The difference between teaching and learning: Participatory art and the skills agenda

The value of participatory art in informal education has long been recognised. People who take part in such projects can gain all sorts of technical, practical, intellectual, creative and life skills. Many organisations working in the field know that from experience and have wanted to show it convincingly to politicians and the educational profession.

For the past two years, a group of community organisations from the UK, Spain, Poland, Greece and Bulgaria have been exploring how to relate what people learn through their projects to EU Key Competencies and Employment Skills. The short video above gives a good idea of the thinking involved. The SILO Partnership’s work was supported by researchers at Liverpool’s Institute of Cultural Capital. Among its valuable results is a comprehensive toolkit that will be useful to anyone needing to demonstrate clear learning outcomes of their work.

Still, this approach has its drawbacks, not least in the time needed to record individual progress. Whilst structured assessment is important in more formal contexts, I worry that it might encourage policy-makers to underestimate the value of informal learning. So, when I was invited to give a keynote at the SILO programme’s closing conference, I spoke not only about the many skills that people gain through participatory arts practice but also about why it is different and what might be lost in making it too much like college:

Sometimes people participating in an arts project are conscious that they are learning, because an artist or a workshop leader or another participant is showing them how to do something. But mostly they are learning without thinking about it, because they are caught up in the moment, focused on the creative work and its ideas, concerned with the story they are telling or the feelings they’re exploring, or concentrating on doing something difficult because it is needed for the project.

For those reasons, participatory art is a very effective space for learning. Since there’s no programme or curriculum, people make their own course, led by their interest and enthusiasm. They learn better by following their interests, curiosity and being in charge of their journey rather than being instructed or taught. We forget most of what we’re taught. We remember what we’ve learned.

Click here for the full text of my talk at the SILO Conference in Liverpool on 24 August 2016.

With thanks to all the organisations in the SILO partnership for inviting me to speak: