Testing Times: Patiently Waiting for the Unforeseen

Brad Haseman

This presentation, originally delivered at Tate in 2012, explores the role and contribution the world’s major arts and cultural institutions can play in addressing the decline in children’s creative thinking

Image of a Worlds Together T-Shirt

Image taken during the registration of Worlds Together 2012

© Kwame Lestrade

The cover story from Newsweek in October 2010 headlined the problem: ‘a Creativity Crisis’! It was reporting on research which showed that in 1990, American children’s creative thinking scores began to fall and have been moving downward ever since. Even as IQ scores have risen during that period, creative thinking scores have decreased most significantly for kindergarteners through to third graders. 1 It is quite right to draw this research to the world’s attention for this decline has serious implications, especially in a world where ‘creativity’ is held up as a core 21st-century capability and an essential ‘leadership competency’ of the future.

Not surprisingly the search is on to identify just why this is happening. It is hard to miss the fact that during the period that scores have been dropping ‘the US educational system has implemented standardised testing to pursue measurable outcomes’, a move which has, in fact, failed to increase outcomes in creative thinking. Kim concludes that to reverse this decline ‘the United States should reclaim opportunities for its students and teachers to think flexibly, critically and creatively. Standardisation should be resisted.2 

This presentation picks up on Kim’s conclusions but with a particular focus on the role and contribution the world’s major arts and cultural institutions can play in addressing this situation. After a brief account of the dominant logic driving knowledge production and knowledge transfer in Australia (and in most Western countries), I want to identify a fundamental driver of creativity – the disruptive power of the unforeseen. The presentation will conclude with some thoughts about how arts education, and particularly cultural institutions such as galleries, libraries, archives and museums, may contribute to the task of engendering creative engagement and thinking for young people.

We should start this discussion on a strong positive note. There is overwhelming evidence to show that our communities hold arts education in high regard so that, in Australia, for example, a national survey conducted two years ago revealed that 90% of the population believe that the arts are an important part of the education of every Australian.3 The strength of such public sentiments should not be underestimated as we seek to redirect the priorities and practices of our educational systems to improve creative learning for young people.

Western systems for the production, acquisition and transfer of knowledge

Let’s begin by reviewing the systems we have developed in the West to create, acquire and disseminate knowledge. Two complementary systems manage and control this knowledge brokering: research and education. In advanced economies research drives knowledge creation, while learning, especially in the compulsory years, is conducted through the sophisticated processes of schooling. It is the machinery of schooling which takes care of knowledge acquisition, application, transfer and distribution. Both research and educational institutions (such as schools in the compulsory years of schooling) have well accepted regimes of ‘truth’ which determine what is acceptable and what is unacceptable for those who work there. The processes which constitute the machinery of research and the machinery of schooling operate across three phases.

The machinery of research

The research process is not a haphazard one. It is a mature process of enquiry with protocols established over the course of centuries which determine whether the research meets accepted quality standards. It all starts with the researcher asking ‘What do I need to know?’ Whether you are part of a research team seeking a million-pound grant or someone starting a PhD journey, the process is essentially the same. You start with a literature review, find the gap in the literature and devise a research question that fits that gap in the literature. Of course the question may evolve and modify but basically that’s how researchers commence, by establishing a question or problem which drives the whole research project. With the motivating statement ‘What do I need to know?’ (note the question mark which signals that research is actually an enquiry into the unknown) comes the expectation that this enquiry will make an original contribution to knowledge.

Once you have that research question, you solve it with all the vigour and confidence you can muster. Of course finding out ‘what I need to know’ is a highly disciplined and structured affair. Effective research delimits the world under investigation and tightly manages variables so that inferences and conclusions can only be drawn through what the social scientist John Law calls a methodology of ‘high hygiene’.4 At all times the processes of research are subjected to ruthless scrutiny so that rigor is guaranteed.

Finally when the researcher has uncovered something new, the value of this new knowledge needs to be tested. Any new contribution to a discipline must meet widely understood and shared standards and be tested through peer review. Passing the credibility test of peer review is essential before findings can be widely disseminated and proclaimed.

The machinery of schooling

If the machinery of research addresses knowledge creation, the machinery of schooling manages knowledge acquisition and knowledge transfer. The machinery of schooling follows broadly similar processes, although there are important differences. Most often schooling starts with a question too – a determination about ‘What do young people need to know?’ In most educational systems the answers to this question are set out in formally approved and regulated curriculum documents drafted at the local, state or national level. After decades of experimentation by centralised curriculum developers, accreditation bodies across the globe publish curriculum documents which look and feel remarkably similar. In every case the curriculum is invested with the intentions and purposes set by that external body – there are few opportunities for young learners to introduce their pressing questions. In addition the curriculum prescribes standards for student achievement. 

