Corrupting the youth of Switzerland.

I’ve just completed the first leg of my European crusade: a week in Switzerland. Basel is a lovely medieval city along the Rhine right on the edge of Germany and France. It’s home to loads of banks and pharmaceutical corporations and two dozen museums — some with extremely contemporary contemporary art, one which is the size of a doorway.

I’ll tell you more about my visit to the city in another post. Today I’ll just try to summarize why I was there.

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Important skills: focus and self-starting.

Last winter, I was invited to be an artist-in-residency at the International School of Basel this September. Perhaps you remember that a year ago, I was in residency at another ISB (the International School of Beijing) and had a lovely and illuminating time, so this invitation was very welcome. I was pumped to spend more time with kids, making art, and wallowing in their creative energy. Additional pluses: I’ve never been to Switzerland and, of course, Basel is a mecca for art.

My week began with a school assembly. Six hundred children under the age of 11 sat on the ground while I introduced myself and talked about all we would do in the week ahead.

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The future.

Then each morning at 8:15,  I’d let a couple hundred kids and their teachers into my gigantic office/studio/lecture hall and showed them films and gave them creative assignments. We drew breakfast and lunch and shoes and upside-down bicycles and portraits and more. We made enormous murals that covered all the halls and stair wells. We ended the week with a sprawling field trip to the natural history museum to draw dinosaurs and endangered animals and then drew the cathedral and the twisting medieval streets.

It didn’t stop in my classroom. The kids went home at night mad for drawing. Each morning, moms and dads came into the school with stories of  kids transformed. They filled up sketchbooks at home, drew with their parents and teachers, insisted that nobody eat their dinners until they had been drawn.

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Important skill: observation

After school on Tuesday, I met with all the teachers and showed them how art had opened my eyes. I told them that art is not just for art class — it’s for learning about the world and can be applied to any discipline, from literature to social studies to science to music to gym. I pulled out examples of my travel journals, of my investigations into homelessness, fishing in Manhattan, and dogs in coats. I showed them my maps and Koosje’s recipes and the SBS students’ instruction manuals.

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Important skill: problem solving

The next day, an inspired math teacher asked her 4th graders to make drawings that explain the concept of ’rounding up’ numbers. She showed me dozens of stories and watercolors the kids made in response to her assignment. They were all different, all clear, all beautiful. She was able to see how well they understood the concept and they could use their pieces to teach the 3rd graders this concept.

On Thursday evening, I met with the parents and told them why I had come to Basel and why I thought it mattered that their kids had started keeping illustrated journals.

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Important skills: collaboration and communication

It was to prepare them for the future — not a future as professional artists necessarily, but as successful people in an ever-changing world. The days of being able to assume that a well-educated person could finish school, get a corporate job, and rise up the ladder till retirement, are over. Instead, kids need to be prepared for the unforeseeable. Technology is upending every industry, traditional jobs are withering while new opportunities are springing up in surprising places. Change is the constant. Kids need to learn to swim in it.

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Important skill: Innovation and problem solving

Parents can no longer assume that a traditional education in math, science, literature, language and history will be enough prepare a child for the future. A crucial new skill will be the ability to think creatively. That doesn’t mean dabbling in fingerpaints, but knowing how to spark innovations, to develop ideas, to present them clearly and persuasively, to find resources and collaborators to bring them to fruition, to build networks, to be entrepreneurial. I told them that’s why I supported my own son’s plan to go to art school, so he could learn skills I think will be essential to his future. If he had majored in English or pre-med, I wouldn’t have the same sense of confidence that I had given him the necessary tools.

I told them that they should look at art not just as a sign of being cultured, a middle-class luxury, but as a key component of their children’s total education. I suggested they insist the school’s administration support and look for ways to incorporate art and creativity into all aspects of the curriculum.

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Important skill: optimism

If a student is encouraged to look everywhere for inspiration, to combine ideas into new ones, to replace competition with collaboration, to accept mistakes and ambiguity and learn from them, to have faith in the creative process, to know how to overcome its pitfalls, only then will he or she be prepared for a world full of self-driving cars, delivery drones, mobile apps, and Donald Trump.

Knowledge alone is no longer power — it’s something that pops up in your browser. Knowing how to use that knowledge to create new ideas and solve new problems, that will be the source of true power, a power that will serve all mankind.

22 thoughts on “Corrupting the youth of Switzerland.”

