Headstrong and Heartfelt—an education

Auckland city now has its own farmer’s market, in the Britomart precinct Saturday mornings. It is quite small, but features an excellent selection of produce. I like the artisan breads and cheeses. It has become a part of my Saturday morning routine. Last weekend I took Zoë, my six year old daughter, with me. We sat for a while listening to the busker—who sounded to my rustic ear like James Taylor. I tapped my foot but Zoë danced and I was reminded of the speech by Sir Ken Robinson at the TED conference.

Robinson was knighted for his services to education, particularly reintroducing creativity to the curriculum. In his keynote (which I've added a YouTube link for, below) Robinson talks about how hierarchies in education:

“there is a hierarchy of disciplines in education, especially in schools, but it’s projected into higher education … : at the top of are languages and mathematics. They're taught to everybody all the time. And when funding starts to get tight, they're the bit that the politicians pull the wagons round.… Language and mathematics. And science, in most countries, not all. Science is kind of a close second tier. Then the humanities, which are always spread out and start to drop off at the end of certain points. And at the bottom of every education system, every compulsory taxation-funded system, are the arts. Without exception.

And in the arts there’s another hierarchy. Art and music, or visual art and music, are generally taught more pervasively and thought to be more important than drama and dance. Dance is probably the bottom of the list in most systems. … is not a school system on earth where dance is taught every day systematically on a compulsory basis to every child in the way that we require them to teach mathematics … Not one. If dance is there at all, it’s an optional thing and drops off the end eventually."

My son is in the fifth form next year at Westlake Boys High school. I don’t think he cares much for dancing—which is a shame. Though he is very good at golf and useful on the cricket pitch.

In the New York Times, that same weekend there was also a column by Thomas L. Friedman on the theme of creativity in education. (He is the foreign affairs corresponent and author of the best selling book The Lexus and the Olive Tree). The piece ruminates on China’s national strategy to be a leader in innovation-oriented countries by 2020. There is a hint of American paranoia in the article, but also a great deal of sense.

He says:

“In a globally integrated economy, our workers will get paid a premium only if they or their firms offer a uniquely innovative product or service, which demands a skilled and creative labor force to conceive, design, market and manufacture—and a labor force that is constantly able to keep learning. We can’t go on lagging other major economies in every math, science, reading test and every ranking of Internet penetration and think that we’re going to field a work force able to command premium wages.”

He discusses a report titled Tough Choices or Tough Times, which proposes a radical overhaul of the U.S. education system, with one goal in mind: producing more workers—from the U.P.S. driver to the software engineer—who can think creatively.

“One thing we know about creativity is that it typically occurs when people who have mastered two or more quite different fields use the framework in one to think afresh about the other,” said Mr. Tucker. Thus, his report focuses on “how to make that kind of thinking integral to every level of education.” That means, he adds, revamping an education system designed in the 1900s for people to do “routine work,” and refocusing it on producing people who can imagine things that have never been available before, who can create ingenious marketing and sales campaigns, write books, build furniture, make movies and design software “that will capture people’s imaginations and become indispensable for millions.”

That can’t be done without higher levels of reading, writing, speaking, math, science, literature and the arts. We have no choice, argues Mr. Tucker, because we have entered an era in which “comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the key to the good life” and in which the constant ability to learn how to learn will be the only security you have.

Economics is not like war. It can be win-win. We, China, India and Europe can all flourish. But the ones who flourish most will be those who develop the best broad-based education system, to have the most people doing and designing the most things we can’t even imagine today."

I’ll dance to that. And, given my plan to take a ‘gap year’ to complete a Master’s Degree in Design I feel encouraged, rather than simply terrified.