“How to build a universe that doesn’t collapse two days later?”
As I reflect on the project What’s So Good About The World Anyway, I’m reminded of the above quote by Philip K Dick. Reminded because until the doors to Bevendean School hall opened on the morning of the 22nd October, I had no idea whether the project I’d devised would stand or fall flat. I’d been inspired driving home listening to someone talking on the radio about schools without teachers, children teaching themselves about radically complicated ideas. His name is Sugata Mitra and I spent some time doing some self-directed learning of my own about the amazing work he’s done. If you don’t know about him, start here with his TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud
That idea, that children can not only teach themselves in a collaborative way, but that the results are more meaningful than those produced in a traditional classroom setting resonated with me. It’s been close to my approach to participant-led arts projects that I’ve devised or been involved with over the last 10 years.
Sugata Mitra is not alone in challenging the way we teach and learn information, Ken Robinson has long been a critic of a system designed over 100 years ago “We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people.”
In 2013 a University opened in Paris with no teachers. Nicolas Sadirac, director of the University, called “42”, says the model works particularly well for students who have been left behind by mainstream education.
"The education system in France fails a lot of passionate students, who feel frustrated by being told what to do and how to do it," he says.
42's selection process ignores previous academic qualifications, and 40% of students at 42 in Paris did not even complete secondary school.
"42 has reminded them that learning can be fun if you follow what you are interested in, rather than being told by teachers to focus on one thing in particular," says Mr Sadirac.
In my experience of working in this way, there are risks – the facilitator needs to be willing and able to let go, to stand back and let the participants take control.
“There should be chaos, noise, discussion and running about,” Sugata Mitra
I always worry; what if the children just mess around? What if they don’t understand what they have to do? What if this thing just doesn’t work? It was with all these little voices in my head that I waited anxiously for the first group to walk through the doors.
What’s So Good About The World Anyway? Was a part of Hijack Children’s festival and part of Komedia Productions’ audience development work in Bevendean. It asked 50 children to think on their feet, research, storyboard, script and shoot 21 videos in a fast-paced experiment in self-organised learning.
The children, in groups of up to six at a time, enter the space and are presented with big philosophical questions – How should people live their lives? What is time? Is everything connected?
They have one hour to find their answer, and present it on camera. They pass through three stages:
Research, where they access the internet and interrogate their question.
Make, where they respond creatively with materials, props and costumes.
Film, where they present their findings to camera, with video lights and a backdrop.
A team of facilitators, instructed to give minimal support and guidance, supports the process.
So did it work? I think so; the value of the work lay in the creative process and great facilitation from a team of artists, educators and performers.
Questions led to other questions – Is everything in the world connected inspired the children to find their way to interrogations like ‘what would happed to the earth without the sun?’ and ‘how can babies breathe while they are in their mummy’s tummy’. The correct answer kills creativity, so we encouraged the children to follow their ideas wherever they led. Their discoveries and insights were presented in a manner that made sense to them – whilst investigating the question ‘Where do thoughts come from’ one child said “You can get ideas from a computer, but a computer can’t think for itself – a computer can’t organize it’s own birthday party.”
Sometimes we’re guilty of interpreting children’s ideas for them, or encouraging narrow-minded thinking by implying that there is one correct answer or way to understand something. Maybe we need to broaden our definitions about the world. As Sugata Mitra said “You can ask nine-year-olds to find out about the entanglement of particles and they will come back to you and explain in their nine-year-old way – not as a graduate would of course – exactly what it is”.
The children seemed to resoundingly enjoy their time on the project. I think that much of this enjoyment comes from the fact that they owned the process, and were allowed to follow their own passion and imagination without hindrance.
The project made me think about an artist friend who pointed out the etymology of two opposite words – professional, and amateur. “Professional” indicates that you are paid to do what you do. “Amateur” comes from the Latin word for ‘love’. Maybe in our work we should be encouraging a generation of professional amateurs?
The project was produced by Quiet Down There CIC and www.hijackhq.com
It was devised by David Parker from www.figmentarts.co.uk
The project was funded by Arts Council England and Brighton & Hove City Council.
42 – The University with no teachers: