Dr Nick Owen MBE PLUS

Working in and on the Business of Cultural Education


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Questions for educators: what’s your Galileo moment?

I led the  “Galileo – and still it moves” project back in the day when we thought Pluto was still a planet.  A small cluster of us – film makers Enormous Films, designer Cathy Cross and outdoor artist, Joe Smedley -worked with year 5 children at St. Gabriel’s Primary School in Knowsley to explore the planets and in doing so, develop their literacy and oracy skills.

We started off by researching Galileo and what he went through when he challenged the orthodoxy of the day ie that the sun revolves around the earth, rather than the other way around. We explained to the children about how badly he was treated and what a genius he was and how he suffered for his knowledge. All of which is no doubt true.

Although perhaps it’s not. One of interesting moments was when a young girl, when being told by one of us that Pluto was a planet, challenged us with the recent finding that Pluto was no longer deemed a planet but a dwarf planet, or a rock cluster of minor significance or just a large ice pack or something to that effect. Our colleague then responded to the challenge that as far as he was concerned, Pluto had been a planet when he was at school, still was a planet, and would be for the rest of his days.  Had Galileo been in the room at the time, he would have probably nodded sagely, shrugged his shoulders and motioned to the young girl to keep quiet as any further dispute would probably get her into trouble: and he should know, given the amount of trouble he had gotten into during his life time.

The irony of our colleague’s response was of course not lost on the Year 5 pupil who sat through the rest of the lesson with a slightly bemused look on her face. What we deem as knowledge is as uncertain and as flaky as it was in Galileo’s day.

So, what’s been your Galileo moment?

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Tips for Educators: it depends how you count ’em.

It depends how you count ’em…” has been a constant refrain through the cultural education exchange visit in Finland I made in March as part of the Culture for Cities and Regions project, funded by Eurocities.  Whether it’s golf courses in Espoo (7 or 8), municipalities in Helsinki (4 or 14) or lakes in Finland (187,888 plus or minus), it all depends on how you count them. For phenomena which you might think are pretty unequivocal (when is a golf course not a golf course?), it turns out that there is a lot more to a thing than meets the eye.

Walking along the coast line of the Tooivo Kuulas park one morning you could see why. One moment the lake looks like an impressively large pond; the next it stretches way off into the distance and conjures up memories of Balaton Lake in Hungary; yet soon enough you find out that it’s not a lake at all but just another link in the supply chain to the Baltic Sea.

It struck me that the same case could be said for student attainment. How can a country’s education system said to be performing well? Through its ratings on the PISA scale? Numbers of students who graduate into work on completion of their undergraduate study? Aggregated ratings on a mental health scale of well being? Like the lakes in Finland, it depends on how you count them. My top PISA rating may be nothing more than a drop in your Baltic Sea when it comes to evaluating the relevance those ratings have on learners’ lives.

Whilst it’s temporarily startling that Espoo has a disputed number of golf courses in its territory, it is comforting to think that if we can’t count golf courses with confidence, we can confidently be a little less confident about the value of numbers when it comes to understanding the effects of cultural education on our children.