Since the 1990s, when I was taking my art degree, I noticed how many English higher education establishments were very academic-centric.
My various artistic friends attended free art colleges in London, Bristol and the south coast (Bishop’s Otter, Dartington etc) and I went to the American College in London. My first impression of the American College was how much it boasted and promoted itself. American propaganda, I thought. It was recommended by my A’level art teacher Ian Scott, a surrealist and I was impressed at the open day.
My dad was cynical about it. He always thought I should have applied to a proper English art college, with a prestige or cache. However, I learned so many skills and we were taught every process. They made Harvard Referencing enjoyable! We were taught it in class, which was fun, interactive and accessible for all. ‘Paranthetical citations’ to use their term. It was a laugh when I mentioned ‘brackets’. Too English. ‘Brackets? BRACKETS? It’s parentheses Sophie’.
Aside from Dangling Modifiers and learning calculus with impeccably suited Arabic business students, who I wiped the floor with covered in oil paint from painting class, the art department was filled with teachers emerging from real world experience. Advertising tutor Mr Penrose was fresh from an agency, Jill, Steve, Liz and Sandie taught us all kinds of skills without an essay in sight. (The Harvard Referencing was for a 10,000 thesis in English Composition, which I wrote on music law and got an A).
Meanwhile, my friends at their prestigious free art institutions were having sleep overs, the teachers were on strike, no library, no computers (yes even in 1990 we had Macs though I only got to touch one in computing classes) and they barely saw a tutor a term. They were left to their own devices for 3 years and had to write a thesis with Harvard referencing. This academic essay requirement meant that most of them didn’t get the 2:1 needed to carry on and do an MA.
Back at the American College we had an international mix of students, who all became friends and got to know one-another. We still chat on social media 27 years later. The other thing to note is we all do what we did at college: Hernando still paints, Guillermo plays guitar, Nicole does graphics, Cristel is a photographer still, Rizal does cartoons, Sheila, Paula have creative jobs and I still write. In 2001, I went to college in Los Angeles and Linita, who wrote for the Hollywood Reporter now runs her own music and film industry magazine and attends all the press junkets to interview stars.
After graduation, I could use various tools I’d learned at college to find work. I did a letterhead for a business and advertising boards for various pubs and off licenses. I marketed and sold a creative child-minding business and got a clutch of long term clients, including a cabinet Minister, who got sacked while working for this family and had a laugh about taking their children to rock gigs and teaching them to use oil pastels.
After a few years trying out a few things: graphic design, doing advertising boards, painting, had an exhibition in 1994 and sold paintings (attended by Chris and Karyanne Jagger and Davey Pane from Ian Dury’s Band), writing a humour column for a local paper (as I had done on the magazine we created at ACL: Art Holes) I got into the London College of Printing (now LC of Communication) to do a postgraduate certificate in Periodical Journalism.
This journalism course cost around £275 in 1997 and was for 11 weeks, followed by an industrial placement. The course was clearly routemapped and all skills based. We had to write features but not thesis about writing features. No Harvard Referencing in cite (sic). We learned the journalist alternative, which is quoting credible and named sources and qualifying statements.
The interview process seemed fair and meritocratic. I didn’t have a hearing aid or know I had dyspraxia and yet I got an immediate place (not to mention an unconditional place to do an MA in broadcast journalism in 2011). There was no segregation for learning styles.
We learned Quark Xpress, page layout, T-line shorthand, news reporting, interview technique, media law and had 3 features to hand in as well as sitting test for the other skills. At the end we worked together to devise and publish our own newspaper Liquid London (a little drinking followed of course).
Therefore, it wasn’t until I attended Falmouth University in 2011, that I had to do academic work. I was baffled, having attended the most competitive journalist college in the country, with alumni all over the publishing and journalist world, why I had to submit studies of the work I was undertaking as well as producing the work. Surely, if you produce the work you have understood the teaching.
It seems to me that the education system used in England has been taken over by academics. The top art colleges expect visual minded, creative people to apply rote memorisation techniques to fulfil their academic objectives. Those, like me, with dyspraxia are considered constrained. We are not included in the way the courses are taught and have to be given special individual learning plans. Even though this is a University of the Arts. Falmouth houses an art college, music AMATA and other creative practices.
