Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

What Is To Be Done, Sandra? Learning in Cultural Institutions of the Twenty-First Century

This article explores the difference between learning and education within the context of contemporary cultural institutions. It discusses current theory and practice and argues that learning needs to shift from the margins to the heart of these institutions. It identifies structural and practical obstacles that need to be overcome for change to take place and concludes with suggestions as to how this might be achieved.

1901. Vladimir Lenin is warming his samovar and reaching out for his pen, about to embark on writing a political tract that will change the face of history.  I am guessing that he did not have to get the kids off to school, put the washing on and respond to sixty emails before he set about this task, but one has to appreciate the quality and pragmatism of the question he asked himself, that is, ‘What is to be done?’

Of course, this question did not come out of thin air. Lenin was building on the bedrock that was Marxist theory and an ideological imperative for change that was fuelled by inequality and injustice. His plan was about a plan, and that was to put theory into practice to change the face of his society.

2008. The revolution did not turn out quite how Lenin had anticipated. Instead, society has been revolutionised by new technology. Needs are changing, the workforce has diversified, and we are facing a global change in the environment and our relationship to it. We have new and faster access to information than ever before, and there is a shift from industrial economies to those that are knowledge-based. In turn, the production of knowledge through educational practice has been scrutinised, challenged and revisited with new theories and shifts in policy. In the face of all this, I am forced to reflect on my own sector and ask of my colleague, Sandra (with no intended flippancy), ‘What is to be done?’ Are there any theoretical bedrocks for us to draw on and make a plan of our own?

The idea of learning

For the last twenty years I have been working in the field of arts, across a range of organised learning environments. I have spent time in what we call formal education (that is, in universities and in schools), as well as in informal learning environments (such as youth groups and cultural settings). What I can say, without hesitation, is that these environments are not the same. A university is not a youth club and a school is not a gallery. This may appear painfully obvious, but actually sits at the heart of the question of ‘What is to be done?’ because of the different value systems applied to the concepts of the formal and informal, and the questions that lie behind the pragmatism of ‘what’.

These questions are concerned with the choices we make about why we feel it is important for people to learn certain disciplines, traditions and behaviours and not others, and how we go about organising this as a society. Despite the differences inherent in the practices of the formal and informal, what one cannot help but notice is the way in which the organising structures of formal learning are often applied to the informal, such that the concept of departments, sixty-minute transmission models, courses, a teacher imparting information, and a raft of quantitative assessment methods is still apparent. In most of my experiences of the informal sector, my work has been measured against the formal model.  My aim, however, has been to explore and generate research about the different ways in which learning takes shape and what the outcomes are for those who participate. My observation, and that of researchers in the field, is that often a different kind of experience takes place out of a formal, examined setting and this provides a different set of attitudes and understandings for the individuals involved.

In attempting to unpick the differences between the formal and informal, or rather to explore and explain the similarities and divergences of both, I have come to describe learning and education in more particular terms. There are a variety of ways to explore the idea of learning depending on one’s discipline. Neuroscientists describe it as the neurological process of receiving and processing new data. They explain that every human being is wired up the same way to learn. Information from external stimuli is received in the brain where it is filtered through analytical and emotional networks and then stored as memory (or rejected en route). This cognitive process (that is, the mental process through which we acquire and manage information) sorts the wheat from the chaff, and enables us to make decisions as to what to store and what to edit out.1 They would argue that there is therefore no formal learning and no informal learning to be had. There is only one type (just learning), and it is simply the settings and approaches that differ.

Educational psychologists often describe learning as change through experience. The ways in which this is explored is frequently divided into behavioural, cognitive and constructivist accounts (to name but three). Within these lie a great number of fascinating theories that cannot be explored here, but central to much enquiry is the idea of learning as a process by an individual, whether concerned with observed behaviour, brain processes, or self-constructed ideas and concepts.2

Education, on the other hand, might be defined as the structures and systems established to manage and guide learning: what we teach/learn; why we teach/learn it; and how we teach/learn. These are structures based on a set of socially determined values. This means that education is ideologically driven (by ideology I mean the dominant, hegemonically maintained hierarchy of value).3 Given that our society prioritises formal learning, the informal tends to be labelled as self-improvement or leisure, implying a lack of necessity or seriousness. When measured against the formal system, it often fails to reach the mark. How, given this ideological scenario, could it do anything other?

