NAPLAN threat to the arts in education

The arts are the expression of the most profound thoughts in the simplest way. (Einstein)

The arts are as old as human civilisation and they enrich our lives in myriad ways. Quality arts experiences can and should have a profound experience on children’s lives and life chances and therefore should be an important part of the school curriculum.

Over the past 15 years a succession of international research reports have clearly demonstrated that children who engage in quality arts processes, activities and experiences achieve better academically; develop more positive self concepts; are less likely to be bored; watch less television; and, are more often involved in community service than those students who are deprived of arts experiences. Recent Australian reviews have also confirmed the important role of the arts in learning. Embedding arts-rich experiences in the curriculum has also been shown to be most important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds because their families and caregivers are less likely to afford extra-curricular arts opportunities outside school.

Yet with the increasing emphasis on high-stakes testing such as NAPLAN in Australian schools, the arts will continue to be relegated to the margins of the mandated curriculum. Those subject areas that politicians and bureaucrats believe can be measured by multiple-choice testing will be given increasing priority. Art, poetry, creative writing, music-making, aesthetic appreciation and dramatic performances cannot easily be graded after a 30–40 minute test. And many teachers are already commenting that they feel pressured to teach to the tests. They are concerned that they have less time to read literature or program time for their students express themselves through dance, song, paint or clay and drama.

The kind of engagement with ideas and processes inherent in all arts disciplines (including dance, drama, literature, media arts, music and visual arts) helps develop children’s already rich imaginations and creativity. Critical engagement through arts processes can help us to see things from a range of different perspectives and suggest connections between different phenomena. Quality arts experiences can help children:

  • observe their environment carefully
  • make links with their own knowledge and understandings
  • explore possibilities in different ways
  • learn to challenge stereotypes and tolerate ambiguities
  • represent a range of possible meanings through various media
  • engage in both abstract and concrete thinking
  • work collaboratively and flexibly
  • take risks when something is unsuccessful
  • think reflectively.

It is the arts processes or the making or creating rather than the final outcome or artefact (the finished painting, the DVD, the performance) that is the most important learning because that making process will inform the next one and provide opportunities to extend and amplify understandings.

Despite this growing body of evidence pointing to the educational and wider social benefits of the arts, to date, equitable provision and resourcing of the arts and monitoring teaching quality in arts education has received insufficient attention in Australian education. Recent reviews of both music and visual arts have depicted a very uneven picture of provision. Teacher preparation in the arts for primary teachers and ongoing professional learning has also been much reduced. While the second phase of the national curriculum mandates for two hours of arts experiences each week from K/R–10, it is important that the arts should also be integrated across the curriculum rather than minimised.

Many successful quality arts programs have been established in schools and the broader community by arts organisations and by philanthropic groups. Such initiatives should also be the responsibility of government through both educational and broader social policy. Achieving the demonstrated benefits of arts in Australian primary education will require changed thinking by policymakers to ensure that cultivating imagination and creativity become priorities rather than ‘add-ons’.

It is not too dramatic to suggest that not offering students the opportunity to experience a broad array of thinking, social, and emotional dispositions through the arts – to reorder their ‘habits of mind’ – is to deny them a full experience of learning. Learning in, through and about the arts must become a priority in Australian classrooms. While tests and teaching to tests take precedence, this is unlikely.

– Robyn Ewing
15 May 2012