Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Elevated by Rhetoric


I've just got back from a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson today at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) in Glasgow. Like many people, I'm sympathetic to Robinson's ideas, but like some, I'm also sceptical about his vision for the future and his suggestions based upon it. He's certainly a showman with a very impressive bag of scripts that he deftly collages together to entertain and enthrall his spectators, though at times I felt as though I could easily have edited a few of his YouTube videos together to the same effect. Yes creativity is a uniquely human capacity, yes it's undervalued in education and yes it tends to be relegated to “Art” classes when in fact creativity is fundamental to all forms of human endeavour that involve thought.

Robinson speaks of revolution, but he frequently mixes his reference points. On the one hand, he tells us, we are already witnessing a revolution and on the other hand education needs a revolution to face up to the challenges of the future. So that's a revolution within a revolution then Sir Ken? I might have got my facts mixed up, but the last time I checked, a revolution was something that involves the overthrow of the previous order. In fact, Robinson's idea of revolution is simply a rhetorical trick that plays on people's deep seated suspicions about how terrible education has become and how their children's potential is being squandered. But then again "reform" isn't such an inspiring term is it?

It seems to me that there is one very simple conflict which underlies much of Robinson's work but which is so overburdened with proselytizing and accretions of anecdote that he seems to have missed it. People learn best when they're guided. However, such instruction comes at a cost: when you instruct someone too completely there is a tendency for the effectiveness of this instruction to inhibit creative improvisation on the part of the learner. In a sense then, creativity and effective learning are to some degree mutually exclusive: you can learn something effectively but if you want to innovate you need to have time and space to take risks and to learn through both failure and discovery, in which case effectiveness goes out of the window. This doesn't require a revolution, it requires addressing, and no amount of wholesale overthrowing of old orders is likely to solve it. It's all well and good talking of revolutions and transformation as long as these are achievable and as long as we have a good idea exactly what we're overthrowing and what we're replacing it with. But when the vision soars into the stratosphere, one wonders who is being elevated by the rhetoric.

9 comments:

J. Hamlyn said...

The following series of comments are from a discussion with a friend on Facebook on the subject of Sir Ken Robinson’s talk:

Ken Neil said...

Nah, don't be sceptical, at least not about this. Sir Ken's message today was clear, and still bold, even though you've heard or seen it performed before. He contends ably with the (constructive) tension, not conflict, between empathetic guiding and pedantic instructing on the part of the educator. He observes, rightly, surely, that too many skew the balance and lose sight of apposite guiding and plump for a shit abstract technics of instructional delivery - often dressed up in interactional hullabaloo. Sir Ken is saying all at once that guiding needs framing and framing can be pernicious, but when it isn't, creative endeavour is there in teaching practice and likely in the outputs of the educational encounter - maybe like his 'paragraphing' example. He's all for creative guiding, based on the imparting of methods and context closely coupled with opportunity for practice of same. Where our venerable institutions might do better is in the revision of some long-standing instructional methods, not to improve them, but to replace them with apposite guidance which might take a lead from current creative practices in art and design.

J. Hamlyn said...

Thanks Ken, you extrapolate a lot of good stuff there that I’d certainly subscribe to also. Perhaps I should overcome my distrust of Robinson’s showmanship and give “The Element” a try. I still think there’s a conflict though, not so much in the sense of pedantic guiding vs empathetic guiding (though undoubtedly there also) as between effective guiding and guiding for creativity. If educational constructivism is correct that participatory learning under guidance is most effective and recent findings that clear guidance inhibits creative improvisation are also well founded then there does seem to be more than a simple tension between efficiency and creativity. There’s also a profound difference between guidance for creativity and creative guidance isn’t there? Jamie Oliver’s Dream School which continues on C4 tonight, I’d guess, could be taken as a case in point.

Ken Neil said...

