Products or Performers 

Is strict criteria in performing arts assessment at HE level creating products or performers?

‘An assessment is a consideration about someone or something and a judgement about them.’

The oxford dictionary provides the above definition of assessment, and whilst accurate, I can’t help but find the word ‘judgement’ to be particularly jarring. It is an accepted and respected fact that education should bestow far more than subject area expertise on learners. Teachers, tutors and lecturers all inevitably impose morals and values onto their students, hopefully creating compassionate, forward thinking individuals with an open mindset and a passion for accumulating new knowledge. Surely it is not unreasonable to say that in order to achieve these well-rounded outlooks, the best educators across the globe instil an understanding of the importance of not casting judgement on others. As we strive to create an inclusive learning environment, accepting of all faiths, genders, races and abilities, is there not then an irony in the strict criteria that we judge each of these individuals on in assessments?

We are assessed for almost the entirety of our lives from conception. Prenatal assessments monitor our development in the womb, postnatal assessments measure our progress by tracking our hearing, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, food intake, weight, speech…the list is endless. We are assessing newborns against well researched and unanimously agreed criteria for physical health, and predetermined criteria will continue to assess our success, or lack of, as we enter the education system. Standardised tests in mathematics and reading skills measure young learners achievements and rank them against a national average. And whilst we label these particular subjects as ‘core’ to educational development, perceived underachievement creates a sense of failure and a closed mindset in our learners from a very young age. Arguably these core subjects are accurately measurable as participants are expected to arrive at one correct answer. The same cannot be said for creative arts, and herein lies my first point of interest when addressing assessment in these areas:

The arts specialise in creating innovative and exceptionally personal products. Poetry, dance, music, fiction and numerous other art forms can incite social change, question current political structures and question engrained prejudice, and this infinite potential would suggest an immeasurable worth. When one piece of theatre boasts the possibility to both inspire and offend, how can we standardise its worth?

I teach in further education at BTEC extended diploma level, and like all educators a large majority of my learner contact time is specifically geared towards preparing them for assessment. We spend the first session of each of their eighteen units (soon to be thirteen under a new structure) addressing the very precise criteria laid out by exam body Pearson’s to achieve a pass, merit or distinction. Throughout the entirety of the unit we will consistently refer back to these criteria to ensure that every learner has a very clear understanding of the expectations they should be meeting. As the unit concludes the learners will be assessed, usually by submitting their written work, completing any practical performance elements of the unit which will be recorded and submitted along with sporadic recordings of weekly sessions to evidence participation and progress. If the unit is internally marked I will then sit with these recordings, written submissions and Pearson’s criteria and individually assess each learner. Earlier in this paragraph I mentioned the ‘very precise criteria’, and I wish to discuss these further now. Each unit will usually have four to six learning outcomes, and each learning outcome has criteria for achieving a pass, merit or distinction. The wording of these criteria is specific, yet also very much open to personal interpretation. For example, Pearson’s BTEC Level Three Unit 101: Singing Techniques for Performance, learning outcome five assessment criteria states:

‘Pass – ‘Perform a programme of songs’

Merit – ‘Perform a programme of songs competently’

Distinction – ‘Perform a programme of songs with confidence and flair’

(https://qualifications.pearson.com/content/dam/pdf/BTEC-Nationals/Performing-Arts/2010/Specification/Unit_101_Singing_Techniques_and_Performance.pdf)

There are further paragraphs which expand on these phrases, but the wording is equally ambiguous. The elongated distinction criteria reads

‘In performance learners will demonstrate a high degree of technical ability, musicality, assurance and style.’

