets for an excursion, say, to ancient Egypt. By using advanced sensors to observe the children’s pupillary size, their eye movements and subtle changes in the tone of their voice, Clifford registers their emotional state and level of understanding of the subject matter. There is no time pressure to complete a lesson, and there are no grades or exams.”
Warner responds by saying: “If this fantasy doesn’t get you sufficiently excited, there’s an even bigger one coming. It’s not going to cost anything: “Clifford, being software and having come into being in the same way that the free applications on our smartphones have, comes without financial charge.” Maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t, but looking at the current state of the innovations Prof. Wadhwa is promising, there appears to be a significant gap between what he proposes is possible and what we can actually do.”
He scathes previous mind reading robot ideas and then swipes at the track record of certain other alternative tech school ideas.
“AltSchool, once the darling of Silicon Valley personalized learning which promised to combine high touch teaching with cutting edge software has “rebooted,” closing and consolidating itself from seven to four physical schools and now selling its software directly to public schools at a rate far below its initial plans, because in the words of ed tech consultant Doug Levin, their initial vision of charging $750 to $1000 per student was “farcical.””
Well, I don’t know what the upshot was on that one. But Alt School was of course very much a Get On And Test it idea, so honestly a worthy work in progress. But Warner doesn’t hold back. “The idea that VR headsets, no matter how much cheaper they get could somehow transform learning because students will be able to see a pyramid being constructed in three dimensions is…I don’t know, naïve if I’m being nice, laughable to be more accurate. I’ll need to hear a more convincing argument for how holograms will be transformative in education before I buy into the hype.”
To be generous to his grumpy old man syndrome, tech solutions can often seem to be sticking plasters on fundamental cultural problems we aren’t tackling – at least in the way politicians tend to buy into them. While new tools and toys to see things differently, like VR, are of course terrific developments with much to explore about them, we know too it’s an easier, whizzier, funner, futurier response to wave about such things in the rare moments you, as a politician, feel you should even mention the future. Much easier than retooling your entire tax spend to convince all parents that exam results are mostly deluding bollocks and schools and learning programms alike would do more by just helping kids read, know where things are in the world, and learn how to come to terms with the disappointments of modernist promises in between extended hours of tree climbing, wildlife tracking, modern & tap, improv rage plays and essential home economics.
Oh. And preferred learning styles are guff too, apparently. We’re all kind of all of it. So all that adaptive lesson planning you’ve been doing? Possibly VARKing up the wrong tree, mate. The key to learning is to not be bored, patronised and assaulted. And made to learn utterly academic information Alexa could tell you if you ever thought you’d be interested. Which you won’t be.
All in all, what is the wall we appear to be all just bricks in?
SEEING THE HOPEY-CHANGEY BIT
Douglas Adams. It may turn out to be that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy really does contain more wisdom for humanity’s impending dawn in the wider cosmos than the average national curriculum has given it credit for. Maybe it should be required reading in school. Preparing us as it does for the simple explosive weirdness of real life in the universe, and how it likely co-exists with beaurocracy and a lot of disappointment.
“Perhaps I’m old and tired, but I think that the chances of finding out what’s actually going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, “Hang the sense of it,” and keep yourself busy. I’d much rather be happy than right any day.” Says Magrathean planet designer Slartibartfast, who tells Arthur Dent all about the real story of Earth.
“And are you?” asks, Arthur.
“Ah, no. Well, that’s where it all falls down, of course.” responds the old man.
Maybe this isn’t a very hopey-changey lesson for the classroom. But then, English teachers have been making kids read war poetry for decades, so it can’t all be Octonauts marine science experiments and essential rocket telemetry.
Of course the unspoken backdrop to Adam’s story is a spectacularly colourful universe. Whilst technically devoid of life, according to the book, because the sheer scale of the universe makes the actual amount of life in it seem round-downable to nothing, the heavy implication of the whole world of Hitchhiker’s is that the universe is indeed spectacular. And we all still manage to be unhappy, when we’re honest enough to stop pretending we’re happy all the time.
From my point of view, it’s hard to think of something more valuable for teaching kids about the real world than a book combining wit and science fiction. But that’s beaurocracy for you.
