Shaping the Inheritance
By David Cameron, Director, The Real David Cameron Ltd
This article is based on a TEDx presentation delivered in Buenos Aires in April 2012.
I love the quote from Eric Hoffer that "In times of change, the learners shall inherit the earth while the learned will remain beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists", but, for me, it doesn't go far enough. It is the learners who can handle complexity, who can innovate and, most importantly, who can create who will shape their inheritance.
That is vital, for our ambition must not simply be to enable our learners to adapt to the circumstances that they find themselves in, it must be to enable them to change and improve those circumstances.
I often refer to the depressing fact that there is still such a strong correlation between children's birth weight and their success in attainment and qualifications. It reminds me that the narrative of so many lives is written from that moment of birth and probably before. We know that low birth weight tends to be associated with poverty and poor maternal health, so we have children who do not have a future, they have a destiny and that destiny is a bleak one. Our task, if we are educators, in whatever sense, or if we are simply committed citizens, is to rewrite the narrative of such lives. Ideally, it is to enable those who face a destiny to create a future.
This is an issue that has particular resonance in Scotland, where, despite considerable and consistent effort, we have failed to have any real impact on inequality. As the OECD Report, "Quality and Equity in Scottish Education" points out, background factors are still consistently dominant in determining young people's academic success. Nowhere is this more starkly clear than in the attainment of Looked After Children. We have had recurrent efforts to improve outcomes for these young people, most recently through "We can, and must, do better", but, despite the ambition of the title, we have failed to achieve it. Surely, there can be no argument that doing what we have been doing a bit more effectively will somehow finally lead to the breakthroughs that we seek. We need to be more courageous and more forward-looking.
There is a wonderful scene in the Argentinean film "El secreto de sus ojos", "The secret in their eyes" where one of the characters tells the other that if you look backwards, especially with regret, "you will have a 1000 pasts and no future". That reminded me that our task is to give our young people 1000 futures regardless of their past or their present. Our greatest debt is not financial. Our greatest debts are not those accrued in the past; they are to the future and to the provision of the best possible inheritance.
At present, we don't seem to be doing so well in this! We live in a world of complex challenges and wicked problems. The burgeoning environmental crisis is frightening. The return to austerity is alarming and the thought that we can no longer offer young people a better future than that which our parents bequeathed to us is depressing.
In even our wealthiest societies we face massive issues in terms of mental health. In the United Kingdom we see frightening levels of risk taking behaviour, a sign, perhaps, that young people place little value on themselves and their prospects. It also suggests that there is a lack of well-being related to a sense that they have little control or influence over their own lives.
So what would give us this sense of control? What would allow our communities to shape the inheritance?
I believe that creativity is at the core of answering these questions. Creating gives a sense of control. It gives a feeling of being able to shape. It stresses synthesis and the bringing of order, even where the work created is challenging. Work done with prisoners in Scotland demonstrates this wonderfully, not just in the famous case of the Barlinnie Special Unit where Jimmy Boyle went from being a feared and destructive force to being a respected sculptor and author, but in the ongoing work which attempts to transform our whole concept of rehabilitation. I work regularly in the City of York and saw the same approach with young people with challenging behaviour. Their behaviour was far from challenging as they created an exhibition on the theme of "Nuns on Skateboards" – what a brilliant combination of the mischievous, the skilful and the constructive.
When we have no sense that we can have an impact, we become, simply, victims. Complex problems, like climate change, intimidate and defeat us. We become passive when we need to be active and engaged.
Creativity gives us that commitment to activity; it encourages us to engage.
I believe that it is contagious. The sense of possibility that we discover, perhaps through the arts or music or dance allows us to see potential in entrepreneurship or science or technology. It was no accident that Eric Booth, the notable American advocate of creativity employed artists in his business, not as artists, but as people willing and capable of finding solutions and solving problems, reluctant to accept barriers, unwilling to see failure as an end point. These are the dispositions that we need for the 21st century.
We need them particularly in Sciences. I am struck by the concept that the exciting developments in Science are taking place in the "hyphens" – neuro-science, bio-chemistry, astro-physics – the areas where there are overlaps and synergies. That sits well with the inherent view that we have of Science. Ask any large group of people to call out the first scientist of whom they can think and one is inundated with inventors or breakthrough thinkers, not jobbing scientists.
We are also increasingly recognising that we need these qualities in our educators. There are more and more voices arguing that too many of us teach to the test and educate to the demands of accountability. The image of the educator as postman or woman, delivering someone else’s messages is too easily used in too many instances. That might have been fine at one point but, as Laurie O'Donnell argued in a recent Inside Learning podcast, conformity and compliance will not meet the challenges that we now face.
That potentially radical view is now endorsed from the very heart of the establishment. The Donaldson Review, Teaching Scotland's Future, is predicated on a teaching profession capable of dealing with high levels of autonomy. The McCormac Review, regardless of its status and the views that teachers might hold of it, advances the same view of a committed, talented, well-qualified workforce shaping provision for our young people.
