With art struggling for its place in the National Curriculum, KAREN ESLEA, Head of Learning at the Turner Contemporary, argues that art practice provides dynamic tools not just for thinking, but for “dwelling in the common world”.
What place should the arts have in a contemporary curriculum?
“In an enquiry, it is almost everything to be once in a right road.” Burke, Enquiry
The educationalist Ken Robinson asks, “How do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st Century, given that we can‘t anticipate what the economy will look like at the end of next week?” [Changing Education Paradigms, RSA 2010]. The answer he proposes is that we nurture divergent thinking as an essential capacity for creativity.
Artists practice divergent thinking – seeing multiple answers and ways of seeing the question; they know what to do when they don‘t know what to do. The importance of ” learning to learn” and “building learning power” is fundamental to developing creativity. Like Elliot W Eisner, we believe that when learners behave like artists they are more successful in everything that they do.
Turner Contemporary is a visual arts organisation that believes in making art open, relevant and fulfilling for all. Our new gallery building, designed by David Chipperfield Architects, opened in Margate in April 2011. Inspired by JMW Turner‘s sense of enquiry, we offer a space for everyone to embrace their curiosity and to discover different ways of seeing, thinking and learning. Our programme enables intriguing connections to be made between art from 1750 to the present day.
We Are Curious is inquiry based and brings together hands-on exploration with a philosophical structure that supports creative questioning and thinking across the curriculum. We aim to demonstrate how educational practice as a whole can learn from the way that artists think and behave.
The Youth Navigators programme which has running at the Turner Contemporary since March 2011. Youth Navigators go through a period of training which enables them to develop creative questioning and listening skills, and to lead conversations with gallery visitors. So far, 135 secondary school pupils have taken part in the project. When we embarked on the project we set out two key areas of research that we wanted to address:
1. How does involvement as Youth Navigators affect young people‘s confidence as learners? Does the experience have an effect on other areas of their lives?
2. Can the reflective practice of leading group inquiries improve their ability to solve problems in other areas of learning, using metacognitive processes?
Through evaluation, Peter Gregory, Senior Lecturer in Education at Canterbury Christ Church University, is helping us to understand the impact and potential of this work. Initial evaluation shows that:
• There are many indications of the growth in confidence in Youth Navigators. This is particularly noticeable in them talking with and to adults – Turner Contemporary staff, navigators and members of the public. This has been commented on by the adults involved in the project, school staff, the Youth Navigators themselves and also by some of their family members who have accompanied them to other events at the gallery.
• There are already noticeable increases in the Youth Navigator‘s listening abilities. This has again been noted by all concerned – but especially by the Youth Navigators themselves. They have recognised that the communication processes required of them also include the ability to listen as a focused activity.
• Although not anticipated as a likely outcome of the project, the majority of Youth Navigators have already recognised engagement in the thinking processes ‘like artists’. This is most clearly seen in the conversations with and between the Youth Navigators.
“Art is first of all a matter of dwelling in the common world” Jacques Ranciere
Whilst Youth Navigators employ philosophical enquiry to talk to visitors about the wider world and philosophical ideas, their conversations always start with artists‘ work. After all, as Fluxus artist Robert Filliou famously said, “Art is what makes life more interesting than art”. Artists’ work considers endless themes and ideas which are relevant to us all, and can transport us to other times and cultures, helping us to imagine the world otherwise. Although the experience of looking at art can transport anyone, at any age, it seems to me that the potential for teenagers and artists‘ work to connect is heightened.
Adolescence is a time of extraordinary change, both physically and mentally; indeed, the physical changes within the brain help explain the shifts in mental attitude which we associate with this age. The brain itself is larger than at any other time of our lives, and undergoes radical restructuring, and in doing so enables us to develop new ways of thinking. To encounter artwork at this time was a revelation to my teenage self, as I am sure it was to countless others. It helped me to begin to articulate my nascent opinions, and to understand that there are also adults in the world who are questioning convention, and trying to understand their place in the world.
Brazilian educationalist Paolo Friere writes “in problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation”.[Freire, 1970: 64].
