Wednesday, 1 June 2016

C Bacc anyone?

I am very fond of the various Tate galleries in London and wrote this, on their request, as an opinion piece for their regular Tate Etc magazine.

It was really a plea for the creative industries to value their own ability to judge work - other than through multiple choice tests and essays - and to bring that professionalism to the debate about school testing and "standards". They seem curiously "out of the debate" for now, but that needs to change, I think.

Anyway, here is the piece:


C.Bacc anyone?

Around the world, and here in the UK too, learning institutions are re-embracing a mix of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), often with the Arts included (STEAM), emphasising project based activities, actually making and creating things, all usually in technology rich learning spaces. Those new Maker Spaces house equipment ranging from 3D printers & scanners, through laser cutters and etchers, to knitting machines and computer driven embroidery. Materials include the detritus of dismantled "last year's" gadgets alongside the new resources of Conductive Play-dough or PLA filament. They are messy, unpredictable, busy, inspirational and seductive.

Inside them learners seem to have escaped the boxes of traditional learning to mash-up ingenious re-uses of components, to invent, create and collaborate. Anyone close to this excitement is typically bowled over by it. Formally, the 2013 OECD Paper “Sparking Innovation in STEM Education with Technology and Collaboration" noted a host of researched outcomes including enhanced higher-order skills and improved student learning, all with better student interaction, engagement and motivation. Informally, teachers speak of unstoppable learning happening at weekends, outside of traditional hours, and across holidays.

But all this comes at a time when education is facing a crossroads: on the one hand, countries around the world are embracing the engagement and detail of project based work. In 2015 Finland scrapped and replaced ALL discrete school subjects with "topics". Industry cries out for "21st century skills"; CEOs in 2015 put collaboration (50%), honesty (27%) and vision (25%) ahead of knowledge (19%) as essentials for success.

However, on the other hand the English Baccalaureate school performance measure comprises a tiny core of discrete subjects without that rich overlap: english, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language. Whilst this is only a core and more is expected, schools are judged by this core in England. It seems to exclude pretty much anything where students work standing up, debate, create or actively collaborate: practical science, music, drama, sport, art and much more are missing. The EBacc sprung from a not unreasonable wish to measure and progress learning outcomes and not overprescribe. However, not all desirable learning is measured with a multiple choice test score or a written examination. It is often said that whilst not everything that can be counted counts, not everything that counts can be counted. This is where the creative and arts sector needs to stand up tall and play a part. The sector is rich with reliable trusted ways to judge outcomes, from the architectural "Crit" to practice based PhDs in sculpture. The BAFTAs are not criterion referenced, but we trust the judgements made. Celebration, exhibition, peer evaluation, scholarship, narrative all play a part but if the sector doesn't stand up and shout loud for the quality of these judgements we end up with a dismal reductionist curriculum of tested retention and rehearsed written answers. And we would run out of STEAM, in every sense.

Standing inside Tate Modern, with the generator hall below, looking out across the bridge to St Paul's, drinking in the vista of British ingenuity, of arts and applied engineering, of inventive science and playfulness, of collaboration and creativity it is impossible not to see the importance of this new STEAM world of learning.

The world we live in is increasingly filled by the unexpected. Surprises are ever bigger, from volcanic ash clouds and economic collapse to mass migration and climate change. STEAM activity designedly presents learners with the unexpected, with unpredictable challenges that test their application of the knowledge and understanding, rather than their ability to replicate or regurgitate it. Our future will be vouchsafed by people who, facing unexpected problems, can produce ingenious solutions, can astonished their peers, and can gratify their mentors. Curiously the various Tates are filled by the outputs of precisely such people. Bringing their ingenuity into the Maker Spaces of the new STEAM age can literally transform the world in the way the last steam age did. But for that to happen the messiness, the unpredictability, the 24/7 busyness, the inspiration of STEAM needs to be valued, accredited and full centre in our schools and our education system. For that to happen, the creative and arts communities will need to offer a valid alternative way to measure the creative learning outcomes of education. Surely together we have the imagination and cohesion to do just that?.


Kärkkäinen, K. and S. Vincent-Lancrin (2013), “Sparking Innovation in STEM Education with Technology and Collaboration: A Case Study of the HP Catalyst Initiative”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 91, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5k480sj9k442-en.



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