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Children as Artful Leaders

by James on July 16th, 2013

I work with both children and adults, from babies to doctoral students. Sometimes creative or educational work with children is seen as ‘less than’ work with adults. Less serious, less important, with less to be learned or gained for society as a whole. I think that comes through an assumption that we are teaching the children to be or know something that already exists, to be like us, only less so. It comes from an idea of education being about filling up the empty vessel or shaping the malleable form that childhood is seen to represent.

What happens when we stop thing about learning in that kind of top-down way? What happens when we research the value of child-led, artful approaches to learning; when we come to appreciate that each child is born with all the creative capacities that he or she needs to learn, that they come ready to go, ready to learn through a sensory, affective and cognitive relationship with their environment, and the loving support of the adults who care for them?

What happens is that we are given an opportunity to see value in difference, that we are caused to alter our thinking from children being somehow ‘less than’ to re-placing them onto a continuum with the rest of us. My action research work with 5x5x5=creativity and work carried out through Creative Ecology with teaching staff, children and parents, has shown me the benefit of supporting children to lead their own learning, doing so through dialogue with their social (each other, artist, parents, teachers), ecological (plants, animals, weather, rivers, woodland), and cultural (family, school, town, museum) environment.

As 5x5x5=creativity’s research has shown, children become much more engaged in their learning as a result of being supported to lead it, excited by using what they were born with, doing what they are good at, and being encouraged to do so. They develop greater confidence as learners, show increased empathy and respect for difference, are better able to both think independently and creatively, and to work as part of a group.

My work with disabled people, paying attention to the social model of disability, and as an artist exploring identity and the body, tells me that we are all equal in capability and capacity. Equal and different. Our needs are all different, and if those needs are not met by the society in which we live, then our opportunities to flourish are diminished – we are disabled. Again, disabled people are not ‘less than’ non-disabled people, we are all on a continuum of need. I could write a whole post about how if all of the binary distinctions made within western society were replaced with continuums (e.g. of sexuality or gender) they would remove the us and them, normal and other, that sets us against each other and leads people to face barriers to equality of opportunity , rather than experiencing themselves as equally important parts of a positively functioning system. The central point I’m trying to make through all this, is that children teach us that we are who we need to be, that we all have something important to offer the world, we just need to be supported to develop and apply our innate capacities and abilities, in order to blossom.

In June I took part in the inaugural gathering of The Artful Leadership Collective, a group of men and women from across the world who are excited by, and committed to, working in artful ways to promote forms of leadership which in turn promote the development of more just and sustainable societies.

At this stage it might make sense to describe what I mean by artful, and by creative. When I talk about creativity I mean the way that each of use relates to, perceives and expresses our vision of, the world of which we are a part. I am an artist and one of my ways is to make. You may be a scientist, musician or mother and express your creativity, the you that emerges through relationship with the world around you, through a variety of other ways. We are all creative. We may not all be artists in our working lives, but that doesn’t make any one of us less creative than another. As for Artful, I’ll quote Chris Seeley and Ellen Thornhill from their recent report Artful Organisation for Ashridge College

We believe that cultivating artful ways of knowing in the world – dance, film-making, improvisation, music, poetry, photography, sculpture, storytelling, visual arts, writing – is essential if we are to imagine futures where we organise and structure our activities sustainably. Abstracted rational thinking is also important, but we assert that on its own this is not enough to get us out of the dangerous global mess we have made for ourselves (and many speculate that it is the domination of these more linear ways of thinking that have led to such a precarious situation arising). Instead, we need to develop a healthier blend of ways of knowing, working and being that include:

  • our embodied experience and sharp decisive minds;
  • our abilities to pick apart the details and our glimpses of seeing whole systems;
  • our sense of ourselves as being fully dependent on natural planetary ecosystems and our capacity to structure human organisations to meet our vital needs fairly, simply and well.

