Soft Machinations

Image:  The cover of The Soft Machine Volume Two (1969). Design by Byron Goto, Henry Epstein.

It’s not often that All Change Please! reads something about a politician and thinks: ‘Yes, by Jove, I think he’s got it’, but that’s exactly what happened in response to a recent piece about Ed Milliband in the Guardian when he was reported to state: “We need to ensure vocational education is seen as just as much of a gold standard as academic education.”

Obviously he’s been reading ‘Going For Gold‘!

At the same time All Change Please! also felt a smug sense of anti-Govian satisfaction when it read a report alerting everyone to the fact that what employers really, really want is not so much evidence of academic potential, but more experience of so-called ‘soft skills’.

Now All Change Please! has already written about so-called ‘soft subjects’, which, while assumed by the popular media to describe any subject with work-related content rather than so-called harder academic so-called  ‘deep thought’ subjects, is in fact simply a reference to any subject not on the Russell Group’s list as being appropriate for entrance to one of the small, elite group of universities they represent.

So what of so-called ‘soft skills’? According to Wikipedia:

‘Soft skills are personal attributes that enhance an individual’s interactions, job performance and career prospects. Unlike hard skills, which are about a person’s skill set and ability to perform a certain type of task or activity, soft skills relate to a person’s ability to interact effectively with coworkers and customers and are broadly applicable both in and outside the workplace.

[They…] include proficiencies such as communication skills, conflict resolution and negotiation, personal effectiveness, creative problem solving, strategic thinking, team building, influencing skills and selling skills, to name a few.’

Now one could be forgiven for supposing that it is the so-called soft subjects that deliver so-called soft-skills, but that does not necessarily follow. Just as it’s possible to teach academic subjects in non-academic ways, so it is also possible to teach soft subjects without giving enough emphasis to the development of soft skills.

Some serious machinations are therefore going to be needed to resolve the issue of how best to deliver soft skils.

Meanwhile the title of this post, ‘Soft Machinations’ is of course in the first instance a corruption of ‘Soft Machine’, a band that All Change Please! followed devotedly in the late 1960s when it should possibly (or more probably not) have been spending more time on its homework, and then in later life went on to teach in the school in Canterbury that the main members of the original band had first met at some years earlier – but that’s another story. The band’s name was taken from the book of the same name by William S. Burroughs, first published in 1961, in which the ‘Soft Machine’ is a name used for the human body. The main theme of the book concerns how external control mechanisms invade the body.

But what’s more interesting is that the book was written using the literary ‘cut up’ technique in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text. Most commonly, cut-ups are used to offer a non-linear alternative to traditional reading and writing, invented in the 1920s by the Dadaists and popularised by Burroughs and others in the 1960s.

Again, according to Wikipedia:

‘The ‘cut-up’ and the closely associated ‘fold-in’ are the two main techniques:
Cut-up is performed by taking a finished and fully linear text and cutting it in pieces with a few or single words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged into a new text. Fold-in is the technique of taking two sheets of linear text (with the same linespacing), folding each sheet in half vertically and combining with the other, then reading across the resulting page.’

Now, given the sense they make, I reckon this must very probably be the way that most government education policies and National Curriculum documents are put together?

Think do you what?

Invisible Learning

Last week the media were gleefully reporting the forthcoming conceptual art show at the Hayward Gallery, entitled ‘Invisible: Art about the unseen 1957 – 2012‘. The exhibition features works that contain content that essentially does not exist, such as an invisible ink drawing, and a police report of a stolen work of invisible sculpture.

So, what else could All Change Please! do but to proudly curate its own imaginary show mischievously entitled: Invisible Learning: A nostalgic look at the current state of formal education and the unseen absence of learning 1950s to 2012′.

The first work that greets the visitor to Invisible Learning – a triptych – convincingly illustrates the concept of obliterated learning. It begins with a blackboard with the chalk erased with a blackboard duster, effectively turning it into a whiteboard. Adjacent is another piece in which an electronic whiteboard is completely covered in black marker pen, effectively turning it into a blackboard. This is followed by the iconoclastic ‘Essay obliterated by red ink‘.

On display at the Hayward is Tom Friedman’s ‘1000 hours of staring‘ – a blank piece of paper the artist stared at for five years. In response, Invisible Learning presents us with a blank OCR Multiple Choice Question answer sheet which a pupil has spent five years staring at. This is followed by a reference to Yoko Ono’s set of instructions telling viewers to imagine they are looking at a work of art, presented in the form of the current National Curriculum documents and exam specifications telling teachers what their students should imagine they are learning.

While the Hayward exhibition contains ‘Invisible sculpture‘ – a plinth that Andy Warhol once briefly stood on, the next section of Invisible Learning includes a series of items of educational technologies that were once used briefly by famous people while at school.

So here is Bill Gates’ actual BBC micro that he first learnt to program on, the slide projector used to show art-history film-strips to the young David Hockney, and a piece of chalk originally thrown at Richard Branson when he wasn’t paying attention in a lesson.