When I discovered I had dyspraxia in 2006, the London Dyslexia Teaching Centre, which did my assessment (which would have cost upwards of £400 but I sold them an advert for a magazine) said that most students attending all London’s top art colleges, Fashion, Music, Fine Art, Graphics, Dancing, Drama and Film had some kind of dyslexic or dyspraxic profile. There was one test to put these red and white diamonds together to copy a shape that required the mind of an MA student at the Royal College of Art. I managed it just in time in 2006, but actually failed it in 2020, which I personally account for a lack of confidence in my way of processes thinking, after the invalidation it receives from academic courses taught at convention British universities. It is just a thought.
With all arts courses, we need to learn the nuts and bolts we will need to forge our careers on graduation. In the business world, only scientists and medical researchers write thesis, while people setting up businesses write business plans.
The more successful alumni become after completing a course is the best way in my view to attract the most talented prospective new students. Do you want your art graduates to go and hold their own exhibitions and sell their work or go full time at the local supermarket?
In my view, an art course is like designing a new car. We do not have to reinvent the wheel or work out how cars move because those are already well known and fall under mechanics and engineering. To launch a new car, before we decide on what type of fuel (diesel, unleaded, electric, hybrid etc) or the size wheels, we need to work out what the market wants and learn how to engage with them, test our ideas and get confident that our new car is going to be worth funding and setting up a business up to put on the market.
Once we have designed a car, found factories to build it, made a prototype, test run it and chosen the engine and the wheels and attracted funders to finance the production and launch of the vehicles, we then need to put our marketing strategy into operation, find dealers to sell the car and start getting interest from buyers. Once the orders start coming in, surely that is when we engage our business services to incorporate the company and do the accounts and legal. They can talk us through this so we can fulfil our responsibilities and check on the engine of our business regularly to know where we are.
From my earliest memory of learning, how to write, using an ink pen, times tables, spelling, grammar, history dates, geography, etc, I never saw the point of rote memorisation. I never mastered it. What was the point of memorising something to put into an exam paper, to forget shortly afterwards.
Now I see it is an exercise, in the same way that an artist will learn to drawer, use all the pencils, paint with oils, glaze and work with different mediums before they find their style and start doing their own work.
No one told me rote memorisation was going to be needed for so many processes in adult life. Surely, we need to learn rote memorisation AND meaningful learning. Why spend years at school to not carry anything with you? All those works of literature, poems, understanding ordnance survey maps and electrical circuits.
I could never remember my periodic table. That is the first time I realised I didn’t retain information if I wasn’t putting it into practice. Knowing gold was Au and water is H2o didn’t seem essential in order to become a doctor, to me.
However, at the American College in London (ACL), we were asked to do rote memorisation. We had 8 week modules containing 2 tests. We did art history, which I had done badly at in the English system (Exam papers asked for an understanding of history, no one said I had to remember dates. It was in the English unsaid. Doesn’t work for me. Just put it on the table please). At ACL, we went home to learn a time line of painting names, titles, dates and mediums and I could get them all correct the next day. Can I remember any now? Nope. Can I remember things I was taught in a meaningful way? Yes. Dangling modifiers are phrases that can be understood with two completely different contexts.
Rote memorisation, I now understand, is great for remembering login details such as passwords and PINs, learning new processes and remembering them, structure, organising thoughts, writing theses or reports. However, I think meaningful learning is very important and our schools are deprioritising it and children who do not see the point, and therefore, reject rote memorisation end up being excluded and segregated in the Special Needs department.
We ought to agree various protocols to make learning inclusive for all styles and development paths. Otherwise we get to university and find that meaningful-only learners struggle with processes and structure and rote-only learners struggle with putting new learning into practice and integrating it into their existing raft of skills and knowledge.
Knowing what learning style and the strengths and weaknesses I’ve ended up with, with hindsight, I wish teachers had defined the separate mental processes for rote and meaningful learning. In my experience teaching times tables or spelling by rote doesn’t work so they need to be taught meaningfully. On the other hand, learning dates for history or place names in Geography as well as reciting poetry or starting to play a musical instrument can all be achieved through rote learning.
It seems as if education has changed how we think away from meaningful thinking, as people overthinking a repetitive or manual job won’t be good for them. However, those going on to careers in law or medicine, particularly, need to develop far beyond the Periodic table and memory bank of laws to pursue brilliant careers.
In conclusion, if we teach both learning styles to children and choose which task is better suited to meaningful or to rote learning, why and what we will use them for later in life, there will be a huge increase in healthy outcomes from school and so much more could be achieved. There will then be much more inclusivity and diversity and this could lead to a whole new period of innovation.