Getting Down from an Elephant
Let’s think about elephants, briefly.. I offer them at the start of this paper to provoke your interest in solving puzzles. If three elephants is the answer, what is the question? Go on, tease yourself for ten seconds and come up with the most creative question?
I want to argue here that the time is right for some radical rethinking of the learning agenda, especially the curriculum of most of our schools, and that at the heart of what we expect young people to learn, should be the answers to the question ‘how?’ and not ‘what?’.
And why now? For all sorts of reasons, not least because China is producing 2m graduates a year of whom 400,000 are engineers; because the UK ratio of services to goods in GDP is now 4:1; because every child matters; because you’re worth it?
The debate about childhood and the education of children has rarely been as intense as this late summer of 2006. The modern world is damaging our children according to a group of children’s authors, scientists, health professionals, teachers and academics. The world of childhood is characterised as a place of danger and depression where one in ten young people suffer a significant period of mental illness, and 13% self harm.
The counter argument is more optimistic. Children and young people regularly demonstrate their resourcefulness and resilience. Most young people are bright, happy, playful and smart. They display the characteristics of creativity from an early age, and make intuitive connections between ideas and take risks as a natural part of their curiosity and spirit of exploration. The problem is that they all too easily lose their creative sensibilities, and their creative capacities are reduced as their learning is directed by the demands of adult society.
The expectation that we require young people to inhabit two worlds simultaneously, their own and that of adults, is bound to generate tension that will be difficult, and require a special creative approach to resolve. The tensions between these two worlds reveal themselves in the sense of failure that many young people feel when faced by a contemporary society obsessed with fame, celebrity and instant reward for not much effort. And feelings of failure, inadequacy and of not ‘measuring up’ lead to loss of self esteem and confidence; and these in turn are known to contribute to exclusion, anti-social behaviour and the fracturing of society.
The territory between the cultures of child and adulthood is the battlefield of education. I think for many young people it is a battle. In too many ways, the education system is failing both our young people and our future prospects as an economically vibrant nation. Paradoxically, as exam qualifications and results continue to improve, we fail to equip our young people either for the demands of a rapidly changing technology-driven world of work, or the new opportunities for self directed leisure, or the academic and research interests of higher education. Science education is singled out as an area of crisis.
The pace of change is accelerating, and a knowledge based schools curriculum will always fail to keep up. Most young people entering secondary school this year will go into jobs that have not been invented yet. Most people entering the workforce in 2006 will change jobs between 12 and 20 times in their working life. Knowledge alone will not equip young people for these challenges and opportunities.
The problem is that attitudes about education are very deep seated. In the code that accompanied the 1870 Education Act was enshrined the pernicious notion of preparing young people to be unskilled or semi-skilled economic units of production, and ‘education of the poorer classes should be just sufficient to give them that sense of awe for higher education the leaders of the nation demand.’
We may dismiss this as no longer relevant; the counter argument states that 44% of young people go into higher education; surely no-one still believes that this Victorian utilitarianism should inform the way we educate our young people?
Ah would ‘twere thus.
In response to this historical elephant in the corner three linked mindshifts have occurred; one is the great divide we have introduced into our perception of the UK economy between manufacturing and service industries; second is the consequent nostalgia for manufacturing and the suspicion of services as in some ways effete or peripheral; and third is the association that creativity, innovation and especially invention apply mainly to new products and occasionally processes. Think Dragons’ Den… and think Charles Leadbeater – the real assets of the modern economy come out of our heads, not out of the ground – imagination, knowledge, skills, talent and credibility..
And in education the legacy of the utilitarian approach reaches into the design of the national curriculum, where incoherence and inconsistency arose; as Tim Brighouse comments - many of the skills and concepts recur in all subjects, and in others are not included at all. This was compounded by subject panels being sent away to design their syllabuses separately rather than the whole being designed beforehand so that each knew their allotted place and relationship with one another, (my italics). This means that whereas now the curriculum needs to respond to change it is unable to do so, and vitally, is unable to develop cross-curricular attitudes, capabilities and behaviours of mind.
This is a graphic courtesy of Ken Robinson; he quotes some research into divergent thinking. Now I appreciate that divergent thinking is but one behaviour of mind that relates to creativity, but I think the figures are at least revealing. And what happens to people between the ages of 5 and 15?