But so much of this is open to personal interpretation. To elaborate, a character song from a piece of contemporary musical theatre is quite likely to employ the voice quality twang, to add a certain Americanised humour to the performance. However, if a learners acting through song abilities are high, that humour can be conveyed effectively whilst singing safely using a different voice quality, but whilst one audience member may find the performance fresh and original, another may believe the absence of expected twang has removed the vocal style of the piece and therefore distinction criteria has not been met. It is also important to note at this point that a learner could achieve distinction across four of the unit’s learning outcomes, and a pass for the fifth, and the marking scheme would result in an overall pass for the entire unit. In BTEC the lowest grade is always accepted, which carries more serious concerns that will be addressed later. Is it fair then that one individuals perception of a performance directly affects a young performers final outcome in their qualification? In an ideal world it may be that my colleagues and I would mark our own units and then reflect upon each other’s given grades, watching assessment footage from an impartial viewpoint and offering an average input for discrepancies sake, but there are simply not enough hours in the week. Inevitably once I have marked all learners assessments, I will look at the grades as a whole, and begin to wonder whether the distinction I have awarded one student was really a ‘better’ performance than the merit I awarded one of their peers, and suddenly I am standardising my learners by averaging them out amongst themselves. Suddenly it seems that all personalised aspects of their performances are being levelled off as I desperately try to ensure my marking methods are ‘fair’ and ‘impartial’. During my undergraduate studies all written work was submitted anonymously through an online system, but of course I will never be able to my own students work mark completely impartially as the majority are practical assessments. Like all educators I am a human being and naturally and inevitably build relationships with my learners during their studies. As well as my lecturing role I act as ‘lead tutor’ for year one musical theatre students, which means I deal with their pastoral care and can get to know them and their family situations well. On reflection, it would be a far more preferable and impartial approach if lecturers were to mark the assessments of other staff in the department, however as a relatively small performing arts department the resources again are simply not available. For example I am the only singing specialist on the staff team, therefore it must be considered whether it is more beneficial for our learners to have staff members teaching and marking their units, rather than losing subject expertise for complete impartiality. However it does seem like this particular issue is currently being addressed as we move into the new BTEC structure this year within which a much larger number of the units are now externally assessed. This eliminates the problem of impartiality but does not deflect from the issue of personal preference in performance.

It is also important to address the ever changing face of the arts, and the diverse nature of current industry trends. By appeasing our concerns of unfair grading by comparing all learners with their peers, or past assessments, we are essentially levelling out the playing field – creating an average or a norm by which to measure each and every performer. And this is a very real concern when the arts prides itself on its multicultural, multi disciplinary and fully inclusive ethos. What is any art from if not a very personal form of self expression? And how can it then be said that we are effectively training practitioners if we are creating a standardised form that each individual must aspire to?

Of course, there are unarguably numerous benefits to assessment at FE and HE level. Learners entering further education straight from secondary at 16 years old would be understandably a little lost if their educators were to advise them there would be no formal assessment throughout their qualification. Having spent their entire educational lives working towards clearly outlined criteria the freedom of independent learning and assessment would be daunting and directionless. Even now, with both undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications and having worked in structured, formal education for several years, I have struggled as a learner to adapt to the freedom of study that has accompanied my research based masters degree. There are learning criteria that I know I must demonstrate in my writing, however the lack of set essay questions threw me considerably. I would confidently begin to research and write in an area of interest and almost immediately deviate, discovering new threads of thought and tangents of ideas before rewording my given question and inevitably following the exact same cycle. Progress seemed painfully slow, and whilst I had done a wealth of reading and writing of initial and divergent musings, any movement forward was immeasurable, because I was constantly unsure of my end goal. I craved meticulously defined targets and felt disheartened by my perceived lack of progress. There is an undeniable sense of personal satisfaction and fulfillment when measurable targets are met or surpassed, and this can release of endorphines can play a crucial role in a personals engagement with education. Any past time that creates a positive sense of achievement is obviously far more enjoyable than one that crates confusion and frustration. Of course, it could be argued here that learners may experience the latter negative emotions if they feel they are underachieving in assessments, or that the given criteria and targets set for them are unrealistic of their capabilities.

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A Hierarchy of Performance Arts

Another work in progress.

Discussing the Accessibility of Arts Education at a Higher Education Level

Part 2

To voice an unpopular opinion, I believe that today there remains a very real hierarchical structure within performing art forms that places value on prestige perceived by ignorance.

Since beginning work in further education, I have quickly come to realise that there are genres of performance I have been almost entirely sheltered from, and that these genres can play an integral role in communicating and engaging with my students.

Allow me to offer an example:

I am fortunate enough to work with both ‘singers’ and those who regard themselves as ‘non-singers’. When working with musical theatre students I seek to create a sound knowledge of vocal science and implementation of singing technique through effective performance, and when working with dancers I revel mostly in encouraging enjoyment over fear when exploring their voices safely. I find joy in approaching the very different challenges set by both groups and consider each immensely valuable to the individual performer. That being said, it can be exceptionally challenging to coax a projected voice from a nervous dancer, even in a one to one session without the added anxiety of an audience of their peers. One particular class was no exception to this rule, and try as I may, I simply could not find a song that created the much-needed stimulus that would elevate us from nervous giggles and obvious discomfort to willing exploration and immersion in an enjoyable singsong.

I found an unexpected friend in an emerging musical that was pushing boundaries as yet untested in the world of theatre. Hamilton’s genre clash of hip-hop and musical theatre has already taken Broadway and the Tony awards by storm, and London’s West End currently awaits its UK premiere with bated breath.