I have also found it helpful to refer to the two key types of memory at play in our everyday physiological activity; that is declarative and non-declarative (procedural) memory. Declarative memory can broadly be defined as the facts, figures, dates and events etc that the brain stores, but that you have to call up when needed. Non-declarative memory is that which you do not have to call up and is described as behaviours and habits, such as using a knife and fork, driving, playing an instrument etc.4 Importantly, the education system prioritises declarative memory, and this is the feature that is most tested. However, long-term learning, habit and behaviour depend on non-declarative memory, and are what we rely on once our formal learning has finished. After all, how often do most people learn in a group of thirty, seated behind desks, with an instructor present, in their professional lives?  Why do we place such high value on the kind of knowledge that trains us for University Challenge but that does not enable us to ask better questions?

Current debates

When looking at the structure of learning systems, four key elements are core to delivery. These are time, space, content and method. The current education system has been devised within the parameters of certain time-slots, and works within a set of spaces (classrooms, lecture theatres and halls etc). Content has been agreed in terms of a curriculum and in further and higher education as degree courses, units and diplomas in specialised subjects. Methods may differ depending on shifting learning theories, but are currently dominated by information-led, outcome-oriented transmission models, teacher to pupil (although there are clearly changes emerging and there have always been exceptions). These four systematised elements have been challenged by many educationalists and innovators. Charles Leadbeater’s paper What Next? 21 Ideas for 21st Century Learning (2008) addresses such issues, where it is clear that notions of content and approach, space and time, need some refreshment, not to say rethinking for twenty-first-century learning.5

Over the past ten years a perceptible shift has taken place in education and arts practice at a national and international level. The development of technology and user-generated material, the emergence of the knowledge economy, and the need for creativity (as a means to generate innovation) have meant that models of learning that sought to impart information and prepare and develop a workforce for specific industries (that is, manufacturing or industrialised labour) are no longer sufficient for our societal needs.6 This shift is reflected within contemporary cultural and education practice as well as in recent research papers. Current users, published governmental and NGO reports, academic articles and artists describe these shifts in practice as follows:

  • from the passive to participative: learning that involves participation and hands on activity rather than being a receiver of knowledge.
  • from standardised delivery to personalisation: one size does not fit all and different learning programmes are required that can be tailored to an individual’s needs.
  • from the didactic to co-learning: a shift from the transmission model of learning with a single expert/tutor, to shared learning that is guided in response to the needs of the users and shaped in collaboration with them.
  • from knowledge acquisition to knowledge application: the movement away from learning information for the sake of doing so, to understanding how to use knowledge across different settings and in original ways for valued outcomes.
  • from a single authorial voice to plural voices: the development of collaborative practice and production, giving rise to a wider range of perspectives and opportunity for the student’s voice in formalised settings.
  • from private knowledge to public access: best exemplified through the world wide web/open source etc., but relating also to the ways in which the private knowledge of individuals and institutions has been opened up, shifting power relationships away from closed knowledge holders.

Notable commentaries in the UK have come from Tom Bentley7 and Ken Robinson,8 for example, and are found in government reports.9 Indeed, there has been a shift away from the term education towards learning, with the aim of putting the learner more centrally and interrogating what is being learned and why, relative to the organised systems in which learning exists.

What has all this to do with learning in cultural settings? Recent debates about cultural learning have been set up to explore, I assume, exactly the kinds of issues raised here.10 What marks cultural learning as that which is different from learning in other settings? What is its value and what can we expect to achieve by doing it? Research from Creative Partnerships (now Creativity Culture and Education),11 engage,12 the Guggenheim,13 and research projects at Tate are beginning to reveal the different kinds of learning that take place for people when engaging in cultural activity.  For the most part, research projects have been explorations with young people in relation to education in schools (often because of the value this brings). However, there is increasing research into family and adult learning.14 Findings suggest a range of outcomes from working within different cultural disciplines and with different user groups. This is why comparisons across the arts always seem so difficult to find, as each scenario has a different set of particular inputs. But I would argue that there is also a set of repeated and identifiable similarities that frame cultural learning and that sit to the side of education as described here. For the sake of clarity, let us understand that cultural learning in this instance means learning that takes place beyond the classroom or lecture theatre, within a cultural setting, and that this takes cultural product as its subject matter for direct engagement.15