And the symptoms of the pace of change? You will all have your favourite illustrations – I quite like the wording of these three job advertisements, though architecture and trafficking had quite different meanings when I last looked, and wire frames were another name for John Lennon specs. And I haven’t even touched on the international component of all this - Now that the world is flat (see It’s a Flat World, After All, Thomas Friedman) anyone with a cheap wireless laptop can join the innovation fray, as Nicholas Negraponte and his $100 lap top will soon demonstrate.
The questions that are posed by the demands of an advanced technological and rapidly changing economy require new and radical shifts in the value and priorities of education. Knowledge can be found at the click of a mouse, and skills can be trained. New attitudes, behaviours and capacities are required which can be characterised as flexibility and agility of mind, resourcefulness, openness, a preparedness to take risk, reflection, a capacity to embrace failure, an ability to tolerate confusion, trust in intuition, confidence in ideas that appear pointless, patience and an ability to relax while an idea emerges; these are complemented by resilience, application, determination, and focus.
But revealing, encouraging and supporting the creative capacities of young people and giving them confidence to trust their innate creative thinking abilities, requires a radical re-think of the purpose and form of education. The Ignite! project which I led at NESTA worked directly with young people in structures and models of action research to test ways of identifying and supporting the creative characteristics of resilience, resourcefulness, reflection, and the capacities to make connections and take risks.
Let me briefly expand on each of these, which draw on work by Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton.
Resilience is that capability to lock on to a problem and not be deterred by failure, indeed failure is incorporated into the working towards a creative solution. Resilience also means not being distracted by alternative approaches and the ability to tolerate confusion. I only learned yesterday that when Edmund Hillary completed his climb of Mt Everest, it was on his third attempt. But that also prompts me to one of my favourite metaphors – I think that we climb the mountain, not because it is there, but because we are here.
Resourcefulness is the capability to know what to do when you don’t know what to do… being prepared to wait for a solution to emerge, to take the mind for a walk or play to see what emerges; it is the characteristic of highly intuitive individuals and draws on what Keats knew as ‘negative capability’ – being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.
Relationships – the capability to see connections across disciplines and seemingly unrelated ideas and areas of knowledge. In this neck of the curriculum woods we can spot examples such as metaphor, puns, double entendres and humour, analogies, allegory, signs and symbols, and applications of cross-curricular activity like bio-mimetics, materials science. I’ll offer some examples in a moment.
Reflection is that capability to step to one side and see what is going on, to observe and record one’s own learning, and to see the possibilities of new directions. It is associated with mapping and landscapes, diaries and scrapbooks, journals.
Risk-taking involves the kind of innate courage that we observe in trying something new, daring to be different and to be willing and ready to explore ideas beyond the comfort of the familiar. Shirley Brice Heath describes this as leading the young person to the edge of the diving board and then cutting it off… In the Ignite! project we have an ambition, oft talked about never yet realised, of blowing up the piano at one of our residential labs.
A colleague pointed out that these are often quoted as the characteristics of leadership. On reflection, it is therefore not surprising that when we find these characteristics in abundance that the young person stands out.
So what does the new creative curriculum look like?
Well apart from anything else it is motivated by achievement, apprehension of new ideas, and comprehension, recognition, surprise and delight at seeing new connections, by young people ‘getting it’, oh yes, ah ha, followed by moments of reflection, joy at going with an intuitive idea, fun, humour, serious but not solemn, a kind of celebration of cleverness, of breakthroughs, or determination and resilience, and learning through trial and error. And isn’t all this more motivating than downloading someone else’s essay off the internet in order to satisfy some prescription of knowledge?
So back to the characteristics – if we want to encourage resilience for example what kinds of activities might we explore?
In the Ignite! project we have looked at problem solving as a key to this, or a creative technical challenge. This has included solving the clues in a treasure hunt, building a machine to measure an exact 5 seconds, making a marble run to represent a narrative. Working with the genius Tim Hunkin to design and make a water squirting device has introduced young people to work out how circuits work, how to use a buzz saw and soldering iron (see also risk), how to combine imagination and physics, engineering and fun.
For resourcefulness, read play and rules of games, and taking the mind for a walk. The notion of knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do also has implications for the relationship between teachers and students. It allows the authenticity of real discovery to be made because there is the explicit assumption that the teacher does not have all the answers. Teachers can become genuine co-investigators, co-conspirators in the quest. I’ve put up a picture of the most resourceful teacher in the world, Arvind Gupta, who teaches Nuffield science in parts of India where there are no labs, no equipment, but plenty of junk and imagination.
