World leaders in creative learning

1st January 2010 at 00:00

Something unprecedented is going on in Scotland. I discovered the country's advanced state of arts learning at Unesco's first World Conference on Arts Education (Lisbon 2006), and also at the first world conference on orchestras and their education programmes (Glasgow 2006), both of which I attended and gave keynote addresses.

Since my week in Glasgow in 2006, I have spoken widely about Scotland's international leadership. The Curriculum for Excellence was in development at that time, and seemed promising. My November 2009 trip has shown me that the pieces that had impressed me so much three years prior, the emerging CfE and other commitments to creative learning, were moving into alignment, with a promise for worldwide leadership such as I have never seen.

Creativity and education are coming together in a way that offers a possibility no nation has seen. The Scots have assembled the raw materials: a new national curriculum, reasonably good communication and co-operation between education and arts agencies, a long history of respect for arts and culture, a commitment of schools to those areas, a business climate that understands the issue and a political climate that seems receptive to this priority.

Other nations have the raw material for a commitment to creativity in education, yet the impediments they face make it highly unlikely any other nation can grab the opportunity and turn it into change the way the Scots may be able to do.

The CfE is the new national education curriculum, and it posits four essential capacities as the vision for Scottish education. It is in the early stages of implementation, and the four capacities it aspires to inculcate in all young Scots are the most holistic set of national aspirations I have ever seen.

To realise these capacities, they require all educators not only to teach their subject areas well, as detailed in the curriculum, but also to take responsibility across all learning for literacy, numeracy and health and well-being. I see the nation's leaders coming toward the realisation that there is a catalyst required to animate all these aspirations - the fourth responsibility for all educators across all learning: creativity across the curriculum.

There is some understandable uncertainty, hesitance and discomfort throughout the education community as to what this requires of them. Education systems are naturally (and probably wisely) cautious about change. Most nations are more than cautious: they are downright resistant.

This transitional moment of uncertainty and alertness is a rare opportunity for effecting genuine change in a national education system. This is the time teachers will choose either to duck under the implementation radar and do the minimum to let it pass without much adjustment in their personal practice (the usual fate of national education reform endeavours); or they will choose the harder path of joining the aspiration and changing their practice.

Another advantage of CfE is its articulation. The writers have found ways to offer it that are just specific enough to point out a direction of change, yet vague enough that educators and stakeholders must ask fundamental questions of themselves. This step of necessary personalisation could prove fatal if individuals do not make the commitment to embrace change; it requires investment, and if educators don't "buy in", they opt out or just become passive.

To join in the reform, educators and schools must ask themselves: "What do these goals and guidelines mean for me and my students?" It requires them to ask themselves the most fundamental questions about how they wish to revise their pedagogy, how they relate to their learners. In short, it requires educators to revitalise their teachings if they are going to achieve the goals creatively. Will they do it? That remains to be seen, and is the risk of this moment.

There is, however, another element of the Scottish mix of resources that is, remarkably, moving toward alignment. I addressed a two-day conference on creativity, sponsored by HMIE. The inspectorate's leadership proactively sponsored this conference on creativity in partnership with Learning and Teaching Scotland and the Scottish Arts Council.

The power of the conference came from the combined commitment of these three organisations, and HMIE's recognition that inspections, if they didn't embrace the opportunity and challenge of change, could be the bottleneck that chokes off this opportunity. The involvement of school test developers will also be a crucial step: can the nation develop tests worth teaching to - tests that invite and require creative expression?

The Scots must now clarify and co-ordinate the shared vision, and allow for some uncertainty and experimentation that encourages bold experimentation without fear of failure. There must be support for schools, and a communications plan should be backed up by active and imaginative presentation of visible examples of various kinds of success, and reinforced by a sensitive, imaginative and supportive cohort of experts to change the way educators have been taught to teach.

I left Scotland with a sense of possibility I rarely feel around school systems. It was a privilege to be the outsider who could report the significance of their accomplishment and urge them to press on to the final mile to world leadership in creative learning.

Eric Booth, a former Broadway actor and leading author, academic and consultant on arts education in the United States.

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