Welcome to the intelligent twenties, or why Art Teaching isn't ready for the new era

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We are at the turn of a decade, a point in the calendar that people use to celebrate and reflect. It helps us regulate our lives by referring to waypoints in that span of 80 odd summers through which we wander. We use significant numbers in the calendar to help us look forwards while reflecting back. So many people write things about the past decades happenings and others write about what the next decade will bring. This thought piece takes a longer view.

1919 was the year that Bauhaus was founded and around the same time Marion Richardson was starting to change things in her profession in England. The Bauhaus redefined art and design education. It nailed shut the coffin lid of the pre-modern, in the verdant openness of the Weimar Republic, its curriculum and teaching was forged in the white heat of the burgeoning world of mass production and technological determinism. Back in more mundane Dudley, Richardson was devising new curricula for teaching school children art but in a uniquely child-centred way.

As an artist and teacher who trained at the end of the 1980s (in Birmingham where the Marion Richardson archive exists), I was immersed in the philosophies and practices of their teachings and they have served me well in pedagogy and practical situations. Thinking about the turn of the decade though it occurred to me that it’s now over a hundred years since these thoughts were developed and since then they have been the dominant principles in art education. The more I thought about this I began to realise that the ticking over of the century-old marker is as good a time to reflect whether we should move on. Isn’t a hundred years enough for a set of philosophies to hold such sway? They were forged, post world war 1, in an era of unprecedented change and in many ways we are similarly about to see society change in another radical big jump.

Outside the art world, society is about to really deep dive into a world of intelligent assistant led work and home life, climate change, artificial intelligence, neuroscientifically driven behaviour, robots (self-driving cars are robots), more extreme automation, whole industrial sectors (such as banking) operating autonomously, hyper-personalisation, mega cities, autonomous businesses, mathematical behavioural prediction, tribal and angry politics, the death of consensus, people as data, and commercial space exploration.

In education we will start to have to question what schools and teaching and learning are actually for and in the context of this new society, what do we need them to do? For art teachers this is potentially actually both easier and more difficult. Our approach to art teaching is shaped by the two modern giants yet the world outside is changing so much. it will be more easy because the skills we teach will rise in importance and more difficult because the context in which those skills are needed is not something that most art educators are close to understanding. The world I described above is what one may consider science fiction, but it’s not, it’s real and it’s happening fast. I know, I design systems that enable it.

What can art teachers teach kids who will spend their lives working alongside robots and who have to change career every few years? What skills will art teachers need to teach for this emerging world? Most art colleges teach “how to use technology” yet few produce graduates who can actively shape technology. Mostly their lecturers are mired in the opinion that “being digital” means software fluency. They are teaching people to drive a car without teaching them how a car works and how to get the best out of it, let alone how to navigate and prepare a journey and deal with the lifecycle of the car.

This future world I describe will require people with well-honed intellectual skills in psychology, computing (NOT digital), creativity, mental agility, numerical and logic proficiency, and ethics but in horizontal criss-crossing threads not vertical subject-based silos. Teachers of art and design will have to retool what they teach and how they teach in order to weave threads that move through the fabric of peoples’ ever-changing lives. How will we teach designers when designers have to be able to handle the data that feeds the decisions taken by the design AIs and their role changes to become akin to a shepherd guiding the intelligences? In the emerging world, various forms of mathematics will be something that both forms and shapes the contours of peoples’ lives and because of that, art teachers will have to teach to a society that throws up many strange attractors and multiple unexpected emergent systems and properties. The notion of what is artistic could have radically changed again within the next twenty years as it did after 1920, these changes are that epochal.

Art teachers need to rapidly reskill understanding deep tech not surface tech, they need to understand more philosophy and how to operate in a world where their children operate across silos, where boundaries don’t exist between subjects and where this third presence of intelligence is now working alongside us. They will also need to feed into their approach, the changes wrought on our understanding of art and creativity wrought by the explosion in neuro scientific research. Once we actually know what creativity actually is, how will we change our approach to teaching it?

The Bauhaus approach that guides much of what is taught will have to give way finally. The child centred approach of Richardson will have to become child and community led and art teachers may not have to be artists or designers. The crucial role of art-skilling that is so badly needed as a vital part pf this new economy may have to be taught across traditional subjects. How will they adapt and how will art teacher education adapt?

The age of mass production was one of power, control and certainty, the coming era is one of mathematical chaos, systems and emergence. The art teachers of the next decade will have to tackle and work out how to teach art for this new age of unnatural intelligence.

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