February…..cultural and educational frustrations


Teenagers are to various degrees and depths interested and engaged with the cultural world around them. They love to watch movies, they listen to music, they follow extended TV series, they take photographs, they are interested in fashion and what they wear, the architecture and built environment around them, the design of stylish cars, many dance or play a musical instrument.  They have the beginnings of becoming adults who later will be culturally engaged, not necessarily as active participants, but at least as active receivers and users of the cultural world around them.  There is an inherent interest, and in some cases the ability to perhaps take one step further and become someone who might actually have a part to play in the broad and varied cultural environment.

Having said all this, February is for me, a culturally frustrating month. It is the month where the third year pupils (14-15 year olds) that I teach are making their so called profile choices, selecting the group of subjects that they wish to study in their last three years of secondary school. For those not familiar with the Dutch ways of education, this means choosing a selection of around nine or ten different subject areas, it is a broad choice. Some might say that it is the strength of the Dutch system that you can keep so many doors open in terms of future study and career choices. Compared to the British system where I studied, it allows for amazing diversity, I had to be satisfied with just three subjects (in my case maths, physics and art) for the last two years at school in the UK.

Yet despite the wide scope of choice on offer, I and my art department colleagues are confronted each year by the same problem of persuasion of pupils to consider choosing a two hours per week of art as an exam subject. For three years the same pupils will have bounced into the art rooms for their lessons, for so many one of the favourite lessons of the week. Many (although of course not all) will have shown great ability and interest in making surprising and imaginative work. So what is going on here when it comes to choosing to take the one cultural subject that the school offers?

The overriding feeling that I have is that decision making is driven by a sort of safety first career related perspective. Pupils, and I dare say parents too, are driven by a career/financial mind-set. It’s a kind of academic subject equals good, versus vocational subject equals risky, view of the world. But it is a view that throws probably more than one important baby out with the bath water.   If I’m honest, I don’t feel that the advice that pupils and parents are often given helps this situation, it tends to reinforce the ‘safety first’ careers perspective and fails to acknowledge just how many people work in the art and cultural sector.

But in away the career building view is not the central point here, remember, we are talking about the art subject being just one of ten subjects on the timetable a pupil will be following. Choosing the subject as a career choice isn’t for many the most important or relevant point.  What the arts offer is something longer term. It is about giving our young people baggage to take with them into adulthood. Not baggage that will weigh them down, it is baggage that will enrich their lives, help them understand the world around them, give them perspectives on the past.  It is about developing opinions and encouraging diversity and insight in the world around us.


Opinionated pupils cont’d……….

I have just come across a nice illustration to accompany the text I posted earlier in the day. It connects nicely with what I was writing about encouraging young people to learn to ask questions and in doing so forming opinions.


Thanks to Warren Berger and Edutopia and their Twitter feed for providing such suitable accompaniment!

Opinionated pupils….unlocking and articulating a standpoint?!

Teenagers have an opinion about everything it would sometimes seem. A teacher who is unjustly tough on them, why the training session at the football club is more important than their homework, how their timetable could be better organised and well, how Susan is wearing something that she just shouldn’t wear.


However trying to squeeze an opinion out of a pupil about matters of lesson content is sometimes a lot harder than you might think.  It is quite a central part in much of the teaching that I do. Cultural education involves a great deal of subjective evaluation, you are allowed to have an opinion, and I positively encourage it.

And yet, within a large part of secondary education we neglect this important ability of giving our opinion and being rewarded for how well we articulate it.  Instead we focus on testing that proves we know something or understand how to use it. I understand of course why and how this situation arises as we aim to test and measure academic abilities and understanding, this in an educationland that is constantly driven to record and classify pupil performance. But in this rush towards producing hard documentation the value of encouraging young people to give their own view and interpretation often gets completely snowed under.

In my own work as a teacher I often find asking pupils to step outside of this system is sometimes surprisingly difficult. There is often a nervousness to open up and simply to say what they think, even when we are on quite familiar ground to them, like giving an opinion about a film that we have watched in class. There is the constant “what does the teacher want me to say?” question lurking in the background. In a sense what is most often important to me is that they stop waiting for me to ask them questions and start asking themselves questions and discovering how to develop and manoeuvre a line of thought into interesting areas where they can present their own ideas and articulate them.

To help reach this point I’m noticing that my lesson material is increasingly built upon collections of short, open questions that help them to discover for themselves what sort of questions are useful to ask and which ones take them into areas that help them to formulate and justify their own opinions. The questions are often quite generic, but that’s perhaps the point, they have to discover for themselves which ones are more relevant and fruitful when trying to explain a standpoint. Ultimately I hope that the pupils will have the ability and confidence to ask their own questions, an ability that will serve them well as they move from being teenagers to young adults.

Incidentally, if there actually a Susan in one of my classes with interesting fashion sense, it might well be interesting one day to try and write a similar list of generic questions to analyse her choice in clothes.  That way we might discover more about the basis for such strong and judgmental opinions in this area!

“….and what if Madonna was your mum?”

I’ve written that on a few of the reports handed in by my pupils in the last week or so. A little unusual I know, but the remark has come in the context of a module of work that I have been doing with my fourth year groups (aged 15-16) that has had the title of Remix in Art and Culture. Part of the module has involved taking a look at the world of copyright protection and how it works, and doesn’t work in the cultural world. Pupils have visited an exhibition by the Dutch artist Gijs Frieling whose work there involves a painted remix installation that touches on any number of his artistic and cultural references and favourites.


We have also watched the excellent and entertaining film RIP A Remix Manifesto, made by Brett Gaylor to give a broader picture of remix in culture and the way in which copyright is tangled up in it.

The pupils themselves have produced their own music remixes and examples of mash-up graphic design work to help them see and understand the role of creativity even when the artist seems to be ‘borrowing’ work from others.

It’s been a successful project and the pupils have certainly enjoyed it, especialy the practical activities. So what prompted the Madonna comment. Well, as with many such projects, the final part is a little reflection, and one of the questions I put to the class is as follows; if we are going to protect artists’ creative work with some sort of copyright law, how long should this be for? They have see in Gaylor’s film that in many countries protection runs for the life of the artist plus seventy years.

Some pupils are quite clear and outspoken, they think that the whole copyright law is completely unsustainable in our digital world and should be scrapped, or at least radically rewritten. Others though are more unsure and are clearly perplexed by the seventy year rule. Why on earth should someone have copyright protection after they have died? “They can’t benefit from it then can they?” they write.   I suspect that ‘if Madonna was your mum…..’ you might actually be able to work out why copyright protection extends in this way, and you might also be very in favour of it! Otherwise you, and, in this case your mother’s estate is going to be missing a lot of royalties.

Part of the aim of this cultural reflection subject that I teach is to develop the pupils cultural opinions. Teenagers are in general pretty good at opinions, however for my purposes, opinions do of course have to be thought through and explained. This second step of thinking through the consequences of an opinion can be surprisingly difficult and worth a post some other time.