Beauty is the missing element in schools

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
Teachers tend to deal in attainment targets rather than aesthetics, but good lessons are a work of art

Questions about beauty - what it is, and whether it matters - often surface in public life, but there is little evidence of the debate touching schools. This is, perhaps, unsurprising. In popular culture beauty is associated with the fashion industry, with cosmetics and the commercial exploitation of young people's fantasies.

Within the arts, it is commonly mistrusted as the preserve of high culture, whose claims to moral and aesthetic superiority have been disputed by artists and sociologists since the early 20th century.

Then there is the confusion over what exactly we mean by beauty, something that philosophers have argued about since the early 18th century. Most significantly of all for educationists is whether we should see beauty as integral to a "good" society. Not only do schools supposedly educate for such a purpose, they are also, surely, supposed to model it.

Despite disputations among philosophers and academics, ordinary people have continued to use the words "beauty" and "beautiful" readily enough in what we might call the conversation of common experience and they know exactly what they mean when they do. Unsurprisingly, very young children quickly learn that beauty is a value, something worth being a part of. They might share a beautiful experience, watching a sunset or listening to a melody; or they might produce something that a loving parent will describe as beautiful, such as a drawing or even a smile. In either case, they learn to associate beauty, as Aristotle insisted we should, with love and with excellence.

If children are denied the common pleasures of beauty, we ought to see this as a form of severe deprivation. Tyrants have always understood this and have commonly locked their victims in cells, away from the beauty to be found in art, nature, people and ideas, as a form of torture.

Early years teachers are among those educators closest to the values of beauty and the practices fostered by the Reggio Emilia approach to teaching, developed in northern Italy, illustrate them clearly. It emphasises colour, light and an aesthetically pleasing environment; close interaction with nature as integral to nurturing children's creative energies; and a conscious promotion of domesticity and warmth as fundamental to children's well-being and pre-requisites to their learning. But we are in error if we see these as exclusively "feminine" virtues and confine them to early years settings.

When the multi-talented William Morris set up his workshops in the 19th century, he was attentive to their aesthetic qualities as well as their functional purposes, intent as he was on fostering the well-being of his workers by maintaining a deep connection between nature, humanity and creative labour. He believed that machines ought to service rather than stifle human creativity, a concern that will resonate with many teachers as they struggle to reconcile the functional "machines" of target setting and assessment criteria with the creative labour of their students.

We would be in error, too, to see beauty as solely the concern of the arts. Indeed, scientists and mathematicians are as likely as artists to use the term to evoke the excitement, wonder and passion that a study of these disciplines can inspire. Mathematics affords the pleasures of harmony and order, of complex puzzles beautifully explained.

A subject such as physics can offer learning experiences that pertain to the more "sublime" aspects of beauty, where we are overwhelmed by feelings of awe at the power and mystery of the universe. Knowledge thus gained intensifies such feelings of wonder and does not simply explain them away. The experience of Foucault's pendulum exemplifies this perfectly. To watch the plane of the pendulum seemingly rotate on its axis but to realise that it is we and the globe upon which we stand that are, in fact, rotating is not just a sublime experience of beauty, it is a learning experience of the profoundest kind.

How do we get young people to share such experiences in a classroom? How can beauty influence our pedagogy? First of all, teachers must be allowed the time and the energy to keep a passion for knowledge alive, to reconnect deeply to where they find beauty in what they teach, and here the current obsession with "learning skills" is hopelessly deficient.

We cannot have a "passion for learning" in the abstract. Beauty is located in the specific and we find it in different places, but when it strikes us it fills us with the urge to share our experience and create beauty of our own. The instrumental languages of communication skills and emotional intelligence cannot do justice to beauty.

One practical way forward is to regard our lessons as having aesthetic potential in themselves. This is difficult if we insist that they must always begin with a statement of objectives and be predictable and repetitive in the way their narratives unfold. No good novel or play does this - instead, they plunge us into a story fashioned around a plot and make as much use of surprise as they do of explanation, often leaving us to wonder; they attend to the sensuous qualities of words and do not just treat language as purely transactional.

To think of teaching in this way - with lessons plotted rather than planned, performed rather than delivered - requires more than a change of vocabulary but a radical change of perspective, one informed by the charms and the power of beauty.

- Professor Winston's book, "Beauty and Education", is published as part of the Routledge International Studies in the Philosophy of Education series

Joe Winston, Associate professor in drama and theatre education, University of Warwick.

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