Yeh, I see where you're at on this one Jim, and it's an interesting territory for sure - especially when you factor in the debates around Curriculum for Excellence. I'll record that Jamie Oliver show - lavvly jabbly. I guess I'm on Sir Ken's side (and I laughed at his jokes - even the telegraphed ones) inasmuch as I think creative guidance for those students of all ages involved in what we can now call (with QAA sanction!) 'creative and cultural practice' disciplines is well worth the candle because it can inform students in interesting ways about our subject domains and it can inspire imaginative practising of those disciplines by those students, which is a gain for them, and should be a dynamic gain for our cherished disciplines - although in my previous post I wondered about how much we as educators are actually willing to learn from what and how they choose to work. There seems to be no real way to dispute the efficacy of that type of creative guidance, nor its wider social efficacy when our graduates, researchers and artists move in the world, although even hiring such creative guidance is a practical difficulty, let alone practicing it. When I see you next I'll ask you about your corollary - to caricature it here - that unclear guidance or no guidance is a more effective catalyst for creative learning and practise, or would that 'a-guidance' apply only to effective tuition or facilitation of improvisation...?

J. Hamlyn said...

If I might speculate a little I’d say that not only can modelling something too well inhibit creativity but so too can being too creative as a teacher, no matter the discipline. We have to ask ourselves, in such situations, who’s creativity is being exercised and to what end? I like your term: “empathetic guidance”, though it’s perhaps a little too passive to describe what seems to be needed ie: an ability to identify and respond dynamically to a learner’s needs. Sometimes people need guidance and sometimes they simply need to be left to make discoveries (and instructive failures) on their own. But judging the appropriate moment for this is one of the most elusive aspects of teaching. Robinson’s quite right that the factory model of education is completely inappropriate in this regard, though he’s certainly not the first to have noticed. But focussing so much attention on creativity is asking it to bear too much in my opinion, flattering as I find the thought of it. Sure, creativity would seem to have a great deal to offer education across many, perhaps all disciplines but it’s certainly no panacea. It’s not going to overcome the creeping managerialism nor the dwindling staff cover. It will probably help and hopefully in some cases it’ll help a lot but we’re surely kidding ourselves if we see creativity as the primary solution to all of our educational ills. So nah, I’ll stick to being a sceptic.

Ken Neil said...

Don't do that Jim. In a world in sore need of creative guidance we need all hands on deck: a man of your artistic and pedagogic talent cannot abdicate from the cause - not even on facebook. Creativity, that is the foregrounding of it in making and teaching and thinking, is not the primary solution, but it's an essential part of 'it'. You're quite right to reference the elephants in the room, cuts and managerialism, for they are both big bastards and nobody can simply will them away by creative imagining. But Sir Ken would not disagree. Seeing the elephants reminds us also, with some degree of paradox in this context, that creative endeavour is reliant upon more infrastructure and framing than folks might be willing to admit - but not Sir Ken I don't think. Creative guidance, for me as a hopeless institutional inmate, is found where the framing is conducive, not where the framing is absent. I'm not sure about pedagogy proper, but I'm pretty sure in respect of andragogy - if you can maintain a credible split - it is the framing, not the a-guidance which determines and indeed which allows failing - epistemologically I mean. A more cynical than pretentious me might say that the appearance of supposed failure in HE art education serves to cement the normative measures of success. Both aspects are circumscribed by a consensus within a community of practice, and within that welcome failure masquerades as dissensus. If you buy into some of that thinking, then maybe a studio failure in HE art education is precisely the same as a studio success - both are sophisticated practices which evidence an institutionalised learned behaviour. (This doesn't cover the infant probably.) Elkins gets close to that take when he scrutinises the rituals of the art studio in the academy, and I can recall from my own undergraduate studies the practice of actually engineering failure through the directed experimentation with left-field methods of making - it was impossible not to produce something that was, with a nod to Susan Rothenberg, so failed it was instantly big kunst. Pity I didn't keep that stuff.

