School is where fun goes to die: An interview with Jeff Robin | Nicola Conraths | 6 Min Read

Jeff Robin’s new book Teach Like an Artist shows us how to come alive again. 

A big, inconspicuous FedEx box tangled up in scotch tape greeted me on the doorstep as I returned from Europe. Its content,  Jeff Robin’s newest book, Teach like an Artist, promised a different kind of trip.  A CBD gummy comes closest to describing my hallucinatory reading experience: fast-paced, colorful, imaginative, literary, scientific, romantic, questioning, probing, and — maddening. Here is a book with the bones to make us come alive again, by making.

Why aren’t we all teaching like artists?

Storyteller of projects, Jeff Robin is widely considered a pioneer of Project-Based Learning (PBL). I’m morbidly thinking that many innovators are destined to become understood in the afterlife…Van Gogh, Galileo, …ugh, Robin? I sure hope not. He was a founding teacher at High Tech High School in San Diego and covered every square inch of the school in student-made art. 

Jeff believes that making stuff will forever change you. 

Now retired from High Tech High and a little grumpy about the resistance he faced at times, Jeff resolved to write this book to give us evidence of the rich learning that springs from a collaborative curriculum. Unapologetic about his role in stirring things up — “Yes I always got into trouble, that’s my job as an artist!”— Jeff’s students and colleagues took issue with his dreams. 

Sustainability, economics, religion, medicine, immigration, war. Art is how the ideas are represented; biology, physics, math, history, political science, and human narrative is how you get to make them into a thing.  This requires a deep dive into multiple disciplines that takes months to complete.  Your head might even spin in a calculicious sort of way when you try to follow the algebra required for each student to build a…chair! 

It seems to me that building a chair is a fine artifact to produce in high school. Teens sit for 8 hours a day, or 2912 hours a year. You and I? A little less. The health repercussions on the body and mind are substantial across a lifetime. 

Students take a stand when they build their chairs. The mathematical formula ensures that the thing they make will stand or break, and with it comes learning about algebra. The art and idea of it, the lines, the material, and the edges are an individual human message that will either delight or disturb you. For the artist-scholar, the chair is an extension of self at a certain point in time. Perhaps a student would choose to design a hellishly uncomfortable chair, messaging us to use it less? Or build the perfect chair for their own proportions, never to be left without the owner’s butt in their seat. Jeff’s students design bistro chairs, for the common good of eating out. If it were up to Jeff, this project would have to be followed by a trip to Paris. Voila! 

Learning like this, through direct experiences, was a radical idea brought to America by philosopher John Dewey. Influenced by a few bold European innovators, such as Locke, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Reddie, Dewey knew that learning by head and hand matched the Zeitgeist. He also cared deeply about democracy and saw schools as the incubator for good citizenship. Still, a young nation that was poised to lead through industry, science, and the arts was bound to favor an entrepreneurial educational model. The old continent had been teaching à la Downton Abbey for centuries and must have seemed so impractical. Why learn French? Or hear mass in Latin? Living a life of leisure, the educated spent hours writing convoluted existential poems, plucking the lyre, hunting with corgis, and engaging in pseudo-political after-dinner conversation — amongst men only. 

In contrast, the 20th Century American workforce needed to invent things, make things, produce things, and sell them. Hence, when Columbia University founded the Lincoln School of Teacher’s College in 1915, the mission pledged to remove all that was obsolete and focus education on the needs of modern living. Teachers were educated in four main pillars of knowledge: industry, science, aesthetics, and civics. 

Reading this, you may realize that not a lot of new ideas have emerged since then. Who teaches aesthetics these days? Teach like an Artist brings the conversation around beauty and art back to the table, with a postmodern angle. It would be nice to think that Independent Schools could have pushed the momentum of progressive education forward collectively, but that mission was not realized. Few schools have the capacity needed to do it successfully. A bit of a fad now, collaboration is the extra thing that overworked teachers are expected to do on top of their load. With appropriate support, could project-based learning come full circle, implemented in every school? 

“Education, it’s a wave. Things come and go. John Dewey predicted that PBL would never make it, and that was a hundred years ago! Design-Thinking is what everyone is talking about now, putting process front and center… doesn’t get you anywhere. You have to get to Design-DOING.”

How does he suggest we do it? Make a prototype of anything before you teach it! That is Jeff’s secret sauce and you can see concrete examples on every page of this beautiful book. As an artist and teacher, this exercise is unavoidable. It helps with determining timing, sourcing materials, and fine-tuning content with your collaborators. You’ll also share how you screwed up, of course. 

“You have to be a practitioner; artists always are. Do the project yourself first, be vulnerable,  and you will learn so much and be a better teacher because of it.”

But why is it so difficult to bring collaborative projects to fruition even now, when administrators desire nothing more than for teachers to collaborate and grants abound?

“Teachers are worried about sticking their neck out, worried about being criticized if they veer off the page. Schools have become the place where fun goes to die.”

He hammers the nail into the coffin even further, nice and clean; he’s done this before.

“It’s death by a thousand papercuts for teachers. Working with 50 kids in one classroom for seven hours a day does not make for life-work balance or equity in teaching.”

So why aren’t we all teaching like artists again?  The crux of the matter is time and schedule. Collaborations require a doubled time commitment for each additional person on the teaching team. Simply adding a project into the syllabus as a substitution for a final exam is not what Jeff is showing us here. All projects in this book are astonishing displays of discipline, scholarship, and creativity. Humanity and fun simply jump off the page.

We also talked about the hard times teachers find themselves in. With a twinkle in his eyes,  Jeff reminded me of great art that came out of hard times: Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism, and Abstract Expressionism.  

Wouldn’t it be amazing if making could be the medicine to get society going again?”

Teach Like an Artist will be a soulmate to many of us, who just need a little encouragement to walk across the hall, peek our head into a favorite colleagues’ classroom, and utter: want to make something together?

You can see more of Jeff’s work on his lovely website including a video about Teach Like an Artist.

Ready to buy? Email Jeff and Venmo him $20. International shipping can be arranged, contact him for details. 

Nicola Conraths

Nicola Conraths has worked in independent schools for 15 years, serving as Director of Artistic Studies at Walnut Hill School for the Arts and as director of Comparative Arts and dance instructor at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Nicola merges her many interests into projects that connect unlikely topics, people, and places. Recently she has worked with New England Conservatory Prep School, Boston Ballet, YOLA/LA Phil, and SMOC/Headstart schools. Her newest venture, Das Surrealistische Büro, is a consulting capsule for tangential thinking. She lives in Detroit.

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