Meanwhile, instead of Jeppe Heine’s ‘Invisible Labyrinth‘ on show at the Hayward – an invisible maze though which visitors ‘negotiate their way through a maze wearing digital headphones activated by infra-red beams’,  Invisible Learning visitors will experience the ‘Labyrinth of Learning‘ in which they negotiate their way through a maze of irrelevant subjects and examinations activated by the current government.

Based on John Cage’s famous 4′ 33″ ‘silent music’ piece, the Invisible Learning exhibition continues with 35’00” of ‘silent reading’, in which a bell is rung to denote the beginning and end of the piece.

Then, in contrast to Yves Klein’s 1961 ‘In the Void Room‘ which featured an immersive walk-in installation painted entirely white and lit by a series of neon lamps, Invisible Learning is proud to present a special immersive gallery in which visitors can wander through empty learning spaces and corridors.

In this disturbing space a single chair is provided for visitors to sit and recall the endless sense of isolation experienced day after day sitting in the classroom.

And in this special installation two lone teachers still drone on endlessly, even though their classes went home years ago.

The final work in this section contains another sculptural piece, provocatively entitled ‘Chairs on tables‘, ritualistically created in every learning space across the country at the end of every school day. One is forced to wonder in what aspects of later life this creative learning experience will prove invaluable.

The last gallery contains perhaps the most evocative work. At the Hayward, Teresa Margolles takes water that has been used to wash the bodies of murder victims in Mexico City’s morgue and uses it in a humidifier: ‘Visitors walk through a room just aware of this superfine mist and its relationship to people mainly killed by drug cartels…You feel it on your skin.”

In Invisible Learning, odours extracted from deserted school sports halls, cloakrooms, assembly halls and chemistry labs are similarly used in a series of humidifiers that create a superfine nauseous mist for visitors to walk through and become more intimately aware of the learning victims of formal educational institutions and teacher cartels.

Just as the Hayward exhibition prompts one to ask: ‘But is it Art?‘, so Invisible Learning forces us to question the current provision of formal schooling: `But is it Education?’

And while one-off entry to the Hayward Exhibition costs just £8, a season pass to the entire Invisible Learning experience costs up to £9,000 a year.

Meanwhile, to read an invisible article about Invisible Art, click on the invisible link below:

http:// www.                               .html

Photo credits: Flickr Commons: Pareeerica, Jeremy Gordon, Steve Berry, Stuart Pillbrow, Emily Bean, Naraoekim0801, gish700, Calm Drew, Shaylor, True British Metal.

Oh, Lordy Lord *

Yesterday I attended a seminar at the House of Lords, somewhere I’d never been before. In terms of the nation’s heritage, it’s grand and impressive inside, if somewhat reminiscent of a public school. It’s well worth a visit, especially as it gives one some important clues as to why politicians seem so stuck in the past rather than looking towards the future.

In many ways, the session I attended was little better. It was entitled ‘A New Vision for Design Education: is design learning at school fit for purpose?’, and organised by the ‘Associate Parliamentary Design & Innovation Group‘, whoever they are. It was a gathering of the great and the good in the field, all very eloquently expressing the purpose and benefits of design education. Here’s the question I asked the panel:

“All the values and aspirations expressed here today were initially identified and developed in the 1970s. It didn’t succeed then in scaling itself up and being embedded in the curriculum, so how and why should it now, particularly in the context of the current political ideology in which Schools Minister Nick Gibbs recently welcomed the decrease in the time that pupils studied subjects such as Art and Design, Design and Technology and Drama as ‘an encouraging trend’?”

Sadly no-one really responded to this challenge, although one of the panel did say something about it being important not to be pessimistic, which I regret to say I still am. No-one really said anything that had not been said already during the past 35 years. It was all largely about preparing students for life in the last quarter of the 20th Century rather than the first quarter of the 21st Century, and as a means of recruiting new designers for the old profession. The potential impact on design education of the rapid shift towards on-line learning, and how the industry itself will need to respond to the changing circumstances of a population being able to design and make things for themselves at a local level using CAD and 3D printers, was not mentioned.  And I didn’t notice anyone in the audience with an iPad, and neither was I aware of anyone providing a live commentary via Twitter.

On the positive side it was good to hear everyone essentially in agreement about the importance of design education, and an emerging consensus that a lot of the problem was that the message was not being co-ordinated and driven by a single body, though there were no suggestions as to who this might be, let alone any volunteers. Strangely no-one mentioned the fact that design education provides an almost perfect fit with the wider specification for what are currently referred to as 21st Century Skills.

However I did learn one thing I didn’t know before. Apparently no current member of parliament has the faintest idea what design is all about (OK, well we have all already guessed that). Except for one, who owns a 15% stake in his family wallpaper and fabric design business. Any idea as to who it might be? No? OK, here’s a clue:

* Lordy Lord – as in the expression used to “express frustration, exasperation, worry, or tiredness”. Pretty much sums up my response really.


Image credit: Oliver Quinlan