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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Are we human or are we dancer?

The UK government's latest remarks are frustrating and wrong

I may not teach in England any more, but I keep up with the news—particularly about education. So when I saw that there's a controversy brewing over the way the UK government is emphasizing STEM subjects at GCSE and criticizing the usefulness of general arts, I couldn't resist digging deeper and then getting angry.

I also follow, in a vague and undirected fashion, educator stuff on Twitter. Over the past little while I've seen the rise of a new (or new to me) acronym, STEAM—Science, Technology, Arts, and Mathematics. The idea, I suppose, is to restore the arts as a subject on par with these other disciplines. On the one hand, I get it, and it's clever. On the other hand, as an educator, I'm just so tired of acronyms and jargon. It seems like every month brings a new movement with a catchy, tweetable, hashtagable acronym. Yes, there are trends in education, and I am the 26-year-old curmudgeon shaking my cane at them and telling them to get off my lawn.

But I digress. This post is not about education trends on Twitter; it's about the regrettable and supercilious attitude of the UK government towards arts education. And this attitude is merely a specific example of a wider problem in many Western societies' approach to education.

Your standardized tests suck

Writing in The Telegraph, Schools Minister Nick Gibb says:

When I discuss our GCSE policy with young people who attended top comprehensive schools (and independent and grammar schools), they take it for granted that pupils study maths, English and science at GCSE, alongside a foreign language and either history or geography.

It can come as a surprise, therefore, that nationwide less than one quarter of pupils were entered for such a broad academic curriculum in 2012, and less than one in five achieved a C grade in each subject.

Oh noes! All the students are failing! We must do something! Quick, axe the arts!

Look, I get it. You're obsessed with numbers and metrics, and the numbers and metrics are telling you that your kids are dumb and aren't going to be great inventors and scientists and create new ways to stave off the flooding and overpopulation that your generation is bringing on the world. That is quite a conundrum you've created for yourself.

I have never been a fan of standardized testing, and never more so since I had to endure two years of teaching to the test. I loved working and living in England—it was a great experience, and I worked at an excellent school with dedicated colleagues and students who, if challenging at times, were so worth my time. And we were all united in a dread of the Year 11 GCSEs, in the hypocrisy of our efforts to ensure our school got the results we "needed" to avoid the gaze of Ofsted. We neglected lower years to focus on intense "intervention" with the Year 11s; we sacrificed much-needed rests on half-term to come in for revision days. And we put so much pressure on adolescents who, frankly, have enough problems in their life without being told that a few tests over a few days at the end of the year will affect the entire course of their lives.

I can say all that as vociferously and loudly as I like, because I'm not teaching in that system any more. But I would be surprised if my former colleagues still running that hamster wheel disagree with me.

Gibb goes on to comment how the arts gets a boost from extra-curriculars in a way other academic subjects don't. If the intention here were to validate the fact that we can learn things outside of school, then this would have been well-done. But it comes off more like, "Well, these subjects aren't that important, so you can do them outside of school and give us more time to focus on the important stuff." Not only is this wrong, but it does a disservice to the legions of qualified and passionate arts educators who still manage to do their job despite ever-dwindling funding.

Even more so than Canada and the United States (neither of which are free of the standardized testing obsession, by the way), the United Kingdom's approach to education remains mired in a factory mindset. Which is fine if, like Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and Gibb, you believe that the purpose of education is to turn your kids into good little workers. There are a couple of problems with this, though.

Work is almost obsolete, so stop pretending we're "preparing" kids for it

Morgan's problem with the arts? Apparently they aren't a realistic career option:

Large numbers of children without a clear idea about careers have been pushed towards the arts and humanities in the past – rather than sciences – because they are seen as more useful “for all kinds of jobs”, she said.

But she insisted that this “couldn’t be further from the truth”, claiming that more practical disciplines should be studied to “keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers”.

You mean to tell me that some of the common people are making decisions based on their happiness and their interests instead of what they're going to do between 9 to 5 for fifty years? The horror! What next, will they start voting?!

Look, I'm going to sidestep the whole issue of which academic subjects best "prepare" students for the world of work, because I think it's increasingly a red herring these days. The real issue is that work is disappearing. As we automate and outsource, unskilled jobs are going extinct. And even "skilled" jobs are changing. Robots are doing more and more of our labour—and you know what? I have no problem with that. Why should we make people do dangerous, tedious tasks when we can get robots to do it? The only reason it's problematic right now is because, deprived of a job, these people find themselves without a means to get by—because our culture, which supposedly is devoted to the pursuit of happiness, is so obsessed with the idea that you need to work for a living.

I really love teaching. But if I could afford to work half-time and spend the other half of that time doing stuff that fulfils me as a person, I'd jump at it. (Plus, that frees up that work time to employ another person half-time.)

Even if you disagree wholeheartedly with this idea, you can't just ignore the writing on the wall. The world of work is changing. Education needs to be about making children into better humans, not making them into workers.

The arts make us better

I actually had a whole section planned out here with a passionate plea about how novels and music and theatre are awesome. But then I saw this 16-year-old girl's article for The Guardian and was blown away by her eloquence and passion:

But more than a year later, I’m reminded daily that taking GCSE dance was the best decision I ever made. While everyone complains about the subjects their parents forced them into, I am in the dance studio every lunchtime. Dance gets me into school. Dance gives me something to pour my head and heart into. It gives me a feeling of belonging, creativity, security and freedom.

Then the bell rings and it’s back to Ohm’s law and circle theorems. Back to being told that the subject that makes you feel alive also makes you not of value. But it’s the arts subjects that get me in to school every day, and get me through all my other subjects. Knowing I have something to work for, a reason to be motivated and driven. The skills that I get from the arts also help me hugely with work across the curriculum, from improving my analytical skills to making me more self-confident.

Emphasis is mine. Because hell, yes, that's what I'm talking about! We are, give or take a dolphin and chimp, the only thinking creatures on this planet and, give or take an abductee's story, possibly in this entire darn universe. That's makes us pretty special. And given that we only get about 80 years to exist on this planet, it's a shame that any of us are forced to waste that time doing things that don't make us feel alive.

We also need to stop thinking in terms of a dichotomy—hence the STEAM instead of STEM vs. the arts, I guess. Orli Vogt-Vincent, the author of the above article, isn't just taking dance and arts—she's taking science and math too. When people learn I teach both math and English, many make a crack about “oh, you're using both sides of your brain!” And if they're lucky and I'm feeling charitable, I won't correct them about how that's an awful myth that needs to die, how we all use most of our brains, and how the whole "right brain/left brain" split is largely inaccurate.

These myths and stories that we create are heritable and dangerous. We start telling kids that they are or are not "creatives," and they start believing it. They start believing that "some people just aren't good at math." It's tragic, that parents who obviously want the best for their children at the same time limit them through attitudes and anxieties they themselves learned in their time in the education factory.

It's almost like people aren't just one thing but are many things. Like we have layers. Like ogres. Ogres have layers; people have lay—never mind, I totally just derailed this paragraph. I'm sorry.

You can be good at science and math and dance. Or you can suck at science and be good at art. Or you can suck at science and art but be really good at writing. And you know what? You can even choose to do stuff you like, even if you suck at it, over stuff you're "good" at. And we should have an education system that is flexible enough and encouraging enough to support our children as they discover who they are, what they are good at doing, and what they like to do (because those last two things are not always the same).

UK peeps: your system is failing you right now. I know you just voted back in your terrible Conservative government; I'm not sure how you managed that one, but whatever. You're kind of screwed. But do what you can to make some noise about it, OK? Because despite being independent for 149 years, this little colony across the Atlantic still kind of looks up to you, and I'd hate for some of your bad decisions to rub off on us here in Canada.