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Davos in the Desert: the Global Education and Skills Forum's vision for teaching the arts | reviews, news & interviews

Davos in the Desert: the Global Education and Skills Forum's vision for teaching the arts

Davos in the Desert: the Global Education and Skills Forum's vision for teaching the arts

Luminaries, gurus, CEOs, teachers, politicians and educationalists gather in the Gulf

Upmarket destination: the Forum was hosted at Atlantis at The Palm, Dubai

I have heard countless speeches advocating the importance of arts education, and making bold cross-curricular claims – from England’s cultural ministers and arts leaders, to the Arts Council and the Creative Industries Federation – but I have never heard the case put more persuasively and simply than by Ronnie Cheng, the softly-spoken headmaster of the Diocesan Boys School in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

Cheng, a Top 50 finalist in the Varkey Foundation’s phenomenal Global Teacher Prize competition (now in its fifth year), has literally devoted his life to the school: he studied there, became music master, progressed to headmaster after 20 years of teaching, married in the school hall, and jokes that he will probably have his memorial service there as well. He has produced a No. 1 world-ranking male-choir, many top professional musicians and several talented devotees, some of whom have since returned to teach younger generations of pupils, fired by his example, the social and collaborative skills they have learned, and (as one says) the appreciation of "subtle beauty", detail and nuance that Cheng imparted to them.

Cheng was speaking at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2017 in Dubai last weekend, organised by the Varkey Foundation around the Prize. This conference, widely known as the "Davos of education", brought together teachers, technology leaders, heads of NGOs, world leaders, Olympic athletes, internationally acclaimed singer Andrea Bocelli and a Yogi/mystic, top authors and commentators, two Chibok girls (who escaped from the radical Islamic group Boko Haram), and over 40 serving and former educational ministers from around the globe – with the aim of solving the big questions around global education (over 98 sessions and 112 speakers).

Thus we had the likes of George Papandreou, Julia Gillard, Michael Gove and Arne Duncan (Obama’s Secretary of State for Education, pictured above with Gove), together with inspirational figures such as Bear Grylls and the New York Times author and columnist Thomas Friedman, rubbing shoulders with an irrepressible group of prize-nominated teachers. These included the diminutive and dynamic Michael Wamaya, a Top 10 finalist who had dropped out of high school, studied dance in Nairobi and who now teaches children who live in slum conditions – as distinct from Cheng, who operates in an elite environment – the grace, aesthetic, social and physical power of dance. Among these, too, was the eventual prize-winner, Maggie MacDonnell, who takes back US$1 million to her indigenous community school in the Canadian Arctic.

For at least a generation now, STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have been the obsessive political focus of the educational establishment to the exclusion of the arts. Thus the role of the arts in education was billed as one of the key topics for discussion, although the burning issues of the day – the rise of populism, global citizenship and digitalisation – threatened to eclipse the arts agenda at times. Nevertheless, several of the world’s best arts teachers were on hand to offer their insights (with music teaching predominating), along with renowned visual artist Sacha Jafri, who took up residence at the conference to produce a live artwork in the blistering heat beside the Atlantis pool. Jafri’s resulting canvas – a two-metre diptych worked on over 48 hours, pictured above left – set out to represent an ideal of good global citizenship, by inspiring individuals to live their life "in a state of grace, of humility and truth, respect and kindness".

Cheng, who approached his own argument for arts education with humility, began with the practical question: what do teenagers actually need? From his experience of teaching boys, his answer was "tribe", "identity" and "hierarchy": the latter he defines as role models to pattern oneself after. Girls, he suggested, might need a more "nurturing" environment, but all require a "rite of passage" in order to reach adulthood. For his students a programme of music provided that rite of passage, allowing them to take the lead or to participate with thousands of others in producing orchestral and choral music. Once something resonates with a teenage boy, he says, once they find a "tribe" or role model they can identify with, they will discover something in themselves "that is beyond what can be expressed through words or emotions" (Andrea Bocelli, pictured below).

The arts are routinely praised for their role in promoting and protecting creativity, curiosity and passion, but Cheng finds that these are not the right words for what the arts can do; he even finds the words themselves "cringeworthy". His view of the arts is that they achieve something that words cannot describe – an ability to tap deep inside of something that is in each and every one of us. Once you have tapped these depths, he observes, and found something that truly resonates with who you are, it gives life and meaning to everything else.

