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burning issue - arts education issues


make the creative process visible

mary ann hunter: artists in schools

Mary Ann Hunter is Senior Lecturer in Arts Education at the University of Tasmania. She recently completed a commissioned evaluation of the Australia Council’s Artist in Residence Initiative.

Restless Dance Theatre and Riverland Special School, Artist in Residence project, 2010 Restless Dance Theatre and Riverland Special School, Artist in Residence project, 2010
image courtesy, Arts SA.
WE ARE IN A REMARKABLE ERA OF PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN ARTS AND EDUCATION SECTORS RIGHT NOW IN AUSTRALIA. NOT THAT YOU WOULD KNOW IT. TALK TO MOST GENERALIST TEACHERS, ARTISTS OR PARENTS ABOUT THE VALUE OF THE ARTS IN SCHOOLS AND THE BENEFITS ARE KNOWN BUT NOT ENTIRELY UNDERSTOOD. DISCIPLINE-BASED ARTS EDUCATION IS EITHER SILOED OR MARGINALISED (OR BOTH) IN SCHOOLS. QUALITY ARTS-RICH LEARNING IN THE NAME OF CROSS-CURRICULA INTEGRATION IS RARE—AND VISITING ARTISTS IN SCHOOLS ARE OFTEN JUST A WELCOME NOVELTY.

The Australia Council’s Bums on Seats report indicated over 90% of Australians agreed with the statement that the arts should be an important part of the education of every Australian. But in an environment of high stakes testing and public preoccupation with schools’ rankings, there’s a mismatch of aspiration and reality. Time for the arts in pre-service education is shrinking and, as Professor Robyn Ewing has recently shown, practice rarely meets policy when it comes to the arts and Australian education (The arts and Australian education: realising potential. Australian Education Review, No. 58, 2011).

At the same time, a new national curriculum in the arts—Australia’s first—is being drafted this year and this should be cause for celebration. Arts education will soon be mandatory for pre-schoolers through to Year 10s and the important role of school partnerships with industry is likely to be recognised in that. But if the public consultation reports are anything to go by, the task of capturing all the ‘multiple legitimate purposes’ of arts education in a single document is not going to be smooth sailing. Debate has dogged the public discourse—about whether the curriculum should prioritise discipline or creativity, pre-career development or personal knowing, scope and sequencing [curriculum breadth, depth and order. Eds] or open-ended enquiry. In fact, the debate unleashes a range of issues about the value of formal schooling. But let’s not go there. Let’s go to the role of artists instead.

art improves learning

Professional artists and the ways they work have a contribution to make to improving the quality of learning in schools. That’s not just arts learning, but learning full stop. Take, for instance, professional creative practitioners working in contemporary and hybrid forms. The best of these artists understand the play of discipline and creativity, synthesis and disruption, form and enquiry necessary to produce innovative new work. This is not just a process of manipulating artistic elements to produce a result, but a process that draws on a range of disciplinary, synthesising, creating, respecting and ethical habits of mind. Explicit unpacking of this professional process of artmaking offers much in the way of education. For these habits of mind are the same ones touted by lead educationalists such as Howard Gardner as essential to the task of living in times of change and uncertainty (Five Minds for the Future, Harvard Business School Press, Cambridge MA, 2007).

artists, risks & ambiguity

Secondly, it may seem trite, but those who choose professional lives as artists in Australia deal daily with ambiguity and risk—both in terms of staying creative and staying employed. Finding out how artists work productively with risk and ambiguity again provides an important opportunity, in an educational sense, to capture insights into the workings of self-reflexivity, motivation and resilience. And, thirdly, one of the most important factors in sustaining a quality arts practice, is the capacity to remain curious. Artists at the top of their game know how to be curious, how to enquire into that curiosity and how to create conceptual and artistic spaces in which that curiosity can evolve into new meaning. It can be a messy business. But the combination of abstract and concrete thinking that is required is rich and deep, and young people can learn a lot from it. Understanding these capacities for thinking critically and creatively makes for good ‘life-long learning’—that much mal-aligned and tortured phrase of educational policy.

the artist as role model in the knowledge economy

What, then, is the aim of quality education in the 21st century if not to cultivate curiosity and support young people with the capacities to follow it? These are capacities that one would imagine are essential to surviving in the so-called ‘knowledge economy.’ Professional artists role model these processes in their everyday work, more so than many other professions. And this is where artists’ ways of knowing can provide students, teachers and educational leaders with insight in how to live and learn well in a contemporary world of fluidity and uncertainty. It isn’t about celebrating ‘creative genius’ or the so-called ‘creativity’ of low-income life, it’s about recognising systems of thinking that have relevance to how we manage day-to-day. This was made abundantly clear to me recently as I listened to a young student talking of his experience of working with artists in his school in regional Tasmania: “I thought it [creating the artwork] would have been a bit more structured, but then at the same time it’s fun because you’re thinking ‘Oh, it might be like this or at the same time it might be like that’ and it’s definitely not going to be the one thing, it could just turn in an instant. So, life isn’t just a straightforward path. It has deviations. You might do one thing which leads to another thing but then that next thing could lead you to do something completely different.”

There is much ado about a new national curriculum locking down the available benefits of arts engagement in schools. This is only a danger if teachers retreat to formulaic pedagogy that simply serves to tick the necessary boxes. A curriculum shouldn’t work like that. Education is fundamentally about relationship. And the learning relationships in classrooms are different from school to school, teacher to teacher, student to student. Work in the classroom should reveal curriculum, not the other way around. So, where do artists fit in? They can of course continue to do what they have always done: helicopter visits, guerrilla incursions, the occasional training workshop for teachers. Or some may even turn to further education to become teachers themselves. But at a systemic level, there are important alliances being made in potentially more sustaining, collaborative and supportive ways.

strategies in action

Some States and Territories have made a head start: the engaging ArtsEdge team of arts and education government officers in Western Australia have collaborated over many years to implement a range of programs and initiatives across both sectors in that state. Organisations like Windmill Theatre in South Australia ‘reach in’ rather than ‘reach out’ by inviting teachers and students into their rehearsal processes on a regular basis. And since 2008, the Federal Government has got in on the act and shown leadership in supporting high-level policy partnering of education and the arts through the Artist in Residence Program, administered by the Australia Council. Initially a four-year $5.2m initiative, AIR is now an ongoing program of government and aims to improve young people’s access to quality arts education across the country. An evaluation of the first two years has shown that the program is meeting its objectives. But data has also emerged of the program’s capacity to re-orient understanding of the artists’ role in supporting student learning across a range of areas. Far from replacing the role of specialist arts teachers, artists-in-residence are being recognised for the skill set they bring to the pedagogy of creative teaching and learning across the curriculum. A further realisation is growing that the thinking practices that underlie artists’ creative work have as much to contribute to young people’s learning, as the sharing of disciplinary skills that artists strive to perfect.

at cross purposes

But there’s a long way to go yet before a marriage can be honoured between the arts and education in this country. Feedback about the day-to-day reality of arts residencies in schools reveals that artists and teachers still speak at cross-purposes at times. In the nitty-gritty of making space and time in school life for the arts, some educational leaders continue to be wary and some non-arts teachers remain unconvinced. It’s a job not just for government programs, arts organisations or multi-skilled teaching artists to turn this around, it’s a job for all those who glimpse the educational value of artistic ‘ways of knowing.’ Just making the creative process visible can enhance our capacities for living well.

Mary Ann Hunter is Senior Lecturer in Arts Education at the University of Tasmania. She recently completed a commissioned evaluation of the Australia Council’s Artist in Residence Initiative.

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 10

© Mary Ann Hunter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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