Navigating the future of cultural learning

Yesterday we (Susanne Buck and I, Flow Associates) were at the Rising Tide conference, hosted by the Royal Opera House Bridge, taking place at Chatham Historic Dockyard. It was all about Navigating the Future of Cultural Learning, and the role of cultural learning at a time of ‘seismic global transformation’. We were there to run a workshop about Future Views. Our session was about how planning for the future involves acts of imagination, and consulting with people who have more of their future in front of them. See our slides here. This took place in the afternoon, amongst other break-out sessions, followed by a fantastic dance by students of Mid Kent College imagining a world without arts. It finished up with the Scots Makar, Jackie Kay, with poems and delightful repartee about themes of childhood, creativity, identity and activism.

This blogpost focuses on the morning, which saw a series of speakers proposing ideas to navigate the future of cultural learning.

The keynote speaker was Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA, arguing for a 21st Century enlightenment for tomorrow’s children. He drew on the three ideas of enlightenment: Autonomy; Universalism; and Humanistic purpose and proposed that these have become narrowed to: Possessive individualism; Metrics of social justice and rights; and markets driving frames of progress. Each of them in turn has lost the vital dimensions of: Self- awareness; Empathy; and the Notion of the Good Life.

He believes that the establishment of Cultural Learning makes three assertions: That there should be rights of access to the cultural treasure trove; that it produces the kind of people needed in society; that culture has a vital role in preparing individuals for their future.

He described our context as a ‘late materialist’ era (not post-materialist), and there is evidence for this shift. People are still consuming but we know that people value capacities for self-expression over wealth. We know that we need a new economy beyond one dominated by oil. Younger people no longer expect that success looks like the growth of material goods and the accumulation of wealth.

He concluded that it should be our ambition as a country that all work should be fair and purposeful. “This is the time that the things we care about will be more important than ever before.” However, we have to translate what we care about to other frames of reference. Related to an RSA project investigating the value of Cultural Learning, he said that the Cultural Learning sector still doesn’t understand what kinds of evidence for its value would count outside the sector (e.g. with the Treasury).

Catherine Rose commented from the audience saying that she is member of Green Party and was interested that he referred to Universal Basic Income and other policies associated with Greens (not Labour, pertinent as Taylor was Tony Blair’s advisor). She asks how his points relate to young people who may end up working in a chicken factory. She was stopped short in asking her question but the implication was that this shift to a desire for a ‘good life’ over a ‘job that pays’ is a privileged position, only expressed amongst his echo-chamber. His response was that technology can get rid of jobs we don’t find satisfying, and that we’re shifting to an industrial system with less heirarchy. What was left unspoken here was the issue of the kinds of work that will be available to young people post-Brexit, especially in the agricultural and post-industrial communities the conference participants represented.

The second speaker was 19 year old, Charlotte Winter. She described herself as a human being, and a ‘formerly relevant child’, explaining that she has been disabled for 3 years. She is now a trustee of First Site Gallery in Colchester, having taken part in a transformational programme there. She was told that there’s no future for her in art because she’s not exceptionally talented, so if she wants to earn money she should go into science. She did opt for science GCSEs but had a mental breakdown in response. Then she took part in the Flipside project (part of the national Circuit programme). She made artwork, for example using doors to metaphorise closing and opening of routes and perspectives. Before this, she used to spend 80% time doing nothing at home whereas now it’s only 10%. In conversation on stage with Sally, the director of First Site, she told her to ‘loosen up and get more creative’. Having rejected science initially, she’s now doing a diploma in applied science, having the confidence boost from being involved with art. This diploma has given her a direction to practice art that involves scientific processes. She’s bending the rules on how you might label things, people and subjects of study, showing us what we can learn from people practising outside the mainstream.

Nicky Cox is editor of First News, a children’s newspaper that has more readers than the Times, Telegraph and Guardian put together. She opened by talking about the challenges of information literacy, asserting that “We adults must be children’s gateway to the world of information”. At this point, I thought she would be promoting a view that this gateway had to be cotton-wool filled and narrow. But I was encouraged by the way she sees children as future adults, that have a right to access facts, and not to receive their knowledge filtered through unreliable sources. In saying that children shouldn’t just access academic facts but truths about life, I read into this that the curriculum currently does not engage enough with contemporary issues.

