This post is by Dr Jo Saxton, Director of the Curriculum Centre.
On Friday I will be talking at the Knowledge Summit at the Institute of Education. The day is entitled ‘What Should We Teach?’ It is being organised by SCETT, the Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers, and you can find out more about them and the rest of the day here.
SCETT have asked those people who are shaping thought and practice in curriculum reform and initial teacher training to come together to talk about the way ahead as far as the humanities are concerned. The Institute’s Professor Michael Young – he of Bringing Knowledge Back In fame – will open the summit. Michael rejected knowledge early in his career, having accepted the ‘relativist’ and ‘constructivist’ attitudes of academia of the day. He encouraged jurisdictions such as post-Apartheid South Africa to do the same, only to see for himself that the result was diminished teacher confidence and plummeting pupil outcomes. Michael’s personal and intellectual journey reflects two things; it represents a sea-change in thinking about what schools should do and how they should do it; it also helps those of us who first learned about school curricula and teaching through text books like Denis Hayes’ Foundations of Primary Teaching (which proclaims “knowledge is slippery”), understand where such attitudes came from, but why we should question them now.
The session I am taking part in is called Who Hung the Humanities? This is something I care about very much given my background as an academic art historian and before that in museum curating. As SCETT have realised “There is something deeply paradoxical in the ‘crisis of the humanities’, as whilst the public seems to have a near limitless desire for popular history, literary book clubs and exotic food and travel, the life force of academic humanities appears to be fading”. I saw this paradox at first hand in the early days of my academic career. While studying for my Ph.D. I worked part-time at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Exhibitions featuring artists or styles that can hardly be called mainstream (Horace Pippin, Genoese drawings and prints) were packed out, even when expensive tickets were required, and it was not just tourists or the chi-chi of the Upper East Side who attended; students and young people abounded.
In subsequent years, teaching on undergraduate History of Art and combined humanities degrees, I saw the other side of the coin. Courses on artists and movements which would have filled the galleries at the Met., had they been exhibitions, were cut from the schedule late in the day because of low student enrolment. The humanities subjects suffered, the university administrators told us academics, because they were not useful for young people seeking employment. Such papers did not equate to good use of student loans, was the unspoken statement. Yet the queues at the Met. and at the Royal Academy here in London (where demand for the Monet show was so enormous it stayed open all night), showed that appetite for knowledge of the arts was not waning.
At the same time education gurus like Robinson, like Roberts and the DCMS, were urging educators to embrace the creative subjects; to teach creativity for creativity’s sake, since the creative industries were – and still are – the UK’s biggest export (Paul Roberts’ report of 2006 on supporting the creativity industries through creativity in education – Nurturing Creativity in Young People – can be viewed here.)
It seems to me that at the heart of the ‘paradox’, as SCETT puts it, is how people in education and in government in this country talk about the arts and humanities. On the one hand we are told that the creative industries are UK PLC’s biggest export. On the other hand experts like Sir Ken Robinson tell us that “schools kill creativity”. Reports like those by the DCMS under James Purnell, and resulting initiatives like Find Your Talent, at once urged schools to take the creative subjects seriously, while also making it difficult for schools to do so, by creating the impression that creativity needs bought-in expertise to teach, and that it is an outcome of open and innovative teaching.
It worries me deeply that teachers and schools are led to think that they can only achieve creativity if they do not prescribe the content they will teach, and if they focus on process and the development of abstract skills. The education of Shakespeare shows us that there is flaw to this logic. Few would debate the creativity of our own Will Shakespeare. Yet his education was deeply prescriptive, relying almost entirely on rote-learning and re-call. Daisy put me on to a fantastic book by Rex Gibson (Teaching Shakespeare), which presents the evidence about the Latin-based, conventional grammar-school education he would have received at the King’s New School in Stratford-upon-Avon. Could it be that Shakespeare’s ability to innovate and manipulate language – his creativity – was directly related to the large amount of grammar, rhetoric, astronomy, and music that he had to commit to memory? I think so.
Similarly, Rembrandt’s ability to depict the emotional content of the biblical past was enabled by his comprehensive knowledge of all the ways such subjects had already been depicted. How did he achieve this expansive knowledge? Through laborious copying. Rembrandt’s own personal turmoil may have been the catalyst which attracted him to these kinds of subjects, but it was his rigorous training which meant he could approach them innovatively – creatively.
I shall write more in due course about how, here at The Curriculum Centre, we are helping teachers teach creativity in meaningful and directed ways at Pimlico Academy and at Millbank Primary Academy. Before that, however, I’ll put up a fresh post on Monday, after the Knowledge Summit, to let you know what was discussed and what the latest thinking is on ‘what should we teach’.