TEDxLondon 2011: Education Revolution

TEDxLondon: Education Revolution

Here we are again, one year later at another TEDx London event. This time the topic moved from the Millenium Goals to another no less ambitious: Education. To begin with the choice of venue couldn’t have been more appropriate considering the frequency with which the theme had been discussed in relation to creativity, engagement, experience and so on. The organizers competently transformed the Roundhouse in a (surprisingly comfy) auditorium hosting an audience of nearly a thousand people who came to witness what the speakers had to say about a supposed educational revolution, and specially in relation to Sir Ken Robinson’s views – him, a creative expert who led the British government’s 1998 advisory committee on creativity and cultural education who, back then, coordinated a comprehensive inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy.

In his introduction note Sir Robinson called for a thorough rethink of the educational system in the UK and beyond. He highlighted the necessity to transform the processes through which kids are taught in schools based not on a mechanic approach but one that is, according to him, personalized, creative, inspiring and which, above all, meets the community needs in the context of 21st century ‘modern economies’. So, the panel comprised of 17 speakers was, to a considerable measure, assembled to support this particular view. One that is useful as it helps to establish a clear line of sight separating the old paradigms from new alternative routes. To which extent these talks and the ideas they bring about offer effective alternatives or, at least, point to new possibilities is something that needs to be further examined.

Sir Ken Robinson calls for an overhaul of the education system in the UK

Let’s see for example the coalition government’s new policy in relation to educational reform in the UK. This month 24 new free schools set up by teachers, charities, education experts and parents will start operating in the country under a state-funded plan. The education secretary Michael Gove maintains that by handing power to the community to manage their children’s schools they are offering an opportunity to improve the level of education in areas where the current system is failing. The curricula is collectively agreed and built by all stakeholders and decisions concerning the budget are made independently from local governments. He also claims that prior to the set up of free schools, a very rigorous assessment process is put in place to ensure that the community have the necessary capabilities and resources to run them efficiently and with tangible gains over the current system. Despite Sir Robinson’s calls on educational reform bearing some semantic similarities to the Tory’s policy they pose several problems in my opinion: the first one is the availability of expertise to run the schools – remember the socio-economic divide between the north and south of England, for example. One cannot assume that adequate human resources are evenly distributed across the country, which would only exacerbate the problem and ultimately see schools closing down and as a result students would be left with fewer or no options available.

Head Teacher Mike Foley on an interview for BBC Radio4 demonstrated his preoccupation with the tendency of free schools to increase skewed intakes of students. According to him some catchments could attract a high number of privileged pupils whereas others would become pockets of underperforming students. “Motivation drops, and aspiration drops as well. In the end that will have an effect on results and it’s a downward spiral,” Mr Mike claims. Furthermore, the rhetoric employed by the government where words  such as ‘competition’ and ‘choice’ are extensively used is a clear indication that they are unashamedly pushing their neoliberal agenda in a dangerously haphazardly way. The fear is also that the privatisation of education would become only one step away since more deregulation and state withdrawal would be very likely to follow in the future should the government continue to pursue its current programme.

The other problem is the basis on which these special curricula will be designed. If on the one hand parents and students have more freedom to decide what they want to learn on the other governments loose the capacity to coordinate policies that, in theory, should aim at reducing inequality and offer stimuli in areas that are critical to socio-economic development. This assumption is based on the incapacity (or unwillingness) of free markets to self-regulate, contrary to what Friedmanite doctrine advocates. Another motive for worry is the religious affiliation of some communities and how that would filter through children’s education creating further polarization between social groups and communities as it currently happens in many parts of the United States.

The panel of speakers: students, practitioners and thinkers

Considerations such as the above were not discussed during the TEDx event for the simple reason the organization tries to be as neutral and non-partisan as possible, even when discussing a topic that is so intrinsically political such as education. Instead, the speakers presented cases and initiatives connecting creativity and technology with new possibilities for modes of learning and, to a certain degree, a concern with an epistemological question of what the new generations can/should learn. The points presented during the event were certainly valid: children, specially in deprived areas (and not only in the UK) have been increasingly disengaged despite the efforts made by policymakers and teachers either because the methods used in the classroom are failing to capture students’ imagination or because they feel the subjects taught are unrelated to their everyday lives – one example being the importance of ICT in young people’s attitudes toward information and socialization.

