Interview: Eric Booth

by Oct 01, 2010 No Comments
Creativity will be the key to the rise or fall of Curriculum for Excellence, argues leading arts education expert Eric Booth

Eric BoothWhen an international arts education expert wrote to his colleagues extolling the strengths of Scottish education last year, the reaction here was one of flattered surprise.

“They have all the pieces and the time is right for this country to become the world’s leaders in creative education,” Eric Booth told his American associates after a visit to Scotland last November.

Despite its modesty, says Booth, this “wee country out of the main traffic flow” is the place where “the most interesting work in the world” in arts education is happening.

But with that compliment he delivers a heady challenge. Scotland lies on the cusp of achieving something no other country has. It is now up to its educators to seize that chance – or allow it to go down as a momentous missed opportunity.

An acclaimed Broadway actor and now adviser to President Obama’s Musicians National Service Initiative and leader in American education policies, Booth’s mission is to embed creativity across education.

Scotland first caught his attention in 2006 at a UNESCO arts education conference in Lisbon where he met Scottish arts educators and heard about the ideas that were shaping Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). In subsequent trips to Scotland he witnessed what was happening for himself and is now a “stealth advocate” for Scottish education everywhere he goes.

“There wasn’t a plan yet but I was fascinated that the impulses they were talking about were significantly richer than any conversations I was hearing anywhere else in the world,” he says.

The creativity at the heart of CfE was what impressed Booth so profoundly. The four capacities it aspires to develop in young people – confident individuals, effective contributors, responsible citizens and successful learners – are like nothing he has seen anywhere else in the world.

“First of all, you would probably never see another country position those four as their ultimate goals because of their holism, because they are about more than just what happens in schools, because they’re difficult to assess and because on a gut level, people understand the consequences of these ideas.” The “creative engagement” envisioned in CfE should allow pupils to see the relevance of what they are learning and become the active pursuers of learning – not just the passive recipients, he explains.

“It allows them to engage actively in the content we wish them to discover rather than be passive buckets into which information is shovelled – that, in fact, is information retrieval and not learning.” And creative learning is not just about making education fun. It is about developing the abilities of young people that Scotland’s future society and economy will need.

“In fact, industry demands that,” Booth argues. “IBM recently completed a study of 1500 CEOs in the US about their single greatest concern about children coming out of schools into their businesses and it was creativity.

“And these are CEOs in medical companies, in manufacturing companies.

Creativity is not the domain of any medium.

Even in my lifetime we’ve talked about the art of bricklaying. Any endeavour, raised to its highest level, begins to become a creative zone and we need kids who demand that of themselves and their environments.” Now on his third visit to Scotland, to give a keynote speech at the Scottish Learning Festival, just as CfE is being rolled out in schools, Booth’s eyes are fixed on how the reform is unfolding – and on what happens next.

“Now we get into whether it’s going to live or be another wave that breaks over people’s heads and washes back to the sea. That’s what’s in the field of play at this point and that is an incredibly interesting place to be,” he says.

Interesting to the observer, but perhaps a little scary for Scotland?

“Well, it should be scary because the vast evidence around the world is it will be launched with great hoopla, there will be much talk, there’ll be a lot of reaction and it will slowly dissipate and not leave much change in its wake. And there are examples where that’s not the case but this is the point right now when people rise to the opportunity or choose to let it pass,” he warns.

Teachers are practical people, Booth says, and many have reacted against the “indefiniteness” of CfE’s principles. He believes the Scottish Government has put strong support in place to help teachers make that “act of faith”. But the next step will be crucial. It is now make or break time and creativity will be the catalyst. Teachers can choose to go through the motions or they can embrace the curriculum.

“Where I see the whole success is, will people go through the motions of doing everything – the Building the Curriculum, and all the steps that had been required – or will they take the creative step and invest themselves in making it their own? And that’s where it’s going to rise or fall.” CfE has two fundamental threads running through all subjects – ‘literacy and numeracy’ and ‘health and wellbeing’. Booth calls for a third to be added – creativity.

“If people can take that creative step then I think Scotland becomes the world’s education leader. If they don’t take that step, you’re still a good major contributor in the world but we so desperately need this example around the world.

“I’m going to all but fall on my knees to encourage the people in that room [Learning Festival] to actually engage in the act of courage that is, not to be careful. People engaging in creativity – it is not an act of caution.” But how will this creativity sit with the culture of Scottish schools? A “creative learning environment” is even more important than having creative teaching, according to Booth and a culture of high stakes’ inspection and constant assessment is not conducive to experimentation. The former actor, therefore, lays down a challenge to the authorities. If CfE is to work, HMIE and SQA must give teachers the freedom to be creative.

“That’s where the message for the administrators and politicians is – how do you support the schools to take away the stranglehold of requirements and let them evolve into the kinds of environments that nurture exactly what you’ve said you want?” But more than just giving schools the freedom to innovate, Booth wants to see HMIE actually assessing schools on how creative they are.

“The inspectorate needs to be in the conversation wholeheartedly about how you will know if a school is a creative learning environment. If you don’t have HMIE fully in that conversation and wholeheartedly changing what they look at and how they look at things, it will not happen. It will close the opportunity. Because of fear, because of accountability. Because their responsibility to the public will not allow that to grow.” Likewise, Booth challenges SQA to develop exams and assessments that measure creativity.

“That’s the gap that usually doesn’t get made. You have all the big speeches about ‘creativity is great’, you have the business community say, ‘creativity, we need it for our future generations, I’m so glad our schools are doing it’ and then we do not put in the accountability measures and then it washes away like the next wave.

“So I believe that the bottleneck is SQA and HMIE. If they can demonstrate the courage and imagination to expand the way they determine whether creativity is happening or not, you have vastly increased opportunity to achieve the high goals of the curriculum. If they don’t, you need a miracle.” Indeed the expert goes further: the SQA has an opportunity to be the first in the world to create assessments that gauge creativity. A feat that could win it lucrative business.

“Here’s where I’ll really scare SQA. I think there is an unprecedented worldwide opportunity for them to become the leaders in what most of the industrialised countries in the world are desperate for, which is a way to assess creativity on a broad scale. Nobody knows how to do that.

“So yes, it’s an act of courage on their part to go for it, but, talk about earned income!

They could become the centre of educational creativity and accountability in a world that has huge demand for this. Do you know what the United States would pay for tests that actually illuminated whether creative capacity was being developed? You could close the oil wells off with what you would earn from around the world.” Booth speaks with urgency but it is an urgency he believes is well warranted.

Scotland faces a “historically unprecedented” opportunity to become the world leader in education. The missing link is creativity and now is the moment to put that link in place.

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