or how to juggle complexities in life and learning
‘Improvisation and creativity are capacities we would do well to develop in an increasingly unpredictable, complex and at times chaotic existence.‘ Alfonso Montouri, 2003
Since I can’t think of a better description of the times we are living through, or a more accurate assessment of the skills we will need to get through them, now seems like a good time to explore the value of improvisation. In a journal article from 2003, Alfonso Montouri uses both musical and sporting metaphors to demonstrate the ways in which improvisation is integral to the creative process. It is also a pretty handy skill when it comes to teaching.
I always thought improvisation was short-hand for either laziness, or lack of planning. Something arising from a state of unpreparedness anyway. I still would have considered the ability to improvise as clever – to come up with quick-witted responses or think on your feet to make ingenious use of resources in a tight situation is a skill to be admired. But I now understand improvisation is not unprepared, it is exactly the opposite. To improvise skillfully, and effectively, is to be multi-prepared, in a way that involves both planning and flexibility.
The moment which literally flipped my thinking on its head came during a circus festival workshop I attended in 2018. I thought this juggling workshop, titled ‘What does Stuff Do?’ and led by acclaimed performer and physical theatre artist Robin Boon Dale, sounded intriguing and fun, and I looked forward to the chance to hone a self-taught and very basic skill that I first picked up during my teenage years. What I actually learned was surprisingly meta-physical. As we moved through a series of simple exercises building in complexity, I realised this juggling lark was not just throwing balls in the air, predicting where they would land and catching them. It was about the co-ordination of different mental processes and ultimately about translation. And yes, improvisation. Through manipulation of objects we develop an awareness of the way we interact with objects and move our body in space. Babies and toddlers are adept at this mind-altering process. We translate our intentions, or emotions, into physical language through manipulation of our bodies and the physical objects we interact with. In devising a sequence of movements even in play, we give meaning to apparent randomness. We understand ourselves and the world better.
I came away from the workshop thinking – wow – this should be on the curriculum. Juggling, physical theatre, circus – in whatever form you approach it, this offers something fundamental. I don’t mean once in a blue moon – “let’s have a circus workshop, what a treat, the kids can let of steam and have fun” – I mean really value the intellectual work and development opportunity and make it part of the primary educational experience for everyone. Does that sound far fetched? Should we really value circus skills as much as foundational knowledge? Well, yes.
The skill of juggling, and therefore improvisation, teaches you to master confidence in your ability to react and respond; to translate between different states and de-code patterns and sequencing. This is foundational knowledge of our human capacity to function in the world, both physically and intellectually.
These skills teach us that improvisation is not a poor substitute for preparedness. It is an altogether different kind of preparedness which involves changing the way we think. Many of the systems which underpin society, and particularly around education, management, and the workplace are predicated on the valuing of order and control. Improvisation forms part of an alternative approach, one that values flexibility, and non-linear processes which allow for linking and meaning making to occur in the moment. To do this well requires knowledge, bravery and intimate attention – the stuff of true expertise.
The workshop, while challenging my rudimentary juggling abilities, made me think about the way I work in terms of improvisation. I know I feel more comfortable with improvisation than I do with exactitude. Whether cooking a meal, delivering a lecture or taking a class, the more planning I do the less confident I am in the outcome. Or is it, the less interested I am in the outcome? Less interested = less attention = less effective.
At some point in my young adult life, I picked up a quote I believe is attributed to Picasso, which says: “If you know what you are going to do, then there is no point in doing it. You would be better to do something else.”
Going ‘off-plan’ is more exciting from a creative perspective, but mastering a process that has so many variables is a lesson in flexible thinking, and a discipline in itself.
“Creativity involves constant organising, dis-organising, and re-organising. It involves actively breaking down assumptions, givens, traditions, pushing boundaries and moving out of comfort zones.” Alfonso Montouri again.
You could happily substitute “creativity” with “learning” in the above statement. I find this is so often true. Learning and the creativity go hand in hand in the early years, until we are taught to focus on one at the expense of the other.
Improvisation does not involve being passive, shoddy, imprecise or acting without knowledge. Instead, it relies on active listening and is a powerful method of communication and connection, because it leaves the audience or participants in no doubt that what you are saying or doing relates directly to them. They are participant, not recipient. Improvisation is an acute instrument for creating something together. Paying close attention to the moment you are in, and responding to the specific factors that are present is as relevant in teaching as in learning, art, business and of course life. When it comes to education, or any of the biggest questions facing society, we should definitely be willing to improvise. We shouldn’t be afraid to rip up the plan.
In a week or two, I’ll be embarking on a full time undergraduate degree course as a mature student. This has got me thinking about the ways we limit ourselves, or are limited by expectations of those around us or society at large. Lots of better informed people have more to say on this that I do.