Ever attentive to industry trends, I reached out to a local, well respected hip-hop artist and requested that he spend a day workshopping with our performance and musical theatre students. Here lies my first admission of ignorance and error. I had organised a workshop that promised an exceptional delivery of practical knowledge and demonstrations of hip-hop, rap and beatboxing, but only with our students that were already confident singers. I had made the all-too-easy assumption that because I was struggling to encourage our dancers to experiment vocally, another practitioner would only reap the same results. It was by sheer chance then that on the morning of said workshops, I should discover that these learners happened to have a free session during our scheduled time, and extended the offer of participating. Inevitably they did not all accept, however there were some striking milestones met by those who did. Learners with chronic anxiety demonstrated snippets of solo beatboxing rhythms for a studio full of their peers. Small groups of dancers created raps, rhythmical poetry and even volunteered to perform their incredible creations to rapturous applause. Initially I was dumbfounded. For an entire term I had battled with these learners on a weekly basis, trying to coax them from their shells just enough to spark their imagination on the possibilities they could achieve through music and song, and I had made such little, if any, progress. And yet here they were, having spent two hours with a perfect stranger, thoroughly enjoying showcasing their fantastically high standards of musicality and creativity to the very peers that I had considered to be more appropriate for these sessions. (This is not to say that our musical theatre students achieved substandard results, but merely that our dancers were very much on par with the musicality that was previously deemed intimidating simply because of the validation of their success provided by the label of ‘singers’.) Of course, it made perfect sense. There was such a huge and diverse variety of factors contributing to this perceived anomaly. Firstly, the majority of these learners specialise in urban dance, which by its very definition is ‘influenced by the rhythms and techniques of funk and hip-hop music’. I had blindly stumbled into their musical comfort zone, of which I had previously been so ignorant, and now that I was there I couldn’t help but notice a few other valuable lessons around me:

  1. There was an immediate rapport between our dancers and the workshop leader, and as I observed, it was immediately obvious that his entire approach was far more accessible, and far less threatening, that I had inadvertently created in my own sessions. Our guest tutor was mobile. It sounds entirely absurd, but as a singing teacher I spend the vast majority of my sessions working from behind a static piano. Yet here was Andy, swaying to the beat at the front of the studio, effortlessly sashaying around groups of students as he interacted with them on a far more personal level, welcoming them into a safe and creative space.
  2. The work that Andy was inviting our learners to perform was of their own creation. They had not been handed an intimidating booklet of sheet music and lyrics spread across multiple vocal lines, designed, in their view, to trip them up and make them look foolish, but instead trusted to create something valuable on their own, thus instilling a confidence and pride that I had not achieved.
  3. There was no prestige hanging over our heads indicating the possibility of failure. The art form that was being demonstrated, like any art form, was intricate, admirable and bursting with creative, emotive and political potential, and yet there were no perceived barriers to alienate individuals. There were no preconceived ideas about how a stereotypical hip-hop artist should behave or appear. These exist elsewhere, of course, but they were completely absent in this particular session, and I found myself considering the possibility that I had inadvertently invited such pressures into my own classes with these dancers.

I have always considered myself a respectful and approachable educator. I have always placed importance on the comfort of our students allowing them to engage fully within any given session. I have always welcomed questions or concerns raised by students, and value their personal input as the primary expert on their own learning preferences. What I was beginning to realise was that I had perhaps taken for granted that students either knew this, or felt confident enough on how to approach these topics, or even that they knew exactly what the problem was. It is entirely possible for there to be a large disconnect in a students learning experience, without them fully understanding what the root cause is.

I would like, in this particular case, to focus on observation three. I was trained first as a classical musician, later venturing into musical theatre. And thus far in my career, the majority of musical directors that I’ve worked with, as well as fellow singing teachers at regional masterclasses, have also been classically trained. It can often be rather unnerving the subconscious influence that our own teachers have on our styles as educators. I work with sheet music, and expect my students to do the same. I fluently and automatically use Italian terms when discussing musicality, and expect my learners to memorise these and integrate them into their own professional language. However, a performers natural talent and musicality is not defined by their prior exposure to standard musical training. A learner who has discovered a passion for music through second hand jazz or hip hop records will not always be able to afford, or even offered the channels through which to explore those underlying talents and interests, until they discover a funded performing arts course at a local further education establishment. And therein lies the problem. Whilst further education presents as an ideal opportunity to bridge the gap between secondary and higher education, there are also very real deadlines set for these establishments to achieve university offers for their learners. Therefore they must leave prepared for a level of study equivalent to their potential peers, but can a lifetime of music theory knowledge be taught during a diverse and strictly timetabled, two year curriculum? Is it essential that these learners master seemingly ancient skills and foreign language in order to further their talents and thus their careers? Well…surely not. Surely there is equal value to be found in a local singer songwriter, unable to read music but naturally gifted and well equipped with sound vocal technique, as in a classical composer creating symphonic scores. Both represent different performing art forms, but no one could possibly rule one superior to the other. Yet many continue to try.

Inevitably, it all comes down to money. Those who have trained in classical ballet or had instrumental lessons from a young age will absorb the perceived foundations of skills valued at higher education and conservatoire levels. The privileged youth will continue to be at a constant advantage to their peers living perilously near the poverty line, and yet this prestigious hierarchical structure is the very reason these ancient skills are at serious risk of becoming obsolete as numerous other art forms evolve around them yet the privileged few refuse to acknowledge their cultural worth.
Technology makes seemingly endless leaps and bounds in a progressive future and the world collectively ooh and ahhs at it’s phenomenal power and contribution, yet academics within performing arts continue to ignore such progressions. Scientists across the globe are praised for their attempts to thwart the laws of physics but exciting new dance forms receive the cold shoulder from those in a prestigious position of power.

How can it be fair that an affluent upbringing is inevitably an essential tool to academic success within performing arts? How can we justify leaving talented young learners behind because they have never been provided with the tools to master ancient trades that are so out of touch with their personal circumstances?

I am exceptionally proud of the achievements that occur regularly within further education. I believe that it exists to fulfill a crucial purpose. To provide a first, second or third chance to those who have previously disengaged with education for a variety of reasons. I also believe that often the needs of these learners have been failed for so long, that we, as educators, can find ourselves scrabbling to achieve a massive backlog of learning, and we’re under immense amounts of pressure to do so. Our learners can enter their studies with us at level one, two or three, depending on a wide variety of factors. This could be their grades achieved in school or extenuating personal circumstances that may affect their ability to commit to a larger qualification. Inevitably the ideal progression post further education study is university, and therefore it is our responsibility to assess an individuals suitablity for higher education. However often we have young adults audition for places who have disengaged with standardised education at secondary school level, and so have little or no qualifications. We are able to increase their number of educational credits with a vocational course of their choice, but universities will often specify a need for GCSE english, and so students who showcase talent and genuine enthusiasm at their audition are often placed on a lower qualification that will enable us to put them through the required exams. 

 

TBC

 

 

 

The Thing With Feathers

‘It wasn’t promoted as a viable career choice at all in my high school. Actually, my careers adviser advised me against it.’

– Abigail, 17

 

The Thing With Feathers

I often discover the winged beast
Asleep when I need him the most.
His shadow, my blanket,
Is pulled from my grasp
And my large, feathered guard
Leaves me bare.

It is often these times
That I notice a change
In his temperament
And in his colour.

No longer my warm and welcoming friend,
A foreboding and frightening foe.

I listen to voices that urge me to leave
And advise against my return.

But as Creativity restlessly stirs,
I smile and bid him good day.

 

feather-art

Image – Sarah Kaplowitz, Pinterest

 

Safer

 

‘My secondary school was very shocked I had chosen this career pathway as they thought it would be much safer to go down core subjects like maths, English and science, as there are more job opportunities.’

– Katie, 16 

 

Safer

We are conditioned to value the education we receive

If our household income justifies the input.

We are expected to understand that education is a weapon

If we select the correct ammunition.

Cold, hard facts may provide substantial weight

But the case that holds them will never expand.

Refuge can be found in the calm of the theatre

Until the swell insists that we are safer in the storm.

 

Large stormy wave crashing, Cook Strait, New Zealand

Photo – Karim Sahai, http://www.karimsahai.com/tag/large-swell-photos/

Arts and Academia

A work in progress…

Discussing the Accessibility of Arts Education at a Higher Education Level

Part 1: Arts and Academia

‘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. Educators are constantly being challenged to explore imaginative and engaging pedagogy to lure the interests of their students, 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. 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. They practise literature skills, critical thinking, empathy and compassion with every verse they read. 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, brave 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 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 voices chanting the words ‘safer options’ as they recall the advice given by school 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.

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. Several of my learners recall being strongly advised to refrain from their extra-curricular stage schools or evening practise until their standardised exams were over. 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 preferred career progression is fitting only of their free time, whilst they must make time for a predetermined specialist subject.

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?

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 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 every 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 teachings of 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 time effective to gather a large number of adults in a room and invite one adult with specific specialties coach them in subjects that a separate group of adults have deemed vital. And as the human race continues to grow and expand, the numbers in those classes continue to multiply, inevitably producing more diverse student groups with a wide range of skill sets, 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.

And what a travesty that young learners entering school with a natural penchant for core subjects are never forced through the horror of complete disconnect by being pushed through an arts based subject, yet those who excel in creative outlets are tied to completing their maths and English in standardised form. This completely nonsensical pattern creates a fixed mindset 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. In other words, our education system is setting our creative learners up to fail…for life.