For Cheng, it is not helpful to use a generic term like "art". When you watch Roger Federer play tennis, he says, you don’t call it "sport", because Federer takes it to a different plane. What you are helping children to tap into is a true calling, a true meaning, which also brings happiness. And happy children are more productive in every area of their lives.

This observation brought me back to an almost throw-away comment in a previous panel session: "English teenagers are some of the unhappiest in the world." The UK’s educational focus – expounded by Schools Minister Nick Gibb at the GESF – seeks to correct a "drift away from academic subjects" and to de-prioritise less rigorous strands that focus on "creativity and critical thinking". The arts are, of course, not part of the current English Baccalaureate curriculum (which emphasises English, Maths, Science, Languages, and History or Geography).

Much was made of England outperforming Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in traditional academic attainment, with progress measured largely against STEM subjects. Andrea Schleicher of the OECD, however, suggested that we should be preparing students for a very different world outside the box of the current school curriculum; there needed to be a focus on rich human knowledge (creativity, design, aesthetics, political and civic values) in addition to qualities that will be absolutely essential to the new global competency: empathy and a critical world view.

Thomas Friedman (pictured left) provided a stimulating and provocative analysis of this new global world and the competencies that children will need in order to survive and prosper. Drawing on his newest book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, Friedman explained that we are in the midst of three exponential accelerations: the market (globalisation), Mother Nature (climate change, biochemistry) and Moore’s law (which dictates the astonishing rate that the speed and power of the microchip is doubling). These challenges, accelerating at a rate that is way beyond the human ability to adapt to them, have their roots in the year 2007 – when the Apple iPhone was launched "which put more computer power in the palm of the hand than the Apollo Space mission", when the Facebook platform went global, and when Twitter, Big Data, Android, Kindle, Airbnb and the Cloud were all rolled out. But "this ain't no lovely, fluffy cloud," says Friedman – this is a supernova, a giant energy resource that has changed the world overnight. But we all missed the significance of 2007 because of what happened in 2008, when the world plunged into economic crisis. The collision of 2007 and 2008 has, in his view, created the foundation of Brexit and Trumpism.

In this changed world, education should no longer be about "stocking up" knowledge; it is one where passion, persistence and curiosity will trump IQ, he declares. Thus Friedman advises his own daughter to, among other things, think like an artisan, which entails bringing "unique personal value added", and carving your initials into something every day. His daughter will need to create things that cannot be digitised, measured, automated, to think like an immigrant and an entrepreneurial waitress, and to always stay in "Beta" mode.

For Sacha Jafri (pictured right), the London-based artist and humanitarian who pursues his calling in a world of celebrity and global admirers (including former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and stars such as Kevin Spacey and Leonardo di Caprio), the arts can help us navigate this world and become "real" global citizens. At 41 years old he is about to have a major 18-year retrospective, having pioneered Magical Realism in the visual arts (taking his inspiration from the literary world – particularly authors like Paul Coelho and Gabriel Garcia Marquez).

His art is the antithesis of the YBA group of the early Nineties – he tries to enter people’s souls and tap into a "universal consciousness", he says, rather than set out to shock. He believes that the majority of contemporary art focuses on "product" (he regards Kapoor as an artisan/product maker, for example) and will therefore prove transient unless it taps into something universal. Anselm Keifer is a hero, but he can also trace his inspiration back to Michelangelo’s youthful Pietà. The biggest mistake, he suggests, is that when we achieve something, we think it’s because of us – when all we do is "borrow a moment". Arts education, he believes, should teach you what it is to be human, and the poignancy of a moment that will never leave you, which can transform life and relationships.

While Jafri is putting the finishing touches to his canvases, Friedman relaxes after his keynote speech on the final day of the conference. Forget STEM, he tells me. The best jobs in the future will combine STEM and human empathy, or "Stempathy", as he called it in his bestseller The World Is Flat. And the way you develop empathy, he says, is by studying the humanities: art, music, literature, languages – the things that make one human. And if UK politicians and arts advocates still want to link the case for the arts to the economy and to economic progress, Friedman confidently predicts that "stempathy" jobs will be the top-paying jobs of the future. England, take heed.

We should be preparing students for a very different world outside the box of the current school curriculum

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