Growing the Future

Based on Nikky Smedley’s seminar given at Bett 2015, Excel London this January – a version of this piece originally appeared in ‘Teach Secondary’ magazine. Links used in the presentation are listed at the end.

“As a company to be represented at Bett Show 2015, changing cultures are a bit of a cuckoo in the nest. The theme in the Bett Arena for the duration of the event is, “Enhancing access to education, through technology”, and we are not a technology company. However, as everyone knows, the most complex element in any tech system is the user – and that is our speciality.

We describe ourselves as experts in Creativity and Engagement, which is the truth, but I’d like to delve into those terms a little.

By Creativity, we do not mean the ability to draw or dance or play a musical instrument – although it could be argued that these are technical skills, and that the creativity comes with what you do with them. This premise is transferable to any skill set, as an engineer, a physicist, a retailer – you learn the skills to complete the required tasks in your field, but success can often depend on the creative application of those skills. This is of course also true of education.

The gaming industry, a hugely successful sector in the UK, is an interesting case in point, where 10% of business is involved in generating hardware, and the rest is the creative input inventing and honing those games which will appeal to the target market.

Apple would not be where it is today without the amazing creative marketing genius of Steve Jobs.

Engagement is of course a key issue in schools and corporations. Increase levels of engagement, whether within or without the institution and a raft of problems will dissipate. Technology can have a part to play here, but so can attention to the human beings who are interacting with it.

Research tells us that when businesses are recruiting, they want good communication skills above all else; that drive, initiative and flexibility feature widely; that leadership and teamwork skills are valued and that problem solving, reasoning and creativity are consistently rated as highly, if not more highly than computer and tech literacy.

Don’t get me wrong, of course STEM subjects are hugely important, but along with the knowledge of these areas has to come the development of individuals to become self-motivated, self-organising, and in the best possible way, self-interested, in order to use that knowledge in ways that move the individual forward as well as our whole society.

Lord Young’s June 2014 report, “Enterprise For All” is a jolly good read, and I agree with much of it. Mostly he talks about the value of developing enterprise capabilities in students, in order that they may be more ready for the future world of employment – what but the development of these capabilities can also be highly effective tools to increase engagement, and therefore learning, here and now in the classroom.

Increasingly, businesses are saying that they are looking for innovators to help them grow into the future, and with an ever-shifting landscape, even those working outside business will need the ability to re-invent themselves and be flexible in order to survive.

The Bett Show is awash with wonderful technological innovations and advances, but we also need that spirit of innovation in our human interactions, and more than ever in those interactions that happen in our classrooms.

We work within an outmoded system, our educational structure lags behind the “real life” experience of our children and young people, we the grown-ups, the educators, need to get as nimble as they are – otherwise, we’re just not making the most of all the technological tools we have at our fingertips.

So how do we do this and keep up with the all the other stuff demanded of us, and get them through the exams? We’ve got a curriculum to deliver after all !

Going back to Lord Young’s report, he talks about the fourth ’R’ being Relevance – and whilst I don’t think that this is a universal panacea, I do think it has a big part to play. That relevance doesn’t have to be in terms of future employment or growth as an individual, it can work in the smallest of ways.

I remember my earliest days as a Physics student, and whilst I was painfully aware that I was unlikely to need to know that Density = Mass over Volume in my adult life, when I found out that there was a formula to explain why a drawing pin is sharp – it blew my mind. It was like seeing The Matrix, the whole world opened up to me in a new guise. Physics as a concept was suddenly interesting to me, because I knew what a drawing pin was, I knew what my hand was, and I understood pain. The idea that you can explain an every day occurrence with a mathematical equation is exciting to me to this day.

Of course there are additional factors to increasing engagement, and in my full talk I discuss what fellow professionals see as the key drivers to achieving this, and how these techniques can be implemented in the classroom, as well as sharing case studies showing successful outcomes, through awakening students’ awareness of their own roles and responsibilities as learners and their place as individuals in the educational world they occupy.

