Why Teaching is Art

I found some notes I’d made when two years ago I heard Tim Brighouse (I think Chief Advisor for London schools) speak.  He gave some advice for new teachers in the form of a list.  It is beautiful in its simplicity, humanity and effectiveness.  I thought I would reproduce it here.

Notice, Listen, Create a past, Laugh, Remember, Admire, Praise, Respect, Share, Steal, Promote, Acknowledge, Recognise, ‘I saw this and thought of you…’, Collect, Contribute, Mark, Find, Confess

I have been pondering the importance of humanity/the human element in teaching.  By that I think I mean the extent to which our interactions with our pupils, whilst professional and backed by theory, are essentially, and perhaps most importantly, human relationships.

I want to say something more about this in a future post.  For the moment I want to add something I said as an introduction to a debate with the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.  That is the importance of narrative in teaching.

I believe teaching is like art in that it is revelatory and has transformative potential.

When art moves us, it is often because what we see or hear is something that we recognise or acknowledge in humanity, and perhaps hadn’t noticed before.  Of course a certain kind of loneliness feels just as Hopper painted. Oasis’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Star captures exactly the adrenalined optimism we’ve all felt.  The skill of the Artist is perhaps to reveal what we knew but could not express, or to reveal a part of the world we thought we knew in a completely new light.  This is I think, what we all hope to do as teachers.  To give something that transforms the way our pupils see the world.

One of the ways we do this, which acts as a mechanism for transmitting another force of transformation – pure knowledge, is in constructing a ‘story’.  As teachers we tell a story with our classes.  The story is to be found in the creating of a past; the ‘remember when we did this…’ or the ‘this is how we do things in this class’ dialogues.  Perhaps all human relationships are like this, but it can be particularly useful in teaching to create a past of shared experiences, which, crucially, over time include certain norms of behaviour, methods of enquiry and ways of reacting and treating people.  We hope the shared past created might help our pupils view the world differently; recognise, maybe, that you can finds things frustrating but not give up or admit mistakes without losing face.  Just like art, a teacher’s relationship with his pupils, through this ‘story’, is able to reveal and transform.

The aim of this comparison of teaching with art is only to offer a couple of thoughts for discussion.  1) The importance of the relationships, or the humanity, in teaching.  2) The power of not what you teach, but how you teach it: the strength and utility of  a culture or ethos within a classroom or school.

Implicit and Experiential Learning.

I want to try to pursue a theme I touched on as comments to the post on accountability, simpler timetabling etc.

That is that there is a beneficial kind of learning that we could call implicit or contextual. I have struggled to try to define what I mean by this, but I think the most recognisable way to explain the kind of learning I am here concerned with is that it is the education received by the comfortably well off, with books in their homes and trips to theatres and galleries etc. It is the kind of learning extra to ‘class learning objectives’ or ‘desired outcomes’. It is often found in the anecdotal, the details or the artistic. It acknowledges that far more is learnt implicitly and through experiences than explicitly through a classroom learning objective. I gave an example in previous comments of implicit learning. When I first started learning History at school, I already had a sense of historical time periods. I had learnt this implicitly through stories and art. When learning about the medieval period, for example, I had a decent sense that we would be talking about those things associated with Knights in Armour, not Cowboys. Much implicit learning is learnt through experiences. By experiences I mean explicitly learning other than in a formal classroom setting. For example, I remember clearly as an eleven year old in a music lesson listening to music to identify the instruments, I gained a considerable advantage because I had been to concerts and could remember seeing and hearing musicians playing. To recognize the importance of this kind of learning is not to deny the importance of a focused lesson, but to attempt to multiply opportunities to learn implicitly and to learn experientially.

Let me try to explain what I mean by this. I once observed a fantastic year 6 lesson on the Second World War. The teacher had constructed a narrative about a German soldier. I watched one installment of this story, in which the soldier was, I think, returning on leave from
France. The teacher dressed in an old German army greatcoat to tell the story. It was delivered mostly orally with great attention to detail and description. (Incidentally, this episode included the discovery of a new character, the soldier’s girlfriend – for the 10 and 11 year olds a remarkably subtle and appropriate introduction to relationships.) The additions to the oral story-telling were period music, a film clip and several props. Noticeable in their absence were explicit lesson objectives, vocabulary lists etc. With the episode concluded pupils were asked to write a letter home from the soldier. The quality of the detail of many pupils’ letters was outstanding, with accurate references to period details and appropriate use of relatively technical vocabulary that hadn’t been specifically explained. This, I think, is illustrative of the kind of implicit, contextual, often (although perhaps not really in this case) experiential, learning that I am advocating.

Practically this kind of learning requires a number of things. Illustration and art are fundamental for the providing of context. If learning about the Tsunami’s effects in
Thailand, illustrations can implicitly reveal the vegetation or architecture. Illustrated timelines should probably be an essential feature in almost every classroom. Great works of art can offer starters and ‘hooks’ to all manner of subjects. As can music. More fundamentally, there must be a culture both in and out of the classroom that values knowledge and open-mindedness. Music played in class can be more trouble than it’s worth when anything composed before 1990 is met with unanimous derision as ‘classical sh*t’. School trips, as I have mentioned in previous comments, must be ‘normalised’ to remove the distorting hysteria. Teachers must be excellent. They must be ready sometimes to go off-topic, on a tangent, to discuss and debate, preferably with reference books and Wikipedia to hand.

This is not impossible fantasy. It requires actively attempting to ‘multiply everything’. That is provide as much to stimulate implicit learning as possible. It would be helped by more potential in schools for cross-curricular work. It certainly requires more school trips, although normalised into the curriculum perhaps they wouldn’t even be called ‘trips’ but ‘out of school lessons’! It requires solid basics.
Reading, writing, numeracy, research skills take on their proper function when they are instinctive tools not difficulties in their own right as learning problems. It requires a strong culture of valuing knowledge that can be achieved in schools. Despite evidence to the contrary in many state schools it is of course possible to create an environment in which pupils ‘work hard and be nice’. (This is one of the mottos of the KIPP schools I visited in Washington DC and
New York City, models, in many ways, of creating a positive school culture).

I would like to pursue a number of concepts that, I think, link to this kind of implicit and experiential learning. I think there are links to coaching as an important teaching technique. In that through coaching, the trial-error-correction process, a teacher is uniquely able to respond to the individuality of implictl learning. There are links also to the need for teachers accountable not only to externally administered national exams, but, in their responsibility for a small number of pupils, to the pupils themselves, parents, the school and their colleagues. Whilst standardised tests may fail to take into account, or impede, this kind of implicit learning, it can nevertheless be accountable. In this respect there are links to the need for smaller schools, a unit size of, say, 200-300 being able to offer accountability without standardisation. I think the importance of ‘experiences’ might make for an interesting basis to think about introducing certain rites of passage into a school curriculum. Certain experiences might be considered part of a particular progression and so become elements of a graduation or rite of passage. There may also be links between implict and experiential learning and the benefits of an apprenticeship or work based education.

Restatement of the purpose of this blog.

The purpose of education in UK schools should be to contribute to the development of adult citizens.  There are a couple of obvious weaknesses with this statement.


The first is that it is of course legitimate (but I suggest not enough) to say that education is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.  However, education occurs not isolated from, but within, society and  it inevitably helps shape any future society.  Therefore isn’t education, more than being simply an end, necessarily functional?  (I would value comments or criticisms on this train of thought.)


The second weakness is ultimately the subject of this blog.  That is: what do we mean by development and what is an adult citizen?!


I used the phrase ‘contribute to the development’ because as a starting point I think we should acknowledge that school cannot teach everything.  A school’s principal function must be to offer a minimum foundation for further development.  The contemporary buzzwords ‘learning to learn’ and ‘lifelong learning’ are appropriate.  Nevertheless, the problem is still there:  what knowledge, skills and understanding do we consider make for the foundation of a developed adult citizen?  What qualities do we consider students should have developed by the end of their compulsory schooling?


So far in this blog I have pointed to ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘citizenship’ as starting points for possible answers.  There are discussions on entrepreneurship below.  I have also suggested ‘social justice’ as a requirement.  The words ‘social justice’ require discussion, but what I mean for the moment, and what is perhaps most important, is that we need to find a way to break the link between educational attainment and socio-economic status.


The purpose of this blog is to serve as a stimulus, and repository, for my thoughts on the above considerations.  It is not supposed to be academic in any formal sense and my comments and content are supposed to be tentative and probing in nature.  I welcome any input: to comment upon, clarify, help define, and, most importantly, criticise and rebut anything that’s been said.