That view of the profession is well substantiated by the outpouring of creativity and energy that is so evident among Scottish teachers. The apogee of that may be Pedagoo, the website run by teachers for teachers, a website so popular that it is in danger of crashing under the demand from users. It stimulates debate and creates a superb forum for the exchange of practice. However, there is also a plethora of educators blogging, tweeting and podcasting and most of them are seeking progress and improvement. Their energy and input should be better recognised and drawn on. I think that the same is true of the College sector where Karen Lawson led the recent Festival of Dangerous Ideas. That was a week long series of events which aimed to "shift the axis of the possible". It unleashed an absolute torrent of creative ideas and provided the basis for unexpected partnerships. It also drew attention to some brilliant examples of what we can achieve. Few of the people who met the team from Room 13 International will forget the sheer chutzpah of the children involved. They were on the Board of a small creative industry working with an artist in residence, running a viable creative enterprise within their school.
There is so much to be proud of in Scotland. Sir Ken Robinson might argue that schools are killing creativity, but we certainly have some that are giving it the kiss of life. We are making a remarkable commitment to transform what we do. We are changing our whole approach to the curriculum of our schools, trying to move away from an approach based on full, fixed and demanding syllabi of knowledge to a more open approach based on Experiences and Outcomes. We are striving to enable our learners to develop the capacities to be Successful Learners, Confident Individuals, Responsible Citizens and Effective Contributors. Higher Order Skills and creativity are at the heart of that. This is our year of creativity – which is maybe a little short! A decade or a lifetime would be better – and we have marked it with a series of initiatives.
I love the scale of the Fife Earth project where an open cast coal mine, a 3 square mile scar on the landscape, is being transformed into a work of art. The imagination and scale of the vision challenges us to revise the paucity of our ambitions and the monochrome nature of our dreams. Find out more at: www.educationscotland.gov.uk/marksonthelandscape/fifeearth/index.asp
We have established a Creativity Portal, www.creativityportal.org.uk, which links so much of what we are doing and what is available. We are setting up Creative Learning Conversations the length and breadth of the land so that we can create synergy and dynamism between partners and we have a wonderful project rightly called "Transform" where the National Theatre of Scotland works with communities and schools, whoever are willing partners to do exactly what it says in the title – transform some aspect of their lives.
These are brave moves and the right moves, but they are fraught with difficulty. Change is never easy and we wrestle with fear, caution and conservatism, but the opportunity is there and the model is there. I hope that we will hold to it, although there must be some concern about the turbulence that we are now facing. Much of the discussion about Curriculum for Excellence is now focused on the detail of assessment and there is a growing fear that, yet again, the demands of assessment for national qualifications will shape the curriculum. The effect of that in the past has been to narrow the experience of learning. We have, too often, responded to the insecurity that change can bring with ever increasing specification – experiences and outcomes "unpacked" – and restrict the teachers more than we support them.
It is also interesting to observe the documentation that is emerging about 'the broad general education' as an entity, leading to the Senior Phase. It almost leads one to believe that there is no place for personal and social education for anyone over 15 and that we should stop making the efforts that we make consistently in schools and colleges to encourage learners to be broadly educated. We should be doing much more to celebrate the efforts that we make in all phases of education to develop the 4 capacities of Curriculum for Excellence. Yet while we engage in this vaguely arcane debate, we have done little to promote the Excellence Group reports, notably that on Higher Order skills, which might allow us to regenerate and revitalise Curriculum for Excellence, rather than further burden it with the demands for conformity and compliance, which Laurie O'Donnell warned against.
Similarly, we have yet to see the report on Creativity, which was commissioned and approved by the outgoing Learning and Teaching Scotland Advisory Board. Having been involved in the report, I would not want to make excessive claims for it, but it could help to add momentum to the Year of Creativity.
I have been inspired by so much of what has been achieved elsewhere as have so many others in Scotland. We have attempted to emulate the success of El Systema from Venezuela with some success. It is hard to imagine anyone not being moved by the young people of "The Big Noise" in Raploch playing with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in the opening event of the Cultural Olympiad. It is also hard to imagine that these engaged and motivated young people will not be more successful learners in other aspects of their education.
As I said earlier, I have been inspired by "El secreto de sus ojos" not least in the beautiful image where the main character has written "Temo" as he wakes from sleep. At that point his life is dominated by regret and fears. As he begins to overcome that, he looks again at what he has written and simply adds an "A" – te amo. "I fear" becomes "I love". The transformation is made. That image is so rich for me and so powerful. It reflects how often the creative process is that small addition to what we already have, the taking of the next step. It reflects the change from being timorous victim to being someone active and ready to give. It is the start of an engagement with the future.
If we wish to move from such moments of individual transformation to sustained efforts at national transformation and, why not?, to international transformation, we need to harness all of our energies and resources. We need to draw together our formal educators with artists with volunteers and most importantly with our communities. We also need to be persistent and courageous and place far more emphasis on winning people over rather than compromising the ambitions and ideals. Arguments are to be heard and considered, but progress, like creativity, is based on synthesis rather than compromise. The difference between the two may be subtle, but I think that it is important. Synthesis, for me, is where ideas are drawn together so that something more powerful is created. Compromise is where ideas are diluted in order to seek consensus.
I spoke of the grounds for optimism that we have, I believe that there is evidence to allow that optimism everywhere. I keep seeing astonishingly good things happening in Scotland and beyond. A single month this year saw me attend the Scottish Education Awards which were as exhilarating as ever, the celebrations of the Graduate programme at Govan High School, the amazing event with Google in Glasgow, which was a real celebration of the ingenuity of Scottish teachers, the Cramlington Learning Festival and more. All were evidence of what can be achieved. Let us build on that and recognise with Anais Nin that "Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again; and this interdependence produces the highest form of living". Or at the very least, let's elevate the debate.