Teachers’ Corner

The Beating Heart of Human Life? The Arts

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Education is personal, and nothing is more personal than artistic practices and traditions, writes educationalist Sir Ken Robinson

There are 15 million people under the age of 20 in the UK. That’s a quarter of the population. Why should it be so important for cultural learning to be a priority in their education?

Let’s start with what we mean by cultural learning. In this context, it means practising and learning about “the arts” – a phrase that is sometimes used as a synonym for “culture”. Since both terms have a range of meanings, I think it is useful to distinguish them to better understand how they are related. In the social sense, culture means a community’s overall way of life; its dominant values, outlook, customs and ways of being. Like styles of politics, religion, science, work and food, the arts are an integral part of the social culture, but they are not the whole of it. So what part are they?

In the West, at least, if you ask most people what the arts are they will give you a list, usually made up of music, visual arts, literature, drama and dance. The problem with such lists is their partial nature: a comprehensive run-down of arts practices across time and cultures would exhaust your hard drive. The fact is that, from cave painting to poetry, from kabuki to throat singing, the arts in some form or another have a defining presence in all known cultures. There is a reason for this. The songs we sing, the stories we tell, the music we make, the objects we shape and the performances we share are not idle pastimes. They are among the most eloquent expressions of human intelligence, imagination and creativity. They beat at the heart of human life and give form and meaning to our deepest feelings and our highest thoughts.

If the arts are this important, why do we have to promote them? Why should they have to be explained, let alone justified? One reason is that, in Western cultures at least, when it comes to education the term “arts” is loaded with various preconceptions. For some policymakers, it seems, the arts are just leisure activities – valuable and enriching, perhaps, but not part of the hard work of life after school and consequently of marginal importance during it. Some clearly suspect that the arts are mainly to do with feelings and fuzz rather than intellect and information: all very therapeutic, no doubt, but not relevant to the serious business of academic achievement.

The result is that when talk in education turns, as it often does, to raising standards, countering unemployment, improving economic competitiveness and squaring up to overseas competition, the arts are often pushed to the edges. Policymakers talk instead about getting “back to basics”, by which they mean the three Rs and the courses that are most obviously relevant to the economy, such as science and technology. These are essential, certainly, but they are not sufficient. Young people need the arts too.

The real basics of education are not subjects or teaching methods, but purposes. There are four (in education at least): economic, cultural, social and personal. The research and experience of many enlightened organisations – including the Cultural Learning Alliance and the Clore Duffield Foundation – has found that cultural learning embraces all of these and can support achievement in all disciplines.

Walking in another’s shoes

Education should enable all young people to become economically productive, for their own sakes and everyone else’s. Surveys show that cultural learning directly promotes the economic skills, knowledge and attitudes that employers value most, including creative and critical thinking, collaboration, communication, social confidence and cultural sensitivity. As a result, the employability of students who study arts disciplines is higher than those who do not, and they are more likely to stay in employment.

Education should enable young people to fulfil their social roles and responsibilities in a civil society. Some of the greatest challenges we face are to do with inequality and exclusion. Studies show that students from low-income families who take part in the arts in school are three times more likely to graduate from higher education than those who do not.

Problems of apathy and social disengagement exist among young people. Schools will not solve them by running theoretical courses on civics, but by being the sorts of places that practise these principles. Research shows that students who get involved in the arts in school are twice as likely to volunteer for roles in the community and 20 per cent more likely to vote as young adults.

Questions of personal and cultural identity are becoming ever more complex. Some of the most vexing conflicts, nationally and globally, are cultural in character; they are about differences in values, beliefs and ways of life. Schools must help students to understand the traditions and beliefs that shape their own values and behaviour. They must also help them to understand those of other peoples and times. Engaging with the artistic practices and traditions of other cultures is among the most powerful ways of helping all of us to see, think and feel as others do.

None of these purposes can be met if we forget that education is about living people. In the end, all education is personal. Many of the problems in education are rooted in a failure to remember this. If they are to meet their other purposes, schools must also help students to develop their personal talents and passions. Doing so calls for a balanced education that puts the arts level with the sciences, the humanities, maths, languages and PE. Not one or the other, but all of them equally. If we get this right, the benefits will not just be felt by a quarter of the population, but by all of us.

Sir Ken Robins


What’s the future of English?

LinFeatured imageguistics expert David Crystal is in Russia to give a series of lectures. At the UK-Russia Linguistic SymposiumOpens in a new tab or window. at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, he described ‘the future of Englishes’ and the evolution of global varieties of English across the world. Keira Ives-Keeler of the British Council in Russia explains.