Small groups, simpler timetable, accountability.

I’m in Washington DC at the moment and last week visited the National Air and Space Museum and the fabulous Wright Brothers exhibition. The exhibition offered an example of some excellent pedagogy (well structured investigative narrative, inquiry questions, multiple intelligences etc.) and would make an excellent teaching resource.  I got thinking about what might be the barriers to using this as a resource, and how might they be overcome.

I know that it would have taken my pupils thirty seconds to get round the exhibition and then they’d have been queuing for the Coke machine and looking forward to the coach trip home.  But, what if I could take a really small group that I knew well?  What if this group were used to working outside of a classroom, so that there was none of the hyperactivity and aversion to any kind of ‘work’ that often accompanies the rare trips out of school? What if this group had studied the cross-curricular context of the exhibition prior to the visit and were working towards a project of their own choosing; maybe they were going to be building a plane or selling historical model kits?  If all these ‘ifs’ were possible, how many more spaces outside of the classroom would be opened up as viable learning environments, and what an innovation in education that would be.

These are some thoughts on what might be required to make the above ‘ifs’ possible.

Firstly, teachers need to be responsible, and so accountable, for far fewer pupils.  Last year I was in some senses ‘responsible’ for over four hundred pupils.  In another sense, however, I was not really responsible for any.  I would see my history students for two lots of fifty minutes a week and, even in my capacity as assistant head of year, problems could always be passed on; the burden of responsibility and accountability rested rather informally and without clarity on the combined shoulders of subject teachers, form tutors, heads of year, heads of department, the inclusion team, special needs department and the Head and her assistants.  I suppose I only consistently nurtured, where at all possible, those pupils that I chose to.  And I wasn’t really held to account for any of the nearly four hundred pupils.  Just so long as I didn’t phone for ‘on-call’ too many times.  The only real measure of accountability was the exam results of the twelve A-Level students I taught over two years.  To be responsible and accountable for a group of students, you need that group to be small and to see them for longer than two hours a week.  Form tutors, who are supposed to take a nurturing role, may see their form for only ten minutes each morning, and themselves have a full teaching timetable.  As a teacher I wanted my time to count.  It was infuriating that my time was so thinly spread between so many.

One innovation which might address this problem would be a reshaping of school timetables.  Rather than five or six different lessons and teachers each day, what about timetabling only three longer periods?  For too many of my pupils school passed in a kind of grey blur.  For many it was a question of hanging on unnoticed, not really understanding, for fifty minutes until the next lesson.  Quite apart from the inefficiency of many short lessons, unless there is real collaboration they have the potential to distort reality.  Life is not divided neatly into subjects and knowledge is almost necessarily cross-curricular.  You can’t understand the significance of the Wright Brothers without an understanding of social, cultural and technological history, physics, even some biology (the warped wings the brothers used are modeled on birds), maths, some geography and design technology would help.  It is not that I’m against specialisation, but specific subject knowledge, skills and understanding could be taught far more effectively, particularly at Key Stage Three, through the kind of cross-curricular ‘projects’ that are commonly seen in primary schools.

We cannot teach in schools everything that an educated citizen should know.  Let’s ensure, therefore, that our pupils learn how to learn.  There are key skills required for this.  We could efficiently teach, for example, how to collect data, analyse, observe anomalies or bias and evaluate, in a cross-curricular environment.  Moreover, if we accept the importance of learning how to learn, we should acknowledge the unrivaled importance of literacy and numeracy.  Within a simplified timetable there should be an uncompromising commitment to ensuring pupils achieve a minimum standard in literacy and numeracy before progressing.  Without them access to other subject areas is impossible, or, if it is possible (I have seen some excellent ideas for EAL History teaching for example), then it is unmanageable.  Even if it is both possible and practically manageable, ultimately, I would suggest, it is unwise to ignore the central importance of competency in words and numbers.  However many levers to pull, buttons to press and pictures to look at, it would have been impossible to understand the Wright Brothers exhibition if you couldn’t read.

