Blog: Imagine If…2018

14 November 2018

A day that not only imagines but catalyses change in the cultural and education sectors

By Megan Savage, from This is Creative Enterprise (TICE)

There’s no better feeling than when you meet people who share a similar passion – in this case, it was the power of creativity. Culture Bridge North East follows the belief of “great art and culture for everyone” and use their expertise to connect the arts with young people, schools and communities across the North East. One way of doing exactly that is their annual Imagine If… Conference. This year, they wanted to explore how creative and cultural experiences allow young people to express themselves and communicate with others, and the ways in which this could influence the planning and delivery of future projects.

With a turn out of 120 educators, practitioners and young people from the North East and beyond, the day was guaranteed to be filled with debate and discussion. I believe that a room full of diversity, both in age range and level of professionalism, has masses of potential to create positive change. So as the audience settled, with teas and coffees circulating the room, all were warmly welcomed by Catherine Hearne, Chief Executive of Helix Arts. It was looking to be a very busy day ahead at Centre for Life so, with thanks to Catherine’s plenary of the day, the audience was settled and raring to go.

The power of imagination…

It was time to kick off the morning with Imagine If’s first keynote speaker, Dr Helen Burns from Newcastle University. With her expertise in pedagogy, she showcased how arts and culture support understanding through imagination. It wouldn’t have been right to ‘Imagine if…’ without exploring what it means to be imaginative, right?

Helen covered two theorists. Firstly, Piaget’s ‘Stages of Development’, which had shown a very strict and simplistic timeline of how young people’s imagination develops over time. Piaget believed that imagination was a mechanism to fill in the gaps to understand until they were able to use logic. “Do you think this is too rigid?”, Helen pondered. As expected, a clear majority of the audience nodded and hummed in agreement. From this, and with additional comparison to Vygotsky’s theory of learning being “socio-cultural”, she argued that young people develop in different ways and at different stages throughout their life. She continued, stating that imagination is a special ingredient in learning – in other words, you need to be imaginative to be cognitive. Not only that, but that art as experience is key to engage the minds of young people and to nurture their mental based vocabulary. Overall, a very insightful start to the day ahead.

The workshops commence…

After Helen’s insightful speech, the audience had the choice of three workshops to attend, all of which shared a different perspective on the theme of discussion at Imagine If.  One workshop was led by the team at Blue Cabin CiC – a local company who uses creativity and innovation to nurture relationships between young people, adults and organisations in the care system. They explored through multiple theories and activities, how social pedagogy can be an effective connector between art practitioners and care/education sectors.

Meanwhile, Catrina McHugh, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Open Clasp, took charge of a fantastic workshop. They have recently undertaken Arts Award for the first time and wanted to discuss how it had built existing partnerships with Benfield School and Low Newton Prison to deliver Bronze Arts Award with young people aged 16-25. Matthew, a student from Benfield School, was brave enough to speak on behalf of the school and share his own experience of taking part in Arts Award.

Anne Fountain, Learning Officer at Laing Art Gallery and Ben Dickenson, Executive Producer for City of Dreams, shared a workshop together and individually discussed their current work. Anne spoke fondly about the importance of ‘L-ink’ at Laing Art Gallery (and Hatton Gallery) – a programme which has been running for the past 10 years and involves young people working at the galleries to organise events, work with artists, create artworks and so on. She discussed why it is so worthwhile working closely with young people.

Ben also introduced a new vision to enter the North East in 2018 - City of Dreams. A promise to Newcastle and Gateshead that by 2020, many aspiring goals will be achieved including 100% of schools being engaged by cultural venues by summer 2019 and to run city-wide programmes over the next few years. He discussed the research conducted around C&YPs experience of cultural activity, and there were statistics which had proven enough that there was a need for change. For example, 49% of young people preferred to make things rather than seeing, learning or growing talent. Ultimately, Ben wanted to showcase how cultural activity can benefit young people’s confidence, self-expression and identity. Judging by the response of his audience, his insight had a significant impact…

“Fascinating to hear from @cityofdreamsNG the lack of confidence in children and young people is the #1 barrier to cultural participation. And sad that C&YP are actively being blocked by parents, carers and schools from participating.”
 - Andrew Garrad, Project & Information Officer at CCE.

Discussions didn’t stop flowing during the lunch break – with another generous helping of teas and coffees (and plenty of sweet potato fries to fill their plates), attendees mingled and reflected on the day thus far. Thank you to the team at Centre for Life for keeping us fed and watered!

Where did all the art go?

Martin Ainscough, Director of Musical Futures, gave a thoroughly engaging speech, questioning whether the provision of the arts in schools is relevant. For subjects that should have a substantial amount of freedom, Martin argued that students don’t necessarily have a say in how they learn. Recently, he noticed that music lessons involved word puzzles and colouring-in worksheets. As a musician myself, I was completely baffled at the idea of young people colouring-in instruments, instead of playing them.

He spoke of a very interesting analogy regarding the curriculum, comparing it to a student studying Skiing. If one was to obey by the structure of school learning, learn the history of that sport, peer assessing, research and by the time they’re about to ski, it’s fair to say that students wouldn’t want to do it anymore. As Martin stated, “we put the theory before the practice when really we should bring the two together”.

