Michael Rosen: Rethinking education for today’s world
Michael Rosen is no stranger to Bett. As a renowned writer and poet for both children and adults, he has published around 200 books and is also a popular broadcaster, having presented BBC Radio 4’s acclaimed programme about language, “Word of Mouth” since 1998. He is currently Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London where he co-devised and teaches an MA in Children’s Literature.
Michael has always taken a strong interest in the work of teachers, particularly when it comes to reading and writing, and at previous editions of Bett, we’ve loved hearing his unique take on the importance of creativity in building future worlds. As we welcome Michael back for Bett 2023, we sat down with him to find out more about his perspective on the role of art in education.
Michael, welcome back to Bett! We’re delighted to have you involved. What are your best memories of Bett from previous years, and why should people come to the show?
What I like about Bett is how people move around the show. It’s a big place and there’s so much going on: robots walking around, hundreds of speakers talking about different elements of education. What I liked about it was that free-flow atmosphere, and the way that I was, in a sense, busking. I quite like that, the idea that I was standing somewhere saying my piece, and people could come or go as they wanted to. It was like a marketplace for education technology. That's what I liked very much indeed.
It’s also a place where people talk about the future of education, and I think that’s an important conversation to have when there’s so much disruption going on in the world.
In your 2020 session at Bett, you were asked ‘How can art save the world?’ and you said “Science without feeling is actually disaster. If we neglect the humanity of us in any project that we have, we’ll be faced with disaster.” Do you feel the same today?
Even more so. We've obviously had the disaster of the pandemic, which was a perfect example of science married to humanity, with scientists creating a vaccine in unbelievable conditions of speed and pressure. And then we've got the war in Ukraine, where we’re seeing a complete misuse of science and technology in the most appalling ways. So, in these two momentous events you've got a perfect contrast between these two things, and hopefully, an artistic sensibility. I’m not talking about artistic sensibility in going to the cinema or to a gallery, it’s about looking at the whole human being, and what the arts help us do. Climate change is another thing that comes to mind – these are all enormous problems, and simply operating on old systems will not help us solve them.
Going back to the example of COVID, it’s a great example because we’ve seen similar things in the past, such as the Spanish Flu. What’s different in this case is that we’re better with vaccinations in general, and people moved very quickly and flexibly to work out a solution. Of course, the people who did that had enormous skill and were great researchers, but they also had to think creatively. We have to ask ourselves: is the science education that goes on in state schools creative? Does it involve experimentation? Does it leave room to problem-solve, and work out a different way to get to your end goal when the first plan fails? So, you need the flexibility of thinking in science just as much as in art if you want people to solve the kind of problems we’re facing as a society in the modern world.
We’ve observed a really challenging few years for the education sector, and we’re still seeing the effects of the pandemic on our students. As a result, our overarching theme for our 2023 show is Reconnect, Reimagine, Renew. What advice do you have for the education sector at this time, and what does this theme mean to you?
Well, it’s an opportunity to reinvent. We’ve had lots of challenges in England in particular because leadership has been changing hands so much, and at such incredible speed. It creates uncertainty for educators, because when the strategy changes different topics get pushed to the top of the priority list. Another issue is a lack of commitment to teachers’ expertise, because it’s very difficult for teachers’ expertise to be harnessed in lateral communication between schools. In the workshops that I do for teachers, I’m really interested in that process of informing each other of best practice and throwing different ideas back and forth. That’s a nice part of the experience in attending conferences – teachers can share ideas. But it needs to be done in a way that is more embedded, on a more regular basis, so that teachers can build shared knowledge together. We do have the advantages of more online working now, which helps teachers to share their work, but it would be nice to see a firm structure within the education system where clusters of schools can work together.
I think that’s the main thing to take from all this – in uncertain times, it’s even more important for teachers to talk to one another, share ideas and build knowledge as teams, even between different institutions.
You’ve previously said that we’re born as intellectually curious creatures. How can we nurture this curiosity in today’s children?
The key question is whether we regard student perspectives of all ages – from age four to eighteen and beyond – as relevant to their own learning, and there are two polarities on this. One is that there really isn’t time, and it isn’t efficient to wait for children and students to ask questions about the learning process – instead, we have to instruct them, quickly and efficiently, with the necessary knowledge to achieve their projected learning outcomes. The second pole says that we must allow for time and space for students to be curious, to ask questions, and to value the discussions that they have, even if they don’t appear to be immediately relevant.
It seems to me that the best result comes from a combination of direct instruction and a more open-ended, discursive way of learning. But at the moment, I’m rather concerned we’ve gone too far towards the first pole, towards the ‘jug and mug’ theory, where the learner is an empty vessel, and it’s the job of the teacher to pour knowledge from the jug. This doesn’t allow for the fact that learning is a reflective process, not simply a matter of absorption. You have to explore, reinterpret, and question the information you’ve been given. In my experience, that isn’t the case. Meanwhile, arts education has been squeezed, perhaps because it is much more of that kind of open-ended work that I’m talking about. It’s funny that in private education, we see the arts valued to an enormous degree, and used as a way for students to have their voices heard, or show emotion. And yet, in the state sector, it’s almost as if there isn’t time for the arts.
It brings us back to thinking about those big challenges we’re facing – like climate change. In my view, schools should be sites where young people can talk about these challenges, and can think about some inventive ways to combat them. There are young people all around the world who have done incredible things with solar panels, wind power and wave power, and all off their own initiative and imagination. I’d love to see the young people in our schools being encouraged to think more artistically about some of these things, things which we don’t have the answers to yet.
What can our audience expect from your session at the show?
I’m interested in asking the question of what writing can do for the writer. Often when we ask children and students to write, they’re being asked to do so in a very specific way. But I think it’s worth thinking about what the act of writing can do – for example, when writing fiction, or autobiography, or poetry, which can be fictional or autobiographical. Writing has obviously helped me a lot in the last few years, particularly with COVID and the death of my son. The other side of the coin is asking how you can free teachers from having to write to expected levels as laid down by the grammar, punctuation and spelling tests – that’s simply writing with numbers. That might be useful when it comes to nonfiction writing, but it certainly doesn’t help with what I’d call reflective writing. The active writing process requires space and time for students to think through what they’re putting down on the page, and why it’s important. Again, it’s about thinking about the whole person, not just the matter of getting marks. It’s a matter of reflecting on who you are and where you are in the world, and that, I’m always happy to talk about.
This year, you can find Michael our Teaching & Learning Theatre speaking on the reflective process of writing. Don’t forget to get your free ticket to Bett before 3rd March!