The benefits of a simplified timetable include the fact that it is flexible.  Getting out of school, and making use of rich learning experiences available beyond the classroom walls, should be easy.  The biggest obstacle preventing me from taking a class on a trip was the difficulty of arranging cover.  Indeed, out of school visits, for this reason, seemed to be positively discouraged.  That it is so difficult to take kids out of school doesn’t make sense on so many levels.  The time, money and energy dedicated to ‘bringing a subject to life’ in a classroom, the efforts to make teaching ‘relevant’ and link schools to the community, appear almost utterly futile when you think what could be achieved if it was just a little easier to get out of school for a bit.  Not only should it be easier to take pupils out of school, but it should be easier to bring other teachers into school.  We should recognise that there are far more people that can teach, that have skills or knowledge to offer to young people, than are teachers.  No, not everybody can teach a specific academic subject and not everybody can teach in a traditional classroom environment.  However at every school’s doorstep there are parents and employees and enthusiasts whose talents could be utilised if only the right structure was in place to facilitate it. 

What is Entrepreneurship?

This post is a response to Joseph’s comment on ‘why promote entrepreneurship?’ and an attempt to describe some aspects of entrepreneurship.


That we agree on the virtues is good.  We could, as you say, stop there and consider the debate as a quibble over vocabulary.  However, I too think that vocabulary is important and I suspect that it reveals here an important difference in our positions.  I must, therefore, attempt to defend the term entrepreneurship over, say, cooperative or community action and to challenge your suggestion that it is a contrivance.  I want to offer some suggestions as to what I consider lies behind the term entrepreneurship.  The qualities and ideas behind entrepreneurship justify its use as a ‘dominant language’ in the education of citizens and make it particularly suited to twenty-first century education.

Entrepreneurship empowers individuals. Entrepreneurship shows that individuals and ideas change the world.  You mentioned ideologies, we could similarly talk about structures, but I believe the very point about entrepreneurship is its ability to affect change despite prevailing ideologies, structures or attitudes.  You could call it a faith in the individual’s capacity to change his situation. This in itself is noble.  In the context of the kind of children we have been teaching; with low confidence, little initiative, an underdeveloped capacity for independent learning, low expectations etc. the development of an entrepreneurial attitude is absolutely vital.  I would argue for the promotion in schools of entrepreneurship because, I suggest, it teaches the kind of pro-active attitude, and capacity for the kind of life-long learning, that is necessary for fulfilled adulthood (even in the narrowest sense of economic fulfillment).

Entrepreneurship is about change.  It is about individuals driving change, but it is not restricted to individuals.  In this respect I can see where there is much in common with community activism.  When courageous individuals step forward, they encourage others to.  There are countless examples on the ‘Ashoka’ website of how social entrepreneurship, through enacting change, can help develop a citizen sector that is not cowed by existing structures.

Entrepreneurship is, therefore, optimistic.  Entrepreneurs necessarily hold a belief that problems can be solved.  There was an implication in your post, which I am probably reading too much into, that to solve the environmental crisis we need to ‘sit still’- perhaps even to retreat to a pre-modern existence.  What a pessimistic view of human potential.  There are many ways in which environmental and other current problems may be solved.  I suggest none involve ‘sitting still’; rather, problems are solved by looking forward, by bringing about change, by the transferring of resources to become more effective. 

In your final paragraph, I think you were contrasting entrepreneurial virtues with others by implying entrepreneurial virtues are, perhaps, ‘active’ as compared with ‘contemplative’.  Let me agree with this to an extent (although you cannot be an entrepreneur without the ability to analyse).  I am passionate about the importance of sometimes sitting still (literally) and particularly of reading and writing as, more than just being communication skills, helping develop the ability to be reflective and contemplative.  However, there is too much directionless sitting still in our education system. If we focused on purposeful sitting still, we would have ample time to teach ‘active’ entrepreneurial virtues, without crowding out anything of worth.  Furthermore, I suggest the last thing that education should be is ‘sobering’.  Education should be electrifying; it should be about stirring up, inflaming, calling to action – not, god forbid, sobering.

So, what I have said so far is that entrepreneurship is about empowering individuals, is about change, is optimistic and requires action.  I have no problem, moreover, in adding to that list Tony Blair’s definition:  ‘someone who brings to social problems the same enterprise and imagination that business entrepreneurs bring to wealth creation’.  What basis could you have to disagree with that definition? 

  1. That business entrepreneurs do not show enterprise and imagination?
  2. That business entrepreneurs have not been phenomenally successful at wealth creation?
  3. That if we turned those successful methods towards social justice greater results might not be achieved?