In today’s world Technology, Creativity and Engagement can go hand in hand, and the hands involved belong to real live people, young people who will be the future we will not know. The more we can help them believe in their own capabilities to learn, to invent, to achieve – then the more we will be ‘Growing The Future’, a future in which they can be happy and fulfilled. Isn’t that what we all want?”

Links From Nikky’s Presentation:;search%3Anikky%20smedley


Posted in views | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Creative Business and the Business of Creativity

I’m so happy to be back in Estonia, holding a seminar for Loov Eesti (Creative Estonia) in Tallinn, as part of their event – “Lost in translation. How to gain from cross-sectorial cooperation?”

For anyone who would like to have a closer look at some of the references in my presentation, here are a list of links, I hope you enjoy!;search%3Anikky%20smedley   (Arts and Business Awards)

Posted in news, views | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Power of Boredom

I recall being nerdily thrilled when, in one of my first senior school french lessons, I learned that ‘to bore’ was a reflexive verb – that is, ‘I’m bored’, becomes, ‘Je m’ennui’, and literally translates as ‘I bore myself’.

I liked it. I liked the shift of responsibility onto the ‘boree’ rather than the ‘borer’ – and that when push came to shove, they were one and the same thing. I still like it.

As a sickly child, feebly dicing with death through measles, asthma, wasp attack and other scenarios which seem ridiculous now, but were serious then – I spent a great deal of my formative years lying in a bed. Sometimes at home, sometimes in hospital, but mostly alone and without any stimulus – except my own brain.

DSC00539Only recently, in a radio interview, I heard Terry Gilliam talking about how important his own childhood bedridden years had been in forming – or perhaps informing – his imaginative powers. He is not alone, there are many creative spirits out there whose expansive inventive horizons were formed through some degree of fever and many hours alone.

Could this happen now? I recall the shift in my own adolescence in the 1970s, how it was suddenly possible to have the small black and white television from the kitchen easily transported to my bedside. Don’t get me wrong – I loved that, it was great! – I’d always been a keen reader, but when reading, my brain still had to work for that level of transportation from the immediately experienced pain or discomfort – with telly, all I had to do was gaze at the screen, and I was filled with beautiful amusing distractions.

This also reminds me of my first interest in computer games. Yes, I played ‘Pong’ when it first came out, but never cared for Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pacman, or any other of the computerised addictions that snared my peers. But then there was Sonic the Hedgehog, and my own special favourites . . . . .  Toejam and Earl! I lost about a weekful of evenings to them, and then realised I was losing more – my ability to dream properly – all I had were crude platform levels and an electro-plink soundtrack, where once there had been transcendental transformation and indescribable inter-dimensional journeyings to an unrecordable soundtrack – it had to stop – and it did.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a Luddite plea . . .

BUT . . .

Childhood these days (and adulthood come to that) is full of noise, of vision, of sensory content – so that to have to rely on flexing your own nascent imaginative muscle and finding what does and doesn’t truly inspire your soul, engage your mind and fire your heart is an increasingly rare occurrence.

I am aware of a high level of anxiety, verging on panic, around what might happen if  children are left to invent their own pastimes – or even thoughts.

But this time – this space – is crucial . . . not only for exploration into the fantastic, but also to gain a sense of security in oneself, in one’s own company, one’s own brain, and one’s own ability to solve the inevitable internal conundrums which will contrive to conspire against peace of mind and sense of self at various points in a life.

My plea is not to fear boredom, but to take the zen-like view that where space exists, so motion becomes possible – what comes to fill that space, even from the youngest imaginations, can be magical, can also be practical, and will almost certainly feed the architect of that ‘something’ with a new-found confidence in his or her ability to survive –  unaided, if needed –  in future life.

Nikky Smedley.