I can sum up my take on this through a really lovely children’s book. It’s called All The Ways to Be Smart. It’s currently one of my son’s favourites. He requests it most days, along with ‘Maisy’ – a story about a mouse going off to nursery (as I am starting uni, he is about to embark on new adventures of his own). I notice the mouse story is recommended for children age 3+. I’ve learned to ignore age guidelines on books and toys. I prefer to apply common sense to judge which items my child can be left unattended with, and which should be introduced only with careful supervision (for their protection or his!). My son is not even one and a half but he loves books and can recite several along with me. Which brings me to All The Ways to Be Smart.
Known in our house as ‘Auntie’s Book’ as it was a gift from his Auntie E. When the chant goes up for Auntie’s Book, there’s no resting until it’s been taken down from the shelf and read. At a glance you might say the book is aimed at older children. There is nothing shiny or interactive about it, it is certainly not toddler proof in its construction. It has simple rhyming text and charming hand drawn illustrations. It addresses the reader (or listener) directly and begins: “I can’t wait to share with you, how smart you are the whole day through…” it proceeds to illustrate all the ways to be smart, from the caring and sharing, to the imaginative and adventurous.
It’s quite mesmerising, and of course captures something every child should hear from someone who cares for them. I love that he loves it. I was surprised when I discovered, on only about the third reading that he could finish certain sentences. I then began to pause more often and was astounded to discover that he knew so much more than even the bits he initially said out loud. (Did I mention he is not yet one and a half?)
But here’s the curious part. On the second to last page, we are back in the classroom, with two children who have been roaming far and wide in their imaginations. Three huge windows dominate the top third of the page, in front of which the class of children sit at their desks, facing forward hands raised attending to an unseen teacher at the front of the class. The text reminds us ‘Smart is not just being best, at spelling bees, a tricky test. Or knowing all the answers ever… other things are just as clever.’
This is the only part of the book where my son deviates from the text to comment on the scene in his own words. He says: ‘Sit down table.’ I wonder about this. On one hand, it is an accurate description of what he sees. Only he says it with such conviction, as though it is a command. To my knowledge, he has never been instructed to sit down at a table. He sits up at the table to eat, but he is still little enough to be fastened into his high chair for this, unable to climb in or out independently so we have not got to the stage of issuing this sort of instruction to him. What I wonder, is whether at 16 months old, with no experience of a classroom of any sort, my son is somehow imbued with the culture that it is somehow correct to sit down at the table. That this is what children do in school. Sit down table = learning = smart. Could it be so? This so much the antithesis of what the whole book is about that I wonder if these notions are so deeply embedded and transmuted through our culture that one can barely skim the surface with encouraging words set to enchanting rhyme. Or it could just be that I’m reading too much into the toddler chatter. After all, it’s not child psychology I’m set to study.
I will read a million books to my son, about being smart and kind, and brave in ways that are admirable, in addition to the silly ones about robots running amok in a factory. Like many parents I will embrace those books and stories that embody the values our family find important avoid those that promote obnoxious behaviour we would prefer to avoid (unless it applies to robots, they can get away with all sorts). I’m realising as my son grows up, the major challenge is not to recite all the ways to be smart, but to live them. To let him see the values we aspire to at work in the world. And be alert to unconscious bias. That seems like the hardest part of all. If I keep learning, and challenge myself to look and then look harder, think and think again, hopefully so will he.
Images and quoted text: All The Ways to Be Smart, Davina Bell (Author) Allison Colpoys (Illustrations)
There is a tradition in Scotland. After a settled, sunny June, the last day of school invariably coincides with a thunderstorm or some other strenuous downpour. Grey skies that linger throughout the month of July give way to the occasional burst of sunshine, but generally, expect no run of glorious weather between the wet and grey of ‘it’s supposed to be summer’. Then the middle of August rolls around, the schools go back and out comes the sun. I don’t remember this being the case I was a child myself, but I definitely became aware of it during the time I spent living and working in the west highlands. Probably because the last day of term was spent loading the car – an activity that is always more memorable under deluge.
For me at this time, the beginning of July meant packing up everything but the studio sink as Room 13 relocated to the village of Strontian, on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. For two weeks, then three and possibly once even an attempted four, the art classroom in Ardnamurchan High School was the location for Room 13 International Summer School. The logistical operation takes my breath away when I think of it now. Not only transporting the studio, but stocking up on groceries and essentials to feed and host up to thirty people for up to thirty days.
