In his main stage presentation to SSAT’s 18th national conference last month, BBC arts editor and former Tate galleries director Will Gompertz explored how a broader approach to education can help address some of the issues facing a world increasingly focused on technology
For an example to illustrate his theme, Will Gompertz took the Google driverless car: “How do you program the algorithm which drives that car? You have to make a decision because if there’s an incident the car needs to know what to do. That algorithm is making the decision, not you.
“But here’s the really big point. That liberty you’ve given away has been programmed into the algorithm by a human being. So, while we’re saying we need lots of engineers and scientists, actually what we need is people who have been trained in philosophy and ethics – perhaps the most important two subjects in the curriculum over the coming years. Students will have to have a really good idea about how the brain works, about what the ethical situations are. So, when they come to program algorithms, they make decisions which are fair and reasonable.
“Philosophy and ethics – perhaps the most important two subjects in the curriculum over the coming years”
“These are massive issues which almost nobody has taken any time to consider. And so, I’d put philosophy and ethics in the GCSE curriculum tomorrow. The digital revolution is going to lead to greater opportunities and greater need for creativity, because there is one thing we as human beings can do that no other species can do and no computer, however big, will ever be able to achieve: to be able to step out of time and place, to have an idea and realise it.”
Gompertz referred to American psychiatrist and psychologist Albert Rothenberg, who spent his entire professional life trying to work out how it is that some people have ideas that really affect the world. Having worked with Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel laureates among other creative individuals, Rothenberg came up with the theory of ‘homospatial thinking’, which “is basically how you have ideas. You take an old idea and flip it on its head. That’s how Wikipedia happened: instead of one person making an encyclopaedia for many people, with the aid of technology many people make an encyclopaedia…. New ideas come from disrupting old ideas through the lens of the contemporary, the lens of now.
“There is no such thing as a new idea. Ideas come from knowledge, something which already exists, which is why teaching is such a fundamentally important job. You need to know stuff to be able to see what’s wrong with something, to be able to see it from a modern perspective and change it to something fresh and new.
Art school teaching
We need to teach children what is required to be successful in the world, he pointed out, adding that the way students are taught in art school exemplifies this: “you’re not taught to take in information and regurgitate it, because that’s plagiarism. If you learn to paint like Cézanne and then paint like Cézanne that’s boring. What you’re asked in art school is to take in all that information, filter it through your own personality and your own views, and then represent it as something original. So in art school, you’re not judged on what is right and what is wrong. You’re judged on what you’ve created that is new and interesting. In fact, I would argue exams would be better not if they ask students for the right answer – but if they judge students on who asks the best questions, because the best questions are the things that are awarded in life.
“I think the other thing which is incredibly important is that in the real world, nobody does anything alone. We need to teach children how to work collaboratively and then examine them on what they’ve achieved as a group.” He referenced the issues of social media, adding “good students have to learn to break rules. As Picasso said, you have to destroy to create. You have to break rules to make anything new.”
Another radical idea was “there is no such thing as failure” – everything is an iteration to the next thing. “When Edison developed the light bulb, he said ‘I didn’t fail 999 times. I just showed 999 ways not to make a light bulb, on the 1000th time I got it right.’ Life is a series of iterative steps, and we don’t know where they lead.
Children should be evaluated on everything a school does, not just exams
“It is absolutely impossible to be a failure at 16 or 18,” Gompertz insisted. “No child should leave school feeling a failure. The only failure is the system’s. The problem is how schools are evaluated. Children shouldn’t just be evaluated on seven GCSEs, but on everything the school does, including the arts, music, sport. That seems to me the issue we need to be fighting for.”
He maintained that thinking like an artist is absolutely essential to solving problems like global warming, terrorism, and maybe the biggest problem of all, mass migration. “I firmly believe, if we work together and arm them with the right tools, the young people in our society can do it – if we teach them not to regurgitate like Google but to think like artists.”
SSAT Members can watch Will Gompertz’s entire presentation: Being an Imaginative Leader