Art and Education and WTF is Engagement Anyway?

February 11, 2016 – 2:06 pm

This post is prompted by The engagement era – and the artist’s place within it, written by Courtney Johnston (director of the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt).  She has been pondering the shifting fashions for ‘collection’ vs ‘education’ vs ‘engagement’ in museums and galleries, trying to make sense of the swirl of ambitions and activities around those words and shifting focus and behaviours in GLAM institutions.  She’s an incredible thinker and a brilliant leader.  Subscribe to her blog.

Go read her post.  ​Wow.  It is a wonderfully chewy piece of thinking.
It triggered education thoughts.  Education is full of “WHAT THE FUCK ARE WE DOING?” panic attacks.  The same shifts and conversations are visible:
  • we’re here to do our thing and teach
  • ​we need to personalise what we do to each kid
  • we need to put the kid in charge and create experiences that are opportunities to learn
  • we are creating new citizens
  • we impart functional knowledge for workers of tomorrow
  • we prepare kids to MAKE the future
So I see a lot of the citizenship, personalisation, improvement language in schools as Courtney sees them in institutions.  At some level they’re good things you reach for in self-justification for organisational existence.  At another, they’re genuine public institutional ambitions: customers of public services are citizens not merely ‘consumers’, but the service should be useful to them, and nobody likes to think they’re disempowering their customers, and we don’t just want to give people what they want — we want to help them to get better!
And “engagement” is also a lazy reach in education.  Give the kids iPads and they’re engaged.  Whether they’re learning is another question.  Novelty is often the hook (as with new tech) but it’s a lazy and expensive hook … schools have to work hard and spend a lot of money to get that novelty.  A lot of “engagement’ is “the shit we would have done before, but with a question at the start and a relatively ineffectual `choice’ along the way”.  People think they can tape something onto their comfortable habits and call it a revolution.
Education / improvement are hard.  It is difficult to learn things.  We forget that.  And we have the “I think something, I am uncertain, now I know” cycle broken in school by ed processes that teach us to go straight for answers and resolution.  They’re better with that in art, but as they expand their audiences I’m sure the art folks find people who don’t enjoy looking at something and being uncertain.  Do you just give them a button to bang on and a hashtag to tweet their photos of the mist room?
The old ways in education were all designed around efficiency for the teacher.  The change is to make the employed professional (the teacher) reconsider their role and priorities.  If the goal is to learn then it’s not enough to optimise for teaching.  If the goal is to have all kids learn, then it’s not enough to teach the same thing at the same time.  If your most important goal is to not work hard, then by definition learning isn’t your most important goal.  Sometimes you have to work harder to be more effective.
And finally, not every kid is the same.  Schools find or develop a teaching system and go “YES THIS IS THE WAY AND THE LIGHT” and roll it out across the school.  But some systems work for some kids, but not others.  Some kids freak and fail at the very things that cause other kids to squeal and succeed.  Opinion is divided whether the institution has the responsibility to do one thing well (and it’s ok if there are kids for whom it doesn’t work, they can go elsewhere) or whether the institution has the responsibility to adapt and support so that every kid can get what they need there.  Personally, I love specialisation + choice … a number of schools, each with their own beliefs about what works, and kids select the school that works for them.  In the real world, the choice of who goes where for school has more to do with designer uniforms and where Daddy went and what future leaders you’ll go to school with, rather than what works best for you. And then there are areas that have no choice at all because the population isn’t large enough for choice.  AND the idea that a school is Better because it has more students.  Gosh, this isn’t straightforward.
I suspect all these schooly things have parallels in art and museum worlds.  I can’t wait to see where her GLAM thinking leads, and to discover new ways of looking at the worlds I inhabit.

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