Goldie's anthem Inner City Life: from drum'n bass to education

DJ, producer and Jungle/Drum’n Bass godfather Goldie explained how he had had “an education out of school”. It was only when he dropped formal education and had the time to pursue his vision, in this case artistic expression, that he fulfilled his potential as an individual. He went on saying that his ideal of a schooling model would be so outrageous but every kid would nonetheless want to study there. His point, i.e. the combination of creativity and exploration as fundamental components of learning, was recurrent in most of the speeches during the day. The experiential element in these processes was gracefully demonstrated by scientist and filmmaker Max Whitby in a fun experiment involving a tin foil box and a tank filled with invisible gas, which ended with him inhaling it and delivering his last lines in a rather cartoon-esque voice. Tim Exile, also a musician, delivers an on-flight performance followed by a quick talk on his artistic practice where he highlights the importance of spontaneity in the process of learning/creating. Finally, Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, advocates the urgency in putting creativity into the heart of the learning experience and as a means of community-building through the involvement of its members in art-oriented activities.

Other discussions gravitated around issues like the decentralization of learning mechanisms and the transcendence of physical spaces (read schools) in favour of mobile, technology-supported platforms where knowledge can be simultaneously assessed and built. However, the talk that grabbed my attention the most was delivered by Ewan Mcintosh. He elegantly raised the question of a paradigmatic change based on not simply equipping students to be able to deliver solutions but, instead, to encourage them to interrogate what the problems that need solving are in the first place. In that he understatedly makes a call for establishing a new angle based on activities where individuals are, therefore, not problem solvers but  “problem finders” rather. I think he grasped the true nature of the challenge that awaits the future generations. That’s why, in my view, the ‘problem finders’ concept pretty much sums up the most relevant issues traversing education which, in turn, should lead to other critical, and even more urgent, debates which converge to ontological questions and the grand-narratives of the future, i.e. the long-term vision for genuinely sustainable economies at both national and global levels, and a viable, more equitable social contract that can promote truly functioning societies.

The educational revolution as discussed at TEDxLondon is relevant, but only insofar as it takes the opportunity provided by the severe shake-up of the  current economic foundations to ask fundamental questions about what kind of education we want and for what purposes? In other words, thinking of a future narrative that is progressive in a revolutionary way. The talks therefore provided a glimpse into a new scenario marked by technology, creativity and space for free-thinking. However, in the light of a chronic economic crisis battering developed countries new forms of education predicated on developing economies under more or less the same paradigms (e.g. factor-driven, efficiency enhancers and innovation-driven) will not suffice. There is an urgent need for truly radical-thinking at a cross-sectional level of societies involving educators, policymakers, economists, scientists and everyone else in between, to start an articulation (rather belatedly) of viable alternatives for a sustainable future.

Dan Roberts: "geeks will rule the world"

In that sense the proposed discussion about education revolution on TEDxLondon was perhaps overrated, considering the complexity of the issue and the sensitivities of stakeholders involved in this area. Nevertheless, we should probably bear in mind that the TED format is first and foremost an attempt to share knowledge and lead by example which is made possible by a group of dedicated volunteers. Even if it fell short of providing answers that some in the audience might have expected it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Evan Grant and his team of collaborators

[Education] Revolution = Radical Thinking

See you at TEDxLondon 2012



The typical latte cup from Climpson&Sons, crafted to perfection

Every time I wake up in the morning I feel an almost automatic urge to sponge up caffeine into my body. Without that my day simply doesn’t start. This acquired habit –or plain addiction, one would say – is particularly overwhelming on weekends when I could pretty much do with buckets of it. But my helpless dependence is not just about coffee itself; it has to do with the coffee shop too. Seeing familiar faces, checking the theatrical moves of the baristas, sitting down and watching the world go by for a while are all part of a ritual that has become more and more common in certain neighbourhoods. So, what to make of these places? What’s so special about them and why do people value their local, independent coffee shops so much?

Coffee shops are not just sites where one simply eats/drinks. These places should be understood in terms of agency and social production as well. Besides being devoted to a particular drinking habit, independent coffee shops are places where customers constantly produce interpersonal relationships, either face-to-face, or through other mediated forms. These people living in the ‘live-wild’ zones of global cities like London are primarily interested in [inter]play, exploration and invest a lot in cultural capital, thus, the ubiquity of books, newspapers, laptops and etc in these places. It could therefore be argued that, in some way, the independent coffee shop phenomenon in East London owns its success to an environment that is remarkably dynamic and pluralistic in social terms. Furthermore, coffee shops are able to offer a distinct service in a welcoming ambient that is affordable and highly self-gratifying.

What’s also quite interesting to observe is the importance of these spaces in creating a sense o locality, community and neighbourly sentiment. It is precisely this emotional bonding that, to a greater or lesser degree, works toward creating 3rd spaces, which are increasingly important in the contemporary urban landscape for they provide some sort of anchorage in environments often characterized by displacement, detachment and constant mobility of its agents/subjects.

