Through the Arts, Inspiring Tomorrow’s Innovators
photo courtesy Bill Strickland
Bill Strickland may not be familiar with the term “21st Century skills,” but he’s been helping kids build them and a whole lot more for years at his urban arts centers. The centers began in Pittsburgh in 1968 and are being replicated across the country. Strickland says the model teaches kids “how to have confidence that the problems they’re encountering are solvable.”
Remake Learning: I was really struck by your story of stumbling on someone making pottery and how that changed your life. What do you think it was that captured your imagination so intensely?
Bill Strickland: With pottery you take something that’s basically lifeless, and in minutes you can create something—a vessel, a jar, a bowl. It’s magical.
And you’ve taken that sense of magic so far. Do you feel that exposing kids to some sort of artistic endeavor is an intrinsically good way to get them engaged with learning?
Absolutely. I think that kids are built for creative activity. Kids learn to run, sing, play, and color. Those are all artistic endeavors. For the first five years of their lives, that’ll almost exclusively be how kids learn. I think it’s how we’re built as humans. Creative activity releases a part of your consciousness that is essential to mental and physical health. And this isn’t a theory. This is real. I got to experience it as a young adult, and it’s the insight that led me to create the Manchester Craftsman Guild.
I had the good fortune to be talking to John Seely Brown the other day, and he was saying that what was happening with STEM was a tragedy. He said there is nothing more important than learning art and music. Why do you think our culture is so resistant to this idea?
It’s considered a secondary experience, and so isn’t allowed to take its rightful place as part of the legitimate discipline of learning—something that can contribute to our overall general welfare. Many people don’t understand what a significant role the arts play in our daily life. You wouldn’t have automobile design if it weren’t for artists.
Right. And I’d imagine what you’re saying goes way beyond people who want to be in the arts as professionals. Rather it’s a way of thinking, right? A way of approaching the world that will serve people no matter what they do professionally.
People are a function of their environments. If you create a beautiful environment, you get beautiful kids. If you create prisons, you get prisoners.
That’s what my program is built on. We have 500 kids a week who come to us after school for exposure to and immersion in the arts. Most of these kids do not have “artistic aptitudes,” whatever that means. But they have expressed interest. What we’ve learned is it becomes a very powerful incentive for kids to stay in school and go off to professional careers. The thing that gets them to that point is exposure to the arts and also to the whole sociology of developing relationships, building self-confidence, and discovering the ability to achieve something. All those skills come into play when you expose kids to the arts. It’s an intelligence just as important as anything that happens in math.
How did you go from your initial instinctual realization to actually building what you built? How does that actually happen?
When I graduated high school, I wanted to keep my hands in clay. In order to do that, I had to figure out how to get a studio. That coincided with the riots in
And you insisted it wasn’t just a pottery space in some basement somewhere. It had to be a nice environment with world-class equipment and world-class people coming in and out. Can you talk about that?
I think people need beauty. I think it’s important to quality of life. People have a tendency to match their behavior to the environment in which they’re put. If the first thing you do when you walk into school is go through a metal detector, you’re already thinking you’re in jail. People are a function of their environments. If you create a beautiful environment, you get beautiful kids. If you create prisons, you get prisoners.
Have you had any problems at your centers?
We have eight centers we own and operate. Not one of them has a metal detector, and not one of them has had a fight, a drug or alcohol incident, or a police call in years.
How would you describe the nuts and bolts of how learning experiences are developed in your centers?
We have motivated faculty, professionally trained in the craft that they’re teaching. We don’t have gym teachers teaching art. It’s world-class craftsmen and artists teaching. I give them maximum flexibility to design the curriculum. They can change the curriculum on a dime if it’s not meeting the needs of the kids. We’re constantly innovating, constantly updating. I go out of my way to make sure the kids have the best equipment that money can buy and the best faculty. Then you get the best kids and the best outcomes.
What else have you learned over the years?
Children deeply need structure. They need goals. They need to be given outcomes and objectives. And more importantly, at the end of the day, they need to feel that somebody cares about them. Many of these kids are coming from environments where there are no parents or only one parent. They’re dealing with welfare, drugs, poverty and violence. We create an environment for them that says, “We care about you. We’re not going away. We’re here for the long term. You’re part of us, now, so let’s go.”
You’ve really been ahead of the curve on some ideas about learning that have now flipped more into the mainstream. Do you like what you’re seeing?
I’m encouraged by what I see, but I’m not convinced yet. I see some signs of life, finally, but we have a lot of catch up to do. The country is behind. We’ve gotten too damn bureaucratic and too preoccupied with magic bullets, which don’t actually exist. My message is, “Look, we’ve got some pretty factual stuff now that tells us we’re on the right path.” Now we’ve got to scale up and take it to the level where we can really begin to make a difference in the direction of the country.
You lead me right to my next question about scalability.
We have eight centers open—San Francisco, Grand Rapids, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Boston, Buffalo, New Haven, and our first rural center, in Brockway, Pennsylvania. They’ve been around now for eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve years. We know the model works, and that I don’t have to be there in person to run them. It’s possible to create local organizations, with local leadership and local funding. So I believe it’s a scalable model. The goal is to build 200 centers around the world.
I feel like people’s conception of what scale means has been changing. That it’s gone from trying to do the exact same thing in different locations to figuring out what’s going to work in a specific location.
That’s how we operate. We’re not McDonald’s. We’re not stamping out hamburgers. What we’re doing is creating a strategy in each community. You base your programs on what the needs are locally. That’s the smart play. It’s the values and the attitude that are scalable. For example, every space has to be beautiful. No used equipment. Motivated faculty. And so on.
I’ve heard you talk about “perseverance,” How does that play out here?
The kids start with us in eighth or ninth grade. They stay with us through high school graduation. That is one of the big reasons our program works. You’ve got to be around for a while in order to get someplace. We have a chance to help the kids develop skills and internalize values. That’s the whole point. It’s not three weeks. It’s not a trip to the museum. It’s a long-term strategy.
People talk a lot about 21st century skills. What do you think?
What the hell is that?
It’s asking what do people need to know moving into the future? I think disposition is better language. So let me put it to you this way: What do you think are the most important dispositions that kids need to have today?
How to think. How to solve problems. I don’t care whether it’s making a pot, taking a picture, or doing math. It isn’t about STEM. It’s about learning. I have kids in the Pittsburgh center on the vocational side who are doing all kinds of STEM—engineering, biochemistry, and biotech. They have no background in science but within twelve months they’re going. Why? Because we’ve taught them how to think and how to have confidence that the problems they’re encountering are solvable. Humans created our problems. Humans can solve them. Give kids confidence, create a predictable environment and encourage them. These are the things that allow people to learn.