Getting there from our home base in Caol was a proper adventure, by car and ferry. You could not imagine a more perfect setting for a gathering of artists. A well-equipped studio in a modern building snuggled in the hills, surrounded by ancient woodlands. Step out the door for walks by the river, or a gentle hike into the rolling hills. An adjacent accommodation block with private rooms, spacious shared kitchen and lounge, served by a single village store, set by the side of a picturesque village green.
From 2007 to 2011, five summers were completely consumed by this absurdly idealistic enterprise. Room 13 International Summer School harboured the grandest ambitions of our aspiring international organisation. It was an absolutely brilliant idea, in an idyllic setting: we aimed to bring artists of all ages from Room 13 studios around the world to live and work together. At the same time, taking advantage of the diversity of skills within our network to run courses that would attract participation from others, who would pay to participate. It was conceived as an annual event that would connect and nurture our community of artists, raise the profile of Room 13 as a centre of creative learning and generate income to support our day to day work in schools.
It unravelled very slowly, as gradually the viability of the whole enterprise became questionable and ultimately, we had to concede that it was unworkable. Not only beyond the resources we could muster, but also beyond the reserves of human energy. Anyone who works in a school – teachers, pupils and the support staff, will be familiar with the fatigue that sets in as the school year draws to a close. The flurry of activity that comes with end of term, the energy and momentum that gets you through to the summer holidays. Everyone needing a break. The winding down and finally, the last bell. For teachers, maybe a week or so more after the kids have gone to reset and prepare for the next term. Or maybe they flee along with the children, and return refreshed a few weeks later to do the prep for the next academic year, according to personal preference.
Imagine though, after a full school year, instead of winding down to the end of term, gearing up for the biggest month of the year instead. Filling the month of July with the greatest, best, most challenging and rewarding and consuming work you ever do, leaving barely a week or two to get turned around in August before plunging into the new school year to do it all again. Imagine doing this for five years straight.
Those five summers contained the most incredible, memorable ‘did we really do that?’ moments. For many people, children and adults, those weeks were formative. Friendships were forged. Careers were reassessed, and life’s purposes were explored or re-examined. Artists of all ages did indeed travel from far all across the globe to attend. We hosted children who had never before left their south Indian village. Ambitious young artists from Soweto. Eager pre-teens from East London, and then South London (or was it the other way around?), along with artists, teachers and community leaders from Mumbai, LA, the south of Scotland and the Southern United States – all descended upon this tranquil corner of the west Highlands. Though not at the same time – the capacity of the studio and accommodation was limited, and we discovered that the logistics involved in getting a few young people with one or two accompanying adults from several different countries as we might have hoped to do, was far more of a challenge than getting a larger group of young people with accompanying adults from just one country.
Each year, we welcomed at least one such group and poured our energies into logistics – visas, airport pickup, welcoming, hosting, meeting all anticipated needs and expectations and even providing sightseeing and weekend excursions where possible. If young people had travelled half way across the world, for the first and possibly the only time in their lives, we felt we should at least give them as much of an experience as we could.
For an organisation with a workforce of two, working year round, not exactly employed – it was a lot to ask. It was a lot of pressure to put ourselves under, year after year. And yet, it is easy to see what kept us going. A glance back through the photos is enough to be reminded of the incredible community that was formed. The people who came year after year, and those who happened to be there that year, or dropped by on that day. Who crossed paths, who caught a moment in time and who was there throughout? The conversations, the creative sparks, the shared experiences. So many pictures, so many stories. Only some of them are mine to tell.
At its heart, Room 13 Summer School offered a working studio, accessible from 8am-8pm, with freedom to come and go. There was a great feeling of freedom, compared to the everyday experience of Room 13, which is much more embedded in the life of a school. The summer studio offered a suspension from routine. To be among artists, and ultimately among friends, completely absorbed in their work and the surrounding environment: it allowed a stillness and focus, and brought about a purpose and connection which many found re-invigorating. I hope for the participants this was enduring, for me as the organiser, it was fleeting but still there.
As it was residential, feeding and housing were paramount. This worked best the year we serendipitously attracted the participation of a fine arts graduate who also happened to be a chef. Otherwise, it was all hands on deck. Breakfast was usually self-service, lunch was a buffet with soup and salad tabled on a rolling service between 1230 and 2pm, and dinner was a mammoth operation. Artists ranging in age from 6 to the over 60s creating together and alongside one and other in the studio by day, then cooking and eating together, peeling off in the evening to take walks, return to the studio, share their work and inspirations, music, poetry, or politics deep in discussion or solitary contemplation all the while. It was almost utopian. The residential summer school participants were joined by local children, some as young as 4 or 5 who flooded in and out of the studio like a tide for short periods every day.
