Reimagining education in a world in flux

I listened to a jazz musician explaining the beauty of navigating by improvisation: how integrating many notes and rhythms of players is down to the art of listening. It’s about responding to the melody’s fluid progression; with slight changes in tempo or reimagining a note that was played accidentally. ‘It is the quiet art of remaining in an open place’ he said. Not to control a piece towards a preconceived end result, but to approach each action playfully, remaining present and not lingering on the unexpected F# that found its way into the performance somehow…

Indeed, here each note is able to fully breathe in the ‘space between’ and find its own way of expressing and weaving into the fabric of the moment. Not that the players can’t influence the pattern that plays out of course. But the truth is that there is no road map nor concept of a mistake in jazz, just a series of evolutions along the octaves — wonderful and unknown cycles of risk-taking, play and experimentation.

I have a hunch that, we might be in one of those liminal moments. Where, in the midst of the pandemic, all the usual ways of functioning are slowly but surely being shown the door. It’s been a painful eight months so far, devastating for many — and it’s not over. Yet, if we are to negotiate the next phase of this journey effectively, we will have to shed a few preconceptions that we’ve clung to for a long time and perhaps allow ourselves to risk a few new ones.

And we’re already proving to ourselves that it’s actually possible. Take the way we’ve shifted work patterns or drastically reduced our travel. We are discovering that we are, very ingenious and adaptable human beings. Albeit not dismissing the hardships WFH has brought, for many we can work more flexibly, even more effectively in some instances, outside ‘business as usual’.

So what if we applied this idea more widely and saw this as an opportunity to flip the script on a couple more things that aren’t really working for us, let alone our futures. One of the most important, I think, is how we prepare the next generation for adapting and perhaps one day thriving in the change we are now encountering on an almost daily basis.

As an educator and an artist, I’ve been exploring artistic practice, specifically the creative process and its application in a range of scenarios and environments. From classrooms to museums, universities to cathedrals, businesses to colleges and farms to theatres, I’ve been facilitating, teaching and learning about the creative process for over a decade. In various arenas and environments, I’ve discovered (as have many others) that the creative process is not so much a formula to be taught but is rather something that is open for exploration. Indeed, working with children and adults alike has taught me the growing importance and presence of skills gained in traditionally ‘creative’ subjects like Art & Design that enable and encourage innovation and imaginative thinking throughout society.

Traditionally we relate creativity to the ‘industries’ of design and artistic practice. Naturally, we imagine that the creative process is for people and organisations who regularly embark on the literal creation of something new, the transformation of tangible matter from one form to another. And so it is. However, when we talk about the creative process, a term many face with genuine trepidation, we discover that its application is in fact much greater. If we embrace the notion of the creative process more generally, it becomes a powerful and essential way of shaping outcomes in all walks of life as well as recording an important and valuable journey that goes way beyond the traditional artistic sphere.

In the current systems of what we might call ‘industrialised education’, we are assessed on our ability to retain and repeat knowledge about a particular topic of information we’ve been learning. Then expertly feedback what we’ve consumed in order to gain credit. It’s a helpful skill but, like it or not, this type of ‘intelligence’ is much less essential in our world thanks to google and a host of other digital platforms accessible 24/7 by a swipe or a click.

It’s all very well learning the facts, it is of course a relatively easy thing to teach and measure… ‘but the world no longer rewards people just for what they know’ (Andreas Schneider, Director of Education and Skills OECD). Likewise, Yoval Noah Harari puts forward a compelling warning in his book ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, with the recognition that, as a number of sectors become increasingly automated, many people will be out of their current job by 2030. Indeed Hadi Partovi of code.org estimates that roughly 1.5 billion people are ‘in an education system preparing them for jobs of yesterday, by teaching them the curriculum of 100 years ago’.

What is more startling is that 65% of today’s children will be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet (according to the World Economic Forum). Essentially every country is funding a public education system that is ‘not equipping children with the skills for the future we are about to enter’ (Hadi Partovi). In this current moment of disruption what we need to do now is teach our children how to think, not whatto think. And this is where creative principles lend a hand, practices that help to cultivate environments perfectly attuned to aid the journey of discovery — encouraging reimagination in an era of immense uncertainty and change.

Imagine that we saw this moment as an opportunity to reflect on the results of our current education system, increasing stress on children and teachers due to examination changes, and students amassing crippling debt to meet demands of educational ‘inflation’ dictated to by increasingly overcrowded job market. But before we jump to write another report on the state of system, perhaps we actually already have the tools — we just require brave and swift application.

With schools being disrupted this year regardless, I believe we sit with a beautiful invitation at hand. One that will help current and future leaders approach our challenges with playful resilience and grounded hope. The keys are found in cultivating creative skills across the board, not as ‘bolt on’ or ‘nice to have’ extra-curricular subjects, but as the core basis for how we reframe and facilitate environments as we make plans to educate the next generation.

Ultimately, the common misconception about creativity or the creative process is that we often try to be more creative or make efforts to find it, rather than perceiving its quiet constant present reality running throughout our lives. Indeed, the fight has been, and will always be, about how to stay aware of that essential presence, despite inevitable failures, change or disruption along the way. So let’s embrace this disruption as a painful yet gracious opportunity to welcome something new which is available and present in all of us. We just need a gentle reminding and space for these creative skills to thrive.

Born in Edinburgh, Jennifer is a multidisciplinary artist, designer and educator who integrates textiles, fashion and writing. Formerly Senior Producer of Residencies at the V&A museum, she has delivered talks, training and worked with a range of organisations around creative process, including the RSA, Courtauld Institute and UAL. She continues to develop her artistic practice, as well as to collaborate with cultural institutions and universities in various forms of public engagement in the UK and internationally.

Jennifer has recently launched an online course called ‘School of Unknowing’, a six week online course starting in January 2021 to help make space for discovering your unique creative process. For more information visit: www.schoolofunknowing.com

Her recent publication, Pulling Threads (April, 2020) which combines twenty poems and twenty textile artworks unravelling the unknown, has been acquired by the National Poetry Library’s permanent collection in London.

weaving waves, words and matter //@jensturrock www.jennifersturrock.com