Money in the bank

21 October 2020

By John Young
Originally published in Scene December 2005 (Issue 2)

One of the rewarding aspects of international education is that so many of our students show sincere compassion for those less fortunate than themselves. Not only do they express their concern about poverty and inequality, they participate in CAS activities with enthusiasm in an attempt to alleviate the difficulties of others.

I should be pleased, therefore, to see so many of these responsible young people opting to study Economics at IB because they want to do Business Studies at university. Never mind that IB also offers Business and Organisational Studies which is much more about business. Never mind that Economics is much more a look at economic systems than the nitty gritty of commerce. I wish them all well and I hope they are totally successful in making millions and, as a side effect, change the world into a better place for the rest of us.

But they’ve got it wrong. The road to success does not go through the economics class anymore than it went through the mathematics class 30 years ago. There was even a time it was thought success went through the Latin class! No single subject is going to make the difference, of course, the world is too complex. Languages are important, it’s nice to be able to add up, or be computer literate.

Careers officers and university admission officers might like to consider Visual or Performing Arts as one of the fundamental subjects required by all those putative millionaires wishing to study business and finance. Why these subjects are so often seen as the least likely to lead to any form of financial success is a great mystery to me. Firstly, there are more jobs in fields related to the arts than in fields related to science (design, commercial art, fashion, event management and design to name a few), but more importantly, the arts may just give young people better preparation for the key areas of commerce.

Visit a school art room, music room or theatre and you will generally see people working together quite naturally. It is part of the fabric of the arts. Bands, orchestras, casts, exhibitors all work together and they all need backup. In schools other subjects are attempting to provide these opportunities with varied success. I can remember coaching school mathematics teams. The best team was inevitably dominated by the best individual. It was just all a bit phoney. Try to have a school art exhibition with one artist, a play with a cast of one, a class improvisation with a single student. If you set work in most subjects, often everyone does the same assignment alone. In the arts, everyone seems to be doing something different but they do it together. If I was looking for one attribute in a commercial venture, it might well be the ability of those
involved to work together.

Meaningful collaboration takes place as a matter of course in the art room, the drama studio, and the music room. There is no performing art without performance and no visual art without display. In all the schools in which I have worked there was a buzz and a willingness to seek advice and evaluate it in these areas. The great thing, of course, is there is seldom a ‘right’ answer and often the discussion is done without seeking the teacher’s opinion, at least not initially. The students develop a nice combination of independence and interdependence. In business as in the arts, the answer is unlikely to be in the back of the book.

Who would want an employee who was not a problem solver? It is hard to teach problem solving but we do try to address it in schools. In so many subjects, the problems set can be a bit false, although teachers are beginning to realise the best problems often revolve around the presentation of the solution rather than the solution itself. Students can really relate to the problems they face in the arts. If we want people to succeed they have to have experience of success that goes beyond assessment grades. They have to go home some nights bursting to tell their parents that they did something that was wonderful. It does not need a grade and no one has to tell them. They know. It is the sort of thing that gives them the power to succeed.

My son once said to me: ‘When there are two of you on stage and the other person dries up, now that’s a problem’. I can’t give him that challenge in science and mathematics. I just cannot manufacture something that is so personal, so important and so taxing. And he solved it!

Being able to accept the advice of others and to respond to criticism should be a vital part of achieving success in business. As a head of school I am evaluating teachers all the time. We work through politically correct terminology. We do professional development and we have appraisal and we all chant dutifully that the key word stem in appraisal is praise. I not only do it, I really believe it. But we can learn nothing from appraisal if we are not trained to give and take advice. Evaluation by self, by peers and by advisors is key to development in the arts. I have watched classes in which no one knows that what is happening is evaluation, at least no one saw fit to labour the point but evaluation is ever-present. One of the obsessions we have with appraisal systems is trying to make it non-threatening. I once talked to a consultant (who shall remain nameless) who admitted that he had introduced dozens of appraisal systems and in every single case it had lowered school morale (and then he had the cheek to say that he still thought they were essential! But that’s another story). Improvement can only be achieved with the trust and cooperation of the person being appraised. If this process can involve collaborative discussion that is based on mutual respect and is done without fear, it has a chance of being successful. In the arts, if it is done well, the evaluation process leads to another attempt or another performance. We do not always give these second or third chances in other subjects, but in the world of business many things are repetitive and constant improvement is expected.

The reflective process is so important to improvement and yet we have trouble ‘teaching’ it to students. Years ago, I knew reflection was important but often fell back on simplistic questions: ‘How could you do better next time?’ I shudder now (not that the question is unimportant but it hardly makes an exciting question for a 70 minute reflection). I watch in admiration how developmental notebooks are used in the arts. Just the idea of jotting some ideas down while looking at the work of others or reviewing your own is important. But it is the questions like: ‘What did you learn from his piece that might make you want to change yours?’ that really began to steer me in the right direction. Arts students aren’t competing with Picasso or Shakespeare, they are working with them and they join their peers in working with them.They have a head start in evaluation and in reflection. They are in it together.

There is no accumulation without speculation. How often do we say that we want to develop risk takers? What real risks are there in the international school classroom? If we do encourage risks, do we ask it when students are working on a major assessment task, or do we make it part of the formative assessment? If you go on stage, if you exhibit a sculpture, you are risking a lot more than your grades. You are risking public criticism, derision and, perhaps the worst thing for an adolescent, embarrassment. It takes a lot of courage to stand in front of peers, parents, and complete strangers and let them watch you perform something of which you are proud and then wait for the reaction. Entrepreneurs require courage. Very few aspiring millionaires have the luxury of risking only the money of others.

As a final argument, most successful business people are best at selling themselves as well as their ideas. What better place to learn presentation skills than in the drama class with all the rehearsed work, the improvisations and the role play?

Would I really want all students to study either visual or performing arts as a requisite for graduating? Absolutely! I think the students would benefit, the school would benefit, and, who knows, one day the world might benefit.

At the time of original publishing in 2005, John Young was acting as Secondary Principal at the Pechersk School in Kiev in an interim appointment. He worked out of France as an independent consultant after a career which included being Secondary Head of the Vienna International School and Director of the Inter Community School Zurich.