Richard Gerver: "Kids have the skills that companies are looking for"

Now an adviser sought after by governments and institutions, the British former teacher argues for art and culture as drivers of change in companies

  Richard Gerver, advisor to the UK government and inaugural speaker at CultHunting Day
Richard Gerver, advisor to the UK government and inaugural speaker at CultHunting Day
Richard Gerver (London, 1969), like Ken Robinson, is a great speaker. His major success was turning the Grange Primary School, which was one of the worst-performing schools in Great Britain, into one of the most creative and innovative schools in the world, a feat that won him Best Headteacher in the British National Teaching Awards. Since then, Gerver has become one of the most sought-after educational thinkers by governments and institutions opting for a model in which creativity and innovation are the driving forces behind survival.

Author of a number of books and a collaborator of Google, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley and the Catalan firm Puig, among others, Gerver acted as an advisor on educational policy to the Tony Blair government and during Hillary Clinton's recent presidential campaign. "If Donald Trump's team had asked me, I would also have advised them; I'm a primary school teacher from London who has had the privilege of being part of history," he says during an interview with VIA Empresa.

This week Richard Gerver was in Barcelona for two days to give the inaugural address at CultHunting Day, a conference that on Tuesday held its fifth edition and whose aim is to revolutionise the business sector through art and culture.

Some 65% of today's primary school children will end up doing jobs that still do not exist. What should their education be like?
We prepare pupils to live in an environment of certainty. We educate our children according to parameters from the 1950s, parameters that worked very well in the industrial era, such as memorising routines. Now, if we do not know what the jobs of the future will be like, we have to start changing the education system; children need to be prepared to live in an environment of uncertainty, to be ready to learn continuously, to be curious, to solve problems, to be creative and to work together. We created the problems in the world today, but the new generations will have to solve them. It will be impossible for them to do so with the same knowledge and methods we, or even our grandparents, learnt.

All of these characteristics of children are the most sought-after on LinkedIn...
Exactly! I have spent most of my working life as a teacher of small children, but in the past 10 years I have worked with global organisations like Google, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Puig ... All of these companies want their employees to be creative, more flexible, resilient, to take on risk. These employees exist, the problem is that they are under five years of age! How is it that all of the skills that organisations want their employees to have are the definition of a child? When we ask ourselves: "How can we make adults more creative, innovative and business-minded?" we are asking the wrong question. What we should ask is what is it that we do as a society that means we lose these abilities. We are born curious, innovative... Some 75% of what we learn in our lives we learn before we are five years old: body language, vocalisation... All children like singing because no one has told them they sing badly or that they should not do it.

How can art and culture help boost creativity in companies?
When we talk about bringing culture and art to an organisation, we should not imagine all of the employees painting; it is mental stimulation. People cannot be creative if they have the same everyday experience; creativity requires new experiences. Change and transformation are human processes. Organisations do not understand that we have to transform how people think and behave and, in this sense, art and culture are tools that can be used to bring about this transformation.

Richard Gerver is one of the keynote speakers at CultHunting Day. Haidy Blanch

Companies want results and they want them in the short-term...
We have to be careful. Art and culture are not the answer. It is about employees having new experiences to stimulate critical thinking. You only have to look at this century's more dynamic organisations: part of the reason why they have been so successful is because they have a different cutlural framework; they are not burdened by the legacy of history. Google offers its employees cultural and artistic experiences, not because it wants to create a good image, but because it is part of its strategy. Pixar has the Pixar University (set up the year after Toy Story came out) in which each employee, for a week, has to leave their job and explore a new discipline, such as sculpture, drawing or cookery. The only condition is that the employee cannot do anything connected with their daily work, it has to be related to their passion for something.

We measure everything; we love scales and league tables. How can creativity and innovation be measured?
A process of innovation cannot be designed to get results. We are too focused on results, on profits, on exam marks...and we forget the quality of the process itself. We have to develop a new process of evaluation, with different parameters to the ones we use now. Innovation is not contrary to productivity; if we look at the modern business world, innovation drives productivity. One day the Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, who by the way is a brilliant guitar player, said to me: "There is a lot of rubbish written about Steve Jobs but one thing that made Steve Jobs a genius was that he firmly believed that Apple had to create new things, that it had to invent. If we simply spend our time producing brilliant and successful products, in three years the company will be dead. His premise was: 'It is better to invent products and services that fail than produce things that work'." This is the culture behind entrepreneurs. A way needs to be found to constantly stimulate the imagination.

One of your successes was turning one of the worst schools in London into one of the most innovative schools in the world. How did you go about that?
We had the typical failed school, in fact the British government wanted to close it. I knew that learning comes from experience and that if we wanted our pupils to develop skills, we had to make maths and languages more relevant, because showing them textbooks and telling them that this knowledge is important to pass the exam is not enough. We created a city inside the school, a society in which the pupils had businesses, a television and radio programme, where they talked about their company profits, the budgets, communication, the investment needed to make their projects more sustainable... And that in a school in which the oldest pupils were 11! In two years, we doubled the exam results because we created a culture of learning through experience, not just because you have to pass a test.

Do we learn more from doing what is right, or through making mistakes?
We only learn if we make mistakes. You will never learn anything new if you always do things well. It is a mistake to think that everything we do we have to do well, correctly and the first time we do it. Adolescents become increasingly withdrawn because they worry about making mistakes or looking ridiculous in front of their classmates. The reason why when we are under five we learn more than at any other period in our lives, is because no child under five is worried about making mistakes. The best students are those who have the courage to get things wrong.
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