Another way of complicating this idea is the recurrent privatisation of public space and the omnipresence of global brands. Richard Florida, Richard Lloyd, and Sharon Zukin, have similar arguments where the figure of ‘the creative’, ‘the artist’ and the ‘neo-bohemian’ have a significant role in the process of urban regeneration – in what could be described as an early stage of certain processes of gentrification – marked by partial, but sometimes total, substitution of small local business by chains. That’s why, in my opinion, the coffee shops are so special. They provide the space where certain kinds of socialities and practices are re-enacted and developed further as part of a strategy of actualization and self-entrepreneurship that is not possible in any standardized, mass-fabricated environment. They function beyond mere sites of commodity consumption (i.e. finality in Marxist terms) like the big chains. They capture the essence of a locale and add value to it – emotional and social value, as it were.

Clockwise from top left: 'Tina We Salute You', 'Climpson&Sons', 'Hurwundeki', 'Cofee@153': reading, chatting, browsing, looking...

Walter Benjamin’s anecdotal memories registered in Berlin Childhood: 1900 offer another interesting insight on the relation between ‘space-making’ and affect. In his explorations of Berlin he describes in detail his strategies to transform seemingly banality into extraordinary experiences in what could be translated into time-space appropriations:

“I had been looking for something that would have made the island entirely mine, that would opened it up exclusively to me. With a single feather I would have taken possession of it – not only the island but also the afternoon”.

Similarly, the denizens living in East London refer to their local amenities like bistros, pubs, second-hand stores, coffee shops and etc, as ‘my local one’. It is as if in such claims over geographically positioned assets lies a sense of comfort and belonging, intrinsically implied every time one stops by his/her ‘local coffee shop’ to have a sip on the thick, dark drink and perhaps a bite too. I realized that, quite often, these people are subjects in transition, away from home, postmodern diasporas coming from everywhere and with as diverse occupations as one could name: Finish textile designer; Brazilian interactive designer; Korean media student; Greek journalist; German filmmaker; Japanese working in 3D animation; British photographer; and so on and so forth. These types come to coffee shops not only because they have developed a peculiar taste for Arabica, but, because establishing a [bodily] presence in those places has become one important component of identity-making and style of life in the contemporary urban environment.

In its former incarnations, as in Cairo or Istanbul, coffee shops provided a background against which men would socialize, play, watch, listen to Arabic music, etc. Nowadays, it is more likely that people will make associations with the somehow clichéd and highly romanticized notion of the Parisian café evoked in the representations of late nineteen century ‘bohème’ found in modern literature and painting, where artists, writers and the like would idly congregate and be seen indulging in a hedonistic life style. This affect, bringing together nostalgia, romance, flânerie, consumption and sociality offers, in my view, a kind of continuity of narratives involving persons with either a developed aesthetic disposition, as stated by Bourdieu, or seeking to legitimize their position in the social structure. As a result, this milieu is marked by a kind of transubstantiation of stereotypical identities: the aspiring writer, seeking inspiration for a poem is substituted by the TV producer, laptop in hand, catching up with work emails; the struggling painter gives way to the PR consultant making phone calls while waiting for eggs Florentine; the accessories designer drinking skinny-latte with a friend takes the place of the bygone flapper. This picture develops a particular complexity when all banality and prosaicness of everyday events unfolding in coffee shops are re-framed by the panoptical view of the observer (whoever he/she might be) whose gaze – or flânerie, for that matter – guides him/her to increasingly loose categories. To put it another way, the variety of types one may encounter in these coffee shops seem to represent the epitome of postmodern urban diversity but, conversely, cannot even be categorized as such anymore as they bear overlapping identities (or a range of seemingly irreconcilable components forming their identities): the yummy mummy who used to play in a post-punk band during her teens and now runs a dotcom business from home; the antipode barista who has a degree in political sciences but also works in music festivals; the ever present figure of the hipster who is now pursuing a career in marketing; the marketing professional who is pursuing a career in video-art. The cornucopia of interests, hobbies, professions and activities is endless.