Key findings repeated through the research outlined above can be identified as increased confidence, a shift in attitudes and behaviours, improved motivation and sustained engagement. There is also evidence of an increase in critical thinking applied beyond the learning environment. Interestingly, there is a demonstrable improvement in knowledge of the subject area and skills with which to create a product, but these appear least central within the findings, as though this would be self-evident, the part you had to do, to get the rest.16 Several of the research documents begin to explore what other associable impacts this learning has across a range of other subject areas in terms of transferable skills and life skills. The particularity of activity and disciplines also has an effect on what is learned. For example, working once a week on a project over twelve months will produce a different outcome from working over just one week, and engaging with dance will give physical skills that visual arts do not. Despite obvious differences such as these, there is a great deal of synthesis to be made of the breadth of data that has been collected over the past five to ten years. Using a form of creative learning (that I defined through working with many groups of learners, teachers and artists), we found that the practice of artists, their own method of approach, encouraged and generated long-term learning.17 What I would like to draw out here, therefore, is that, as shown by much research in cultural settings, most outcomes are related to non-declarative memory.

So what’s going on? The learning that is taking place is affecting attitudes and behaviours. It is also generating critical, reflective thinking and transferable skills, sustained engagement and application across disciplines. I would suggest that cultural learning (or perhaps one should now say cultural creative learning to reflect the point made previously) is helping to form habits of mind, potentially for a lifetime. Its content and its approach differ from the established model of education, as cultural and creative learning seeks to generate sustainable skills that can be applied across subjects and education/personal boundaries. This appears to be a more meta-cognitive approach to learning (that is, being aware of one’s own thinking and the strategies one is using).18


Using the visual arts as a model for translating these ideas into practice it is possible to see how habits of mind are generated. In a recent talk Shelby Wolf outlined her findings of a project involving young children at Tate Modern called Looking for Change.19. 19 This is a four-year project that takes place weekly in three London schools and in the galleries. It explores the development of children’s visual literacy and focuses on looking, talking and making. This project seeks collaboration with schools to see what can be achieved beyond the gallery walls, thereby maximising the experience when children arrive in the gallery. Wolf suggested that the work being undertaken is shaping the children’s memory. She details how, through engaging with art, they are forming habits of mind, building interpretive abilities, forming observational faculties, creating symbolic meaning, developing persistence and moulding a vision of who they might be as adults. This kind of analysis is supported through a publication entitled Studio Thinking; The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education,20 which moves away from many educational publications seeking to validate or apply the arts in terms of how they can support and improve the ‘formal’ education model and moves, as David Perkins suggests in the preface, ‘through the looking glass’ into long-term impacts of learning, made manifest through applying information directly ‘for today’. Is this the ‘real benefit’ of cultural creative learning: that we generate time to create habits of mind? That we have capacity to do so and that we embody this through direct activity – making the imaginary concrete?  And can it be said that gaining cultural skills are only possible over a sustained period of time?

Evidence, and indeed experience, would suggest that sustained contact is crucial in generating long-term learning, and that this not only sets up a series of personal behaviours, but skills and aptitudes. Shirley Brice Heath and Shelby Wolf suggest that in the visual arts:

Learning to see details also brings the capacity to see the bigger picture – to relate the bits and pieces to what will become a larger whole… this fundamental principle applies in the sciences, in everyday problem solving and spatial navigation within the world. Managers and musicians, plumbers and painters, engineers and videographers become successful largely through their ability to see beyond small details into the larger picture.21

They also comment:

seeing details calls for visual focus – sustaining the eyes on a space for more than a few milliseconds. The area of the brain dedicated to visual focus lies at the very centre of the various sections given over to vision. Focus matters, because it allows viewers to look deeply within an object or situation and see detail from line to shape and colour to motion… Hence, as young children work in creating art – regardless of form or medium – they gain practice in holding attention on a sphere of action or range of space.  In doing so they take in the fundamental elements or building blocks of the world around them. They gain inner vision.22

