David Bowie – What teachers can learn from the Starman

11th January 2016 is a day many will never forget, for it saw the passing of a true music legend in David Bowie. Simon Pegg commented that: “If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old, and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.” He was a man who reinvented himself countless times and remained relevant and inspirational as a musician and artist across decades.

Peter Gabriel said that: “He was a one-off, a brilliant outlier, always exploring, challenging and inspiring anyone who wanted to push the boundaries of music, art, fashion and society. There are so few artists who can touch a generation as he did, we will miss him badly.”

I quote Peter Gabriel, as his words about Bowie are words that can be readily applied to an astounding teacher. I had written before about the loss of maverick eccentric teachers, who inspired generations of students, and am reminded their ilk again by the fact that they were always “exploring, challenging and inspiring.” We all had teachers who did the same. Perhaps it was not in the fields of music and the arts but in science, mathematics or geography. But when we look bask wispily at our school days, we rarely remember what we were taught, but we always remember those who taught us! 

In an interview with Russell Harty in 1975, Bowie explained what characterised a great show. His words resonate with the educator in me, and I began to think of how his description of the key ingredients of a concert is very similar to the characteristics of an astounding lesson! I deliberately use the word astounding, given the fact that it is the word Bowie used himself and especially to avoid using the word “outstanding” given its OFSTED connotations for UK teachers.

“The impact to the show has to be the astounding thing, not the dressing of it. The dressing up the show is just a dressing as a perfunctory kind of thing. The content has to astound. You can dress a show with a trillion dollars, or trillion pounds, worth of goodies but if show is not a substantial there will be no impact.”

Just as Bowie was a “Starman”, it takes a teacher of exceptional ability to engage and inspire students truly. If we are honest, the recipe for an astounding lesson is, to a degree, intangible. As much as OFSTED, HMI, District Inspectors and the alike want to describe and even quantify “outstanding”, sometimes it is beyond explanation. Sometimes like a Bowie concert, or a Picasso masterpiece or Lionel Messi goal, it is beyond mere words. Sometimes you have to see it to believe it! Having said that, the words of Bowie do paint a picture of the essential components of astounding pedagogy. Truly extraordinary educators appreciate that quality education is not about “smoke and mirrors” or the dressing up a learning experience. These elements of a lesson are, as Bowie, in the context of one of his shows said, “perfunctory.” The critical component is that the content has to astound!

In recent times it seems discussion around the importance of content in education has been missing, with debate has primarily focused on pedagogy and practice. However, as much as a Bowie show was unforgettable, partially due to the peripheral aspects, his genius was underpinned by his music. He was a brilliant songwriter and musician. His content was the key to his success. Bowie planned his lessons – he wrote his own songs!

As we mourn the passing of a legend, we should seek to learn from his genius. Bowie was a craftsman of screen, stage, art and fashion, and we in education can be the craftsmen in our classrooms.

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