John Bell and Andrew Upton join University of Sydney to build teacher confidence in the Arts

20 August 2013

The Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney has enlisted two legends of Australian theatre - John Bell and Andrew Upton - to help promote the importance of the Arts in education.

Spearheaded by Professor Robyn Ewing, a leading advocate for the Arts in education, the two public events will highlight the transformative potential of the creative arts for improving broader educational outcomes and students' lifelong approach to learning.

"International longitudinal research demonstrates unequivocally that enriching the curriculum with quality arts experiences enhances our academic and affective learnings as well as building confidence in who we are," said Professor Ewing. "In a nutshell, the Arts improve children's life chances."

Despite new figures from the Australian Council for Educational Research claiming a decline in reading levels for 15-year-olds, as well as reports indicating slipping outcomes in mathematics, Professor Ewing said embedding quality literature, drama, dance, and music experiences across the curriculum could re-engage students' approaches to learning.

"Each art form is another way of meaning making," said Professor Ewing, who will chair both events.

And while the incoming national curriculum in the Arts, entitling children to two hours of arts experiences a week, is a step in the right direction, it's not enough without adequate resourcing of teacher professional learning to see the full benefits, according to Professor Ewing.

"Many primary teachers and those in non-arts secondary areas don't feel confident about embedding arts experiences in the curriculum, and there's uneven funding for and resourcing of the Arts across schools."

To tackle some of these issues, founder and Artistic Director of the Bell Shakespeare Company, John Bell AM OBE, will discuss the benefits and potential pitfalls educators face when teaching Shakespeare in the talk 'Shakespeare - Up Against the Wall?', on Thursday 22 August.

Bell, an Adjunct Professor of the Faculty, said many students are deterred from engaging with Shakespeare due to a self-fulfilling prophesy from peers and parents that the Bard is "too hard" or "too boring."

But he will point to his work with Bell Shakespeare in schools to argue for the tangible advantages in grappling with Shakespeare from an early age.

"One of the best ways to help them is to act it. If they start acting it when they're very young and play with the words and sing the songs and act out the scenes I think they take to it much more readily," Bell said.

Teachers have an important role to play in making the cerebral themes of Shakespeare's texts both relatable and accessible for students by "not sitting and swatting from a book, but performing".

"Active participation is much better than sitting reading footnotes, so anything to stimulate the child into responding in a very visceral and personal way is going to get much better results," said Bell.

"I think it's a mind-expanding experience to grapple with great ideas, great imagery and great poetry. It opens up your mind to all sorts of other possibilities and if your mind is open and receptive, it's ready to apply to anything."

As part of his role as Artist-in-Residence in the Faculty of Education and Social Work, Andrew Upton will return to the University of Sydney on Tuesday 27 August to lead a second workshop on creative writing entitled 'How Stories Breed.'

The Artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company will help pre-service and in-service teachers refine their skills in teaching creative writing through an examination of three texts - Hamlet, The Seagull and Oedipus Rex.

His earlier inaugural keynote, seminars and workshops have already helped "open up the conversation" among teachers and students on the value of arts in the classroom.

"Literature and drama challenge and expand one's worldview," Upton said. "It's important to engage with the arts to refine your sense of agency in cultural creation; to refine your sense of self in the cultural web, and to deepen your experience of life through the implicit sharing of that cultural space."

These events form part of the Faculty of Education and Social Work's ongoing strategy to promote the Arts in education. Both Upton and his wife Cate Blanchett have worked alongside Professor Robyn Ewing to create the School Drama project with the Sydney Theatre Company, a professional development program for primary teachers to gain confidence in their use of drama with literature to enhance literacy outcomes.

Event details

What: John Bell: Shakespeare - Up Against the Wall?

When: 5:30-7pm, Thursday 22 August 2013

Where: Lecture Theatre 351, Education Building A35, Manning Road, University of Sydney

Cost: Free

Registration: Helen Loughlin on 9351 2791 or

What: How Stories Breed: Artist-in-Residence Workshop with Andrew Upton

When: 11am - 1pm, Tuesday 27 August 2013

Where: Room 612, Education Building A35, Manning Road, University of Sydney

Cost: Free

Registration: Places are strictly limited, bookings essential. Contact Helen Loughlin on 9351 2791 or

Contact: Emily Jones

Phone: 02 9114 1961; 0405 208 616

Email: 2c032d38356c3922022c041a1f2d1c0716016335034d6f4e1f