Clearly, visual learning not only works to develop an understanding of art, but also of a range of much wider and fundamental needs in understanding the visual and spatial world around us. Heath and Wolf also reflect on the importance of guided looking and the advantages of language and metaphor as habits of mind:The first of these advantages comes through the movement of mental processes back and forth from the visual to the verbal.23

Certainly within Looking for Change we have observed a development in children’s oracy and vocabulary together with their interpretation of art works. That is to say, the ways in which they are talking about art involving metaphor and richer description are extending their depth of understanding the art too. Looking and language are here connected. The importance of this, and of the programme more broadly, is that young people build knowledge for themselves through language, looking and discussion; without doing so, they will only ever be able to receive ideas and information filtered by others. Without building one’s own knowledge it is impossible to build an understanding for oneself.  Real access is about being able to do exactly this, make meaning, transferring relevant ideas from one object to another.

Peppered throughout the research and within accounts from Inspiring Learning in Galleries: Enquire about Learning in Galleries, time as an issue is also highlighted.24 Often it is referred to as an absence – that there isn’t enough time in a school day to work on cultural or creative programmes. Time also represents motivation, in that the children get so engrossed in the activity that their concentration extends and they are more applied, taking longer over their work, staying late, working through breaks and arriving early at school to achieve more.25 Becoming skilled requires practice and it is no surprise therefore that the more often the children the gallery works with look, make and reflect more, the better they get at understanding and analysing.

Working beyond the classroom walls also enables a different experience for the learner, one that is particular to the subject in question and that can use the space appropriately to enable the learner to explore the subject (in this case art) more authentically and directly. Seeing the detail of a real object is quite different from slides, prints or more often photocopies, just as a live performance is different from a video recording of the same event. Generating deeper levels of understanding needs experience of the art form itself and its making, which gives a further dimension and requires materials appropriate to the idea. Working in an environment that has the facilities to enable this to happen challenges us to make, think and talk differently. Space matters because it also disrupts the usual learning experience of sitting down and receiving, opening up the many ways in which we all learn, for example, visually, kinaesthetically and emotionally.

Cultural creative learning, I would claim, has other valuable differences from education as defined here. It necessarily entails engagement with emotions, the realisation of a material product in the real world and the ensuing public engagement that the product demands as it exists within the public realm. These three aspects also develop different abilities from usual learning environments and these are concerned with understanding how to interpret or reflect emotional content, how to apply an idea to its material production, therefore making the abstract concrete, and navigating the public realm in terms of critique. These are important life skills that find little space in the education system and, ultimately, they help form and shape our relationships, to people, to the wider world and to critical reflection.

It is understood that learning without content specificity, facts, figures and subject knowledge, is only half a project. One could not learn without declarative memory that constantly informs our behaviours and habits of mind. I am not suggesting, therefore, that we replace detailed content, nor even that we get rid of traditional lectures and information-giving when necessary. But I am arguing that we take the non-declarative more seriously and recognise that without it, we have information but without foundations on which to lay that information, and little understanding of how to apply it to different contexts; that is to say, we have knowledge, but potentially not much learning. One habit of mind is to know when you need to input new content information to generate understanding. At present we attempt to learn the other way round; that is, learning how to know rather than knowing how to learn.

Cultural sites of learning

What does this mean for twenty-first-century learning in cultural establishments, institutions and organisations? To focus one minute on the millions of visitors that museums and galleries in particular enjoy each year, many different kinds of publics are formed. Some visitors come as tourists for a few hours, others come for the day. There are those that come once a month or to courses, some with their families ad hoc, and some for sustained periods over years. How do we generate or integrate the best kinds of habits of mind as well as develop knowledge? How do we manage different approaches and audiences as well as take into account the shifts in practice that have taken place globally? This returns us, rather neatly, to the initial and now clearly complex question of ‘What is to be done?’

