Using young people’s experiences as a starting point for creative learning

Naomi Lord, Director of Creative Learning and Partnerships at Bolton School (Boys’ Division), lays the groundwork for collaborative, interdisciplinary projects within and beyond school

Creative and practical subjects are often considered ‘nice but not necessary’. At Bolton School, we wanted to raise awareness of the everyday importance of creative skills and of the full range of arts sector careers. We took a snapshot of Year 9 boys’ thoughts and feelings on the relevancy of arts and culture to their lifestyles and careers, ahead of their GCSE options streaming process.

Over a series of three enrichment afternoons, focused upon regional and local culture and heritage, we asked this cohort to tell us what they understood by the terms ‘arts’, ‘culture’ and ‘heritage’, and how, where and why they participated in arts and culture.

How students understand arts and culture

The survey told us that our students believed that arts and culture:

  • Carried intrinsic value.
  • That their value was something inherited: passed down and defined by arts organisations such as galleries, museums and theatres.
  • And that students believe that arts and culture occasionally happen to them, rather than being part of the fabric of their everyday lives.

Add to this picture that the independent, creative activity that students reported, happened most frequently at home, in parks and shopping complexes and generally in forms other than the ones we traditionally offer in schools. Students’ majority opinion was that traditional arts venues presented work that was ‘irrelevant’ to them and that they were not populated by ‘their kind of people’. They found it difficult to point to arts practice other than fine art, performance and the direct technical support and curation of those practices.

Listening to young people

It became clear that to improve student relationships with arts and culture, we needed to listen to our students, and then broker conversations with different sectors to connect students to cultural organisations and their networks. Through engaging students in projects connected to community, we developed students’ creative thinking while listening to the hearts and minds of our students.

Taking a new approach to creative learning

As a result of listening to our students, we have begun to evolve our approach to creative learning, thinking deeply about how we connect our students’ experiences with public forums and agendas, to provide them with the opportunity to contribute to their immediate communities and wider networks. We are keen that arts and culture do not happen to our students, but rather that our students are facilitated to habitually engage in creative practice to co-create meaningful projects that are relevant to them and that connect them to the diverse landscape of arts, culture and heritage. This journey begins with listening to students interests and beliefs and creating opportunities for them to explore and represent their home cultures in their work projects.

One such project is our collaboration with Manchester International Festival and a number of freelance creative producers. We designed an eight-week Saturday morning programme to deepen students’ creative engagement with their neighbourhoods and to develop awareness of the skills and practices within the arts sector. Our key aim of the project was to support young people to have a creative response to their local areas with the programme encouraging them to develop the skills to design and lead on their own neighbourhood projects.

Using action research

Action research is a process of disciplined inquiry to better understand an issue and then take steps to improve it. Actively listening to students and the wider school community is a key element of action research and can be a creative exercise in itself. These creative dialogues can then be drawn into project design and built into the development of live projects, responsive to student needs and interests.

Recently, the whole school completed the Mass Observation ‘Mantelpiece Directive’ in an offline day of remote learning. Students related to us, in various forms, the family heritage, stories and shared values displayed with pride in their homes. We have looked at the patterns in this data set - for instance, noticing how many households displayed various forms of hand-crafted Arabic calligraphy - and will use this information to introduce themes and activities into our repertoire of arts activities. Referring back to the information students gave us about their lack of agency in art and culture, it is clear that we must explore more student-led classroom practice, to engage our pupils.

The simple action of listening and noticing details of students’ home cultures, and representing these factors in our work, begins to demonstrate to students how all elements of their daily experience are crafted or designed. This is certainly different to using student feedback to create a project such as the MIF collaboration - the arts organisation meeting young people on their turf to realise their interests - however, perhaps involvement in work that is representative of who students are and that is increasingly self-driven, is the beginning of moving towards a more habitual co-created practice in which educators, external partners and students design projects with real world impact that are representative of their own communities.

Naomi Lord is Director of Creative Learning and Partnerships at Bolton School, Boys’ Division. She is a SLiCE fellow with Curious Minds and part of the 2020/21 Leaders for Impact cohort with Royal Opera House Bridge.

Keep up to date with Bolton School, Boys' Division Arts, Culture and Creative Learning on Twitter.

    • Type
    • Blogs

    • Interest
    • Pedagogy

    • Digital

    • Leadership