I loved it, even while I grew to dread it. It was just too much. Those moments of joy and connection became isolated islands in an ocean of deep exhaustion. Far from being the great commercial engine that boosted the finances of Room 13, the Summer School was in itself a major task that required herculean effort over and above the day job of keeping our studios going throughout the school year. It was always a relief when it covered its costs – just about, not accounting for the acres of time invested.
In the end, the summer school came to a natural end after the set up of Room 13 Community Studio in Caol. For all its international aspirations, it began to feel wrong that we could secure corporate sponsorship from global players to bring young people across the world to attend our summer school, but we had difficulty securing the means to bring those from our home community in Caol, just 40 miles around the loch to share it with them.
The newly established Room 13 Community studio was accessible all year round, with a programme of activity that focused on our local community. It made no sense to leave the studio we were leasing empty for the summer in order to decamp to Strontian. With the shift in location, the nature of the event changed. With no residential accommodation on site, we didn’t set out to attract international participants. By this point, leadership of the charity had fallen to me. In the process of building up a new team, and with changed circumstances we needed to rethink our priorities and do things differently. Room 13 International Summer School paused, and then when the time and space proved more replenishing than the event had been, it ceased.
Though not completely. In 2016, we returned to Strontian for Room 13 Young Artists’ Retreat. This was planned, structured, resourced according to the true cost of delivery and delivered by a team. This unified, focused event worked on many levels that under the previous incarnation had failed to coalesce. Room 13 International Summer School tried to be so many things, pitched concurrently at multiple levels – immersive art camp for young artists, workshops for local children, residential courses for adult artists, family activity holiday, and also served as a summit for artists and facilitators involved with Room 13. It never did quite manage to define its audience. It attracted a real diversity of participants, who, while hopefully charmed and certainly not disappointed, didn’t quite get what they required out of it, exactly. While Room 13 International Summer School succeeded in being something truly unique and really quite special, it fell frustratingly short of its potential in each of the areas where it could have excelled. Where the summer school took more than it gave back, the Young Artists’ Retreat took a carefully pre-determined amount, and gave back something that felt invaluable. For the first time, I felt we had hit upon a formula that worked. While it was a one off (thank you Highland Youth Arts Hub) this is something I’d still like to return to one day. Watch this space.
I think back on those five summers with warmth, a sense of marvel and a slight shortness of breath. Though mostly with relief. While I’m glad we did it, I am even more glad those days are never to be repeated. I like July. I like to wake up every day and think. Hey, nice, it’s July. It is no longer the month that will whizz past in a blur of car loading relays, as I handle the transportation of art materials, food, and passengers in between doing changeovers and industrial quantities of laundry, trying to manage bookings and do admin with no mobile phone signal and internet access restricted to the opening times of the local library, on top of facilitating a vibrant creative atmosphere, and remaining relaxed and welcoming while delivering art workshops in the actual studio….
Room 13 International Summer School will live long in my memory as I hope it does for many others whose lives it touched. I think of it as one of the best things I ever did, even if I never want to do anything like that ever again. I’ll be happy if I get to relive it a little each time the calendar flips around to July and the clouds turn heavy with summer rain.
I recently contributed a guest post to Hidden Giants blog which considers an approach to learning and teaching that is built upon creative systems thinking; among other things, replacing the traditional school structure with a core and periphery ‘network’ model. As a participant of AOB, a weekly online discussion forum hosted by Paul Gorman of Hidden Giants, I have been involved in conversations with education professionals from many backgrounds, asking deep questions about education and schooling in a changed, and rapidly changing post-covid world. In particular, recent conversations have centred around relevance, motivation and desire.
Having worked most of my life in educational settings, my position as artist and CEO also afforded me unique opportunities for insight into corporate and commercial settings, so that I have been able to observe many parallels between education and business, and the role that creativity plays in both. Management, be it self-management or organisational management is key to any enterprise, creative or otherwise. Closely linked to management is motivation.
Motivation is a driver of any form of work. The motivation of pupils, to engage in education, to learn, and to uphold an agreed standard of behaviour, is of concern to teachers and school leaders. To managers in a business setting, it is the motivation of employees to be productive, responsive and reliable that is paramount.
Following the line of thought from creative systems theory, it doesn’t take much to expose further parallels between managing the learning process and managing the creative process. Chris Bilton, author of Management and Creativity (Blackwell Publishing, 2007) gives his take on managing the creative process in a chapter titled ‘Managing Creative Work Through Release and Control’:
“In pursuit of creativity, today’s managers are encouraged to reject control and hierarchy in favour of release and individualism … to enable the individual autonomy and self-actualisation of the employee, not to control the workforce by setting limits and deadlines.” (Bilton, 2007: 66)
Throughout the 1990s, arms length management became popular as replacement for the traditional post-industrial ‘command and control’ management style. The trend for taking a more employee centred approach to management originated in the 1960s, based on Abraham Maslow’s theory of intrinsic motivation, and grew in popularity over the coming decades, particularly in the newly branded Creative Industries* (Bilton, 2007: 70). The arms-length management style of creative industries is described as ‘soft control’ which runs on very subtle models of control that rely on people’s intrinsic motivations (Florida, 2002: 134).