Once a central educational authority has decided what young people need to know, the machinery of schooling then provides guidance and advice to teachers on how they can achieve acceptable learning outcomes.  Within the current schooling systems, which are increasingly characterised by the standardised curriculum, rote memorisation, and nationalised testing (Plucker), learning is closely managed in an effort to guarantee a high predictability of learning outcomes. Lessons follow a linear and almost mechanical sequence, so that learning accrues, over time, like money in the bank.

This has been dispiriting for many teachers trying to resist ever-increasing direction around curriculum content and mandated models of learning design. For teachers who believe a core function of their job is to engage and connect their students with the demands of a national curriculum, then the imposition of template driven, ‘one size fits all’ lesson plans fail to value their teaching skills and grounded knowledge of the classroom context. One manifestation of a mandated learning design is the publication of centrally directed ‘teaching scripts’: instructions teachers are to follow in the hope of guaranteeing national consistency in educational delivery . These scripts, written to emulate effective teaching and learning, are being promoted in many parts of the world. To illustrate I have found one of these ‘teaching scripts’ currently circulating in Queensland, Australia and what follows are the instructions (the script) teachers are asked to follow. Teachers are dutifully expected to read the following to their class. Oh and by the way, it is called ‘Direct Teaching’:

Explain that for the national test, students will be required to engage in individual timed writing. So students will complete a Quickwrite at the start of each lesson.

Read the following steps of the Quickwrite process to students:

  • Read the writing prompt.
  • Recount a personal experience, written as a diary entry.
  • Without assistance, write uninterrupted for three minutes.
  • Begin writing immediately.
  • Read through your text and reflect on your ideas.

Display a writing prompt for the class. For example, ‘My friend …’

Remind students that …

  • The author of a personal recount makes vocabulary choices to express particular ideas about time and place, people and relationships, and issues and events.
  • They must work independently to write a paragraph responding to the prompt in their notebooks.
  • They are to use a legible and fluent handwriting style.

Allow students three minutes to complete their writing.

‘You have three minutes to start your writing – Start NOW!’

Such approaches to classroom instruction are defended on the grounds that they provide support for new and inexperienced teachers who, by following the script, are able to efficiently deliver decent learning experiences for students. Advocates tend to skate over the limited notion of education that is embodied in these scripts which take no account of differences between individual students and care little that the vital role the imagination plays in expressive activities is diluted in such an empty three minute writing exercise. 

The final phase in the schooling process is driven by the question ‘How we will know how students know what they need to know?’ Currently the answer is to be found in the comprehensive regimes of national testing that determine which students meet the standards and which do not. When results are published, almost inevitably schools are ranked on the basis of their students’ performance and in some systems threats are made and sanctions imposed for those institutions considered to be failing young people. The spotlight also falls on teacher ‘quality’ and multiple national standards for teaching competence have been developed which teachers need to demonstrate. In this environment many schools have learned that success lies in anticipating tests, controlling learning through central planning and limiting experimentation, and standardising instructional methods. It is not my intention here to build an argument on the dangers of standardisation; others have done that work already and from as early as 1927 (Shayer, Berliner, Gallagher). Instead I want to draw our attention to an illusion created by a system of national testing: namely that what is important to know can be identified in advance (and for every child in the country) and that it is possible to predict and produce successful learning outcomes for all.

So far I have outlined the two systems of knowledge brokering, the apparatus of research and of education, and in both the emphasis is on controlling variables: those dynamics which cause instability and uncertainly.

There is however one significant difference between the machinery of research and the machinery of schooling. Despite being systematic and disciplined, the research process is designed to identify and capture the unforeseen: those moments of discovery and surprise which result in the creation of new knowledge. In a very real sense, researchers deliberately and hygienically control their world so that the new, that which is original, emerges in a eureka moment of great excitement.

Such moments of emerging discovery and clarity are common in art-making as well. One example from the sculptor Henry Moore captures it well: ‘I sometimes begin a drawing with no preconceived problem to solve … But as my mind takes in what is so produced, a point arrives where some idea becomes conscious and crystallises, and then control and ordering begins to take place’.5Curiously then the structured machinery of research, just like artistic and creative practice, actually seeks out the surprising and the unforeseen. In fact the very purpose of a disciplined research design is to produce the unexpected, to disrupt what is currently known, and so interrogate an imagined hypothesis which may, or may not, explain the world a little better.

