BREXUCATION (by Ken Baynes)

design-thinking-1If Brexit means Brexit, does education mean education? Or, to put the equation differently, what does Brexit mean for education? And, even more important, what can education do for Brexit? I’d say ‘a lot’ but perhaps not in the way understood by politicians.

There seems to be quite remarkable agreement on the required national response to Brexit. Remainers and Leavers alike see it as calling for qualities of entrepreneurship and creativity on the part of the British people. So whether Brexit is seen as an Opportunity or a Disaster, there is only one way to deal with it: be clever and imaginative. Is our present state education system preparing young people to be imaginative as well as clever? Almost certainly not.

Employers of all kind tend to be critical of the education system. As they see it, general education often fails to prepare young people adequately for work, particularly in practical areas. Instead the emphasis is on going to university. Getting a degree is of course potentially a great experience but here again there are doubts about the employability of graduates. At all levels there seems to be a gap between the content and aims of education and the wider world of work, leisure and engagement in society.

The lack lustre Referendum campaign revealed another serious weakness in education. The Referendum was essentially about different futures for Britain. We know now that both sides in the campaign were seriously economical with the truth. Worse still, neither side was able to describe and share with the public an understandable vision. There was a great deal of ‘debate’ but little objective analysis. What was evident was the complete lack of shared ‘designerly thinking’ in which alternative models could have been made visible and compared. We have to believe that some specialists in the Treasury, civil service, think tanks and universities were creating and using such models but the point here is that they were not made generally available to give meaning to the ‘debate’. Probably it was thought that the majority of people simply would not understand or be able to use such modelling techniques. I would disagree but it is certainly true that nothing in most people’s general education would have prepared them for the task.

It is not often that we are faced with a momentous national choice such as Brexit but choices about the future are the stuff of business, politics, social services and family life. Responding successfully to the Opportunity or Disaster of Brexit will require a lot more engagement with the future, but all this does is to highlight a universal aspect of life in the Twenty-first century: constant change.

We have argued before that education urgently needs to focus on ways of modelling and designing the future, both for economic success and to enable people to be able to take control of their own lives. Our publishing programme has been intended to make a modest contribution to resolving this issue.

In our latest title, Eileen Adams demonstrates how art-based study methods can contribute to young people’s ability to understand the world around them and take part in planning its future. Looking specifically at the built environment, her work showed that visual methods were essential in analysing the present state of say, the local high street, evaluating it, identifying points for improvement and communicating proposals with the wider community for future action. The drawings, photographs, plans and models that the pupils made had the effect of making visible the positive and negative aspects of a particular place and what might be done to improve it.

Although we argue strongly for the contribution of ‘design education’ and for the wholehearted cooperation between art and design and design and technology in providing a future-orientated education, the struggle over the subject content of the curriculum has been damaging. How subjects are taught is probably more important than what subjects are taught. It is wrong to associate ‘creativity’ exclusively with the arts: science and technology have a decisive role in creating the future. Mathematics is a modelling medium of prime importance enabling new ideas and possibilities to become visible. What we would like to see is the teaching of a number of subjects re-focused to emphasise their engagement with shaping the future.

Setting out to encourage creativity poses immediate challenges to orthodoxy. For example, the goal in traditional subject teaching (and traditional exams) is for the student to arrive at the ‘right’ answer or to be able to remember the relevant piece of the established knowledge. But if students are being creative at their own level, we should expect their submissions to be varied. Creativity is divergent while orthodoxy is convergent. Convergent thinking is valuable in its own right as an aspect of problem solving and management but it is hugely over-represented in the current school curriculum.

The educational response of the current government to Brexit is yet more organisational and managerial change. It is far from clear that such an approach will deliver the goods. And it would be a complete nightmare to introduce a new subject called ‘Creativity’ while everything else remained essentially backward-looking. A better approach would be to loosen government control and give teachers more freedom to innovate and be creative themselves. It would show faith in the teaching profession and give teachers back some control over their practice if they were gently asked to see if they could, please, develop more creative classroom activities and engage their pupils actively with the future.


View the Book Page for Eileen Adams: Agent of Change in art, design and environmental education 


ISBN: [hardback, colour] 978-1-909671-13-3 … £55.00 RRP
ISBN: [paperback, B&W] 978-1-909671-14-0 … £15.99 RRP

These different versions are also available from all good book stores (eg Waterstones) and online book sellers (eg BOOKS etc).

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3 Responses to “BREXUCATION (by Ken Baynes)”

  1. Ken Baynes November 2, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

    No sooner had I completed the blog than two closely related pieces appeared – a Brexit Design Manifesto supported by many of the greatest names in British Design and, from the Creative Industries Federation, a report on the impact of Brexit. Both highlight the importance of education for the future and both insist that there needs to be a fresh focus on creative work in schools. The Federation calls for ‘an education system fit for the 21st century’ and says that ‘instead of marginalising creative subjects, we should provide young people with a mix of creative and technical skills required for success’. These add to the growing clamour for a substantial change of direction in education. I guess we should all get behind it.

  2. Alison Hardy November 8, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

    Your blogpost argues that the content should focus on equipping children to shape the future – rather than subjects let’s focus on the content. You rightly point out that a lot of time is taken up by the D&T community arguing about D&T content. I agree that creativity should be taught in school but with a current emphasis from DfE on knowledge, creativity can be misinterpreted as a ‘soft skill’. My view is that this is an uninformed position – creativity and knowledge do go hand-in-hand. The example you give here of Eileen Adam’s use of the built environment as part of a young person’s education demonstrates this relationship.

    A non-expert view of design education will think children are learning transferable skills (analytical and critical thinking); the reality is the opposite – Eileen’s teaching is based on the teacher’s knowledge of anthropology, ergonomics, visual literacy, materials, manufacturing processes and so on. Those with little experience of design education will think they ‘know’ about these ‘things’ (the high street as part of the built environment) because they use a high street, which is counter-intuitive to many in design education as it is one argument for design education; i.e. because we are familiar with the content we are not aware of its influence on us and accept the way it is. Good design education challenges the accepted, and like other forms of powerful knowledge – once we have learnt about design we cannot view the world in the same way again.

  3. William Wilkins November 21, 2016 at 12:59 pm #

    Dear Ken,

    I am alarmed that there appears to be a failure on the part of educational administrators, whether political or bureaucratic, to recognise the huge importance of encouraging the development of the imagination of the young throughout their schooling. Imagination in any form, literary or visual, develops children into better members of society but up to this point it had seemed that there was a growing recognition of how broadly creative those with a visual education become. Their creativity is not necessarily confined to the art form in which they train, they think laterally, they create businesses. Any analysis of the role of visual arts graduates in our society would demonstrate the huge contribution they make both culturally and economically across an extraordinary range of subjects.

    Yours ever,

    William Wilkins CBE, DL , Hon FRIBA

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