“The central assumptions of neo-liberal management is derived from a core argument about the motivation of employees. Much of the rhetoric around this derives from assumptions about the motivation of artists. Theories of management and creativity overlap in this debate over the extent to which motivation is driven or discouraged by the constraints and expectations imposed upon us.” (Bilton, 2007: 80)
If teachers and school leaders are the managers in an educational setting, I’ve found a lot of the theory that applies to creative management can be overlaid more or less directly into education. A similar shift towards pupil autonomy has occurred in schools. Throughout the 1990s, pupil councils and committees have become commonplace in schools. When Room 13 was first set up in 1994, a group of pupils forming a management team modelled on traditional company structure with assigned roles such as Secretary, Treasurer and Managing Director, was exceptional. Worthy of coverage in national mainstream press and Times Educational Supplement, even. 20 years later, most schools boasted multiple committees and children were familiar with the management structure, the practice of holding meetings and the roles involved. Meanwhile, the Curriculum for Excellence, Scotland’s national framework for children and young people aged 3-18, launched in 2010. CfE revolves around 4 capacities:
Its stated intention is to instil a culture in education that is individually focused, and ‘places learners at the heart of education’. If we draw parallels between the concept of release and control as management style or as a teaching style, what stands out is that both rely on intrinsic motivation.
The intrinsic motivation that is the basis of humankind’s innate creativity is one of the reasons I think understanding the creative process is so important as we explore new modes of learning.
With talk of blended learning, flexi-schooling and an increase in online resources for remote access applying to learners of all ages, learning to self-manage is arguably the most important task for pupils in a post-covid education system (and as remote working becomes the norm, probably quite significant for adult workers too, for that matter). Self-motivated learners are key to the success of distance learning. Insight from 8-year-old Mika Kirk demonstrates that if they have the motivation, resources and parental support, learners could be better off under a self-directed model of learning (Silver Lining for Learning blog, 18 June 2020).
There is an important question over how those in less fortunate circumstances would fare under such a system. Self-management is a huge challenge for many young people, (and adults) especially those growing up in an environment where boundaries and support are less in evidence. A learning model that serves all young people, whatever their circumstances, equally well would remain as elusive as ever. However, there is a chance for learners to develop those skills. Effective self-management also happens to be an essential part of the creative process. When it comes to creativity, motivation and talent are distributed equally throughout the population. Opportunity is not. Inundating children with opportunities to access and experience the creative process, whether in or out of a school setting, can kick start their motivation and self management capabilities. Young people growing up in challenging circumstances are often among the most motivated and committed participants of art projects they are lucky enough to have the opportunity to access.
Unfortunately, within formal educational settings those lacking in self-management skills, as evidenced through a perceived lack of motivation, may find themselves subject to more forceful attempts to motivate them by external means. Extrinsic motivation – reward or punishment – is thought to undermine the creative process. This was explored in a series of landmark studies in motivational psychology which took place in the early 1970s. Experiments carried out by Professor Mark Lepper at Bing Nursery School in 1973 studied the effect of introducing an award for drawing, an activity the 4-year-old subjects had previously been spontaneously attracted to and showed a high level of interest in. The four-year-olds who were encouraged to draw with the promise of a reward showed markedly less interest in the activity they had previously enjoyed, when the prospect of reward was removed. Children who had not been rewarded continued to spend longer at the activity and produce drawings of higher quality (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973).
Similar results were found among adult subjects in what is known as the Soma puzzle experiment (Deci, 1971). Adult participants were given a puzzle to solve within a certain time. One group were offered to payment in return for successfully solving the puzzle. Once they were told the time was up, they were asked to wait while the researchers complied the data. At this point the participants who were paid were more likely to abandon the task while the unpaid participants were more likely to continue in the hope of solving the puzzle (Deci 1971).
When rewards or targets are introduced as an attempt to motivate and control the outcomes of a learning process, there is a danger that the focus becomes the reward rather than the learning. As many who have turned professional at a much-loved hobby know, being conditioned to expect a reward for activities previously enjoyed for their own sake can alter one’s attitude towards them.