Unfortunately, as it is currently functioning, the machinery of schooling has little tolerance for the unforeseen, for that which cannot be predicted. Instead the rules of linear learning and standardisation apply in ways which degrade the art of teaching and dilute the sophistication of the teacher. Teaching scripts are proliferating because they offer the false promise of ‘teacher proof’ instruction. At their worst they suggest that a teacher can be anyone who can read the lesson script aloud and who only needs to understand a single lesson planning structure: tell them what you’ll teach them; teach them; tell them what you taught them!

The importance of the unforeseen

For all the standards, measurements, z scores and rankings, the return on educational investment remains poor. The dull predictability of this linear learning is stifling the creative and imaginative energy which lies at the heart of a successful education system and can be seen as one explanation why, after the vast sums spent on education, learning outcomes have improved little, with some evidence to suggest they have actually slipped (Shayer). As we have seen, when it comes to measures of creative thinking, the tests meant to improve outcomes have failed. Clearly these ‘testing times’ deeply trouble teachers, students, parents and communities who expect more from their educational systems.

Within this current framework, educational authorities need to acknowledge and value more highly the productive power of the unforeseen. For the unforeseen brings with it a visceral response, surprise and confusion, an emotional gear-change which connects learners with the aesthetic dimension of rich learning, especially in the arts and creative endeavour. The aesthetic lies behind ‘the need to know’, that all important springboard which propels students into ‘flow’, their brains aggressively and imaginatively sorting the mess and drawing personal meanings.

One way of welcoming the unforeseen is for schools to actively engage in arts and cultural education where open ended enquiry and multiple solutions can live together comfortably, and unsettle the easy certainty of right or wrong answers. This takes us to one of the core provocations of this presentation. Those seeking opportunities for rich student learning need to disrupt the contemporary machinery of schooling by finding ways for students to encounter the unforeseen in and around their classrooms.

There are of course many ways of doing this: from the small and local (the teacher who confessed to me that she injects jokes and songs into the classroom scripts she is expected to deliver!) to the grand and the global.

The archive as a site for the unforeseen

The grand and the global – this is where you at this conference come in: the grand and the global. Teachers and cultural workers are positioned between the child and the archives and repositories that constitute the wisdom of our global tribes. Importing the world into the classroom, the world in all its complexity, messiness and uncertainty, is one way to upset simplistic linear notions of human meaning making. My proposition is that, with careful design and management, cultural institutions can play a key role in disrupting the mechanics of schooling as I have outlined them. There has never been a greater need for this, and it requires political intent and creative intensity.

Many of the global archives, including those of the Tate, Royal Shakesphere Company, the British Museum and the National Theatre, are coming to terms with just what disrupting linear learning may mean.  Many in the galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) sector still understand their holdings as ‘modern archives’; essentially nineteenth century repositories where museums and galleries are location based places which hold and display physical objects. Visitors observe and experience the real object or work with its unique, potent aura. In the shadow boxes of these modernist archives, collections are organised around the concept of objectivity, exhibiting objects in ways which established and built coherent thematic groupings from which whole species and discipline boundaries could be established.

One immediate challenge is to recognise that we must now shift our thinking from the paradigm of the modern archive established in the nineteenth century to what John Hartley calls the twenty-first century ‘network archive’.6 For Hartley, the network archive, such as YouTube, is digital, contains virtual objects that may or may not be real, strives for universal accessibility, and is characterised by users who co-create from usable and re-usable content. While the modern archive is object-based the network archive is user-based. Hartley summarises the shift from the modern archive to the network archive thus “from essence to experience, real to sign, original to reproduction, expertise to DIY”. 7

Hartley’s proposition is particularly relevant when it comes to our current challenge, for if we are seeking to use archives to unsettle the linear logic of contemporary schooling, we will need to move beyond understanding the archive as a reservoir of objects, digitised and ready to be consumed along some predictable pathway of knowledge acquisition. The challenge is to move from fixed display to design; to reframe understandings of the archive by designing open-ended and playful experiences around them which are inherently unstable and inject emergence and ambiguity into the child’s encounter with them. To design opportunities for learners/users to encounter the unforeseen which can only be resolved through their creative thinking and action? This demand for co-creative participation captures a distinctive element of the network archive; it is a playable archive.

