Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Interview with Daniel Pink on the Conceptual Age and Waldorf Schools

Daniel Pink is a horizontal thinker. He has had his hand in business, government, law, and writing among other things. He worked with U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich and was formerly chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. He is a contributing editor of Wired magazine and an independent business consultant as well as a best-selling author who chronicles the changing of the work world. In his book "A Whole New Mind," Pink argues that right-brained thinking will dominate and drive the new economy. It will no longer be enough to rely on left-brained thinking alone. He describes the Conceptual Age as the newest phase of the modern economy in which we will need to develop and incorporate the six senses of design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning for success.

Recently, I caught up with him to talk about what kinds of schools are helping their students prepare for the dawning of the Conceptual Age and how they are doing it. Following are excerpts from that interview.

How can schools improve performance through the arts?

It starts with realizing that arts education is fundamental, not ornamental. We urgently need people to think like artists. This is especially important in the work place, where everything is abundant, automated, or made in Asia more cheaply than it is here. Creativity, design and the arts will be the way to prosper and succeed in the new economy. The arts are also a way to help people reach their potential and find their element.

How can teachers use the arts as a tool to teach?

The arts in education enables teachers to explore subjects in a way that can be better understood and inter-related. History, math, science and any other subject can be taught through the arts in a way that brings them to life. The arts provide a way to connect subjects, as they are in the real world.

How do Waldorf schools fit with the dawning of the Conceptual Age?

Waldorf schools get the idea that the arts are fundamental, not ornamental. They focus on the unit of the child, not the school as an institution. They customize education for each child. Waldorf promotes autonomy and self-direction, whereas most schools actively squelch those qualities in favor of compliance, which seems to be the most important value. The irony is that compliance is much harder to achieve and it is less important in the work world.

I think Waldorf schools are very much in synch with the notion of Conceptual Age and the ideas of “A Whole New Mind”. They foster internal motivation in students, as well as mastery and persistence. They teach the habits of the heart that children need to do well in life after school.

Can you identify any education system specifically that integrates daily art into its curriculum?

Waldorf does it. Montessori does it. There are some art and design charter schools that do it well. There is an art-centered elementary school in Maryland near where I live that does a good job of it. The teachers and principals in these schools understand the necessity of the arts in education. We are not talking about replacing math with art! We are talking about bringing out math more strongly through art. The arts train people to become horizontal thinkers who can make connections. We need to rethink this whole notion of frog-marching kids from one isolated subject to another. The world does not work that way and we are doing kids a disservice to train them that subjects are separate and unrelated before they get out into the work world. The world has very porous borders and is a tangle of interconnections. Schools should be preparing them for that.

What kinds of kinds of programs or features should parents be looking for when exploring school options for their children, be it pre-school or secondary grades?

It really depends on the kid. There isn’t a formula for this, but it is not the one-size fits all approach that we have. Figure out what is engaging for your child, what he likes and is good at and pursue that.

I think the schools have a tremendous burden on them. They can’t do everything that is expected of them from parents and the government. They can’t be all things to all people. Schools are expected to teach academics, provide healthcare, nutrition, and sex education. They are supposed to build character and morals and even participate in community service. The burdens on our schools are outrageous. Parents have to share some of the load or it will collapse.

How can parents help to improve a child’s opportunities for success in the Conceptual Age?

Pay attention to what your child likes to do and is good at and give him plenty of opportunities to follow his interests toward mastery. We want them to be intrinsically motivated and to be persistent. There is a process of discovery in trying out new things: sports, music, theater, etc and parents are great coaches and facilitators in this self-discovery. Through any of these activities, kids learn valuable skills of collaboration, teamwork, persistence, and mastery. We should not be forcing them to learn a musical instrument or play a team sport if they are not interested.

If a school only devotes thirty minutes a day to creativity, what would be the most beneficial activities they could engage in with their students?

The students should sit down and write letters to their principal asking why they only have thirty minutes a day for creativity! That is not useful! We shouldn’t be having separate, isolated time for creativity and then tell them, “stop thinking creatively because now it is time for the real learning, time for math”. The idea is to master skills and content, become curious and engaged. Compartmentalizing is not going to help them achieve this; it is contrary to it.

For more on Daniel Pink, go to www.danielpink.com
To learn more on Waldorf Schools, go to http://www.whywaldorfworks.org/


  1. "It starts with realizing that arts education is fundamental, not ornamental". Poetic!
    An illustration of how to integrate the arts into the core curriculum - not just as an add-on, but actually embedded in everything the students do - is the Waldorf "main lesson book". This seemingly innocuous little device, a 8.5 X 11 blank journal of empty pages, turns the education paradigm on its head because, as Daniel points out in your interview, Tracy, the act of producing 100+ self-illustrated manuscripts from 1st to 12th grade in every subject from astronomy to zoology (rather than reading pre-printed textbooks) is all about making each student a fit unit rather than fitting the students to the institution. Sculpting a femur out of clay, for example, connects the student to the artistry of creation, to the artist in him or herself as they learn to see so they can sculpt, and all the while also accomplishes the intellectual job of learning about the human skeleton. In my experience as the parent of three Waldorf graduates, the aim is for every lesson to tell a story which the students then can write about and illustrate. Art makes learning memorable. Without art, school is just instruction.

    Thank you for your efforts!

  2. Great interview & blog. Loved Pink's book. I just found your blog via Sara Bennett. I write a blog called The Grass Stain Guru -- about restoring childhood, and saving ourselves in the process. Lots of similar themes -- unstructured play, ed reform, kids and nature, etc.

    Look forward to reading more of your work.

    Cheers- Bethe