First News isn’t just about children consuming accurate information but being active citizens and helping them have agency to change the world. Their project, Conflict Children in partnership with DfID, had an impact on Government policy regarding child soldiers.

Their engagement with children shows how, when children access facts, they can get closer to the issues that matter than many adults can. In a poll First News carried out of what issues children are most worried about: Brexit is well ahead, followed by Affordable Housing, then the Environment, then Animal Welfare. And rising sea levels was the first issue covered in a political broadcast video they supported children to make. (The other big issues children wanted to say they cared about were Syria and refugees.) First News is also getting children to write a Children’s Charter for Brexit. They want environmental and pollution limits to be written into British law, which is not generally top of the list of adult concerns surrounding Brexit.

She called us all to tackle the challenge of helping children become active, tolerant and loving global citizens.

Julia Farrington is head of arts for Index on Censorship. She began by expressing her belief in the power of the arts to enable nuanced, free and radical expression. For her, theatre in particular enables young people to collaboratively explore imagined worlds and the real world, and the links between them. Because art engenders counter-narratives, artists are often targeted by authoritarian regimes.

She supported the young women whose play, Homegrown about radicalisation of young Muslims, was cancelled by the National Youth Theatre. She stated that freedom of expression isn’t free unless it’s equal, that young people from different backgrounds need platforms.

Quoting Orwell, ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear’ she went on to read the Article 10 declaration on rights to freedom of expression. These rights come with the responsibility to avoid inciting violence.

However, these rights are threatened by the Investigatory Powers Act which now gives the Government unprecedented access to our data. Without privacy, we are less free to explore and express challenging ideas. Julia works with the Belarus Free Theatre, many of whose members are in exile in the UK due to rights abuses in Belarus. They are very shocked at our willingness to let our rights slip.

Sir Kevan Collins is CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation. He began with an anecdote about how in the 1930s people would queue to borrow Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for hour at a time, from Whitechapel library. This shows that in critical challenging times people do turn to culture. And schools are losing culture just when they need it. When he trained to teach he wasn’t given facile tricks and tips, but he was grounded in theory and the idea that school should be a ‘broad, arresting experience for children’. He is concerned that creative subjects are being sidelined in schools and that access to arts is being hoarded by those that can afford it. Strikingly, this was the first time in the day that we heard this concern.

He believes that “Art for art’s sake is THE argument. Why should we say more than that?” But then he admitted that unfortunately we do need to say more. To help with this we need to establish rigour, including challenging false dichotomies. He challenges those who appropriate cultural learning within the core knowledge debate. ‘Skills’ and ‘knowledge’ is a false dichotomy, and “we should reject the dismal concept of subjects competing for attention…children should glide across the unnatural borders between subjects”. The final dichotomy he challenged was the opposition of hard work (academics) and fun (creativity) because “you are more likely to work hard if you’re enjoying it”.

His key provocation was: How, through culture, will we build the scholars that will thrive in the future?

He gets irritated when educators say ‘the system is broken so we need to focus on the core skills, so that kids can succeed’. He argued that it’s not broken yet, so we don’t need to roll over and abandon what we know works. Early years children are not learning how to play, and therefore they are not developing language skills.

He reinforced what Matthew Taylor had said, that in the Cultural Sector we’re not good enough at demonstrating the impact of culture on essential skills such as self-efficacy and communication. If you don’t pass level 2 qualification in English and Maths so much of the working world is closed to you, and too many leave without them even after 13 years in full time education. He believes that cultural and arts education, and the scientific methods to measure impact, can tackle this deficit. The EEF is working with the RSA and ACE on the evidence-based study that Taylor mentioned, but he remarked that he was disappointed with the applications for case study projects as they did not promise to be rigorous enough.

What do you think we can do to be more rigorous in demonstrating the impact of cultural learning? Do you think we should, or do you think that the power of culture will naturally become obvious as the ‘seismic changes’ come to pass?

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