‘What is to be done’ is based on the assumption that something needs to be done – or rather – to be changed. I would argue that learning in cultural institutions does need to transform to meet the requirements of societal changes as outlined in the initial pages here, as well as in cultural and educational practice and production.  I would also add that it needs to change its focus to include the development of non-declarative memory such that long-term benefit can be generated. Although it would be wrong to suggest that there is no such work that is taking place (and there are many projects in cultural institutions that are exemplars of such changes), there is nonetheless a sense of uncertainty as to where culture sits and fits in terms of learning and what it can provide beyond education. Part of the problem may also be the potential solution, in that cultural venues have capacity to deliver a range of models for learning – from the lightest of touches to deep long-term projects. I believe that cultural organisations are perfectly placed to model new approaches and work with education to reassemble the ways in which we learn across settings. However, learning in cultural organisations may be in a bit of a tangle having been buffeted between intrinsic and extrinsic needs, growing popularity as well as target driven delivery demands. Rather like Christmas lights brought down from the attic each year, the result is a tangle of knots. Some seem to emerge simply from having been left alone, whilst others exist that have been actively tied for good reason – at the time. Perhaps now we can begin to loosen a few of these knots and lay out the lights.

Knot 1: Being authentic

Cultural institutions are not educational institutions that are required to follow nationally set frameworks for learning. Of course, we all have our own subject/organisation-specific ideological frameworks instead, but there is no imperative to work to exams or any other standardised outputs and we are therefore able to focus on the experience of learning very deeply, should we want to. We need to let go of overwhelming extrinsic demands that pull or shape us in uncomfortable ways. In doing so, we have the opportunity to represent ourselves more authentically, giving us the opportunity to be more diverse, to stretch wider and venture into places and ideas that education (as defined here) may not wish or be able to go. This, I believe, is an exciting prospect, that would enable cultural practitioners to find space (both physically and intellectually) truly to innovate, take risks and be bold about practice.  Cultural sites are places where  ‘failing’ (and by this perhaps all we mean is trying new things to explore how learning can be developed) can happen safely and be swiftly addressed without damaging any lives, messing up any exams or taking down any institutions.  We are cautious of taking risks as we have become more fearful of failure in relation to formal learning and output related requirements. There is, therefore, a bent towards keeping things as they are. But unlike Lenin’s plan, this one will not ever cost lives. What exactly are we frightened of failing ‘about’?

Indeed, letting go of the idea of educational departments is also necessary, as the idea of departmentalisation has gradually led to learning being perceived as something that only happens within the work of such a department. (Over there, alongside an organisation’s ‘real’ business.) We know, however, that learning is generated and takes place throughout organisations and across many teams. At Tate, for example, the act of curating art for exhibition generates its own learning for the professionals involved as well as for the visitors. Courses online, community and regeneration programmes, research projects, archival and library services, conservation and information all offer and generate learning experiences. I am not arguing against having a team of experts working in cultural institutions to develop learning (far from it), but that their purpose, role and value is to use their expertise to construct, draw out and maximise learning opportunities across these many areas and make interventions or animations where needed so that we can more effectively engage with our wide range of publics. Professionals (formerly known as education departments) would therefore shift from being the guardians of learning for an institution and passers-down/on/across of information, to becoming central to the ‘real’ business; facilitators in learning who construct and programme opportunities for the widest range and deepest levels of learning to take place.

Knot 2: Apply knowledge

Cultural institutions are not working from zero. We need to start using the body of new information, research findings and theory available to us and begin to apply it in our working lives. Of course, changing programmes and systems is always difficult and a bit messy, as it requires letting go of established patterns of working and finding space to take risks and try new things. In large organisations and institutions this is even harder as one has to plan for change with a lot of notice. Purely on a practical level, programmes are set, brochures are designed, and courses are booked often at least a year in advance. We need to begin to form shifts in practice that can take us towards new programmes, new ideas and new ways of thinking. Innovation is not an overnight miracle grown from pixie dust, but a good long-term plan (with the right people involved).

Knot 3: Partnerships

Cultural institutions do not exist in isolation. Art museums typically currently have many partnerships in place and opportunities to work with artists and colleagues within education and beyond, to help us to explore new terrain. Once we understand the boundaries of what we are and how much we can achieve, we can look to others to help us develop and learn more. Recognising that we cannot (and do not need to) do everything ourselves, and that expert knowledge outside the cultural institution is available, means that we can move faster, wider and in ways more tailored to audiences needs. Being able to articulate that we also have something particular and unique to offer others and to work with education more innovatively also means that we can be players in an important and changing landscape of learning. Therefore, partnerships, dialogue and cultural and educational collegiality need to be extended to generate new ideas and learning opportunities together.

