Dr. Franco Bianchini, currently a Visiting Professor at the Sibelius Academy, shared with us his insights on teaching, digitalisation, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In August, Dr. Bianchini will lead an innovation-oriented day at the Arts Management course at Sibelius Summer Academy together with Professor Lynn Froggett. They will explore the idea of fusion and collaboration between cultural policy and health and wellbeing strategies.
Socratic and intercultural approaches to teaching
Dr. Franco Bianchini, originally from Arezzo in Tuscany (central Italy), has worked and taught at several universities in the UK and participated in a variety of international research projects. Currently, besides working as a visiting professor at the Sibelius Academy, he is an Associate Director of the recently established UK-wide Centre for Cultural Value. As a teacher, Bianchini believes in giving students a central role.
“I believe very much in a more Socratic approach to teaching. Socrates used a Maieutic approach, where the role of the teacher is to reveal and to mobilize a partly existing knowledge, maybe to put it in a slightly different context.”
An international framework and intercultural exchanges in teaching are very important for Bianchini. He believes that an international group of students and teachers is an advantage and can help relativize one’s knowledge and stimulate innovative thinking:
“Sometimes people are convinced, for example, that the way they do things in their own country is the best or even the only way. But actually, it’s not. Throughout history, policy in any country has been influenced by ideas coming from other countries. Intercultural exchange is one of the key principles of teaching, also because innovative concepts and practices often derive from cross-fertilisation and hybridity”.
He also thinks that visits and placements in the field are of central importance, as they make it easier for students to understand and experience cultural management and policy concepts and practices in a fuller and deeper way.
Background and personality
According to Bianchini, two equally important things affect a teacher’s style: personality and background. In terms of background, he believes that the Italian tradition of storytelling has affected the way he sees teaching:
“It helps to have a narrative. Students find your teaching easier to follow if it is a story – hopefully a good story with some interesting characters. And you don’t know what’s going to happen, things could go wrong or they could go right.”
In terms of personality, Bianchini is extremely curious, also about things that are not directly related to the topics of his research and teaching. He thinks that encouraging curiosity in students is essential. He points out that stimulating links can be made very easily between different disciplines in the social sciences, arts and humanities, and therefore students should be encouraged to read outside their subject.
He also highlights the central importance of individual tutorials. He believes it’s important to dedicate time to building individual relationships with students to understand their history and aspirations and what motivates them.
Internationalism and learning from others
For Bianchini, the international dimension of his career has been very meaningful. He sees internationalism as a continuously developing project and notes that a lot of his academic work and ideas are built on an understanding of the UK and Italy, and of the traffic of ideas between the two countries.
He highlights the importance of learning from other countries and different parts of the world, but he sees big challenges in education. In city planning, for example, he calls for an integrated European curriculum where the strengths of different national traditions are maximized. He also thinks that Europe needs to learn much more from other parts of the world, and notes that intellectual dialogue and teaching resources are not sufficiently global yet.
Digitalisation as democratiser and facilitator
Bianchini sees democratisation as one of the main benefits of digitalisation: it allows everyone, including people living in peripheral and remote areas, to have access to the best thinking work from all over the world very rapidly.
Another big advantage, according to Bianchini, is the contribution of digitalisation to teaching, studying, and research. Teachers can use varied and visually more interesting approaches; students have access to more imaginative ways of working and presenting their work; and researchers can use methods like surveys, cultural mapping and participant observation – as well as manipulate large sets of data – a lot more easily and in a much more nuanced and richer way than before.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bianchini believes that we are going to see a huge wave of digital innovation. He believes that the need for travel will be reduced in the long-term thanks to improvements in immersive technologies and in the quality of video conferencing and lecturing.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its implications for the cultural sector
The impacts of the pandemic on the cultural sector have begun to interest Dr. Bianchini, and he has already received several invitations to take part in debates about possible future scenarios. Bianchini points out that it is likely that there will be a severe economic depression with mass unemployment in many different countries. This will have profound social and cultural consequences. He also thinks that what will happen depends largely on political outcomes:
“If the dominant response is an authoritarian one, very much focused on surveillance, then I think that there can be big problems for the cultural sector, because it will mean restrictions on the freedom of artists and also of independent researchers and journalists. In western countries, this will lead to a situation of almost continuous conflict between the state and social movements, to a permanent crisis.”
In an alternative scenario, Bianchini believes that the EU could legitimize its role again through an economic and cultural recovery plan, potentially leading to more balanced national economies, more equal and sustainable societies, and a greater role for arts and creativity in schools, health services and other aspects of everyday life.
Bianchini notes that the pandemic requires the re-examining of almost every aspect of what he teaches. He believes that students should be encouraged to think about the role of the cultural sector in the pandemic and how to use artistic and cultural activities to help people overcome a sense of loss, as well as problems of loneliness, anxiety and depression, and to think about the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity for a collective reset, to imagine a better world:
“What I think we should add to teaching is encouraging the students to think very carefully about what is the role of the cultural sector in this pandemic, not only in terms of the survival of cultural organisations. We should think also about the role of the cultural sector in trying to produce the kind of political outcome that we want, a scenario which is going to be good for the cultural sector and for society as a whole in the long term.”
There is a lot of uncertainty, but Bianchini believes that through a dialogue with students, some interesting answers to these and other big questions can be produced.
To hear Dr. Bianchini’s thoughts about the Visiting Professor programme and the Sibelius Summer Academy, listen to the audio recording below. Dr. Bianchini was interviewed by Jenni Pekkarinen.