This idea of crafting roles and not being narrowed to one aspect of a creative sector is incredibly important. Taking music as an example – why must we perform, when we could possibly find a passion for sound engineering or songwriting? Ultimately, this is student-led learning – something which could be vital for the future of education. And the showcase of the video, ‘where did all the art go’ cemented this idea brilliantly. 

“Important speech by @AinscNW @musicalfutures at #ImagineIf2018 @culturebridgene. Challenging us to challenge the increasing squeeze on arts in schools…with action! And a great film with the voices of young people to finish: “where did all the art go?”
 - City of Dreams

How can performing as oneself, help us and others understand the world?

Now, this was something special. I stopped by the workshop run by Mortal Fools, a theatre company who work with young people and communities to create contemporary and powerful pieces of art. Their workshop was no exception and considering they had only 60 minutes, they certainly gave the audience a memorable experience. It was all about their recent project to enable young people to explore personal stories and experience, to turn them into a piece of art.

As people arrived and sat silently in a circle waiting for the workshop to commence, Ben, an aspiring young actor at Mortal Fools, stood up proudly and began a monologue. As he continued, other young people chipped in with their own perspective too. Compelling – for a second, I forgot I was in a workshop and instead, it felt like a small theatre space. They continued with some fantastic participatory games, including using some quirky technology! Some of the audience took part and were asked to press a button once a statement on a board was shown to them and if they pressed, their lamp would light up anonymously. Hilarious!

“Really enjoyed @mortalfoolsUK session #ImagineIf2018 @culturebridgene. Playing, exploring, thinking, laughing and finding out about the teenage brain.”
 - Jane Gray, Arts Award trainer & moderator, Associate at Blue Cabin, Co-Director at CLNE.

Ruth Brown, Head of Creative Arts at Duchess’s Community High School, was also conducting a workshop surrounding school culture. She shared her thoughts on how the arts can not only create a better environment in school but to student’s confidence, aspirations and ambitions. Ruth discussed if whole school culture can be underpinned by Quality Principles (developed by Arts Council) – not only for arts, but for all departments.

Should we value what young people value?

The co-ordinator of Imagine If…2018, Florrie Darling, has been working towards her PhD which examines what it is about participation in arts activity that holds social and cultural meaning for young people. It was fascinating to hear Florrie talk about her findings and make it an open discussion to all. She covered a few of her case studies, based in three secondary schools in the North East of England focusing particularly on 11 - 14-year-olds.

One case study mentioned was about the free expression of dialogue. It was in this scenario that students were encouraged to write lyrics, with no grammatical limitations. Many young people incorporated the Geordie dialect into their work, which left many teachers shocked at the idea that kids were told to not use a dictionary. This left Florrie with the question, ‘how do we balance the needs of artists/arts organisations, school/teacher and young people?’.

As I wandered around the room, it was encouraging to find so much discussion circulating. One table caught my eye – a young man mentioned the idea of classrooms lacking exchange between the student and teacher. In other words, talking with the student rather than at the student. Other groups mentioned aspects such as listening and honesty from the outset.

As the talk came to a close, Florrie shared the conclusion of her research. In a general sense, it’s about the importance of communicating the correct way – consider what young people are trying to express, agreeing on key objectives so that creative expression is not censored later and most importantly (in my opinion), value what young people value.

An example of young success…

To bring the day to a close, Diana Karikis took to the stage and shared her journey thus far in the world of teaching and freelancing in the creative sector. It was refreshing to hear that her first lightbulb moment for the creative arts was in her GCSE Fine Art exam, a place where she felt like she belonged with the consistent support from her art teacher. Her ability to create and explore art and techniques at school was the moment she realised she could persist in this area. 

She went on to discuss her experience since leaving school – studying Art & Design at Newcastle College, her wealth of work experience and volunteering. She passionately touched upon her experience with L-ink, Team Juice and her moment of public speaking at ARTiculation. Just recently she has began freelance work at the Laing Art Gallery, teaching art to young people. 

Diana ended with the words, “We should be aspiring for a reality that doesn’t exist today”, and to me, I felt that perfectly encapsulated Imagine If...2018.

“This was a fantastic conference. We were able to take something from every aspect of the day. Martin Ainscough’s video about the relevance of arts provision in schools was extremely thought-provoking. We were also impressed with the work that Open Clasp do. Matthew from Benfield School represented them so well, he spoke eloquently about his participation in the Arts Award Scheme and the life-long skills he has acquired. We would certainly like to attend next year.”
  - Pippa Anderson and Hannah Taylor, The Vocal Room

“We were so thrilled to attend! It’s really sparked our imagination.”
  - Listen and Like

“Fantastic day at #ImagineIf2018 with @culturebridgene at @LifeVenueHire. Inspiring, motivating and thought-provoking stuff – thank you CBNE and all the speakers and workshop leaders for a great conference!”

 - Melissa Gillepsie, Programme Assistant, Creative Learning at Sage Gateshead

I left Imagine If… with questions. Plenty of them. How do we break down the idea of imagination, and how do we encourage it? Where did all the art go and how can we bring it to life? How do we make it accessible to young people both inside and outside the classroom? Equally so, I left with genuine optimism and hope for the future of arts and culture in the North East. This conference ignited a flame in many people, myself included, and it is because of conferences such as this that we begin to act upon the issues we face as a community. Thank you, Culture Bridge North East, for a fantastic day.