Knot 4: Space and time

Cultural institutions do not have the same time and space limitations that educational institutions have. We already occupy alternative and appropriate spaces for cultural creative learning and for some of us, opportunities to grow more that lend themselves to the global shifts in learning. It is therefore possible to work to the needs of the content rather than of a timetable and we need to let go of feeling the need to replicate educational systems and models, unless they serve the purpose of cultural creative learning.

Knot 5: Quality over quantity

Quality does not have to be subsumed by quantity nor delivery over what is being delivered. In the McMaster report a clear and strong case is put forward for quality, risk and innovation.26 The case can be made for depth over breadth and the quality of a learning experience over numbers passing through it. In reality, this is a difficult balance of reaching as many as possible as deeply as possible, but I think it would be fair to say that we may have reached a point in a delivery model that can only just keep up with itself and its audiences, putting an enormous strain on the professionals involved and inhibiting innovation through the need to comply with known delivery outcomes. When is it time to take stock and reflect on what we are delivering?

That time is now. But loosening these knots is, of course, easier said than done. However, without doing so, it will be difficult to change practice and move forwards to meet the needs of a changed and changing society. The ability of cultural creative learning to explore, test and model new forms of approach actually place it at the forefront of new practice, should it choose to do so.


The question of what is to be done regarding learning in cultural institutions comes at a time when fundamental questions are being asked about the ways in which we organise our social learning systems more broadly. I have tried to outline some of the many research papers, books and documents that attempt to offer alternatives, or at least explore the current problems within educational practice needing to be addressed. It is clear, whichever way one looks at learning, that practice is changing, and more value is being given to participative, collaborative learning methods that also enable more flexible methods of generating and applying new knowledge. The move towards creativity in the primary curriculum is one such example of this. I have argued that these changes in practice can be aligned with long-term, non-declarative memory and habits of mind. I have also argued that cultural creative learning gives additional emotional and social value that do not find a place easily within our education system.

Despite cultural creative learning being perceived in our society as having less value than formal and examined learning, I have suggested that the kinds of learning that take place culturally can in fact offer something of benefit to the education system per se and that in art museums we are in a position to trial, test and model learning with our educational colleagues, and, indeed, across disciplines and sectors. In the preface to Studio Thinking David Perkins writes, exposing an attitude all too familiar to many of us, ‘maybe this is the sort of messing around we can afford when we’re not dealing with high-stakes core subject matters’. He responds to this kind of perspective with, ‘what if, far from a fantasy world, studio learning turns out to be much more realistic regarding the way learning really works than most typical classroom settings?’27

Asking questions about methods of cultural creative learning and habits of mind can, I believe, be significant drivers in the shifts in education we are seeing because they help construct alternative approaches to the norm. Cultural creative learning privileges meta-cognitive processes and long term learning, two important features that are required for a flexible, knowledge-based economy that seeks the application of knowledge in new ways to generate new outcomes for innovation.

Rather than sitting back and waiting for changes and solutions to fall upon us, I am arguing for cultural creative learning to put itself at the heart of change, using its very ‘otherness’ to enable it to take the kinds of risks that education may not be able to take and to do this based on the range of theoretical perspectives borne out of research through practice. I am suggesting the reassembling, not just of the content, methods of approach, time and space, but also of the system and attitude towards learning, an attitude that often manifests itself as a ‘department’ rather than the actual experience.

Within this, there is detail to be had. There is a need to examine the knots of current cultural learning and begin to unpick them whilst trialling new ideas and programmes. These, too, need to be reformulated to reflect the global shifts in learning as outlined above. There is a need to understand that cultural creative learning is more than time spent away from core subjects. We are very far from messing around: we are seeking to find ways of learning that are deep and lasting. Indeed, cultural creative learning can bring a significant range of learning practices and habits of mind to the table. Like Lenin, we need to be considering how to apply theory to practice and this will be complicated given the many complex institutions, extrinsic demands and internal resources that need to be considered. Unlike Lenin, we can do it with others rather than in opposition to them. I do not think that anyone has ever deliberately set out to make knots; sometimes they simply appear, sometimes they are tied to respond to a place or context. Reassemblage will be not just possible, but I imagine an exciting episode in the history of cultural creative learning. And with this in mind, Sandra has offered to pop on the samovar and let things simmer for a while. She had not imagined that there was quite so much that could be done.