One of the delights of the Youth Navigators Programme is to witness participants physically growing before one‘s eyes. Their body language is transformed, and they are often flushed with enjoyment, as they gain confidence. The bravery of talking to strangers about art is quickly rewarded, and the thrill of articulating new thoughts, and being listened to, is palpable.
Young people are active citizens now, not just in the future.
Much educational rhetoric considers young people in relation to the skills that they will need in the future. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five lessons in Intellectual Emancipation published in 1981, philosopher Jacques Ranciere challenged his readers to consider equality as a starting point, rather than a destination. The Youth Navigators programme gives participants the opportunity to talk to gallery visitors, usually adults, without mediation. They are equal contributors to conversations about artists‘ work, shaping their opinions and listening to others‘ points of view. We respect young people, and trust them to grasp the opportunity of being equal participants (or indeed to be in the position of power) within conversations in a public space. In return, they have never let us down, and their growing confidence is palpable.
“(The Youth Navigators were) very confident and very engaging. They approached us, which can be scary but they were confident. You‘ve given them a brilliant opportunity. We miss talking to young people so this is a good idea.” Gallery visitors.
Why do we educate our young people?
The question of how and why we educate our children is a pertinent one, particularly as we swim in the unsettling waters following political change. On a recent visit to Moscow I met an inspiring gallery educator, working hard to change the way audiences interact with contemporary art. She told me that although her own education was good, she learnt only facts, and was never taught to formulate an argument, or express an opinion. In her attempt to challenge this approach now, she is predominantly met with anger and strong resistance.
Youth Navigators consistently ask for factual information about the artworks they are discussing. As a response, we introduced curatorial tours into the programme, and participants are also encouraged to carry out their own research about exhibitions. This desire for information, often at the beginning of the programme, to a certain extent signifies anxiety. They also tell us that they think this is what adults want – perhaps a reflection of how our society perceives learning as the accumulation of factual information? I believe that it also shows a desire to learn, as indifference would not prompt such a request. I hope that as many of the young people pass through the programme, and grow in confidence, they begin to see that the question they are concerned with, and the one that all good gallery educators wrestle with, is how should one mix conjecture and personal response with factual information? It quickly becomes apparent that offering factual information alone shuts down conversations.
The dominant discussion in the UK currently asks how education can train young people for work, and raise standards and attainment. It seems to disdain some human faculties, such as imagination or thought on the grounds that they are unproductive, and creates a false demarcation between academic achievement and the sensitivities associated with creativity. The counter argument is that we need to educate the “whole person”, and that by taking control of their own learning, and embracing the arts and creativity, young people can achieve academically in addition to enjoying a rounded and fulfilling life, whilst contributing to a fair and decent society.
In Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), American Philosopher Martha Nussbaum explores the implications of the removal of arts and humanities from educational curricula:
“Radical Changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person‘s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world‘s democracies hangs in the balance.”
Educationalist Guy Claxton identified that “many of the traits that may be associated with wisdom have also been connected with creativity” [Claxton, 2008:43]. He defines this as having tolerance for complexity and uncertainty, perspective taking, assumption questioning, negative capability, independence of mind and courage. He questions whether wisdom is actually a form of “advanced creativity [Craft, A., Gardner, H. and Claxton, G. (eds), 2008, Creativity, Wisdom and Trusteeship London, Sage].
The question that I would like you to consider is whether these are traits that you value? Would you like to further develop these capacities yourself? Are these traits that you would like to see in your children, your neighbours and the people that hold positions of power? At Turner Contemporary we are driven by the belief in the power of art to transform lives. By embracing the arts, and placing them at the centre of their own learning, Youth Navigators are developing their capacity for wisdom, enriching their intellectual lives and imagining themselves, and the world, otherwise.
I will leave the final words to a current Youth Navigator – Harley from Hartsdown Technology College in Margate:
“I think that philosophical enquiry would help kids even if they don‘t want to paint, or make, or draw. Seeing things from other people‘s perspective — it‘s kind of a life skill — it is useful in all areas of life, and not just for creative reasons. It has helped me to develop a more open way of thinking. If you think more openly, you can approach things with a different mind, or even a better one.”
The Youth Navigators Programme is supported by The Rayne Foundation and The Lankelly Chase Foundation.