A fascinating idea tucked away in this part of the story is that of the Earth that Slartibartfast helped to design. Because, according to him, it wasn’t simply a planet – it was a super computer. A giant organic processor – run by mice. Or possibly dolphins. Certainly not humans. Designed to try to calculate the question of life the universe and everything. So we might stand a chance of answering it.
The great joke was, of course, the idea that humans weren’t the point of the whole process. They were more of a biproduct. And a pretty farty, unimpressive one, is the implication. Yet, of course, this rather seems the thing that Adams is delighting in – the absurdities between what humans think matter and what may actually matter. Or be of more interest, at least.
As rather delightfully off-beat education publisher Shmoop says: “Thematically, Slartibartfast makes a nice contrast with the mice. That is, the mice and the programmers are all interested (at first) in big issues — what does life mean, why are we here, blah blah philosophy blah. In other words, the mice (at first) are interested in getting rid of the absurdity of life.” Sounds decidedly mid century to me.
“By contrast,” they go on, “Slartibartfast is interested in the little things and in being happy rather than worrying about the big things.”
Is it even possible to be happy? Should we be trying? My own inference from all this is that we’ve been asking the wrong question all these modernist years – how can I be happy? When maybe the better question for the human brain is: How can I feel fullfilled? Remarkable how accidentally happy you might not notice yourself being in the middle of thrashing out your great personal purpose.
Of course, finding your purpose in life isn’t an answer a school of any sort can promise to give you. Your purpose might be to spend most of your life searching for purpose, and who wants to tell a thirteen year old that. Your average education institution the planet over might still be most likely to give you an answer like 42. A nice measurable number. That sounds below average to me. Have that tattooed on your forearm.
If the purpose of education is supposed to be equipping children to cope with the world then it’s a wonder we don’t teach them mindfulness or meditation from the beginning. Communing with the Earth in simple moments of breathing in and out. Focussing on marvels of detail in every day life. But this doesn’t get you a job, does it? Unless you count the wellness industry which is currently valued at $3.4trillion according to the Global Wellness Institute: “Three Times Larger than Worldwide Pharmaceutical Industry”. But that’s just being obtuse, Peach.
The point I would suggest here is that living only in your head isn’t healthy. You might not be sporty. And Lord knows, in school I had to come to terms fast as a very cute little pink-cheeked Peachling that I was a boy who was never going to be able to catch or throw or kick a ball. Thank the Lord I was okay at art and theatre because at least I felt I had A Thing – very important in the wrestle pits of children’s playground tribes. Plus the teachers mostly found me funny. I found my way to survive the school jungle.
But you do have to look after your body. Because you have one. And while you may think it’s just a misshapen thing to carry your head to meetings, the truth is you have a relationship with the poor thing. And how much does it feel valued?
School does put value on physical activity. But it’s currency has mostly always been team sports over the decades. Competition. And ball co-ordination. Your value in a team is to mostly not matter as an individual, unless you can do some really fancy footwork for scoring goals. Leaving some of us hanging around in defence hauntedly. On the other hand, on the handful of occasions you as a football geezer are made to go to Drama class, you are likely to wish you didn’t have to be there. Watching the most obviously gay kid finally enjoy school for a brief shining moment, upstaging your lumbering attempt at being a shoal of fish.
Mae Jemison – astronaut, doctor, art lover and dancer, which is as good an elevator CV as I can think of – said this: “We need to repair the dichotomy between mind and body. My mother always told me: “You have to be observant; know what’s going on in your mind and your body” and as a dancer I have this tremendous faith in my ability to know my body, just as I knew how to sense colours. Then I went to medical school. And I was supposed to go on what the machine said about bodies.”
Back at the start of the 21st century she gave a TED talk in which she said that she was concerned we weren’t passing on much of a legacy in this chapter of history. She points out that so much that built the world around us today was really: “knowledge and ideas that came up in the 50s, the 60s and the 70s. Whether it’s the internet, genetic engineering, laser scanners, guided missiles, fibre optics, high definition television, remote sensing from space… all of these things without question are really based on ideas and abstracted creativity from years before.” And she says bluntly: “So we have to ask ourselves: What are we contributing to that legacy right now? And when I think about it, I’m really worried. To be quite frank, I’m really concerned. I’m sceptical that we’re doing very much of anything. We are failing to act in the future. We are purposefully, consciously being laggers.”