Seeing and exploring relationships between ideas is joyful. It makes everyone feel clever. Look at these few examples from the world of bio-mimetics. Bio-mimetics is the science of picking up the ingenuity of nature, that has produced Velcro… it’s inventor George de Mestral spotted the burrs clinging to his dog’s coat, saw the possibilities of reproducing the little hooks and loops, and came up with the first new fastener since the zip.
Seeing connections is very affirming, it’s like scoring a goal, getting hold of the ball and giving it a right tonk. The breakthough is enervating, success is addictive. Shouldn’t we offer that experience of success to every child?
Reflection - We place a considerable emphasis on enabling young Igniters to document and map their journeys. And there is a curriculum opportunity that is a whole new kind of geography – not the geography that Chris Woodhead described as a toxic mix of new-age mysticism and political correctness, but a creative expression of the association of ideas and the relationships between them. Simon Patterson gets it – in his artwork, The Great Bear.
And Risk – design and build a den, use power tools, test a system for firing an egg in the nose cone of a water rocket, develop creativity with a purpose, Change the World for a Fiver.
And in the realms of new IT, we note that young people will increasingly take control of their own editorial and production policies.. as well as having access to You tube, myspace, blogger, flickr, wordpress and the like, schools and individuals are doing it for themselves. This is important, the mobile phone camera with a blue tooth connection, the pod, the blog are making journalists of us all. Even the BBC will broadcast images caught on a mobile phone; 76,000 images of the Asian Tsunami were posted on the web.
But again, we must not replace one set of skills and orthodoxies for a newer more technologically demanding set. The creative capacities I have outlined will enable far more of us to embrace these new tools with alacrity and confidence, and no little flair.
The simple point is that creativity and the capacities I have outline here cut across and underpin the curriculum.
As Ignite! strikes out in a new direction we recognize that the arts have a significant role to play in our social and cultural understanding, and that science and technology can drive forward many solutions to our needs and challenges. The dynamic equation can be expressed thus: science and technology can provide us with the tools for progress, but the arts will reveal the sensibilities we need to use them humanely and for the common good.
While science, technology and the arts are essential components of our survival and well-being, and need to be part of our life-long learning and comprehension, it is our capacity for creative thought that will enable us to translate need into solution, ideas into reality, imagination into innovation.
And that is what Ignite! aims to do.
So let me introduce two young people as case studies..
Daniel is 13 and was 10 when he first got involved in the Ignite! pilot project. On the residential creativity labs we virtually had to prize the gameboy from his hands in order to induce some sleep. He got excited by making gadgets and machines that squirted water; he was inspired by Tim Hunkin. He bought himself a soldering iron recently and at our last meeting, proudly showed me the scars. He is one of the most inventive and confident young engineers I have come across.
But speaking of engineers, this is Emily Cummins, nominee for Technology Woman of the Future, with her solar evaporation fridge on location in Namibia where she was doing field testing. For Emily, the connection was recognising that a fridge powered by evaporation could have application in remote parts of Africa, and could be used to keep pharmaceutical products at best storage temperature.
At the opening of the presentation, I mentioned that the time is right for change.. in the little time I have left, let me try and justify that remark.
Not all the partners in new Children’s Trusts, or Academies are religious fundamentalists of dubious ambition; there are some interesting partnerships being built to deliver different emphasises in new schools. I know of one where healthy living is the focus of a partnership involving a Midlands university. And creativity and creative industries are the drivers of a consortium in North London that includes a major national broadcaster.
In other areas, more and more schools are opting for the baccalaureate as offering a more rounded curriculum. Cornwall is developing its own Cornish Bac.
If these new structures can be linked to a revisit to the Tomlinson proposals for curriculum reform, we may be optimistic about the possibilities and opportunities for creativity to become embedded in learning. And if these developments are linked to the new technology driven opportunities for creative expression, where young people become the journalists, editors, curators, producers, commentators and thinktank.. er thinkers (as they are at St Boniface for illustration) then our optimism may be more realistic than blue sky.
In this talk I have tried to argue that there is a cultural imperative for the central place of creativity in the design of the curriculum for the young people who have no memory of the 20th century. The truism of the times they are a-changing is being replaced by a new maxim – the world is changing as fast as our imaginations and its young inheritors will shape it if we give them the tools.
rehearsal.org.uk – a space for improvisation and experiment.