David Bowie, Student Voice, and the Inevitability of Innovation

“The first person to step foot on the red planet has already been born and could be a student in a classroom, a kid in your neighborhood, or a child in your own home… Education has always been about the future. In this age of disruption and iteration, education leaders cannot rely on the way things have been done in the past. We have to propel change and reimagine what is possible for today’s students.”
– Rachael Mann, The Martians in Your Classroom

Watching a prophetic, 1999 BBC interview with David Bowie recently brought to mind the issue of student agency in schools, particularly as it pertains to the democratization of knowledge and information that the internet has brought about. “I embrace the idea”, Bowie stated, “that there is a new demystification process going on between the artist and the audience.” The internet, he recognised, was increasingly about community and the meaning that is established when the audience is part of the artistic experience or construction. The similarities between art and education here are striking.

Even more striking, when one watches the interview (04:15 – 06:00), is the exchange between the visionary, artistic mind of Bowie and the conservative, voice of the establishment, BBC’s Newsnight anchor, Jeremy Paxman. The parallels between the sceptical Paxman and the frequently dismissive voice of the educational orthodoxy are uncanny.

BOWIE: “I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society – both good and bad – is unimaginable. I think we are on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”

PAXMAN: “It’s just a tool, though, isn’t it?”

It’s just a tool, though is among the most familiar, universal lines of often uninformed, authoritative resistance to innovation and technology in education. The reality is, as Bowie suggests, that a single version of society or meaning are incomplete unless contributed to by those directly concerned. “The actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can envisage at the moment — the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in simpatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.” 

We know that change – ergo, innovation – is inevitable and it doesn’t wait for certainty or readiness. When we think about schools and their core purpose, our unconditional obligation must be to the future possibilities of our students and their unknown futures, unobstructed by our own fears and lack of understanding. And our lack of understanding is, in many ways, in itself, understandable. We can’t know the future, but we have more than a hunch that the transformations Bowie foresaw and embraced will continue, that the futures our children will live in will be remarkably different to that for which this thing we call school was designed. Schools may not be ready for this reality. Our young people will have to be. We need to bridge this gap. It’s about them. Not us. Our students can help us find the way. This is why we must elevate their voices and invite them to co-design with us the reimagined school that their futures demand.

Is there life on Mars? Our minds should at least be open to the possibility.


David Bowie predicted in 1999 the impact of the Internet in BBC interview. (04:15 – 06:00)

Image credit: The Hunch by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND