Why Banff means the world


I’m at the Banff Centre in Canada, where artists come from all over the world to create new work. Many are single-minded. Some are even eccentric. A few have flunked conventional education, and the Banff Centre is the first institution they’ve engaged with in which they are understood. I’ve watched singers perform while snow falls lazily outside the window, listened to writers read from tender new work, and been in light-filled studios with visual artists who turn ordinary photographs into something beautiful.

I’ve also been moved by the geography of the place – the Banff Centre is in the Rocky Mountains in Canada’s first national park, a world heritage area and one of the greatest landscapes on Earth. Here, one can be inspired by art in the context of nature, an increasingly rare human experience. Like nature, art can transform our lives, but like nature the creation of art is imperilled in the 21st century and I don’t think it’s coincidental. Being at the Banff Centre has made me reflect on what we lose when we don’t foster art, when we don’t foster creativity. And what we lose is the world.


I’m a big fan of Sir Ken Robinson, who reviewed school education in the UK in 1998 and now talks internationally about creativity and passion. Robinson believes schools are operating in an old paradigm that privileges literacy, numeracy and science. Increasing standardisation presumes everyone is the same. “Many people in schools are laboring under this sort of dead culture of continuous testing,” Robinson has said of the UK system. “And one of the results of it has been to reduce the curriculum, to narrow it.” What gets lost, according to Robinson, is creativity in all its forms.

In Australia, we’ve embraced this narrowing of the curriuculm so wholeheartedly that the education system now operates like a big Victorian-era school, with a stick to punish bad behaviour and rewards for conformity. Literacy, numeracy and science are valued. Music, dance, the visual arts and story-making are add-ons if they’re offered at all, even at primary school when children dance, draw, sing and make up stories without being asked. 

But even as school education becomes increasingly narrow in its focus, we’re also seeing a decline in performance on the very outcomes that standardisation seeks to improve. The recently published 2012 PISA literacy, maths and science test results show Australia’s performance has declined in the last decade, the decade we introduced a national curriculum and started a literacy and numeracy testing framework, the high stakes NAPLAN test, with results published by school. We’re getting further behind countries like Finland, where there’s no national curriculum and teachers are highly trained, relatively free agents. And despite the huge cost of NAPLAN, which, we were told, would improve literacy and numeracy, results remain pretty much where they were at the start. I suspect this will change eventually, and the graph will go up to the right on NAPLAN, but it won’t be because we’re achieving better educational outcomes. It will be because teachers and schools learn how to get better marks on the test, which will continue to marginalise everything else, including creativity, in education.

There’s been a lot of focus on Shanghai, the city (China opts not to report national results) that owned the 2012 PISA tests, with 15 year olds ahead of their Australian peers by a year or more. But educators themselves in China are saying Shanghai students do well because they’re drilled so hard. Students are graduating with little capacity for creativity which in business means innovation. What I suspect the Chinese are realising is that creativity in all its forms is necessary for economic growth in the 21st century. But I believe it’s also the only quality other than human love with the power to make us better humans, who can engage meaningfully with the natural world.

As I sit in my room and watch the mountains, listening to the trail of a contraband sax down the hall (you’re supposed to play in the soundproofed studios in the forest), reading a piece by a Scottish writer, I am grateful for artists. In our 21st century world, we surely need them.


Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 18 January 2014. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!