L'eau a La Bouche, the best spot for coffee and flânerie (not necessarily in this order)

Keith Tester offers an argument that interconnects two of the concepts already reviewed in this paper: one by Benjamin and the other by Baudelaire. He calls it the dialectical nature of ‘doing’ and ‘being’ and their relation with finding one’s personal truth. Tester maintains that whereas in Baudelaire’s work there’s an interplay and possibility of interchanges and construction of meaning, in Benjamin’s, on the other hand, the logic of capital eliminated these possibilities for mystery and discovery were substituted by the stark factuality of the commodity and the market. Therefore, what I observe in coffee shops is more of a residue of what that interplay between more or less well defined characters and categories used to be in the past. The negotiations in which the postmodern counterparts enter are far more complex, more problematic nowadays, I believe, considering how fragmented and volatile our cultural landscape has become in the aftermath of the post-industrial period.

A barista at Tina: I could swear I saw him playing a gig the week before

Places like ‘The Bridge’, on Kingsland Road; ‘Climpson&Sons’, on Broadway Market; ‘Tina We Salute You’, in Dalston; ‘Coffee@157’; ‘Hurwundeki’, on Cambridge Heath Road; ‘Taste of Bitter Love‘,  and many more, display clear signs of high reflexivity for they help produce and are at the same time produced by actors and agency. This combination of attitudes, tastes, and backgrounds create (generically speaking) a contrasting ambient imbued with an unique aura that is capable of retaining, at least to some extent, the bare essence of some long gone traditions where decompressed time-space, theatre, flânerie and authenticity were all but elemental components of the coffee-drinking experience in pre-commodified, low-mediated urban environments. Therefore, it is contrasting because independent coffee shop as spaces do suggest the possibility to accommodate both low-pace (although only momentarily) and nostalgia with connectivity, interplay, and intensive exchange, all at the customer’s sole discretion.

The remaining question now is no longer single or double, but skinny, soya or decaf?


Protesters try to get their point across with riot police

At the end of day on the 1st of April 2009 my routine was broken by a complete disruption of bus services departing from London Bridge station. Caused by the G20 demonstrations that took place that day across Bishops Gate, Threadneedle Street  and the surrounding area around the Bank of England. It left me with no option but to go back home walking. I knew that at least it would give me the chance to check the demonstrations a bit closer.

Arriving at the East end of Cornhill I decided to walk down the street to watch a bunch of protesters facing a line of riot police officers, moments before they clashed. It was all a bit too fast and confusing. As I approached I saw a number of objects being thrown at the police, who in turn started advancing against the aggressors aided by tear gas. In a split second, the whole hell broke loose. Suddenly, I found myself looking at a good two hundred people screaming and running in my direction, so I thought it would be sensible to turn around and run too. It was in that moment that, on my left, I spotted another group of Metropolitan Police officers around a man lying on the floor but I didn’t have much time to think, just run and get myself out of that mess.

Met Pol officers finally persuade demonstrators to retreat

Back in Bishops Gate things were a bit less tense, although there was an incredible number of Met Pol officers, Riot Police and all kinds of security personnel getting in position. It looked like as if they were really preparing for a battle. Only then I started to actually notice the people taking part in the demonstration and realised that they too were a pretty heterogeneous crowd: punks, homeless, students, environmentalists, agitators and a whole lot of ordinary people who, like me, were extremely pissed off with banks and the government for the economic cataclysm they had created. Many broken windows and beatings later I finally arrived at the sacrosanct refuge of my home, and started pondering about what I had just witnessed. Sadly, the next day I found out that the man I saw lying on the pavement had actually died as a result of head injuries when he was violently pushed to the floor by the police.

Summits attended by heads of state are always likely to attract demonstrations. These groups of people take that as an opportunity to have their voices heard amidst the intensive media coverage that usually characterize such events. The tactics vary though. Some might try to cause as much disruption as possible in an attempt to ‘amplify the signal’, whereas others just do it for the sole purpose of defying authority and the establishment. Either way, it is thanks to independent intermediaries that some truth may emerge out of the extremely diffuse picture generated by that kind of event. The talented London-based, Scottish photographer Jane Stockdale has just done that. She put herself in the cross-fire between police and demonstrators and managed to capture arresting (in the figurative sense, almost) images showing the animosity with which authorities tackled the situation, but also the defiance of some individuals who artfully dressed themselves to look like jihadists or Sinn Féin hardliners.

Intimidating look with a bit of sense of humour

Pause for a fag between clashes with the police

However, it is not uncommon to come across situations where both text and image are edited/manipulated, making for an official version that works in favour of vested interests, be it governmental, corporative or both. For example, Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernnays, the pioneer of strategies of social control through Public Relations had among his clients industrial conglomerates such as GM as well as the US government. President Roosevelt himself requested Edwards’ services following widespread social unrest caused by the big crash in 1929 (anyone spotting similarities here?). Through manipulative strategies entrenched in Freudian psychoanalytical principles he even convinced the American people to back a military coup in Guatemala just so his client, United Fruit, could continue operating its exploitative banana business with the aid of ‘friendly’, pro-US  government.

