Climbing The Hill
Teaching Like An Artist Leading Like An Artist
I want to set out an argument that our obsession with standards, knowledge and intelligence has blindsided us from the genuine challenge of ensuring young people are skilled to navigate a world of paradox and complexity. We live in an age of contrasts. Globally we are healthier, live longer and are better educated. At the same time, seven hundred million people are estimated to live in extreme poverty, where, in some nations, life expectancy is less than 60. We are surrounded with screaming headlines about geo-political uncertainty and radicalisation. Young people believe the world has become an unsafe place in which to live but do want to be taught the skills to make a bigger difference. Employers are calling for education to expand its focus beyond the traditional cognitive domain. This includes an increased emphasis on teamwork, resilience, creativity and mind-set. The problems we face are real.
The truth is, an education system which has largely been built on the foundations of knowledge and intelligence has failed to deliver a promise to enhance social capital, deepen citizenship or create a stronger sense of community. We have reduced learning to cause and effect; pass or fail, and continue to perpetuate the false narrative that solutions are one-dimensional rather than multi-dimensional. Intellectual performance (IQ) has delivered smarter, brainier individuals, perhaps more than our planet has ever possessed but the benefits of improving concrete skills (cognitive domain), have not translated to gains in making our world a more socially responsible place. You can be intellectual but still be an idiot.
Many schools continue to group students by ability, without questioning the label of failure. We are drawn to think of school improvement in actions rather than interactions and simplify learning as a consequence of teaching in place of a complex sequence of useful learning mistakes, experiences and connections between people. We have blindly accepted accountability in education as a good thing; that it has served us well. Frequent testing, crude inspection frameworks and an addiction to policy reform dictate the narrative of education policy. The result? Lower levels of autonomy in schools and a lack of trust in teachers to use professional judgement in order to find solutions.
The publication of the 21st PwC CEO report highlights repeated concerns about the availability of key skills. Ironically, it is the high performing pacific Asian nations who value critical thinking, creativity and teamwork as the golden ticket to long term success - a nod perhaps to the consequences of PISA? Despite the successes of democracy, freedom of speech, increased global literacy and higher proportions of young people enjoying formal education, we have still not mastered the art of critical thinking, kindness and generally taking care of each other. Afflicted by fake news, media bias, inequality and cognitive dissonance, a new age of reason calls for young people to become increasingly able to de-bias, navigate the dangers of hubris and discern between what is morally right and wrong. If we do not make this our priority, it begs the question, what is the purpose of education?
“The steepest gains have not been found in the concrete skills that are directly taught in schools, such as general knowledge, arithmetic and vocabulary. They have been found in the abstract, fluid kinds of intelligence. People understand concepts when they are forced to think them through, to discuss them with others, and to use them to solve problems. Pupils don’t spontaneously transfer what they have learned from one concrete example to another in the same abstract category. Learning depends on the rules of discourse, social circles, and arenas of debate and decision making.” Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now)
There is also a secondary symptom created by failing to prioritise teaching ‘essential life skills’. This second, perhaps bigger risk is that failing to engage meaningfully in finding solutions, locates responsibility and agency with the wrong people - passing the baton to those who are better at explaining than understanding! Bureaucrats, consultants, policy makers, politicians, inspectors. These are whom Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as people lacking “skin in the game.” Those better able to advise their one dimensional solutions than understand the complexity of leading through relationships. They think in single steps, actions and obvious solutions. They value the outcome of the performance as greater than the journey of struggle. There is a danger that by not taking greater risks and responsibility for re-defining what matters most in education, we continue to rely on those who have never delivered, never taught, or failed and picked themselves up again, to determine the future. In other words, those who are not prepared to take risks shouldn't really qualify for being able to make the decisions for our children’s futures - but they do!
“The more people worship at the sacrosanct state, (or equivalently large, corporations), the more they hate skin in the game. The more they believe in their ability to forecast, the more they hate skin in the game. The more they wear suits and ties, the more they hate skin in the game.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The solutions are there in our classrooms and schools, residing in the bravery of teachers and leaders prepared to think differently. Revolutions, after all, start in classrooms. It requires us to deepen collaboration, spread risk amongst teams and to notice the incidental opportunities for change. But we need more bravery in teaching, teacher leaders prepared to build improvement bottom up through “skin in the game”: designers of possibility, entrepreneurs and innovators; teachers who value the network as change agents more than the establishment.
We also need to value the art of teaching. The artist demonstrates commitment to mastery as a journey instead of a finished piece. This presents itself through experimentation with different media and adventure within artistic forms. The journey of the craft displaces the final finished piece in significance. Viewed through this lens, the practise becomes as, or more important than the performance. It is the artists who have soul, they do not cut corners or prioritize strategy. Instead they cherish depth and meaning.
Expertise comes from the confidence to experiment, apply learning in new contexts or play creatively with learning elements: to focus so deeply we can see the whole picture of learning with complete clarity - it is the organic model as described so passionately by Sir Ken Robinson. What separates this model from the one dimensional option, plucked from a shelf, is that teachers are viewed as artists who discover new possibilities and shape them into brilliance.