From education to employment

Too many cooks

Over the last few years the numbers in post-16 education have continued to grow, the variety of courses available expand, and the intensity of exams increased. Yet youth unemployment is at a high and employers complain that graduates lack necessary workplace skills. The reason? ‘Education is different to the life it intends to prepare you for’.

This is the view of Joe Reddington who, along with Doug Cowie, a fellow computer scientists at Royal Holloway in London, performed an experiment called Too Many Cooks. The idea was not a creative or social endeavour, but scientific and academic: to write books, using the borrow teamwork principles from software engineering to create narrative. Start with nothing, work for one week, nine-to-five and finish with a novel.

Twelve novels later and they’ve created more than a science experiment. As well as highlighting new ways to approach the creative experience, they’ve given students opportunities, aspirations and visions that they may have otherwise been lacking. Teachers have noted the improvement in self-esteem, initiative, conceptions of success and interpersonal skills, even in such a short space of time.

It is this kind of collaboration and interaction that is important to employers, but many students do not get the chance to experience in ordinary education circumstances. The techniques used let people be more inventive, resourceful and think more imaginatively in a group than they would on their own and, as a result, thrive.

The other thing that these students get is a physical product. In a world of assessment and grading, it is rare to physically produce something that can be seen by the world. The realm of author and publishing is held up as something magical and intangible, but can in fact be achieved by anyone – anyone with motivation and the mindset to commit, trust their partners, communicate with the team, and work hard.

Now a group from the university run White Water Writers, a voluntary project to train teachers and youth leaders to run inspiration literacy camps. The camps give a group of 10 young people an idea for a story on a single side of A4. The writers, which have included students from Croydon College, Wilmington Academy and Strode’s College, amongst others, take the idea, workshop it, develop it, story board it, draft it, proof it, refine it and polish it. After four and a half days – they publish it.

It’s not the first time that this collaborative style of writing has been trialled. Back in 1989 the novel Caverns was published, a way for Ken Kesey to teach creative writing to 13 students at the University of Oregan. His idea was for the students to write together, in a classroom, in one narrative voice. This was a collaboration, each member described as being like a member of a football team, and one of few examples of composite novel.

What is unique about Too Many Stories is how it has grown and developed from this experiment to a socially relevant and valuable venture to enrich the lives of children. Online you can find projects such as Story Mash, where readers vote on the next part of a story to be written, and writers get scribbling away. Book Sprints sees professionals and technical experts put together information in a book to be disseminated within 5 days. Storytelling is a known tool for growth and inspiration, and Nick Hornby’s Ministry of Stories or LA’s Young Writer’s Project have both achieved admirable results with young people, nurturing them to write.

Crucially, what all of these experiments and projects show is the importance of working outside of the usual boundaries of education and structure . Of allowing students to explore for themselves and test the boundaries of what they thought they knew. And if it can help create the kind of adults that we need in the world of tomorrow – well isn’t that what education is for?

Francesca Baker is a freelance writer, covering education, marketing and events – visit her blog at And So She Thinks

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