Discussing the Accessibility of Arts Education at a Higher Education Level
Part 1: Standardising Creativity
‘I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.’ – William Morris
From the first public address to the Trades Guild of Learning on December 4th, 1877.
The lecture was titled ‘The Decorative Arts, Their Relation to Modern Life and Progress’, and was later published under the title ‘The Lesser Arts’. As a teacher in the performing arts, the revised name of the piece rings a particularly tired and poignant bell as we relentlessly promote the numerous benefits of an education in the arts, often to seemingly deaf ears. Educators are constantly being challenged to explore imaginative and engaging pedagogy to lure the interests of their students. Teachers, tutors and lecturers wrack their brains for creative and differentiated ways to deliver their particular curriculum, and yet it seems the very basis of this fundamental approach to engagement, the very core of the process, creative arts itself, is still viewed as a hobby by most in a position of influence. Is it not possible that young adults can excel both practically and academically as they progress through performing arts education? Can it not be considered that the intrinsically valuable skills moulded in higher education can be formed with equal, if not greater, success in a naturally creative and stimulating environment? All too often I cross certain boundaries whilst gently pushing a student’s understanding of music theory, and they freeze. It becomes too mathematical, and like clockwork they laugh nervously and tell me they can’t do maths; ‘That’s why I’m a singer’, they say, and I reply that they are so much more than that. I remind them that every day they study texts in the form of song lyrics or scripts, and that they analyse the characters within them in order to present them effectively in performance . They practise literature skills, critical thinking, empathy and compassion with every verse they rehearse. I remind them that every day they show exceptional bravery as they convincingly mask their vulnerabilities in front of an audience. I remind them that not only must they be emotionally aware, well-researched and talented, but they must also possess the very same academic skills of their peers deemed more intelligent because their preference lay with predetermined core subjects. My learners write essays on Shakespearean texts, yet they tell me they’re ‘only singers’. My learners can create poetry through rap, art through movement and music that tells a thousand stories, yet a lifetime of desperate contortion to a mould they do not fit has stripped value from these gifts.
A gentle tug on the fragile thread of my learners educational experience quickly unravels a worrying pattern of conformation or concern throughout their secondary studies. The individual experience is almost identical, with a polyphonic chorus of frustrated young voices chanting the words ‘safer options’ as they recall the advice given by school guidance teachers and careers advisers. It is difficult to perceive any particular strand of study or employment as a foolhardy or safe pathway in our current economic environment, but the frustrations felt as a performing arts educator at the devaluing of our cultural input are surely echoed by my peers nationwide.
The stereotypical vision of the ‘poor, starving artist’ is dated, false and frankly insulting. As genres of music and other art forms have expanded, emerged and evolved, so too has appreciation for these art forms, and with it, job roles. The arts are unarguably essential to culture. The librarians guiding your search for literature, the curators and tour guides informing the public of the wonders held in the archives in our museums and the actors challenging politics and reliving defining moments of history on stage are only a minute example of the roles likely to engage directly with the general public. However the massive workforce behind each of these roles carry equal value. The light and sound designers and technicians, the playwrights behind the thoughtprovoking dialogue and the artists carrying and expanding on the legacies of those before them are equally responsible for the valuable contributions shaping our cultural identity. And they must be encouraged and educated to do so. A 2015 article in the Independent detailed the top ten higher education establishments graduate employment rates, and six of those named were arts institutions or conservatoires. How can it then be argued that our education system is not doing a disservice to our young adult learners when ambitions to pursue such pathways are not being nurtured? Our system is endangering our cultural output by dismissing the value of creativity as a viable career, and the arts are responding. The retaliation to the general ignorance surrounding employment opportunities within the arts is becoming increasingly obvious. The multi Tony award winning musical ‘Avenue Q’ brazenly mocks our systems value of core subjects when the number ‘What Do You Do With a BA in English’ introduces the audience to the story’s protagonist. My own learners have recently been invited to perform choreography that they have created to a piece of spoken word poetry questioning our standardised testing at an international hip hop festival because artists from across the globe find their frustrations overwhelmingly relatable.
I recently reached out to both learners and colleagues to discuss their personal experiences, or that of their children, in our current secondary school curriculum, and I was genuinely horrified by many of the responses. Young learners were being advised to leave their extra-curricular performing arts lessons to concentrate on their core subject exams, when the student in question had made their career aspirations clear, and there were no alternatives offered within their set curriculum. I was told of A Level students who were rushed through their arts based subjects in one year, to free up more time to focus on maths, english and science based subjects. This inevitably led to the belief that certain A Levels are more substantial, or carry more weight, than others. This belief then spreads through entire year groups, even whole secondary schools, once the practise of skimming over the lesser valued subjects is known, and what an appallingly devaluing and ignorant mindset is created by such beliefs.
Sir Kenneth Robinson, an international adviser on education in the arts, stated ‘The arts, sciences, humanities, physical education, languages and maths all have equal and central contributions to make to a student’s education.’ He continues to say that the entire idea of subjects must be reassessed, focusing on a range of disciplines that prepare individuals for lifelong learning rather than memorising facts polarised by labels such as ‘core subjects’. Dr Pamela Burnard of the University of Cambridge was quick to respond, pointing out that the United Kingdom has invested millions of pounds into creative partnerships that implement initiatives in both primary and secondary schools to encourage creativity. Burnard believes that the volume of artistic input in our school system sets us far in front of our American counterparts. However, the problem does not necessarily come from a lack of opportunities to explore the arts, but rather the disconnect between the core subjects like maths or science, and the creative arts, which seem to sit at opposite ends of an unspoken spectrum of specialities. That is to say, that whilst it is a positive step to fund a day of acting or poetry workshops, the learners who have connected with the experience are again cast adrift when the methodology does not filter into the classroom on their return to their desk. This fragmented approach to the arts only conditions the belief that creativity should be enjoyed periodically, as an enjoyable pastime or a reward at the end of more serious study. When one particularly determined performer pointed out that these sessions were helping to build an impressive personal statement for future UCAS applications, a teacher recommended the summer holidays as an ideal time to pursue such interests. One can only feel utter exasperation at the message to ambitious young learners that their personal ambitions and preferred career progression is fitting only of their free time, whilst they must make time for a predetermined specialist subject.
What must be accepted in order to progress positively, is that both soft and hard skills can be developed and maintained effectively through the arts. Individuals can be both creative and academic, and seeking a career in the creative or performing arts industries is not an unsafe progression, but an impressive, challenging and valuable endeavour.
It seems that in order to entrain these values in our curriculum, we must first consider how our current situation has evolved. Horace Mann is generally considered the driving force behind schools as we know them today. Mann implemented the creation of an organised curriculum in Massachusetts in 1837, and surrounding states quickly followed suit. By 1918 attending school was compulsory in every American state and fees to do so were abolished in Great Britain. However, this can hardly be considered the creation of education. Human beings have been educated since the dawn of their very existence. Even the most basic communications between early species were intended to pass on vital skills and information gathered as essentials to survive. This learning did not take place in group settings or fixed locations, but was tailored to individuals and delivered by their relatives and peers. The information that was passed on was instinctively decided as most relevant to the individual needs, then expanded upon throughout each generation. Surely it is fair to say that these lessons delivered within individual family units stand as some of the most valuable examples of teaching in our history. Our evolution in a harsh and dangerous climate relied solely on these family based teachings of personalised brain over brawn. Our continual evolution was founded in these early stages of development and has placed us at the top the hierarchical structure of mammals not because of the brute strength often valued in the animal kingdom, but by augmenting our skills and capabilities with tools. How sad then that it was soon realised it would be far more cost and time effective to gather a large number of adults in a room and invite one adult with specific specialties to coach them in subjects that an entirely separate group of adults, based in a very different location and with drastically different backgrounds and needs, have deemed to be vital to all. And as the human race continues to grow and expand, the numbers in those classes have continued to multiply, inevitably producing more and more diverse student groups with an immeasurably wide range of skill sets and needs, being shoehorned into subjects that have been taught since 1695 in Boston Latin School: reading, writing and mathematics. And how unjust that modern curriculum fails to see the irony that individually tailored education is the reason we have evolved for millions of years prior to set curriculum. The British poet and spoken work artist Suli Breaks describes his own frustrations in his work ‘I Will Not Let An Exam Result Decide My Fate’:
‘We all have different abilities, thought processes, experiences and genes
So why is a class full of individuals tested by the same means?’
What a travesty that young learners who excel in creative outlets are tied to completing their maths and English in standardised form, yet those with a natural penchant for core subjects are never forced through the horror of complete disconnect by being pushed into arts based subjects they can find no value or success in. Why do we continuously celebrate growth and evolution in technology, in societal values, in fashion, dietary advice and healthcare, yet we refuse to leave behind the standardised testing in subjects deemed universally crucial centuries ago?
This completely nonsensical pattern creates a fixed mindset of failure in our creative learners. These children are conditioned to believe that intelligence is innate from the second they enter education, and that theirs cannot be improved because they continue to fail in the subjects on which our system places value. Psychologist Carol Dweck found in her studies that students perceptions of their own abilities drastically altered their achievement levels. Those with an innate confidence in their own abilities to succeed generally did, and those crippled by a self doubt instilled by year of unavoidable failure continue to underachieve. In other words, our current education system is setting our creative learners up to fail, for life.
To elaborate, Dweck put forward the idea that there are two mindsets a learner can be conditioned to adopt. A fixed mindset, which believes intelligence and talent are finite, given qualities that predetermine success. This mindset inevitably develops in those consistently experiencing failure when pushed into assessments, or standarised learning methods, in subjects that they continue to struggle with. It breeds self doubt and instills a natural, defensive reaction that rears it’s head whenever a learner feels uncomfortable in the future, and simply stops them trying. They announce that they cannot do it, because that is all they have ever learned.