Jane Stockdale (in the middle) disrupting the DJ set during the book launch at KK Outlet

Examples of mass manipulation and induced behavioural change are aplenty but it is remarkable that these strategies would probably not succeed without the extensive help of mainstream media. Therefore, resistance only makes sense if it too attracts media attention, or at least, the attention of independent mediatic actors like film makers and photographers. That’s why the collection of images such as the ones Jane Stockdale has shot during the demonstrations preceding the G20 summit can make a valuable contribution to create a more complete and veritable picture of similar events. To all of you who were not there being hammered or ‘kettled’ by the police, her new book ‘I Predict a Riot’ is a good (and safe) option to check what happened during that day in the comfort of your sofa or local coffee shop.

Available now at KK Outlet. Move, move, move!!!


Intriguing pieces

Last week was marked by another London Design Festival which swept the capital with events and exhibitions (allegedly) dedicated to design, in all its glory. Running since 2003, the event has grown from strength to strength, and established the city of London as one of the main design stages in the world along Milano, Köln and New York. It also points to the long course the design business in the UK has taken since the early eighties when the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, recognized the potential for value creation (and more tax revenue, of course) by publicly urging designers, and the concerned organizations, to promote themselves more vigorously.

Poster for The Anti Design Festival

During this period we witnessed the consolidation of fundamental cultural changes in Western societies originated mostly in the aftermath of WWII up until the late 70s. Besides the likes of civil-rights movement and feminism, another social transformation occurring at that time was the emergence of a new category of consumer citizens who fueled the economies in the West through a new, and often extravagant attitude towards material culture, also known as ‘conspicuous consumption’. It was in the same period that groups of intellectuals started interrogating these phenomena mostly affecting the middle-class strata, developing the well-known post-structuralist theories (Deleuze, Guattari, Baudrillard, etc) and influencing artistic movements such as the Situationist International, helping to form the culturally collapsed plasma of post-modernity in all its myriad of expressions.

Works presented at Londonewcastle project, part of LADF

Installation at Londonewcastle project

Wall installation at Londonewcastle project

It became clear however that during the last week the current (or old?) model based on continuous market and economic expansion has reached its point of utmost saturation in all senses. Firstly because the economic boom of the 90s and early 2000, which contributed to a massive surge in consumption, not only created a demand for increasingly distinctive design as a means of keeping abreast of competition but it consequently lured hordes of students into design schools since, creating a big imbalance and steep drop in relevant, meaningful creative output, paradoxically. Secondly, the ‘superficial coating’ strategy that the vast majority of companies tend to adopt, does nothing but lither our lives with dull products, bad solutions and even worse experiences. The result is that the side effects of conspicuous consumption is a beast that needs to be continuously fed and the social, environmental and above all, cultural costs are enormous.

Idea Generation Gallery artworks and installations

That is why, out of all the exhibitions/events I have seen during LDF, the ‘Anti Design Festival’ was perhaps the least obtuse as it tried to pull visitors from their ‘overly commercial spell’ by introducing the works of designers-turned-into-cultural-agitators to the public. Originally curated by Neville Brody (whose book ‘The Graphic Language of’ I am eternally indebted to) the event took several locations around Bethnal Green road, Hoxton and Liverpool St, displaying all sorts of artworks that, in one way or another, tried to raise questions about the critical state of contemporary material culture and cultural intermediation. The manifesto-style published on their website might sound a bit naïve in certain points but the overall message is simple: Western societies’ current system of values have reached breaking point. The meritocratic mentality pushed forward by America and its glorification of yuppie culture has done little to alleviate people’s anxieties where the equation money = consumption = happiness takes a manicheist dimension. Even worse, the impact of the ideal of success has not only contributed to create a constant state of frustration that can be miraculously treated by reification through consumption and status but also created a self-harming, suicidal ecosystem. The result we can attest by visiting design festivals such as the LDF: redundant variations on the same, exhausted themes, lack of critique, apathy and infinite dullness at the service of an over-complacent system whose sole objective is to increase profits.

Piece on display at KK Outlet

However, thanks to a minority of creatives there were a few examples of good, inquisitive thinking translated into products, solutions or just concepts and this is the attitude the organisers should be fostering by being more selective and rigorous in their criteria when choosing exhibitors. Truly lateral thinking and risk taking come at a price, we know, but it is certainly one worth paying.

Design that engages. Tent London and KK Outlet

Subversive rug by French subversive collective Bazooka