Posted in views | Leave a comment

Drama, Children and Chocolate: a Week in the Czech Republic

MS Cz image 5

DENÍK DĚTSKÉ SCÉNY or ‘The Diary of a Children’s Scene’, if you don’t speak Czech is the literal translation of a week’s festival of children’s theatre where Michael was this year’s international guest practitioner. For six days 15 participants attended Michael’s workshops every morning to explore and deepen their drama practice.

The Fabrika Cultural Centre of Svitavy, a few hours east from Prague, was the location for the 43rd annual Children Theatre’s Festival. The Festival celebrates, and debates, the winners of regional children’s theatre competitions held earlier in the year. It also provides those who work with young people and children across the Czech Republic, the opportunity to develop their understanding and practice.

Michael’s workshops were attended by teachers with a vast range of experience – some just embarking on their work with young people, others with a great deal of experience and expertise; some had to pay for themselves to attend whilst others were fully supported by their school – some were even given time out of the classroom during term time (can you imagine 4 days out of school for a drama conference in this country?). Although many participants spoke very good English, when dealing in matters of nuance, precision is required and a highly skilled interpreter, Petra Kuncikova, was on hand throughout the week to support Michael.

Michael’s response to his brief was simple – “I was sharing my practice and sharing my understanding of working with children and young people”. Inevitably, with a practice built over decades his workshops were varied in approach and content:

  • Saturday – Teacher in Role and Children in Role.
  • Sunday – Employing traditional tales to explore contemporary issues.
  • Monday – Working with texts – from Shakespeare to Pinter.
  • Tuesday – Theatre games and techniques to deepen the dramatic experience.
  • Wednesday – Employing images to develop narrative dramas.
  • Thursday – Greek drama in contemporary settings.

MS Cz image 2During the six days, the group worked together through tasks and exercises to develop their understanding of drama practices and techniques – finding Michael’s classroom experience insightful and refreshing. We asked Michael what he found most interesting in delivering his workshops, “There was a clarity, coherence and commitment to what they were doing and why they were doing it. They took time to reflect, discuss and share their understanding and in all that time I didn’t hear league tables mentioned once – but references to children and young people repeatedly. I’m still receiving emails from participants now, who continue to reflect on their experiences and learning during the workshops. If I could speak the language fluently I think I’d live in the Czech Republic!”.

One such participant wrote to Michael to share her thoughts, “Most of all I appreciated your continuous analysis. It helped me to see the real problems and on the other hand the key principles of teaching. Of course I know the principle of “small steps” that we should take with the children to lead them safely to success, but only when I experienced it with you in simple games, only then I fully realised what it means and how small these steps may be or must be used for us to be successful. I was enthusiastic about your levels in the simplest games – and it taught me so much: I saw that I don’t need to introduce all the rules right from the beginning or I don’t have to stick to them right from the beginning, that it is better to let children cope with the game and become more strict on further levels – that was a revelation!”

MS Cz image 1Michael has also received great feedback about how he demonstrated and deconstructed the moment all drama teachers experience, where a group go off in an unexpected direction that appears totally at odds with the direction other groups have taken. For inexperienced (and experienced) teachers this can be a moment of real significance both for the drama itself and for group dynamics. During this workshop, it gave rise to some heated discussions from committed participants but as Michael says, “You can’t expect to create tension in your dramas, if you do not allow tension in your discussions”. By the end of the workshop, participants had not only felt tension from within – and without – the drama but also now understood how to manage similar scenarios in their own classrooms.

The afternoons at the festival were dedicated to children and young people performing their theatre for each other, workshop participants, and those who came to watch from the University of Prague. At first when Michael had said he watched 3 Children’s Theatre performances each afternoon, we thought he meant theatre made by adults for children from the way he spoke of the performances, but in fact it was all made by those as young as 6 and up to 16 years old. “The opportunity to see so many children as makers of theatre for theatre audiences – they were not family and friends – was such an amazing experience. Their understanding of their own theatre making was then deepened as, together with their co-performers, they were given the opportunity to explain their processes and decisions through facilitated discussion groups. The level of analysis and the ability to critically articulate their own performance and that of others was quite extraordinary”.