Rewards and targets can be motivational in certain circumstances though, and when used wisely can provide a useful tool and motivation for unrewarding or unappealing tasks. If this method of motivation is to be effective, the relevance of the reward is vital.
“At different stages in the [learning] process, different types of motivation and different types of constraint will be called upon. Managerial interventions and extrinsic forms of motivation in the form of targets, evaluation, rewards and penalties are likely to work alongside internal compulsions and desires.” (Bilton, 2007: 80)
Does the curriculum take account of internal compulsions and desires? Rewards in education are given for achieving pre-set targets, the criteria for which are set perhaps decades before the learner working towards them has even begun their schooling. They are designed to monitor comparable progress of individual learners within a system. What if targets were set with individuals in mind, with an agreed definition of success that is relevant to the individual?
Among the tasks for managers, as for teachers, parents or anyone trying to facilitate a learning process, is the crucial question of when to stand back and when to intervene. A well timed and appropriate motivation or reward, even if it is simply to interject a question or word of praise, can inspire a learner’s progress. A poorly judged intervention can detract from the process and derail their motivation. As a supportive observer, it is difficult to judge the right approach for the right moment in every situation.
Bilton speculates, as to what might be the role of the manager in the creative process: “Managers might provide a catalyst for moments of synthesis and clarity in the creative process…”
I wonder how this definition could apply to the role of the teacher, in the student’s learning process? Let’s not say in the classroom as the practice of corralling children in classrooms may not be an essential component of their experience of education in future. Teachers might provide moments of clarity for individual students, to offer structure and context, helping them reflect and make sense of their discoveries.
These careful judgements, the routine scaffolding and context setting, uniquely adapted for every individual pupil, to help get them the best out of their learning journey, are the skills for which teachers are to be revered. To value teachers for their skills rather than their output would be to place them in a system which defines the goal without attempting to prescribe the means.
When it comes to intervening in the learning process, the answer is of course always subject to context. The success rate, between individuals, or co-workers in any such process also owes a lot to co-operation and mutual trust. The importance of empathy – between mangers and creatives, as with teachers and their pupils – cannot be over-stated.
Bilton notes that in divided organisations, or those where a more traditional hierarchy is in place, managers define problems and creatives solve them. In a genuinely creative organisation, managers and creatives negotiate the boundaries and parameters around the problem together.
Are the boundaries between management and creativity clearly defined or porous? What about in learning? When it comes to the exchange between student and teacher are the rules of the game fixed?
We can assume the rules of education are up for review. In Scotland anyway, the term ‘blended learning’ was put forth as a solution to post-covid educational model, then hastily retracted – possibly due to mass confusion over what this would actually mean and how schools and parents would find it practicable. In the absence of clarification, I take the liberty of interpreting blended learning not being about content, and whether this is accessed online or face to face, but the fine balance between release and control. Using a form of blended learning that is centred on managing the learning process through release and control, can we rebuild the education system based on empathy and prioritise self-management and motivation? We can start by valuing teachers, and their instinct for developing students’ ability to learn – a motivation that will serve them throughout life.
*It is noted by Bilton elsewhere in his text, that the term ‘Creative Industries’ was first coined in a document published by the UK Govt’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 1998.
Links and References:
Bilton, Chris. Management and Creativity Ch.4: Managing Creative Work Through Release and Control.
At the roots of my creative practice, there is one thing. Hundreds of them in fact: postcards. A teaching tool I was introduced to on my earliest visit to Room 13 studio in Caol has become my simplest and most effective tool to stimulate looking and thinking.
This process of using a collection of postcards as a tool for engaging young people in dialogue about art, artists and ideas, evolved over 25 years in the Room 13 art studio. I came to know ‘the postcard game’, as it was then known, as the semi-formal teaching element of the Room 13 studio in Caol Primary. Rob Fairley (Artist in Residence of Room 13 Caol from 1994-2004), made use of a vast collection of postcards as part of a series of lessons in ‘visual literacy’ which he had developed. Other lessons in the series also involved an orange, Kit-Kat wrappers and digestive biscuits. In his hands, the postcards were used to facilitate quite formal teaching about history of art.
The postcard game was originally written up by Rob Fairley for the Room 13 Cookbook (2006). Over the years, and in the hands of a few different artists, use of the postcard collection evolved and adapted. My own take on it as a young Artist in Residence in the newly established Room 13 Lochyside was also documented in the Cookbook. Just as Room 13 travelled and took root in different settings, this versatile teaching tool became a recognized staple of the creative process taking place in the studios.
Following a residency with Room 13, artist Audrey O’Brien included a synopsis of the postcard sessions among a number of exercises to stimulate observation and lateral thinking skills in her artist’s book ‘Leonardo has an idea’ (edition of 3, 2017).
Also in 2019, I collaborated with Room 13 and the National Galleries of Scotland to produce Learning Through Pictures, a short film and online resource for teachers.
In a studio where the focus is on creative freedom and giving young artists space to experiment with art making and self-expression, the postcards continue to offer a fun, easy way to approach teaching visual literacy and to give the students an opportunity to examine and discuss the work of artists from all periods and disciplines. As well as a good grounding in art history, along with the vocabulary that supports discussion of art and ideas, the postcards act as a prompt to encourage creative thinking more generally in ways that can be applied to all areas of the curriculum.
Why use postcards?
I have used the postcards to various effect with class groups from P1 to S6, as well as with teachers and adult artists. I have used them in community workshops to explore themes for creative commissions, to introduce the language of self-expression to young adults as part of a series of youth creativity workshops in Nepal, and with delegates at a conference of architects and facility planners in Sydney, Australia. They are an amazingly simple, versatile resource. I also use them in my own practice. I can think of no better way to collect visual references, curate ideas and juxtapose concepts. There is something about the contained format of the postcard that suits my way of thinking: the perfect size and shape for handling, double sided, unbound, can be laid out on floor or table, grouped, flipped or pinned to the wall, with endless possibility for reordering.
As a teaching tool, using the postcards can be as simple or as rich and complex as you want it to be. The process can take 15 mins or an entire afternoon, and can be used to explore almost any subject you could name. The outcome of the discussion might lead to a 5 minute drawing or a 5 month project.
I have no idea if the method of using art postcards to prompt discussion was invented in Room 13. I doubt it. Looking at and discussing pictures is fundamental to education, at all levels. Maybe our way of going about has some unique aspects which may be significant: the sheer volume of images, spread out over the floor, stretching, as far as a small person is concerned, as far as the eye can see. Each image reduced to an A6 rectangle. The physicality of the process, stepping through and crawling over the images. Crouching down to look closely, picking them up and turning them over. Getting your hands on a piece of art and subjecting it to close examination. Just the image, no framing or context – not in a book or on a screen, or even placed on a table or hung on the wall. Just one image, surrounded by other images of the same, humble format.
As a tool for exploration, using postcards for looking and learning is something I go back to time and again. Here’s why:
#1 Putting ideas together
Using visual imagery to talk about art, artists, ideas and emotions can link into anything. At face value, the postcard sessions provide a foundation in art history and in building a vocabulary, not just to confidently discuss terms that relate to artwork – such as being able to distinguish and define sculpture, photography, drawing, painting, installation art etc – but also being able to articulate your own thoughts and critical or emotional response to something.
In terms of content, the artworks themselves can lead to discussion on history, environmental issues, language, politics, geography, mathematics…One of the things that is exciting about the conversations sparked off is the reaction when the children make the connection between something – a word or a concept – that comes up which they have heard about in another context. I was able to observe a recent example of this when Richard Bracken, Artist in Residence at Room 13 Studios, Caol hosted a series of introductory visits to the studio for class groups from different Primary Schools. He started them off with the postcards.
Richard invites the group to look at the postcards covering the floor. He explains these are all artworks. Four pupils are asked to pick out any one that has caught their eye: “Tell us about the artwork you have chosen. Start by looking closely, and describing what you see.”
With encouragement, the individual holding up the image starts to describe the different materials that they think might have been used to make the artwork. Other pupils looking on tentatively contribute suggestions: wood, plastic, glass, fabric, wool. Moving on to look at other details prompted by Richard, the children start to respond more confidently, and go on to venture thoughts and suggestions about what the artwork ‘is’. Richard’s questions prompt more questions from the children themselves, and recollections. There is a gasp of recognition from the class during the following exchange:
Pupil: It’s an oval.
Richard: Yep. Can you think of another word that means oval? A maths word? … It begins with ‘E’. … Ellipse. Have you come across the word ellipse?
Class Teacher: Not for a while.
Meanwhile, class, collectively: Ohhh yeahhhhh….
Here is Richard, talking to the class as an artist and they hear a word that they have never heard anyone use outside of a maths lesson. They get really excited because they know that word, and suddenly they hear an adult using it and see a place for that word in the world. The click of recognition is almost audible. In my experience, this doesn’t just happen with words, it could be anything. In the wide ranging discussion, the children find a space to make sense of their curriculum learning – putting ideas together for themselves.
#2 Democratisation of art history
The postcard sessions are an incredibly refreshing and honest approach to viewing and discussing art with young people. Whether half a dozen or a few hundred images – just lay them out and start from whatever draws their eye. That’s incredibly empowering. Not just putting one image in front of them and guiding them through it – here’s what to see, and how to think about this image. You start by confronting them with a whole plethora of visual stimulus. By simply asking:
What do you see? What do you think about what you see? They will then lead you into it with their observations, their questions.