The modern archive in transition

Are current curators and learning designers making the transition from their existing modern archive to a re-imagined network archive? The evidence from my own online review of the way the world’s leading cultural institutions are preparing their holdings for educational purposes indicates there is quite a way to go. I reviewed a modest number of world archives from across Australia, Asia, the USA and Europe. Certainly there are wonderful exceptions but the overwhelming texture of them can be characterised as follows. They hold hundreds of thousands of digital objects, mostly accessed for free, and typically accompanied by basic factual explanations. Most commonly, users are channelled along linear and pre-set pathways; there is a defined logical arc to the line of enquiry set for learners to follow. Closed questions lead these learning pathway commonly presented in highly structured and sequenced resource pamphlets and worksheets.  For younger learners the cognitive challenges are of a low order such as ‘fill in the blanks’, ‘recall’, ‘observe’ and  ‘tick the box’. Imagined activities tend to centre on writing: diary entries and letters home. Online interactivity is possible via blogs and forums but participation is unenthusiastic for the most part – single posts or threads which have been inactive for weeks. The capacity for learners to upload, as well as download data, fundamental for co-creative exchange, is limited to a small number of sites. Finally the internal search engines for most sites are clumsy and coarse, lacking both the acuity and creative reach to suggest connected threads for learners to pursue.

This has not been a comprehensive review but it does suggest that the move to open, playful, connected and co-creative drivers of engagement, so necessary to engender the unforeseen and the unanticipated, is not at the centre of contemporary learning design in the GLAM sector. At present, user engagement is poor with few opportunities for interactivity or agency. Undoubtedly this will change over time but it will require visionary institutional policies and staff who are committed to allowing space for the unforeseen to emerge. Quietly I do wonder whether education systems, so enamoured of controlled and linear learning are allowing their ‘best’ teachers to be seconded to these institutions and ironically, those most capable teachers, could actually impede the much needed reforms discussed here. Perhaps teachers, with their detailed knowledge of the curriculum and individual student needs, are best working alongside artists and teaching-artists as learning designers who arguably are more comfortable and adept with expressive outcomes and tolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty in creative encounters?

To summarise I am proposing that for archives to play a much needed and potent role in dynamising contemporary education, two core principles need to be embraced by the GLAM sector. Firstly the sector needs to move to the concept of the network archive (which does not mean rejecting the benefits and value of the modern archive) to produce open-ended and unforeseen possibilities for discovery. Secondly network archives need to feature co-created and co-curated activities for learners across the globe. Such activities will encourage learners to create and connect with each other, their teachers and their communities and draw on rich design, learner mobility and social learning.

These are strange and fearful times for many arts educators who stand to see the decades of classroom practice which developed child centred learning and project based learning easily dismissed. Many can be forgiven for concluding that the regime of instruction described above is so much at odds with how creative education works, that those who define and sponsor the current machinery of schooling will never be able to understand or accept the principles and poetics of effective cultural learning despite the falling creative thinking scores American educators have witnessed since 1990.

However, resistance to the dominant logic of linear learning comes in many forms and at many levels. Attending this conference is one, the classroom teacher who inserts songs in her teaching scripts is another and ensuring that our students have access to open-ended archives which demand they deal with the unforeseen is another. In the title of this paper I proposed we should wait patiently for the unforeseen because those seeking to narrow learning completely, will never succeed completely. The unforeseen connects with the aesthetic dimension of rich learning, is powerfully found in arts learning and it cannot be obliterated.

But who am I to argue that we can afford to wait patiently in these times? Perhaps we have to turn to the archive for the guidance and wisdom so sorely needed in these testing times. Shakespeare – remember …

How poor are they that have not patience!
What wound did ever heal but by degrees?
Thou know’st we work by wit, and not by witchcraft;
And wit depends on dilatory time.8



  • 1. Kyung Hee Kim, ‘The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the TorranceTests of Creative Thinking’, Creativity Research Journal, 23:4, 285–295, DOI: 10.1080/100419.2011.627805
  • 2. Kyung Hee Kim, ‘The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the TorranceTests of Creative Thinking’, Creativity Research Journal, 23:4, 285–295, DOI: 10.1080/100419.2011.627805
  • 3. Australia Council for the Arts, Australian participation in the arts, Australia, February 2010.
  • 4. John Law, After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, Abingdon 2004.
  • 5. Philip James (ed.), Henry Moore on Sculpture, London, 1966.
  • 6. John Hartley, Digital Futures for Cultural and Media Studies, Chichester 2012.
  • 7. John Hartley, Digital Futures for Cultural and Media Studies, Chichester 2012. p171.
  • 8. William Shakespeare, Othello (II, iii, 376-379).