It was not only the children who joined discussion groups after the three performances. There was an adult discussion group who had similar discussions with the directors/leaders of these children’s theatre groups. Michael had attended both discussion groups and found the analysis and discussions almost as interesting as the performances themselves. “It reminds me of the concept ‘Verbal Arts’: the ability to articulate your ideas  verbally. I think that this is where most working class people tend to fall down in society, as the ability to eloquently speak on a matter for a long period of time on a single thought is a real skill. In the Czech Republic the way in which they develop ‘Verbal Arts’ is through their drama and theatre. It doesn’t need to be delivered that way but there is a real role for the arts in this, as it provides context to develop this skill.”

We asked Michael what he brought back with him from the experience, “There were many memorable performances and pieces of theatre throughout the week but the one that will probably stay with me the longest was “Chocolate”; watching a young performer play with an audience’s attention as he stood, centre stage, hairdryer in hand, melting a Lindt Chocolate Easter Bunny.   It was as risky and playful a moment of theatre equal to any I have seen by professional theatre companies. In discussion groups we discovered that this piece of theatre, which explored difference and racism, started from a moment of play in the rehearsal room; it shows when play is taken seriously where it can lead you.”

Michael’s experience of this conference has started a discussion at changing cultures of where else there are exciting opportunities to develop practice and experience high quality arts for and by young people. Who else is delivering children’s youth theatre conferences like this or perhaps something similar with a seriousness given to practice and reflection?

MS CZ article 1st pageTo find out more about the festival you can visit DENÍK DĚTSKÉ SCÉNY and read the article featuring Michael’s workshops (if you read Czech). If you don’t read Czech then Michael would be happy for you to get in touch to find out more.


Posted in news | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From Ideas to Reality

Floor 39 photo
I have realised (I know that many have already realised this) that London is an entirely different country to the rest of England.  It has it’s own culture, own style of infrastructure and its own economy.  Why has this suddenly dawned on me? I think I knew it already but I really knew it from attending the Remix Conference 2014 subtitled ‘From Ideas to Reality’ on 16th July. Continue reading

Posted in views | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Case study: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO)

Since the inaugural concert in 1920, conducted by Sir Edward Elgar, the CBSO has grown into a 90-piece ensemble with a worldwide reputation, performing to over 300,000 people a year. As the resident orchestra of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, the CBSO performs around 130 concerts each year, touring extensively in the UK and internationally, ensuring Birmingham is placed firmly on the map. Continue reading

Posted in case studies | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rebus A Rebus!

ideapinksmallDid you know that almost 50% of the brain is involved in visual processing?  People will remember 80% of what they see and do, but only 20% of what they read and it also only takes 150ms for a symbol to be processed and 100ms to attach meaning to it. Continue reading

Posted in views | Tagged | Leave a comment

Case study: Woodlands Infant School

Woodlands Infant School is a two form entry school with it’s own Nursery with two part-time classes teaching through to the end of Year 2. It’s location is in Shirley, Solihull not far from the east of Birmingham’s border.

changing cultures Directors all worked with Woodlands during its time as a Creative Partnerships School in 2008 to 2011 with Claire Marshall supporting them throughout and continuing to work with them into 2012. Continue reading

Posted in case studies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Claire Marshall selected to be a National Leader of Governance

WNO close upOur own Claire Marshall who is the Chair of Governors for James Brindley School and a governor at Rookery School – both in Birmingham, has been chosen for a National role supporting other Chairs of Governors to improve governance and school performance. Continue reading

Posted in news | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Collaborate / Co-Operate – What’s the Difference?

As you can see from the previous post, our Director Nicola Richardson has been speaking at the Radi! conference in Riga, Latvia.

The item that leapt out at me from her company report, was the fact that in Latvian, there is only one word – SADARBIBA – to cover both Collaboration and Co-Operation, and that the meaning is closer to the latter. Continue reading

Posted in views | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment