Nurturing the polymaths of the new millennium

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The Independent Online
How do you manage to tap students' creativity, in an education system which is consumed with the very basics? That's the question being pondered by an advisory committee of artistic and scientific luminaries.

When the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, announced his advisory committee on creative and cultural education earlier this year, it was widely assumed to be a ploy to silence Sir Simon Rattle. The conductor had been making a lot of noise about the proposal to relax requirements for music and the humanities in the "slimline" national curriculum for primary schools. It was a "desperate" threat to music in state schools, he said. "We are looking at a whole art form being sidelined ... I'm talking about the possible death of music."

Now Sir Simon is sitting on Blunkett's advisory committee, with the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Harry Kroto, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah and comedians Dawn French and Lenny Henry, among others (see box). The casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that recent events - the primary school changes, Sir Simon going ballistic and the new advisory committee - were connected. But they weren't, in any linear sense, according to the committee chairman, Ken Robinson, professor of arts and education at Warwick University.

In fact, Professor Robinson had been talking to Blunkett since the publication last summer of the White Paper about rebalancing the whole of the education system from kindergarten to PhD, so that creative talent in the arts and sciences is given as much weight as the three Rs. And his criticisms were not simply directed at the changes of the past 10 years.

Historically, he argues, it may have been all right to educate the few in a narrow way and forget about the rest, because the English education system was based on the need for a small cadre of officers and a large body of manual workers. It was perhaps OK to be consumed with a certain kind of intelligence - the verbal , conceptual and mathematical - as opposed to the practical and creative.

But none of that is any good in today's democratic, high-tech world. Nowadays everyone needs a decent education, plus the ability to communicate and adapt, to use their imagination and see connections. They need it as individuals, but the economy needs it, too. The kindergarten doodles of today become the successful websites of tomorrow.

That's why Robinson believes that things have got to change - in primary and secondary schools, as well as in further and higher education.

"From the very beginning the national curriculum ranked subjects in a hierarchy," he says. "Science was more important than the arts and the humanities because it was in the core. That needs to be looked at. There was never any case put why science was more important than other areas."

Moreover, there's a lot to support the argument that arts and sciences can be mutually enriching, says Robinson. The process of creativity in these areas are similar. Education tends to stereotype them - one clinical and objective, the other subjective and personal - but they're not polar opposites. The process of science and scientific research is often just as messy and intuitive as a theatrical or musical performance. Outside education the real revolutions are happening in multimedia and the applications of new technologies. These are breaking down the barriers between disciplines. The scientists and technologists are developing the new technology, but artists and designers are pushing forward the applications and creating new opportunities.

Teaching and lecturing need to reflect all that, and ensure that student creativity is exploited, not stifled, according to Professor Robinson. At the moment, the committee is looking at schools, and will be reporting to Blunkett in September. After that it will turn its attention to higher and further education.

Will it grasp the nettle of the high degree of specialisation in the British university system? Sir Claus Moser, a member of the committee and chairman of the Basic Skills Agency, hopes it will. A fan of Keele University's foundation year, which enables scientists to study arts subjects and arts students to study some science, he hopes the committee will look at that concept because, he argues, such cross-fertilisation is the route to creativity.

Professor Robinson tends to agree. The specialisation of British higher education is often seen as a strength but can also be a weakness, he says. It creates narrowness at a time when barriers between disciplines are being broken down everywhere - when, for example, the most interesting and ground-breaking research is happening where archaeology meets science, and where music meets sociology.

But Professor Robinson hopes to look at more than the curriculum. University teaching needs rethinking, he says. Based largely on traditional lectures and seminars, it is often of variable quality, and it can create passive students. Academics are normally appointed because of their success as scholars, not because they have an aptitude for teaching. And many have had little training - though that is changing. Higher education should be looking more than it does already at new styles of teaching, he thinks, including the use of multimedia and new technologies.

Indeed, the whole sector needs to be examined. During the Nineties it has been undergoing huge structural change, moving from an elite to a mass system. But the experience of undergraduates has not been given much attention. "When dealing with people who have different entry qualifications and different career aspirations, and are moving into a different economic environment, it's necessary to rethink what students are going through," says Professor Robinson. "Do we still want a degree to be a general form of intellectual training, or do we want a much more vocational system?"

Traditionally, the acme of intellectual achievement has been personified by those skilled in verbal and mathematical reasoning, rather than in people who use their intellect and flair to create something practical. For example, students who wanted to paint headed for art school to get a diploma, whereas those who sought a degree attended university to study history of art. That was something that happened outside the classroom. "People who got degrees were the critics," says Professor Robinson. "One of the shifts that has been happening, and that I want to encourage, is to show that the practice of the arts is degree-worthy. These are intellectual activities, among other things.

"There's been an axis in education for a long time of a rather narrow view of economic need and a narrow view of intellectual capacity. The result has been a terrible waste of people's resources and self-confidence. Since the world is changing so rapidly, it's time to review it."

The committee is commissioning research from the National Foundation for Educational Research to find out what work has been done already on creativity, and to discover what research can tell us about the positive benefits arts education brings to other areas. For example, according to American research, gifted mathematicians are often found to be good at music.

First, though, Professor Robinson will have to explain - and defend - the value of creativity. Some people see an earlier version, particularly in primary schools, as being responsible for a perceived fall in standards.

Professor Robinson will be trying to reclaim the idea that creativity is something we need if we want to innovate and stay ahead in the global rat race, and that it should be nurtured right through the education system.

Blunkett's cultural advisers

Professor Ken Robinson (chair), Warwick University

Professor Eric Bolton, former Senior Chief Inspector of Schools

Dr Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology, Oxford

Valerie Hannon, chief education officer, Derbyshire

Dawn Holgate, Phoenix Dance Company

Dame Tamsyn Imison, head of Hampstead School, London

Clive Jones, chief executive, Carlton Television

Jude Kelly, artistic director, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Sir Harry Kroto, Sussex University

Professor Lewis Minkin, Northern Institute of Continuing Education

Sir Claus Moser, chairman of the Basic Skills Agency

Sir Simon Rattle, music director of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Lord Stone, chief executive, Marks & Spencer

Helen Storey, fashion designer

Carol Traynor, head of St Boniface RC primary school, Salford

Benjamin Zephaniah, poet

Dawn French and Lenny Henry, comedians