The arts are essential in life. They can shape and define who we are and how we understand ourselves and our possible selves. It is a travesty that in some quarters the arts in schools are increasingly regarded as unnecessary. We see dance, drama, music and visual arts as fundamental to cultural engagement and personal development. Artistic experience fuels imagination and in turn imagination fuels creativity. Within CPR’s curriculum framework, the arts are linked to creativity as one of eight essential curriculum domains – although CPR emphasises that creativity is not regarded as exclusive to the arts.
The instrumental argument for the inclusion of the arts in education is that they foster transferable skills and boost overall academic achievement, leading to better future work opportunities, enhanced well-being and self-esteem. In contrast, the essentialist view, underlined in an earlier blog from Robin Alexander, is that the arts are valuable for their own sake and should not just be seen merely as tools for other kinds of learning. Elliot Eisner’s ten lessons the arts teach resonate beautifully with CPR’s aims. They propose that the arts provide space for personal judgement; help problem-posing and thinking outside the box; promote diversity, respect and intercultural understanding; show that making mistakes can be liberating and open up new opportunities; encourage looking at details and thinking in depth; allow the creation of a personal reality; provide therapeutic benefits and support emotional literacy and make us feel alive.
Children don’t experience learning as separate parcels of knowledge to be opened. They flow from one form, with different ways of exploring and expressing, to another. They use what Loris Malaguzzi calls ‘100 languages’. In relation to CPRT’s values and vision, we suggest that positive connections between the arts, as well as non-arts subjects, can maximise creative learning. Although we may more commonly talk about learning in and through different art forms, the work of Lars Lindström usefully draws attention to also learning about and with the art form. These distinctions emphasise a wonderful world of possibilities for both teaching and learning.
However, promoted by the DfE, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit tells us that arts participation has low impact on ‘academic learning’. This worries us on two counts: firstly, the type of research approaches used to gather this evidence can never fully capture the subtle qualities of learning in the arts; secondly, it is grossly inaccurate to imply that the arts are non-academic. Also, we are deeply troubled when it is seen as perfectly acceptable to relegate the arts to extra-curricular activity, seemingly the view taken in the DfE White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere. In any event, evidence from a much larger body of research than the single project cited by EEF shows that arts education does indeed have a positive and significant ‘academic’ impact.
Our work with the South West Research Schools connects closely to four of CPRT’s priorities: community, curriculum, voice and pedagogy. These schools are fully committed to providing rich and stimulating learning experiences and recognise that the arts have much to offer in contributing to this aspiration.
In the Power of the Arts event recently held at Bath’s Royal Literary and Scientific Institute, six of CPRT’s South West Research Schools shared their research findings to date, which led to wider discussions about teaching and learning in the arts and, more generally, a creative school ethos. Significant messages arising from the discussions underlined the importance of both teachers and children learning as researchers, and the potential of working with the ‘habits of mind’ of artists and creative professionals to develop creative learning skills.
David Allinson, Head Teacher of St Vigor and St John Primary School, Chilcompton, Somerset talked about:
… believing in children’s ideas, with research as a habit of mind – catching learning. We became fascinated in how children’s drawings help them to put ideas together and grow – in how can ideas be revealed, connected and grow through drawing. Some important things came out from what we saw. The children’s language was more developed, their imagination had grown into a fantastical language, children were catching ideas from each other. The ideas changed because we gave children time, we gave them space to do it in, and gave them attention from a teacher who was very interested in what they were doing, showed attention by writing things down, taking photos. As teachers we need to step back and ask questions about the things that fascinate us. We saw the story unravelling – we were then interested in how we could give children the time space and attention they needed.
Professor Nick Sorensen, Associate Dean, Institute for Education, Bath Spa University closed the day:
Thank you to the primary head teachers who have generously shared their innovative approaches to learning, teaching and professional development, showing how artists and teachers work together to increase children’s self-esteem, self-confidence and independence with the vision to expand the imaginative potential of children and supporting them to become independent learners.
Post Brexit, here is much healing that has to be done and what you’re doing is really important work. Artists and teachers are united by the fact that they are social beings; their actions have an impact on what happens in society and they reflect what is going on in society. The work that you, and others, are doing takes on a much broader significance and importance given that the context we are working in has changed radically.
What I am interested in is practice, in what great artists and teachers do. Practice doesn’t exist in isolation but comes out of a culture. We need to engage in a process of analysis not just to document that what we do which is of value, but to collectively legitimise those practices that may appear to be marginal in order to resolve the tensions between policy expectations and practical realities, between a restricted and restrictive National Curriculum and the stuff that children immediately recognise as ‘real learning’. We need to be able to provide evidence for those practices that foster understanding, cooperation, cross-cultural perspectives and cross-disciplinary learning.
5x5x5=creativity aspires to research and support creativity in children’s learning to increase their aspirations and life skills. Partnerships between schools and cultural organisations are essential at this time, as we need to draw on our collective imagination to make a real difference to children’s lives. With determination and a growing sense of community and shared endeavour, we can together ensure that children’s experiences of primary school are enlivened and enriched by the arts.
We agree with artist Bob and Roberta Smith, that ‘art makes children powerful’ and would add that it can also make teachers, as learning and research partners, powerful too.
Emese Hall (University of Exeter) and Penny Hay (Bath Spa University) jointly co-ordinate CPRT’s South West regional network, which includes the South West Research Schools Network and its current focus on the arts and creativity in primary schools. Contact them here for more information.