I cannot help but think of B.F. Skinner’s studies in operant conditioning, displaying that learned behaviour can develop through reward or punishment. Surely it is reasonable for a young learner failing their studies to perceive the inevitable steps then taken as punishment. Being moved down through classes streamed on ability, or having parents and guardians contacted over achievement concerns can be an upsetting and embarrassing process for children and young adults, and so they learn to eliminate the potential of failure by disengaging with education.
Interestingly, Skinner also noted that punishment often carried numerous negative consequences. He noted that punishment often led to increased levels of aggression in test subjects, and pointed out that punishment only makes clear what not to do, and offers no guidance of alternative, correct behaviours. Much like our curriculum’s refusal to offer alternative learning strategies for creative learners.
The second approach to learning discussed by Dweck is referred to as a growth mindset. Those with a growth mindset believe that valuable qualities can be nurtured and developed through dedicated work and the constant absorption of new materials and perspectives. They understand the value of continuous expansion of knowledge, and as a result develop reflective and compassionate outlooks towards themselves and the world around them. Of course, it must be noted that our education system is not solely responsible for the mindsets of our learners, and many experts have argued the age old topics of nature over nurture when discussing fixed and growth perspectives on education. It seems sensible to assume that a students belief in their own abilities begins to form at home, and has already taken solid roots by the time they reach the primary school gates. It is difficult to impress an appreciation of education if a parent at home has disengaged with the process from a young age, but it is surely possible with an appropriate approach. This only refers back to the individual approach needed to education that must account for a diverse range of personal circumstances. However, to return specifically to learners with a natural affinity for creative and performing arts, when priority is strictly enforced onto core subjects that they find innately difficult, when they repeatedly fail standardised testing, is it any wonder then that they do not consider themselves academic? After years of perceived failure, can it come as a surprise that they shy away from the idea that they too can achieve academic excellence? The accepted definition of intelligence is too pinpointed, and many of our young learners are carrying the burden of excelling outwith the lines of core curriculum.
I often tell my own learners that story of Gillian Lynne’s ‘diagnoses of a dancer’. Lynne, a ballerina and choreographer renowned for her groundbreaking work on musicals like Phantom of the Opera and Cats, was taken to see a specialist in ‘learning disorders’ at the age of eight. The visit was arranged on the advice of Lynne’s school, who were exasperated by her apparent inability to sit still. The specialist asked Lynne’s mother to step outside briefly, and then observed Lynne, unattended, rising from her seat to explore the office with grand gestures and movement. It was entirely possible that this appointment could have resulted in a formal diagnosis and medication, or even therapy, to resolve what many practitioners would have seen has problems. However, this particular professional assured Lynne’s mother that there was nothing wrong with her child, and she simply needed to attend dance classes. No one at the time could have possibly known that such a narrow avoidance of an attention deficit disorder diagnosis would result in Dame Gillian Lynne’s formal recognition for her contribution to dance and musical theatre in 2014. When discussing this profound turning point in her life, an interviewer asked Lynne how she felt when her mother followed that advice and she arrived at their first dance class. Lyme responded ‘I can’t tell you how wonderful it was. I walked into this room, and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.’ And there, in one sentence, is the crux of the standardised problem. It is not that dancers, artists and musicians cannot think, but that often they think in different ways.
It seems to me that the very learning environment we create for our learners is fixed. The standard classroom structure and layout has barely changed since public schools were created. Learners continue to sit in stagnant, predetermined seating arrangements, whilst teachers continue to stand at the front of the room near a board that may have changed in colour from black to white but continues to display the same lessons, year after year. Why do we place such vital importance on learning to read words but not music? Why must every one of our young learners learn the basics of another European tongue but not music, our one universal language?
I recently presented my frustrations to colleagues, many of whom are teaching in creative and performing arts subjects, although I also work closely with english and maths teachers, as our students must gain their GCSEs alongside their vocational qualification if they have not successfully done so in school. I wish to make it very clear here that I have the utmost respect for these teachers and for the subjects that they deliver. Several of them have completed qualifications that have required them to create research papers and academic articles on student engagement that I find fascinating. My disagreement does not, in any way, lie with these subjects being taught. My frustrations arise at the expectation that every individual should grasp these subjects using the same learning and testing techniques, when they themselves are so exceptionally unique. And my frustrations lie with the hierarchy of secondary school subjects that has arisen from damaging phrases such as ‘core subjects’, or devaluing practises that gloss over arts based subjects, scratching at the very surface of their potential for learning simply to move on to other areas deemed more employable. I witness secondary schools celebrating the achievements of their students with natural musical ability. Those who can sing or play an instrument are invited to perform at school assemblies and public events, and yet they are bound so tightly by a dated curriculum that it is entirely impossible for these gifts to be nurtured in the students weekly timetable. It creates a viscous cycle where students who naturally excel as they enter the system leave with the confidence boost of appreciation, but without realising their peak capabilities, and those with potential yet no means to explore it are at risk of being overlooked.
Individual lessons for those dispalying an affinity for music and performance seems a glaringly obvious solution, but these do not come free of charge, and so immediately exclude learners from low income households.