So when we come to know in artful ways, we are using arts processes to explore and discover, to notice and reflect. This time it is about using art, or the arts, but it isn’t about the ‘art world’, it isn’t about the art market or even about being ‘good’ at art. It is about using artful ways to explore the world and to come to know our place within it, through our bodies, senses, imaginations, emotions and intellect – through relationship with all that we are.

When we were on our week long gathering, we spent a lot of time making and reflecting, dancing, drawing, writing and talking; talking about why this kind of work is important, and what difference it makes when people practice in artful ways within education, leadership and organisational development. What I took from all of this (amongst many things) was that we were asking ‘What happens when we reclaim those aspects of us which we were born with and which we were taught to hide or cast aside in favour of a more limited, intellectualised way of knowing the world? What happens when we look at what babies are born with, and what toddlers use in their play – those innate capacities to make sense of the world through movement, song, story, smell, taste, touch, mark-making? What happens when we say art isn’t just for the gallery, art is a tool for living and knowing fully?’

Learning alongside children I can understand what many adults have lost. Not lost forever, but lost confidence in. The usual and understandable comment that I get when I work with adults is ‘I’m not creative’ or ‘I can’t draw’. We are taught that creativity is only for people working in the ‘creative industries’, and we are taught that art is only for those who can draw, paint, or sculpt in certain ways. I know from the children that we are all born creative, and I know from them also that when we are taught to value all of who we are; to learn with all that we are, then we learn as a part of an interconnected system, a system that values difference and connection, justice and empathy, and in which we feel we belong.

I believe that rather than being seen as ‘less than’, children need to be seen as leaders in terms of where we need to go next as a society. Children can show us who we really are at heart, as long as we catch them before our education system has taught them to sit down, be quiet and discard big chunks of who they are and how they know. I also believe that by supporting each individual within a community to become more fully themselves, more confident, more happy, more empathic, that we would develop more happy, healthy societies. And crucially in this era of ecosystemic collapse, I believe by using artful means to enable children and adults to learn, within the context of place, that whole societies could come to know themselves through relationship with their ‘environment’; empowered to make positive changes in their lives, through a sense of responsibility for and kinship with the more than human world.

Recent sessions that I’ve led with groups of artists and educators at The Holburne Museum for 5x5x5=creativity, and Consultants in Leadership and Storytelling at Hawkwood College, for The Centre for Narrative Leadership, and previously with PHd students in Organisational Change at Ashridge College, have all been based on this idea of a systems-based approach to learning, where individuals are supported to develop and present their authentic selves within a group, through artful means. The resulting conversations and reflections on the group’s experiences have been rich and revelatory.

Chris Seeley and I are also currently working on a book, to investigate, though our experience as artists and facilitators within educational settings, what happens when artful ways of knowing are re-placed into  work, community and personal contexts. Being artful is a serious business. Seriously joyful, playful and important. We need to be artful if we are to develop leaders amongst both our young and not so young people, who can guide our society into a future based on interconnection and reciprocity.

‘Children (and adults) need the freedom to appreciate the infinite resources of their hands, their eyes and their ears, the resources of forms, materials, sounds and colours. They need the freedom to realise how reason, thought and imagination can create continuous interweavings of things, and can move and shake the world.’      Loris Malaguzzi

(taken from Researching Children Researching the World: 5x5x5=creativity, with a small addition in brackets from me…)

  1. Doug Paxton permalink


    You are such a blessing! Thanks for expressing and living into this non-binary approach to learning, creativity and life. Spending time in June with you and the others who are “cultivating artful ways of knowing in the world” was healing, illuminating and challenges me to trust the example you provide below:

    This essence/teaching/wisdom/truth is striking: “children teach us that we are who we need to be, that we all have something important to offer the world, we just need to be supported to develop and apply our innate capacities and abilities, in order to blossom.”

    Here’s to blossoming my friend, and fostering it all around us!

    • I really appreciate your kind words and thoughts Doug, it means a lot to me, thank you

  2. I’d love to be part of a future group like this… are there groups like this in London?

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