J. Hamlyn said...

You know me better than that Ken. Besides, I wasn’t aware that there was a boat to “abdicate” from, but even the Peaquod had room for Starbuck. I might be sceptical but I’m far from disengaged, in fact more so than ever – hence the link to Franks. Robinson strikes me as of the Eric Booth variety: flattering, fanciful and full of flare. I don’t by any means discount these people – they’re important don’t get me wrong but I do reserve the right to question their claims, which is why I’ve now ordered The Element. As it stands, if we must take ‘sides’, as you took the liberty to do earlier, I guess I’m more with Franks, Elkins or Elliot Eisner:
“Ideas, clearly, are important. Without them change has no rudder. But change also needs wind and a sail to catch it. Without them there is no movement.”
You make an excellent point about framing beyond guidance. Nonetheless failure for the confident is an entirely different animal than failure for the uncertain and even more so for the student in jeopardy. A confident student’s failure is an instructive experiment, whereas the struggling student’s failure is an ontological crisis with potentially lasting consequences. I know you recognise this too. But I’m taking your time – though I learn a lot from the tussle: “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.” -Edmund Burke. The risk, of course, is that it’s all one way. I look forward to resuming this when we next meet on deck!

Ken Neil said...

Good stuff Jim, and don't worry, I've always got time for this kind of stimulating chat, and I'm always on deck, by the way, except when I'm swimming. And it's not a tussle, it's cooperative thinking. There is no boat to abdicate from, only duties; in this case the duty is to a crucial cause (one which you uphold, in a way, by your creative questioning of Sir Ken - a salient point for me when you asked him the question publicly - with no lack of courage). The central claim of the lecture on Tuesday is unimpeachable by my reckoning - although some extraneous bits and pieces of Sir Ken as 'act' might irk, I can see that. And the creative quizzing of the presentation is similarly an unimpeachable act - too right. I'm very interested in something you raise in your last post about jeopardy. It could be that there is an ontological challenge thrown down to the art and design HEI by that student who is struggling. For why are they struggling? What is it that is understood to be the ineluctable centre of the art school's ontological 'need' that would distress that student to such a point? In the mind of such a student the struggle is usually, in my experience, centred on their internalised and dispiriting worry about matching external, normative orders - of all places, in this brutal epoch, the art school should find a way of working which simply helps attendees realise to their satisfaction a creative engagement (with our empathetic guidance) - and our infrastructures of judgement should be modified to permit this. If we did that, then we might see a different kind of constituency for the art academy - I'd maybe stop short of calling such a place 'a practice-led academy of creative criticality', but I'd tickle myself with the thought that such a place might be possible, I certainly think it's needed. The production of outputs which corroborate the normative conceptions and manifestations of existing disciplines is no doubt of value, but the extent to which that institutional endeavour is creative criticality has to be doubted. This is a tangent I know - but your searching posts have set me running around the foredeck joining the dots!

J. Hamlyn said...

Sorry to link to my blog again but a few weeks ago I wrote about exactly this issue of failure and it seems silly to try to rephrase it here: http://tinyurl.com/642emsx
You write: “of all places, in this brutal epoch, the art school should find a way of working which simply helps attendees realise to their satisfaction a creative engagement (with our empathetic guidance) - and our infrastructures of judgement should be modified to permit this.”
Now that’s a ship I’d like to sign up for! Inevitably there are obstacles, not least of which is the ever present culture of qualification that tends to encourage students to persist when they’d clearly be better off to desist or simply to study something or somewhere else. But there are nonetheless a significant number of students who are not only dispirited, as you say, but who have their enthusiasm for art and art making brutalised by the constant reminder that they’re on the borderline of failure.
I’m finding that these issues come back again and again to the importance of intrinsic motivation. The evidence points overwhelmingly to the profound value of shifting the emphasis away from extrinsic motivators (grades, the approval of teachers, praise etc) towards internalised forms of motivation: for doing it for the very love of ‘it’. It has been shown repeatedly, across generations and cultures, that intrinsically motivated people consistently perform better at creative and cognitively challenging tasks, are more persistent and generally enjoy what they do more than extrinsically motivated people. The role of education should presumably therefore be to support autonomy, to provide choice and alternative ways of achieving successful outcomes, to make projects relevant, achievable and challenging (“empathetic guidance”) and to create an environment (“framework”) that is enabling and supportive. I guess that’s what I mean by the difference between creative teaching and teaching for creativity.

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