  1. You are giving a life long gift to all these children and showing a new concept of teaching to the teachers. I have taken all your SBS classes and my life has changed. I learned a whole new way to look at everything in my life. Oh how I wish I were a little child in your class instead of being 67!! I would have many more years to enjoy art as part of a long life!!! I do hope your project with children and art is something you will share with children in all parts of the USA along with these lucky countries where you have been and will be traveling. Thanks for sharing your life work/art with so many!!

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  2. Great post Danny and SO hopefull!!! 🙂 – By the way, I know Basel, I’ve been there several times (I live between Ulm and Lake Constance – South Germany) and an old friend lives in Basel with his family! —- “Knowledge alone is no longer power — it’s something that pops up in your browser. Knowing how to use that knowledge to create new ideas and solve new problems, that will be the source of true power, a power that will serve all mankind” – YES, YES, YES – agreed, I love it!!! 🙂

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  3. Excellent post which reminds me of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on “Do schools kill creativity?” when he explains how when at school one was/is ‘advised’ to “Don’t do art… you’ll never be an artist – Profoundly wrong!”. Well done!

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  4. James….James, I have always been impressed with your creativity….and spirit. I can see how important that is in today’s world. So thought you might enjoy this. Loved seeing your friends again….esp. Monica, Tim, and Mason. Mom

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  5. Your messages to those children, their parents and teachers, are fantastic and ones I wholeheartedly agree with. How wonderful for a school to even have a resident artist! I wish you could spend a week in my sons’ schools inspiring them. (I give them similar messages about the importance of art and we create art together all the time but it’s always a more successful message when communicated by someone in addition to a parent.)

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  6. I had to write down your last paragraph to keep at the ready for passing along. TOO GOOD. Those lucky kids to be awoken to the potential in art. In Florida, there are whole counties that have not had art in schools for years – and art teachers are fewer to be found. Art has been removed as a credit in high school therefore, no longer valued. The stupid just keep getting stupider. Athletics, of course, is always funded under the guise of team building. Maybe they are the ones calling the shots at the state level. Or lawyers. Feel free to edit or delete this since I tend to “go off” when I start talking about the demise of art in school.

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  7. Thanks for sharing your wonderful experiences. I do agree that what our country needs is a lot more awareness of the place of art in our lives. Your efforts in this arena I do appreciate and have benefited from them personally. Applied knowledge is what knowledge was intended for. Easier said than done.How cool would an English major or Pre-med student to have a well rounded education, able to appreciate and participate in applying art in his/her life, be. Little steps. However, I do not think that anything in life can prepare one for a Donald Trump, especially with all the advertising types pushing him like a bad drug.

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  8. As a primary teacher and student from Sketch school, I loved your post! My kids in my classroom get to draw a lot. Every year I buy them drawing journals, it makes them happy. I love to be able to give them freedom to think, a chance to be creative and not just squish them in a box. Thanks Danny!

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  9. What an incredible life experience for YOU and everyone you have touched, Danny. I have seen you speak, have your books, and understand why you are so passionate. Choosing to make part of your life’s mission to share that passion is the best gift one could ever receive!! You transformed me. I can hardly stand it if I can’t sketch every day. It makes me grumpy😝😝😝. Thanks for making a difference in this world. Karen

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  10. This is wonderful, Danny! In American schools we need to be increasing art for all students, not cutting expense for the arts! Such as marvelous infectious spark you created for these Swiss students! Thanks for sharing this!

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  11. It’s been a while since a post of yours made me cry, but this one did, this time with JOY!
    Such innovation you have to share; how fortunate that school, those teachers, those children were to have had the opportunity to learn from you! You open MY EYES to the Brave New World we are or have embarked upon. I wish we could clone you/Klone you? and get you into EVERY SCHOOL in the US and world wide. Maybe your next book should be about this Danny. And others can read it, learn, and carry the torch to schools where they live and teach.

    Now tell me, how did the little girl in the pink princess dress draw that huge being in front of her on the wall; Or did the older children draw and then the younger ones came along to color in where they could reach as a collaborative work?

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  12. WOW! where were teachers like you when I was younger? Is absolutely fantastic to bring this kind of thinking to the younger generations …. there is hope!

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  13. Did you know German expressionist painters and the French fauves drew inspiration from children’s art, because they thought it taps into an authenticity that people in ‘civilised’ societies lose as they are raised and educated towards adulthood? Your words ‘wallowing in their creative energy’ made me think of that 🙂 And it sounds like your art education does the opposite of killing that intuitive creativity; you teach those kids and their teachers and parents that this is something essential that should be nurtured. Great post and great philosophy! Creative MAKING is, amongst other things, a route to develop and foster creative THINKING and DOING.

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