Advertising campaigns give an insight into how languages evolve

What role does advertising play in the evolution of languages and the relationship between language and cultural knowledge? Using the example of the well-known Heineken slogan, ‘Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’, David Crystal explained how this initial phrase evolved with the help of word play. Over 30 years, the phrase came to represent an ad campaign with 300 variations on the same phrase, with the word ‘parts’ substituted with everything from ‘parrots’ to ‘pilots’ to ‘poets’.

Understanding different cultures helps people understand different languages

David Crystal recounted the difficulties he had in explaining the Heineken campaign’s meaning to a group of Japanese English language teachers when they stumbled across a billboard for it whilst on a study trip to the UK. Their confusion highlighted the importance of cultural understanding as a tool for understanding languages.

He found it equally challenging to convey the same message and humour to an American friend when they came across the same billboard just a week later — demonstrating that even native speakers often require cultural context in order to fully understand phrases in their mother tongue, as culture inevitably shapes the language that we use on a daily basis. As a localised national advertising campaign run exclusively in Britain, only those living in Britain and exposed to the campaign would understand the reference to ‘refreshing the parrots that other beers cannot reach’. The phrase was utterly incomprehensible to anyone outside of that specific context.

New forms of ‘English’ are swiftly evolving

Crystal estimates that around 60-70 new ‘Englishes’ have emerged since the 1960s in countries across the globe. There are an estimated 400 million people who speak English as a first language and 7-800 million people who speak English as a second language. Around a billion more speak English as a foreign language. This means that now there is just one native speaker to every five non-native speakers of English — an unprecedented situation in the history of languages. It also means that people are no longer exclusively looking to Britain. British English is now a minority amongst the many ‘Englishes’ that are spoken around the world.

‘English is of no use beyond our shores’, stated the Earl of Leicester upon returning from his tour of Europe in the late 1500s. Indeed, Chaucer asked why anyone would want to study English: a language ‘with no literature’ (as David pointed out, though, anyone lucky enough to have studied Chaucer would be able to confirm that his works are almost unintelligible to modern English speakers). And yet, in the very same year, Shakespeare emerged from his ‘lost years’ – a period from 1585 to 1592, when it was thought that the playwright was perfecting his dramatic skills and collecting sources for plots — and produced some of his finest work. Just over a decade later, Walter Raleigh’s expeditions in the early 1600s saw American English take root within a matter of days, with terms such as ‘wigwamOpens in a new tab or window.‘ and ‘skunkOpens in a new tab or window.‘ appearing and becoming commonplace extremely quickly. It takes very little time for a language to evolve; this language ‘of no use beyond British shores’ grew from a population of four million speakers to two billion in just 400 years.

A language’s development reflects the power of those who speak it

So how exactly did that happen? How did English grow so quickly and seemingly so unexpectedly? According to Crystal, in spite of the widespread notion that this is due, at least in part, to the fact that it is an easy language to learn, ‘without any grammar’, as some people have said, there is something much deeper behind the exponential growth of English as a global language. Crystal suggests that a language’s development is a direct reflection of the power of those who speak it. From the beginnings of the British Empire, to the industrial revolution in Britain, which brought significant technological and scientific developments and a number of influential inventions from English-speaking inventors, through to the continued economic power of the 19th century and cultural power of the 20th century, English has maintained its edge.

Speakers of English adapt the language to their local context

Turning his attention to colonial and post-colonial environments, Crystal suggested that even in countries where English was seen as the language of oppressors, complexities in the linguistic make-up of the local environment (for example, Nigeria where 500+ languages are spoken) meant that a ‘better the devil you know’ approach was adopted ‘because at least everyone hates English equally’. This meant that English was adopted as an official language and then adapted to the local context. Within months of independence, thousands of new words appeared, linked to politics, food and drink, folklore and plants. Fifty years on, these words are featured in dictionaries of global English — there are 15,000 Jamaican words and 10,000 South African words alone.

This trend of ‘Englishes’ in the plural shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. But nothing lasts forever. Who knows whether English will retain its position as the widely accepted lingua franca. And if it does, then how many ‘Englishes’ might evolve? How can we prepare our students and in particular younger generations for this culturally diverse future?



Noam Chomsky Calls to Action. The Dangers of Standardized Testing.

The problem seems to be universal and does call for action. Otherwise, the role of an effective and efficient teacher will be dehumanized and will not serve its purpose: to teach, educate and allow the young people grow into well-rounded adults, which is only possible if there is room for personalisation and creativity……Is it possible to clone this Man? 😀


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