Value of Creative Education

@laura_ritchie modelling our own practice as creative educators in different medium @HerefordArtsCol 

—Sarah-Jane (@sarahjfc) 20 September 2017

I felt privileged to be there. Really, it was moving. You reminded us of what we do and sometimes as teachers we forget- Seeing him get it and the look on his face. When he looked at you like that, that is what it’s all about. Witnessing that learning happen was really something. -Holland Otik

What was this all about? I was invited to speak at the Hereford College of Arts 10th Annual HE Symposium to speak on ‘the value of a creative education’.

I didn’t come with a script or have slides. I did have a plan, and here is a summary of what I said (anyone who was there, please feel free to correct my paraphrasing and gappy memory!)

I was asked to speak about the value of a creative education and I am not going to tell you how to do anything, but am going to remind you what you already do. See for a start we already have within creative, the active create and that implies doing. If we begin with the student doing, we are already on the right track. So often in the past, as Jonathan reminded us with the image of a teacher pointing a stick at the students sitting in their desks. Fortunately within the arts it is understood that students will create their own individual work, be unique, and be able to express themselves, but still those old thoughts linger. Look at us – I am standing in front of you and you are all sitting neatly in rows.

To understand what we do and where the value is, we need to look at the understanding of value and articulate it so that people can understand. The value isn’t in the numbers. Jonathan’s #Phonar class had huge numbers, but the value wasn’t in the numbers, it was in the connections, the affordances and the skills that were being cultivated- and his methods, how he did it, was valuable, but that’s not a number. The same is true with completion – and this is not my metaphor, it comes from that book I mentioned by Stephen Downes (see p272-3), which is great and I commend it to you all – think of a newspaper. Nobody judges the success or the value of a newspaper by the number of people who complete it and read it cover-to-cover, but they look for the content, the design, the accessibility, the way in which people can find and take the information and use it. Our teaching is like that. We are partly about the product, but certainly not entirely. I would say there is something very missing if my music students didn’t produce finished musical performances, recitals in their time with me in their degree, but that isn’t it. They aren’t done – that is just putting their toes in the water and for years, they will develop their personal style and continue to develop. It is also about the process. There is value in the experience, the process, as well as the product.

I play the cello and I will use music as a metaphor – to demonstrate, but it’s not really about ‘the music’. How many of you have played cello before? (no hands went up) How many of you have never played cello before? (all the hands went up) And how many of you would like to play cello? (many hands went down… but one voice peeped up- I would!) Cue Nic. Nic was tall and he was sitting in the row in front of me during Jonathan’s talk. All I knew about Nic was that he could draw (I saw a doodle he drew of Jonathan while listening to him speak)

I’ll take you through how we experience the process and explain to you and to the ‘student’, what has happened. That is an important step, because we do these things, but sometimes we don’t realise that we are doing them – and sometimes the students don’t realise what they have done or learned. It is important to tell them.

(I don’t want to spoil it, because it is a great demonstration. I took Nic through the basics of playing the cello. I outlined how to hold it and what to do with the hands, one at a time, and then he played a tune. I won’t write it out verbatim, but will detail the important process bits that had to do with value in education.)

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Last minute preparations for the return of our students next week. Staff are very busy making sure timetables make sense and that there are lots of engaging activities in the pipeline. Here is @xonicholasxo learning to play #twinkletwinklelittlestar with symposium guest @laura_ritchie_ .We were actually exploring the ‘value’ of a creative degree course) @sarah_jfc 👍

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  • First it is important to recognise the situation for our ‘student’ (that’s my volunteer, Nic).

He is now in front of everyone, and about to take on something new. The cello is a big thing and nowadays, it is important to respect people and their space. In casual conversation I do not get too close to someone or that would make them uncomfortable. To play the cello, it does need to be close to you, and that may be strange. I need to explain and prepare my student so they can come to that experience themselves. Likewise, getting used to the sound – you can feel it. It actually touches your body as you make the strings go. Getting used to the equipment is important.  