Very often, the children will have no prior knowledge of what they are looking at, so the weighty hierarchy of art history is removed. They will make judgements about what they are looking at without being influenced by any ’taught’ ideas about what is good art.
Looking at two, or three or several hundred artworks side by side all reduced to postcard format, children will instinctively single out the works they want to discuss on the strength of which they appeal to them. They don’t necessarily perceive any difference between the work of a celebrated artist and that of their classmate in Primary 5.
#3 Open ended outcomes
On occasions when children have been given free rein to use the postcards, individuals respond in different ways. Some will want to sit down and copy or trace a single artwork, some will want to sort or categorise the selection, some want to write stories or lists of words to describe the artworks that have caught their eye. Seven-year-old Jamie, made a memorable and ambitious attempt to arrange the full postcard collection as a colour spectrum. The installation was so huge, he had to lay it out in the dining area, and it could only be captured in an aerial photograph!
Not only used for class sessions, as a resource in Room 13 the postcards are freely available. One lunchtime in Room 13 Lochyside, a group of pupils looking through the postcards were engaged in robust discussion over their opinions of certain artworks. This evolved into a game where they set up as curators of rival galleries, each selecting and presenting a selection of their favourite works and preparing curators talks expounding what was to admire about the works they had chosen. One curator also prepared a pitch as to why a visit to their gallery (The gallery of Wonder and Intrigue) was better use of time than either of their competitors (respectively The Gallery of Boringness and the Museum of Messes). This was a spontaneous, spirited and amusing episode that grew from a small group of primary school children chatting about and disagreeing over art in their lunch break.
#4 Forming and articulating a unique point of view
Often, during discussion participants are surprised to realise that opposing points of view can be held by two people about the same artwork, and neither can called be wrong. One work can be scary and uncomfortable to one viewer or calming to another – and that’s ok.
Here’s Richard, summing up the discussion on the studio visit:
“We have looked closely at four pictures. We have covered two sides of A4 paper with words. It’s amazing how much information you can get from one picture, just by using observation: studying really hard.
Looking at it closely is maybe changing slightly the way you think about it. When we take time to really look at these pictures, we see them differently. If we talk about what we see and listen to each other’s opinions, we can learn about how other people are thinking and maybe get to change how we think.“
Teachers observing their pupils in discussion with the artist during a session with the postcards have also commented on being impressed with the vocabulary and observations the children come out with. The children themselves can be amazed at the sheer number of words that can be generated just from looking at one artwork.
#5 A window and an open door…
People often remember artworks (usually paintings) that they were introduced to in school. It’s always exciting to see something ‘for real’ that you recognise but have only ever seen in reproduction. Whether deliberately seeking it out, or stumbling across it on a random visit to an art gallery later in life, imagine if you happened to wander into the gallery and see that painting you remember holding an image of in your hand when you were in Primary 4? Becoming familiar with so many artworks opens up the opportunity to experience that excitement and feel an immediate connection to the work that might otherwise be absent. For some, familiarity with the postcards is enough to prompt them walk into a gallery in the first place. Many families from the west highland communities where I have worked, have been enticed into art galleries on holiday visits to the capital, or even cities overseas, on the strength of their child’s desire to look for a particular work by a particular artist.
Something to try
Starting a postcard collection is easy for anyone and useful whether you are artist, parent, teacher or merely curious and keen to explore questions about art and artists.
Each postcard collection is completely random and entirely personal. It can be made up of cards received, picked up at exhibitions or from degree shows or bought specifically. It’s great to try and mix it up, so that a range of art forms and artists and genres are represented, from college students to architects, long dead famous artists to children at school and nursery, but any collection of images will work to get you thinking, or talking.
Don’t worry if you feel you don’t ‘know’ anything about art – you don’t have to be well informed about each and every artwork. Names, dates, titles and the ‘correct’ reading of the work are details that can be looked up later if you choose. Just look at the artworks yourself or along with those around you, and discuss your reactions. It’s easy to do, and you don’t know where it will take you.
Just get some postcards. Lay them out on the floor and look at them.
Start asking questions. Begin with what you can see…
Extract from project documentation, Generation Creative (2018):
Extracted from a written observation of one of a series of studio visits offered as part Room 13’s ‘Generation Creative’ project, funded by Big Lottery Young Start Fund, with the aim of establishing a sustainable programme of engagement, utilising studio space on the newly built Caol Joint Campus for wider benefit of the community, with a key focus on developing young people’s creativity throughout the region.