Art, Flight and Imagination Part 2

Part Two of the Worlds Together conference at Tate Modern.

Firstly, I surprised myself by enjoying Damien Hirst's exhibition, In and Out of Love. Being a paraglider pilot, I have a deep affinity with free flight and I hold in awe any animals that can do this naturally.  Hirst's Butterfly room was a special moment for me, being surrounded by an enormous number of exotic butterflies, gracefully floating around and occasionally landing on me, or having their beauty preserved in patterned tryptics. I'm not sure there was much about his other works that impressed me but the experience of live flight was very close to my heart and he did, at least, have the idea.

Secondly, there were many reminders of how brilliant our children are, given the right resources and environments to articulate their ideas. But the one that stopped me in my tracks was a short film showing an incredible dancer called Jay Pollitt using the language of the body to communicate with 20 wriggly jiggly four year olds. Without speaking a word, he conversed with them with an easy reciprocity that is not often witnessed in early years arts practice, and with their whole bodies, minds and spirits were engrossed in a conversation based on trust. I have rarely been quite so moved at a conference, but I was glad to be sitting at the back as this five minute piece of film resonated more deeply than I could articulate at the time.

Afterwards I reflected that it was because of the authenticity, honesty and willing vulnerability that we were watching unfold between the artist, the children and their teachers, seeing their immense potential and capabilities being expressed in such a simple format, and now documented and made visible. The focus was definitely more on being than becoming. One wonders if this would ever now be enough to prepare them for Gove's new exam system, even if it is the best preparation for life.

Finally, there were many speakers whose words challenged me, whose different meanings raised my eyes above the parapet, and whose insights reawakened my curiosity. The wonderfully charismatic Eric Booth explored the question, what are we doing when we choose to engage artistically [with an experience or product] and, by knowing this, can we get others to engage? He concluded that we have to develop the capacity to take extrinsically motivated activities [e.g. something someone else might ask you to do or design the rules for], and pour ourselves into them, i.e. to make them intrinsic by caring about it/them.

He reflected on Gandhi's call to action: Be the change you wish to see.

This was reiterated in many quarters where delegates discussed the power of personal and community engagement on people's willingness to learn and to achieve. This emotional engagement making an experience intrinsic was perfectly illustrated in the Olympics and Paralympics.

The revered thinker from Queensland University of Technology,Brad Haseman, encouraged us to focus not on finding knowledge gaps and filling them with 'new' knowledge, but on making space for the unknowns; 'A core challenge for rich learning is to disrupt the contemporary machinery of schooling by finding ways for children to encounter the unforeseen.'

Baroness of Yardley and Earlyarts patron, Estelle Morris, challenged us to stop working with children in subject silos, to recognise the strengths that different pedagogical approaches bring and to find the space that joins us together. She highlighted the example of working class families prior to compulsory education many of whom, despite their poverty, were brilliant at singing, dancing, crafts, poetry, tapestry, pottery, storymaking or performing. They didn't split these experiences into different subjects with time allocations but valued them as an everyday part of their lives. Now we have to think carefully about how we make those opportunities widely available, competing with the more highly valued academic subjects on offer.

"How do we construct a curriculum that pulls together a set of broad and balanced experiences for all children, no matter what their background? It's a new challenge, one we've not had to deal with before. Amongst everything we're passionate about, we need to create a curriculum that embodies all the art forms and creative processes that children respond well to and still retain the pedagogy within it."

With the wonderful quote, "We have created a school system that is too obedient and has lost the ability to rebel", Estelle reflected on the need for some sort of assessment process that doesn't make teachers enemies of each other or frighten heads into focussing on the end product rather than what is right for their children. She urged us to understand the connections between our different disciplines, where they can enhance each other, combine both old and new educational philosophies, in order to find a new pedagogy that not only teaches a whole curriculum but can also be assessed progressively. Stressing that our creative curriculum should not be about inventing something new but about finding that shared space, Estelle ended with the rousing challenge; "Don't make what we believe the enemy of what the others' believe, and don't make what they value our enemy".

The brilliant mind that Is Steve Seidel (Director of Project Zero at Harvard) mesmerised us with his recent research into the life of former slave Frederick Douglass. In trying to understand why US children in marginalised cultures receive much less opportunity for the arts, Seidel examined the relationship between the success of the slave trade and the importance placed upon keeping slaves illiterate. By the time he made his successful 3rd attempt to escape slavery at the age of 20, Douglass had already achieved a high level of literacy through many surreptitious means, and written some amazing historical and pedagogical books.

In doing so, he took many more risks than most contemporary arts educators, in the pursuit of a society change that would enable all children to have a holistic education. Seidel shared some of his powerful thinking; Douglass believed 'all children must be supported to have a moral education, i.e. Imagining a world better than the one they currently have.' reflecting the thinking of Venezuelan theatre director, Moises Kaufman, that 'imagination is the only thing that will save us from ourselves'.

One of the most inspiring and challenging contributions was from Reggio Emilia legend, Carlina Rinaldi (President of Reggio Children) presented by Steven Seidel in Carla's absence. Her ten precedents for children being citizens of the present resonated very strongly with our values at Earlyarts, and reaffirmed in my mind the importance of these principles to underpin our purpose. Her opening statement cut through any previous misconceptions delegates might have had about the work at Reggio being focussed only on a specific pedagogical approach;

"When can a city be defined as ethical? When it becomes an educating community - trying to achieve its completeness; making what is possible possible; valuing human dignity by allowing each one of us to be known and to know and to share our values in dialogue and exchange. To educate is not only to train but to build identity and future, to learn creative, synthetic and ethical thinking. Where people have the right to understand why they do what they do and how it makes a difference. "

Amongst the ten core principles, Carla discussed the complex and political role of the artist or teacher beyond simply imparting knowledge; the challenging child as a constructor of unpredictable knowledge (harking back to Brad's concept of great learning) and an expression of identity and humanity; and our responsibilities to declare the competence of the child to learn as well as its inseparable right to life.

She described the young child like a human being as a foreigner, outside rules and conventions, and needing us to let go of our familiar, inflexible paradigms of teaching - at complete odds with our schooling systems, already described by Estelle as being 'too obedient'. Her final challenge asked us to consider education as a strategy for democracy, based in real live participation, relationships that respect our otherness, and interdependence that is learned and constructed day by day in civic life, and is the basis of peace.

Her parting quote resonated remarkably well with Estelle Morris' own message; "Any time you see apparent polarities, look for the greater truth that contains them both."

If anyone was in any doubt as to the relevance and power of a conference essentially about Shakespeare to our current and future responsibilities as educators, artists, adults and citizens, they must have slept through this last session - which would have been quite an achievement, I can tell you! This was a riveting, thought-provoking and challenging event that gave me food for thought for a long time to come. Hats off to the Tate and the RSC - What a great start to the season!

Author Ruth Churchill Dower is the Director of Earlyarts