  • Then there is the action of playing.

I introduced it step-by-step, laying it out in a way that works with positive achievement. What do I mean? Sarah-Jane kindly mentioned my book on self-efficacy and that is at the heart of everything people do – basically if you don’t believe you can do something, you won’t do it, and likewise if you do believe in your capabilities, you will find a way. Those beliefs are most quickly built through positive accomplishments, and as teachers we can lay those out for students through careful explanation and preparation of the resources and activities that we suggest.

So Nic played open strings and then we introduced the fingers, and then I got him to play a pattern, and then he did a big Ahh! and a BIG smile. At the end of my asking him to play a certain pattern, he realised it was a song, and that he had just played it.

Part of the value integrated in this activity, is that I did not tell him to do this or that. I did not tell him I expected something from him. In fact I told him that I would not ask him to do anything he could not do, and he did not have to do anything he didn’t want to, yet he embraced the situation, took risks, and accomplished things for himself. I did not manipulate him physically, making him do things – but set it up so he was allowed to experiment and find the shapes and feel the sensations for himself.

  • What did he do?

He experienced things that are of value today in society. He learned skills that are sought after by employers. If you look at accounting and consulting firms, the skills they want in employees are resilience, self-regulation, metacognition, being able to work with people. Nic took on a risk, he solved problems in real time, he managed and negotiated complex physical and mental processes, integrating them quickly and efficiently, he took non-verbal cues, he dealt with pressure (of a peer audience), and he delivered results. Those are the things we do all the time in the arts. We are developing people to have the skills that are needed to navigate and carve a place in the ever-changing world.

I tell people that there are no ‘jobs’ in music like there once were – I did a presentation in the beginning of 2016 and one slide was about how many salaried jobs were there in UK orchestras… zero. And I didn’t have to change that slide for a year. (have a look now: there’s a double bass position, and several admin posts… There are a few jobs, but they are seriously scarce.) You basically have to wait for someone to die and that is not a very good prospect. If I only teach my students whatever I learned or whatever comes out of a book – facts – that will not prepare them to stay in the profession. You need to be able to use the skills to continue to be creative and understand how you can see and fill gaps. That’s how they stay in music. And if you have something creative that you love, that is really what you want to do.

It is important to tell the students what they have done. It is important for us to articulate what we do, so that others outside the creative arts can understand that there is value in a creative education. We are equipping people with the skills not only to do what they love, but to succeed in our changing world.

I said more, but I can’t remember it all.

After the event, at lunch people said- I wanted to be Nic. I didn’t want to do it at first, but by the end I really wanted to be the one sitting there.

-I liked that they said it with a very eager smile. It is amazing the impact of a positive learning experience that is not loaded with expectation of failure, but simply there to extend your own personal agency.

It was a supremely wonderful place, filled with a great team of diverse, open staff, and I am very grateful to have been a part of the day.

To finish, here is a pic of their common room (which blew me away!) and the key I was given, from a china pot just to the left of the play doh, unfortunately out of sight in the photo) to remember it all.

As an addendum: Sarah-Jane from Hereford Arts College, who organised the Symposium, posted these reflections on my visit:


  1. Jonathan

    It was a lovely day Laura and I for one very much enjoyed Nic learning to play the cello , super brilliant and an inspiration as always.

  2. Sarah-Jane

    Laura- thank you so much for this – you’ve given us something we can come back to and reflect on as the conversations you provoked are by no means over. I love how you ‘showed’ us what we do, rather than ‘told’ us – and I hope you’ll visit us again one day.

    I will blog too, but I need to reflect because I think what we’re doing is quite exciting – you unpicked a particular kind of teaching and learning that usually stays buried as it’s hidden in the small things, small movements, gentle corrections of the studio. I am so glad we’re having this conversation and that you met my lovely colleagues at HCA. You and Jonathan are both so generous in spirit and outlook. S.

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