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May 31, 2008

A truly great thinker

Yesterday I went to Glasgow for the second day of the Tapestry Partnership event Learning and teaching and all that jazz. I had heard great things about the day before, when Nigel Osborne had masterminded the performance of 1000 Scottish primary children with Beats from Brazil and the Tapestry Jazz Radio Orchestra. But on Friday, I had two incentives: one was to hear Jerome Bruner, whose thinking I have admired for 40 years, and the other was a dinner in his honour at the Hotel du Vin (1, Devonshire Gardens).

In 1969 while studying for a Master in Education at Glasgow University, I first heard the Bruner hypothesis, that

Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.

This bold claim has been the subject of ill-informed ridicule by people who think it's obvious that you can't teach calculus to a young child. But a very young child on a swing can experience acceleration and slowing-down, and may feel how the rate of change varies at different parts of the arc ... If so, he or she is well on the way toward an enactive understanding of calculus. Combined with Bruner's powerful notion of the spiral curriculum, in which children revisit subjects while moving from enactive to iconic to symbolic levels, this challenges the lamentable dumbing-down which results from underestimating what and how children can learn.
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It was a pleasant surprise to hear that a man who had risen to fame in the post-Sputnik era was still alive, let alone able to travel to Glasgow and perform in public. Yesterday he held 800 teachers and others spellbound. He was not merely "amazing for a man in his 93rd year", he was simply amazing. Lucid, articulate and able to draw on a long, rich lifetime of experience, this was no routine lecture. Bruner (unlike many other Tapestry lecturers) had found out a great deal about Scottish education, had related his message to the Curriculum for Excellence and was confident enough to depart from his script. He had that remarkable knack of engaging with his audience, who rewarded him with a well-earned (but unprecedented) standing ovation.

And over dinner, I was lucky enough to be in conversation with this erudite, modest and charming man. I made the most of it. Here was my chance to ask about his journey from Harvard to take up his Chair at Oxford: he had skippered his 42-foot yacht across the Atlantic to take up this post, as you do, he explained, because shifting it by other means would have cost a silly price! He seemed to be enjoying his stay in Glasgow, having gone to Nigel Osborne's opera Differences in Demolitions the previous night, and fitted in a visit to Kelvingrove Art Gallery that afternoon. He kindly signed my copy of The Process of Education. This highly collectable book will never be up for auction on eBay, at least not in my lifetime!

June 2, 2008

Nigel is 60

Yesterday evening we went to the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh for a most remarkable event: a concert in honour of Nigel Osborne's 60th birthday. Nigel is a man of such all-embracing talent that it's easy to forget what an exceptional musician he is. After being a concert violinist, he became a renowned composer and pioneer in music as healing in war-torn countries. The people who had turned out to celebrate included the Hebrides Ensemble, the Edinburgh Quartet, members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Mostar SInfonietta. And the compere was no less than the incredibly witty Richard Stilgoe, with poems and anagrams for the occasion. He even had the whole audience singing in canon (in Serbo-Croat, obviously) just to cover the scene-changes.

It's a measure of Nigel's popularity that the event seemed to be organised largely by his students, notably Clea Friend. Seven of his students had each composed one-minute pieces specially for Nigel, so this was their "world-premier" - with the Edinburgh Quartet. What a refreshing diversity there was among them, the hallmark of a great teacher. For me, a lapsed oboist, the highlight was the stunning performance by Nicholas Daniel of Nigel's amazing oboe concerto, a work apparently delivered about 10 years after it was commissioned, but was certainly worth the wait. And what a huge treat to hear the aria from Nigel's latest opera, Differences in Demolitions. Michael Popper performed an extraordinarily moving dance (to Bach/Busoni) without ever moving his feet and Ruaraidh, Nigel's young son, played piano and guitar for his dad.

The formal part ended with Sevdah songs from Teo Krilic and friends, with lots of audience participation and scarcely a dry eye in the house. The party afterwards probably went on all night, but Keir and I had to come away, returning to Dunblane inspired and humbled by all that talent. Respect, Nigel, and remember that life begins at 60 ... from one who knows!

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