And she says something interesting. Her childhood spanned the sixties, and she always wished she was old enough to be a hippy, she says. Then she says this: “People talk about the sixties all the time and they always talk about the anarchy. But when I think about the sixties, what I took away from it was there was hope for the future. We thought everyone could participate. There were wonderful, incredible ideas that were always percolating and so much that’s cool or hot today is based on some of those concepts.”
Which is interesting, a decade and a half since she said this. We’ve been still potentially living in such a time of muddling about without clear vision. Is such a general statement true? Kinda feels it. But more than a generation really since the cultural unrests of the sixties, and moving towards the third decade of the twentyfirst century, the upshot of our cultural lack of vision is a new period of cultural unrests. Perhaps ones that dig deeper still, now we have at least begun the wider conversations about identity, equality, representation, opportunity. And what is coming out is a distinct feeling that little has changed – we’ve barely even started.
Is this helped or hindered by the education system?
Gains in education do show themselves. That Global Partnership for Education summary of the current state of the world’s learning found that their own partner nations had faster rising numbers of children completing primary and lower secondary learning, and that more education clearly means: “more gender equality, and better paying jobs”. They also feel the data shows that: “more education means a more democratic world”. As they put it: “Education has a big role to play in making our world safer and more stable. For example, youth without an education are 9 times more likely to be recruited by rebel groups.”.
You could generalise this to include gang culture, I feel sure. And away from the visceral street truth of tribal influence, the human psychological reality surely is that when you feel powerless, or stupid, or unrepresented, you’re going to feel some simmering form of angry. And such motivational and emotive adjectives are the real bits of grim poetry that fuel the minds of people with some very practical physical challenges – poverty, hunger, insecurity, joblessness. Who doesn’t want to find help to reach higher ground? It’s just, where does the trail really lead?
What if we started by injected a better sense of the connection between our bodily selves, our mental selves and our emotional selves? It is, after all, the most fundamental challenge in being born human – trying to reconcile these three into some comfortably functioning complete version themselves is what every child in your class has been dumped on the road to having to do. Just like you. Poor little souls. By which I mean all of us.
And it’s something that boys especially have been abjectly un-equipped to even begin exploring, the world over.
As homework here, I will simply set you the task of watching all six episodes of Queer Eye on Netflix. Go. Watch it. Watch all of it. And if you aren’t weeping at the end of most of it, you may need an emergency visit from the Fab Five. And the future may still currently be a very distant land for you indeed. Squinting through the bubblegum TV format, Queer Eye is a beautifully needed education for so much modern thinking, hemmed in by artifical boundaries.
But finding a balance to this metaphysical headbender, that modern life does so little to help us accept as such a fundamental reality, can unlock discovering what that fourth dimension of our lives might mean for us – spirituality.
Religion, of course, messes with your head. And the more ‘enlightened’ modernist in you will see religious educations as brainwashing. But don’t imagine your own culture isn’t having its own effect in just the same way. Any more than you should imagine that most westernised religous educations and teachings aren’t massively brainwashed themselves by the Enlightenment and the highly academic head-minded view of the world. Learning scriptures to recite is as much about passing on tradition like a story as it is about equipping you to fling holy stingers at Satan. Much like all classrooms, it doesn’t equip you to creatively question such venerated and fascinating historical texts, and it doesn’t connect you to the reality of closing the books and getting the hell outside. Despite someone as religiously iconic as King Solomon himself pausing mid-preach to basically say so:
“The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” Ecclesiastes 12:12.
Don’t question the old blokes, but goodness go out and play. In the ancient world, even someone as interestingly thinkish and comfortably upholstered and waited on as Sol, hadn’t lost emotional connection with the physical world in his learning.
Play is something advocated by some of the alternative education systems of course. And their popularity is not ebbing, fringe as they’ve often been seen. Steiner Schools, for example, as The School Run explains, sound like a rather more holistic alternative.
“If you’ve ever felt that children start school – and start growing up – too soon, a Steiner school could be a good fit for your child. First founded in 1919 by the philosopher and scientist Dr Rudolf Steiner, these schools aim to provide an unhurried and creative learning environment, where children can discover the joy of learning.”
The joy of learning? That’s a nice aim. But maybe it can sneak up on children. Steiner schools put an emphasis on physical play in the early years and don’t start more formal teaching until the kids are six. At which point they tend to focus on subjects one by one, rather than scattergunning all subjects across a fortnightly timetable.
“Steiner education is a holistic education, where we’re looking at the whole child, not just their intellect,” School Run quotes Tracey Lucas, a teacher at York Steiner School. “The curriculum aims to meet the child at their particular developmental stage, and inspires children to want to learn – we’re lighting fires, not filling vessels.” Nice. Presumably the students are praised for their daring creativity if they are ever caught actually lighting fires in the classroom. But this is a more inspiring view of school than double maths.
There’s also the Montessori School, of course. Aimed at the more formative ages of children, also delaying more academic learning, it’s all about freedom.
“Unlike in a typical classroom, where teachers will have a clear plan and timetable for the day that all children are expected to follow, in Montessori schools, a range of activities is set up and children choose what they want to do, engaging with each for as little or as long as they want. ‘It’s up to the teacher to observe what a child is interested in and find other ways to engage them,’ says Barbara Isaacs, Chief Education Officer for Montessori St Nicholas.
The interesting thing here, while you imagine toys and tantrums all over the place, is the emphasis, counter-intuitively, on order and structure. “Although learning is child-led, children need order and structure to thrive. Everything in the classroom has its place, and children take responsibility for putting one activity away before moving on to another.”
And they don’t use such a reward & punishment system, either. Not like training dogs. I tell you, it will never catch on.
Dr Richard House, a Steiner school teacher, says, “Socially progressive schools maximise the likelihood of children growing up to have a responsible and mature understanding of freedom, and therefore being able to exercise it effectively and maturely in their lives. This contrasts with mainstream schooling, which increasingly seems geared towards to churning out people who will preserve the status quo and fit into the existing system.”
And a comparative study a while ago seemed to show the benefits, as a Guardian article reported.
“A method of schooling that focuses on personal development rather than exams produces more mature, creative and socially adept children, scientists have found. Psychologists in the US found that across a range of abilities, children at Montessori schools out-performed those given a traditional education. Five-year-old Montessori pupils were better prepared for reading and maths, and 12-year-olds wrote “significantly more creative” essays using more sophisticated sentence structures.Some of the biggest differences were seen in social skills and behaviour.”
There is a big emphasis on mixing ages, sharing and helping, and physical play. All leading not to a sense of entitlement, but of responsibility. And possibility. I think that’s always been their aim.
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it.
It’s not like adults are beyond the need for such learning, though. Trisha Lewis and Neil Humphrey are creatives living and working in my neck of the artistic network in Bournemouth, and they set up a project called Explory Story. A name I suspect started as a joke, and like my own name, kind of just stuck. But it’s okay, because Neil has designed a very flash brand style for Explory Story that helps you want to know more. And you should, because Trisha and Neil help businesses and individuals make better sense of how to connect with other fellow humans in their work by working out how to tell their story rather better. And a significant part of their process is improv.
Yep, you heard it. Improv – mucking about physically. As they put it: “We give you a supportive space to throw ideas up in the air and not worry about catching them. We want you to loosen up and see the simple stories. Once shaken up, we calm you down with good solid communication tools. We help you answer the call for a deeper human connection.”
This might sound a world away from your daily working life. But, while I hold back tears for you and for all of us as you say this, and neither of us know who is pitying the other more, this is very far from a world away from business. Because it’s slightly relevant to the business of being human. As Trish and Neil say: “Improv forces you to listen and be real, a core requirement
There is simply something freeing about physically walking through something. Viscerality loosens the mind. And for millions of us trying to make sense of our lives, more physicality is something we’re clearly craving in our gym class attendances and outdoor pursuits. But if we could work this thinking into our problem solving – where might that take our wellbeing? And our ideas. What might it do for kids slowly bringing themselves and their insane world into personal focus?
A school on my own doorstep that may be a light of hope, or at least relief to know is out there in all this, is Talbot Heath. A school for girls aged 3-18, it was always the posh girls’ private school across town when I was growing up. Today, under its Head Teacher Angharad Holloway is gaining a reputation as rather an inspiring leader in education, as the school shares its vision for its students. Because the vision they seem to have is one that seems to face the world as it really is, head-on. A world of massive challenges – and significant positive opportunities.
“We are determined to offer our pupils an education fit for the exciting future that awaits them – one of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and global solutions to global problems.” >futury buzzword detector pings< “Instead of regressing back to the 1950s with a curriculum that focusses on rote learning, as so many schools are being forced to do, Talbot Heath will prepare pupils for 2050.”
Well, I can’t help but like the sound of that. And get this for career realism: “The career pathways that 50 % of our young people will follow currently do not exist, that much is sure, such is the speed of change within our world. The skill sets that they will require, however, are known. School leavers will need to be creative, adaptable, resilient, digitally proficient, able to work independently and collaboratively. We cannot afford for our young people to be data rich and skills poor.”
Where the UK government proudly croaks the acronym STEM for its own visionary aims for young people’s learning, Talbot Heath advocates STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics. Yes, the arts. Make no mistake, this is a private school – that’s how it can afford to declare a little autonomy in its aims. And that also means that it must have had its fair share of wealthier parents spending fees with the school that was earned in some pretty old fashioned ways. But that doesn’t mean that such parents’ children have to. And perhaps many of them get this.
“Physicists have to be able to think like artists, students of literature need to have an appreciation of History, Politics and Art. Our pupils will look at the Maths and Physics of the ancient temples in their Classics lessons, learning how to model both digitally and practically, understanding the importance of design, structure, purpose, sustainability and production.”
Shuttup and take my money. Which I don’t have much of at the moment because I am following my dream and much of it seems to be enthusiastically unbillable. But anyway. It feels like no meaningless thing that the venue for my first public performance of the creative project behind Unsee The Future will be this school’s main hall. A few different social creative roads lead me here before I knew the venue or the educational establishment offering it for myself. The welcome, from energising marketing front-of-house Hayley O’Shea, and her testimony to being part of the team, was frankly inspiring. Let’s hope I don’t/didn’t embarrass us all in there, eh.
What I can’t help wishing for is a school with this attitude for boys. A school for all identities, perhaps like this, perhaps even more openly structured than that, where the absurd diversity of our minds is the new, wonderful normal, and youngsters are simply equipped to love who they are enough to get out and get stuck into the world. Mindfully, creatively. With a quietly profound sense of connection to the physical Earth.
Learning, of course, is really all about boundaries. Keeping consistent ones as leaders and parents, precisely so our children can grow up with perspective enough to go on to mindfully break some of them. But not in instinctive, painful rebellion – in visionary confidence. Confidence is the ultimate end purpose of all teaching. Surely. Self-posession. Not a sort of ignorant entitlement, but a knowing sense of ambition. An ability to set one’s own goals for success, ignoring everyone else’s. That’s confidence.
Confidence isn’t beaten into or out of us. It isn’t chided or brainwashed with repetition. The confidence that changes the world is the sort that doesn’t fear failure, and knows it will happen. The confidence to get up fast after it. Who of us have that? It is a characteristic encouraged and inspired. There ain’t no other way to cultivate it – because it’s all about equipping the pupil to choose for themselves, to stand on their own two feet. Forge their own path. Not yours, Dad. Encouraging this, that’s real parenthood. The sort a whole village can help raise a child with.
And will our children need confidence to face the big stuff we are leaving them to deal with. Enough to make us all sweat.
Because if there is one lesson in education of our times that is to be learned, it is being tought by children and young people. And they are telling us: We need to wake up. We need to have the courage to challenge the status quo. And we must be willing to place our very bodies into the firing line, to stand up for the future we believe in.
The March For Our Lives, in Washington DC and across the US, echoed in some places even elsewhere around the world, took us all to school. Because here are youngsters putting themselves fearlessly infront of the greatest cultural chokehold in America – the gun lobby. Children. Doing what we haven’t had the balls or vision to do yet. And there’s something very interesting to be noted here, as a detail you could miss in the incredible headlines of this story. The championing of cause is not staying within the usual boundaries. It’s not your usual protestors who’ve come to define themselves by their fight. Like Green evangelists not noticing they’ve effectively just become members of a niche religion.
This is change bleeding into the mainstream. It’s not the usual suspects defined by Left and Right.
As Adam Gopnik says in The New Yorker: “The strident contempt that the Parkland kids earned from some quarters of the gun lobby derived exactly from the strength of their witness: they are not the élitist intellectuals or compulsive do-gooders or obsessive gun confiscators of fervid imagination. They are teen-agers who have seen their friends and their teachers slaughtered by a deranged former classmate, using a gun designed to shoot large numbers of people in as short a time as possible.”
While everyone is debating the meaning of the second amendment, and pro gun protestors are organising ranty pro-gun rallies with no-gun policies for safety to acuse children of being political stooges, who is asking what the real pandemic is here? Of mindset. Of outlook. That sees young men – always young men – want to indiscriminately cut down the fellow humans they’ve had around them for years in school. What is the cultural sickness in the root of many young male minds in America? What have they been taught, growing up? And how? What haven’t they?
Is there an actual awakening going on this time?
“Watching the march,” says Gopnik, “it was even possible to think that the movement might point the way toward a more general revivification of democratic action, reconnecting the streets with the legislatures in a way that hasn’t happened in a long time.”
Who, in this scenarios, are the mice, and who are the planet designers?
March For Our Lives has brought the most passionate eloquence and wisdom from the classroom back out into our wider culture. And you can expect the cynical anaesthetic of indifference to smother this eventually, of course. But these kids won’t always be kids. They will, however, always remember what most shaped their lives in the classroom.
If anyone has it, they have the magic to change the world – confidence. And in something that will always testify the loudest to any humanly good education – life shaping values.
I’m not sure there’s been a more genuinely hopey-changey thing half make it to the news cycle in a generation. It quietly dwarfs all the childish prattle and gossip of most of the news bleating in our ears every day. This one, you should take notice of. Because it is not old business as usual.
The purpose of education, in the end, is to help us grow through the natural stages of life, and make something of it. We imagine we are preparing our offspring and an adopted younglings for success, when we have a strong view of education – but I come back to the question: How do we define success for our children? What is the business we think they should be in? Of tending the old family business, or of finding themselves? I think the business we are all in, truthfully, is the management – the encouragement – of life. Not patenting, but parenting.
We’re not here to simply grow into adults, but parents. Self-possessed enough, confident enough, with loving persepctive on ourselves enough, that we know it’s not simply about us. A way of seeing ourselves and all of us in the system of the natural world that isn’t primarily about having biological children or finding romantic love or becoming particular figures in society. It’s about learning to love being part of the miracle of life, and wanting to pass on as much wisdom about such a precious identity as we can. And equip each other to do so.
As I watch my nieces and nephews and children from across our extended family grow up, I continue to feel two things strongly. They are really feeling it – the great underlying disconnect of our times – and they fill me with more hope than anything else for the future. I really do believe in them for it, so emotionally connected are they to Now. But now is a time to challenge confidences like we’ve never known before. And my heart breaks for them, trying to process the massive miss-fit between their instinctive humanity and the world we’re expecting them to fit into. It’s a big reality demanding more grown-up character than I know how to muster.
But. I think they know something. Something only beginning to dawn into their consciousness, our younger people, but something they feel in their bones. And before those bones get old, I think our job as educators – as parents – is to encourage them to embrace it, explore it, and call it out.
When facing the big stuff, the impossible immovable seeming, here’s the reality – our ordinary lives are the big stuff. We’re the great add-up. There are 7billion of us living in this great organic sharing machine, this great human-planet processor. Imagine if we educated them all to think creatively, self-possessively. Imagine if we equipped them in the classroom, fired up their imaginations, to develop new ways of seeing. Everything. The whole cosmos of possibilities. And themselves.
What could we do with 7billion engaged, inspired, confident whole people?
What is the high level plan for ensuring inclusive and equitable learning worldwide?
Read the Guardian report on the early years teaching method
The Bournemouth-based education establishment aims to equip its students for the future.
Improv for harrased business professionals? You bet it can unlock inspiration.