Ruth Wishart: Education requires a creative spark
THE world is changing so rapidly that, these days, it’s not what we learn but how we learn that’s important, writes Ruth Wishart
We were at the Science Centre in Glasgow after a day of teachers learning to do all sorts of profoundly educational things. Like build a rocket and fire it with non-metallic materials. Or lie, fakir style, on a bed of nails. Both of which require a very particular appliance of science and a deal of left field thinking.
There were pupils there too. Like the primary school group who gave us a lunchtime cabaret of Red Riding Hood. In French. Which required an engaging mix of dramatic and linguistic skills.
We had visited an impromptu market place where school staff in the Creative Learning Network from all over Scotland demonstrated how they had woven the arts into lessons in a host of imaginative ways from running their own “international” book festival complete with visiting authors, to using space travel to build capacity in maths.
And at the end of it all we went to the movies. Videos made on their ipads by another batch of eight and nine-year-olds. Some cartoon style. Some documentary. All amazingly professional and accomplished.
And all filmed and edited on the hoof during a day spent celebrating the massive impact the unlocking of personal creativity makes on both learning and teaching.
I thought back to that day reading about the latest stushie in “Goveland” – presided over by Michael Gove the English education secretary – with teachers and parents up in arms over perceived inequities in the GCSE exam marking. In truth, it is a row which belongs to another age; an age in which formulaic kinds of learning are judged by traditional forms of exam taking, and the results of that exercise being presumed to advance or blight young people’s hopes of career success.
Which, of course, they might if higher and further education institutions and employers have no other information to go on.
But the world of employment has long since moved on from the notion that the presentation of a bit of paper with enough “good” passes on it was any guarantee of a decent job. Ask any graduate flipping burgers.
When the Curriculum for Excellence was devised in Scotland, it was against a background where school and university leavers might be expected to work in a dozen different roles before they got to 40.
The qualities it was designed to encourage weren’t just about successful learning, but also innovative thinking, teamwork and self confidence, aimed at producing citizens who would contribute to and enhance their communities.
That seems to me a much more productive approach to the demands of a century where the only certainty is change. The educationalist Ken Robinson is fond of reminding his audiences that computers were once thought so vital that every country would have to have one!
Now technology whizzes by at such dizzying speeds that what you learn today will be yesterday’s news by the time you’ve got your head round it. What you now have to grasp are the basics which allow you to learn and grow with the quickening pace. What you need is the appetite and capacity for processing new information, which will prove vastly more useful than the ability to recite old information. This is not in any way to undervalue the core skills of literacy or numeracy, nor to underplay the benefits of deep knowledge of history, literature and science. It’s the how of learning as much as the what which demonstrates the divergence between the Scottish and English directions of educational travel. Every shred of evidence (and plain common sense) makes it clear that successful learners are those whose imagination is stimulated; who can be encouraged to cherish the marvellously uninhibited thought processes and sense of wonder in the very young – those precious qualities overly formal education knocks out of them.
We’ve known this for a long time in subjects geared to nurturing imagination like the expressive arts. The trick the Curriculum for Excellence has to pull off is to introduce that creativity into subjects which are often locked in predetermined educational silos which make it difficult to cross fertilise. Science and drama, for example, where there is huge scope for doing just that.
The road blocks which sometimes still persist on the path to holistic learning are partly structural and partly psychological.
Some are also fearful of the very notion of creative teaching, doubting their own capacity to “let go”. So opportunities for continuing personal development, which help them acknowledge and enhance their own skills, are also essential.
And for both teachers and pupils there has to be a real belief that the assessment of their work will also be flexible, recognising that skills and talents acquired, are an important part of building that confident, effective individual the curriculum says is valuable.
Parents, too, have to be weaned from an obsessional attachment to traditional outcomes and a fixation over grades, not least since employers have already re-written the rules. They’re not in the market for people good at doing what they’re told, so much as people who can brainstorm collaboratively in a way which keeps their operation ahead of that increasingly elusive curve. There is a wonderful story which encapsulates what happens when you let young people’s imaginations take flight. It began in 1994 in Room 13 of Caol Primary school in Fort William. The children asked for space where they could go and do arty things when they had completed class work.
They found themselves an artist, they formed a committee, complete with treasurer, and mini chairperson. As the years went on these confident, contributing, effective young people took their message about creativity in person to other schools in Nepal and South Africa, not to mention giving a lecture to Nick Serota at the Tate.
They ran exhibitions, made a documentary, and from that acorn has grown a world wide Room 13 movement, liberating imaginations from Kwa Zul Natal to China.
These pupils maybe don’t know their grade Cs from their Ds. But they know they want to take on the world. And that they can give it their best shot.
• Ruth Wishart is Chair of the Creative Learning Project Group, set up by Creative Scotland and Education Scotland at the request of the Scottish Government
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