I think you object to the language of social justice using business analogies.  Why? You must accept that capitalism has been an extraordinary force in maximizing human creativity and efficiency and since the industrial revolution drastically improving life expectancy and quality of life across the world.  In many aspects of its current form, of course, it is failing adequately to tackle social justice.  Social entrepreneurship is not about supporting business in its current form but recognizing the achievements of the current capitalist system and attempting to use them to rectify its failings.  Yes, entrepreneurship recognizes the realities of economics, of the capitalist system and of the utility of responding to needs.  This is why, I suggest, social entrepreneurs use language in many cases analogous to business – and I support that.

This discussion is important and I value comments on it.  I want to discuss and attempt to defend the concept of social entrepreneurship.  If it is, as I believe, an important and current force for change, then surely we should more actively promote it in schools?  However, whatever our opinion of its contemporaneous importance as a social movement or phenomenon, I suspect that the qualities of entrepreneurship tie closely with a broader understanding of fulfillment and the transition of childhood to adulthood.  Perhaps this is the more significant consideration?  

Why promote Entrepreneurship?

Thanks Joseph. This is quite an important question, so I thought I’d reply as a new post.

Yes I do think promoting entrepreneurship is about promoting a set of positive personal qualities. You identify initiative, responsibility and risk-taking. I agree with these. (Particularly I think we must try to counter what sometimes appears to be a culture in the UK that is increasingly and absurdly risk averse and scare-mongering.) I would also add leadership, analysis, ‘drive’, and vision.

I think an entrepreneur is aware of his situation, observes a demand or need, and transfers resources to more effectively supply that demand or meet that need. All adults are at times required to act entrepreneurially. The qualities required for this I suggest are vital for the transformation from childhood to adulthood and for fulfillment. I would like to discuss the question of what ‘fulfillment’ is, particularly in relation to recent debates on teaching ‘happiness’, but I suspect it involves taking personal responsibility and meeting and overcoming challenges. I suspect many aspects of rites of passage promote qualities we might call entrepreneurial.

Promoting an entrepreneurial attitude is about promoting the ability to solve problems. Successful entrepreneurs must take responsibility, but are empowered. I would like to pursue a consideration of the extent to which promoting entrepreneurship may tie in with the promotion of actively involved citizens, particularly at the level of community empowerment and local democracy.

Promoting an entrepreneurial attitude is not about promoting business education. An entrepreneurial attitude is not bound with the profit motive. Indeed social entrepreneurship is the application of entrepreneurial qualities to achieve a social goal. One of the exciting things about social entrepreneurship is its potential to solve social ills that neither the state nor the market have been able to. Yes, Florence Nightingale was a social entrepreneur. And there is nothing wrong with ‘backdated descriptions’. I don’t think social entrepreneurship is a question of excusing business or ‘lumping together’ community activists. Rather, it is a way of defining, in order to support, a certain type of agent for positive social change.

Social entrepreneurship is perhaps part of a broader movement that recognizes three things. Firstly that the state cannot solve all social problems, secondly that economics is not a value judgment: it simply ‘is’ (e.g. that supply increases when there is more demand is not morally right or wrong: it is a law), and thirdly that when business does not recognize the true cost of its externalities the market proves unjust and is ineffective in solving social ills. The definition you provided I think illustrates this and gives some insight into the exciting potential of social entrepreneurship. I think I am right in saying that social entrepreneurship is currently internationally the fastest growing sector (I’m not sure by what measurement, but Bornstein’s ‘How to Change the World’ gives some interesting information, see also http://www.ashoka.org) . It is neither ‘devious’ nor insubstantial as you suggest, but the name given to a growing group of driven individuals with a sense of social justice, working in the real world.

The point, I think, is not only that entrepreneurship (particularly social entrepreneurship) is a phenomenon that the UK education system would do well to respond to, but that the promotion of entrepreneurship in schools is the promotion of qualities that lead to empowered and fulfilled adults. 

To kick off the discussion.

Please read the page ‘What’s this blog about?’

To kick off the discussion I would appreciate some thoughts on anything that arises from my research brief, but particularly the following:

‘Rites of passage’. What do we consider marks the transition from childhood to adulthood in the UK? Are there any experiences common to all? Is the transformation marked somehow by concepts like responsibility? What does this mean?

I have suggested three outcomes that an effective education system in 21st century Britain should strive for: social justice, an entrepreneurial attitude and citizenship. Perhaps these are wrong? Can anybody offer a decent definition of these ideas in relation to education?