Neil Burridge argues that the Wales is well placed to place the arts at the centre of the school curriculum
In his 2010 Ted lecture, Sir Ken Robinson suggests that educational reform is insufficient to the meet the rapidly shifting needs of society. He argues that a revolution is needed that puts creativity at the heart of the curriculum, nurturing the varied skills of learners in a way that batch-led learning of the current system does not. It is heartening that the Welsh Government agrees – signified by its acceptance of all twelve recommendations made by Arts Council Chairman Dai Smith in his recent report Arts in Education in the Schools of Wales and set out in the panel below.
In his review Professor Dai Smith argues that the Arts brought in from the margins to promote creative thinking, emotional and personal well-being and inter-personal skills. As he says, there is a change in the atmosphere of the possible. The time is right, ripe, for change.
Many of his ideas are already being put into practice in a small, progressive flowering of new schools in different parts of the world. We heard of some of this practice at a recent Arts Council of Wales conference on ‘Creative Futures’. One of the speakers was Rebecca Chew, whose School of the arts in Singapore delivers the entire curriculum through creativity and the arts. Her belief that is when the human mind is fully and roundly engaged, learning in each area contributes in dynamic and beneficial ways to the whole of personal intelligence.
Another example is Plymouth College of Arts which has instigated a School of the Arts for 4-16 year olds, with purposeful practice through play and experimentation as a central pedagogy.
Arts in Education in the Schools of Wales
Peter Stead on the battle for Welsh theatre
Wales is well-placed to promote and instigate such changes. It is a small nation, with independent powers for education. The national identity is woven with threads of music, performance, poetry and image.
Of course, all of this should come with a health warning. Creativity can be an over-used and hollow buzzword in cynical agendas. It is easy to talk about, but not so easy to implement, not least because it is at odds with the current educational paradigm. Creativity requires doubt, requires a process of guidance through the benefits of making mistakes. Without this, new ground cannot be broken. Currently we operate within a system that prohibits risk, doubt, and intelligent leaps of faith because the system is built upon testing.
Testing in itself is not a bad thing. Without testing, no creative knows whether their creations are effective solutions to the problems that inspired them. Real testing, the evaluation of a thought-action journey, is central to individual and collective development. Testing, though, has other less attractive faces. The pursuit of the quantitative proof of success can take the place of an education which allows the student to genuinely own a rich process of learning that gives value and meaning to their life.
I teach with others on a Foundation course in art and design at the University of South Wales. We have witnessed over a period of 15-20 years, changes in the profiles of our students. There has been an increase in the percentage of female students opting for art and design. This reflects a view common amongst secondary students and their teachers who tend to view it as a soft subject more suited to girls. This should be a cause for national shame.
Both male and female students are reluctant to think for themselves. They have not been given the tools, lack confidence to explore, to commit to making anything and are fearful of not knowing the answer at the start of the question. Students expect to know the ‘right’ answer, when creative study contradicts this desire, dictating that the answer is not given but must be found, and then evaluated.
In a culture of quantifiable testing there is always a right answer. In a culture where teachers are under pressure to prove that the right answer is known, there is little opportunity for students to find their own voice and have faith in it. The growth of fear coincides with an increase in depression and anxiety amongst young people.
Real learning is a process, whereby a student gains skills, explores them, uses them, learns the rules, breaks the rules, learns them again, sometimes fails, succeeds and gains through experience and knowledge, a personal tool kit for life, for solving problems; for being an enriched, synergised entity. The best scientists, mathematicians and engineers work in this way.
Learning to pass tests means that the rules are learnt and reiterated to a greater or lesser degree of success. Traditionally, a percentage of students excel at this. What of the others? How are they served? How well served are the successful? If the process does not serve, is it at worst a form of social conditioning, reducing the agency of thought, of problem solving, of the link between creative thought and creative action?
Wales has the opportunity to establish itself as a truly creative nation, with a creative and dynamic economy. This begins at the earliest stages of education, but must be a vision that extends across a person’s life, adaptive to futures that nobody can predict. Creative education, which must embrace all subject areas, can be at the heart of this future – here, now, in Wales.