“There’s not one way to be an artist,” says Nick Tobier. “And that’s how I approach teaching. What is compelling about the world to you? What do you have to say and what is the best forum to say that in?” Tobier, formally trained as a landscape architect, is hard to label: educator, performance artist, observer, builder, creator and presenter (recently at TEDex). He’s been called a “lifelong participant-observer of street life and the social life of public places.” But perhaps most important, he gives students – whether in his university classes or elsewhere – the permission and confidence to believe they are creative beings.
Tobier shares with us his beliefs about how art, education and the world intersect, and why it is so important to take a risk on a daily basis.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
My work has two faces to it that overlap—I studied and practiced landscape architecture, and work as a public performance artist. Both of these meet in the work I do in activating communities and public spaces through public action.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
On a meta level, community connection through creative projects is in more people’s lives and environments through this work, and specifically through public projects on the streets of Michigan and around the world.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
Getting down and dirty, being willing to share yourself and your insights with others so they will do the same with you, building an environment both of trust and of possibility.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
I teach in two spots that also overlap—Detroit in public and charter schools and the University of Michigan. The former has too few resources while the latter has too many—we run the risk of enabling our privileged classes to take resources for granted.
What is your country doing right to support education?
Enabling great teachers and great leaders to take risks on a daily basis.
What conditions must change in your country to better support education?
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
The best opportunity is diversity of thought and tolerance of difference, and actively encouraging an atmosphere of robust inquiry and excitement. Throw away the standardized tests and go out and do something.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Don’t get impatient. It takes time to build trust.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students?
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be?
A Swiss Army knife.
About Nick Tobier
Associate Professor, School of Art & Design and the Center for Entrepreneurship, University of Michigan
Birthplace: New York, New York
Current residence: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Education: BA/History and Art, Swarthmore College, MFA/Sculpture, Bard College
Website I check every day: Facebook
Person who inspires me most: my dad
Favorite childhood memory: Once a week I walked across Central Park to spend the afternoon with my grandmother. We always had a terrific time.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Brussels
When was the last time you laughed? Why? This morning—my son Oscar was dancing.
Favorite book: Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
Favorite music: I like Balkan Gypsy Punk (and I also like the band Beirut a lot), neo-klezmer, a certain strain of socially progressive rap/hip hop from De La Soul to Invincible, and always a big fan of 1980’s Brit pop—The Jam, Haircut 100, The Clash.
Your favorite quote or motto: Life is an opportunity.
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