I’ve just completed the first leg of my speaking ‘tour’ of Australia and New Zealand. For the past few days I’ve been speaking to teachers and education civil servants in Adelaide. I’ve just come from working with the curriculum department of the government education department, and it was great to see the level of innovation, and passion, coming from their staff. I can’t say that I’ve experienced such creativity and enthusiasm on a regular basis from their English counterparts.
I’d prepared quite a formal quasi-academic (because I could never convincingly pull off the full academic schtick) presentation on my work with the ‘futures’ projects – Musical Futures and Learning Futures – that have occupied much of my past 8 years. However, on arrival in this terrific city, I was delighted to see pianos everywhere, with ‘play me’ signs on them. And everywhere I went people were doing just that, playing anything from ‘chopsticks’ to complex classical pieces. And every time people played them, others gathered and engaged with them. Which got me thinking (and playing).
Now, I do a lot of public speaking on the question of student engagement, and promoting the idea of ‘learning commons’. And I’ve increasingly been torn between the conflict between content and style – that is, I talk about the need to connect and engage, but usually through a fairly predictable transmissive delivery. It’s up to others to decide if my usual delivery style is engaging or not. But I felt sufficiently emboldened by the experience of those Adelaide’s pianos, to go for something quite different this week.
It’s one thing to play and sing at a conference of music teachers – as I did 3 days ago. But it’s another to try to get across quite complex concepts, (in this case the Learning Commons and the revolution happening in social learning) through leading communal singing with civil servants. Judging by their reaction, I should have done this ages ago – they seemed to be highly engaged and stimulated, and my ‘talk’ was followed by a really thought-provoking discussion on how to re-connect with our ‘rarely reached’ young people.
It was then that I learned about the department’s impressive Teaching For Effective Learning programme (led by the wonderful Margot Foster) and its ICAN project, which is working hard to find innovative alternatives to mainstream schooling, for those kids that have been failed by the system. They recognise that solutions need to be individualised for every young person, community-based, flexible and linked to career development. The coordination of such a complex set of obstacles facing their young people, is itself complex and no doubt expensive – but not nearly as expensive as not acting quickly and comprehensively. The ICAN team are currently connecting with the UK’s Not-School initiative, and I really hope that their successful collaborative strategies aren’t left in the margins, because mainstream schooling has a lot to learn from these so-called alternative pedagogies.
As I write this, someone is playing one of the ‘play me’ pianos in Adelaide’s airport. The lesson I’m taking away from here is that, firstly, we have to work harder at finding ways to better integrate head and hands, independent and inter-dependent, and formal and social learning (as I was trying to do today). Secondly, complex issues like disengagement also need solutions which integrate the community and family into the learning commons, of which school plays just a part.