Rethinking education through the arts

28 September 2015 | Janet Watts | Opinion

If it had been suggested 12 years ago that by 2015 one would be able to access emails, Facebook, Twitter and Google on one’s phone, at any given time or place, while following detailed instructions (spoken by this gadget) on how to reach one’s destination, one would have been very skeptical. Twelve years is the average time most children spend at school. During these 12 years the world outside that school will change so much as to be almost unrecognisable.

The value of arts education cannot be underestimated.
Image courtesy of Alan Cleaver

Children are adept at learning all that is necessary to keep up with technological change, but being an effective citizen of the world requires intellectual skills they will not acquire from the mastery of gadgets alone. The reality is that these skills and the facts they learn at school are a tiny fraction of the knowledge essential for success once they leave school and enter a world that is moving faster than any curriculum possibly can. While still at school, they need the space and opportunity to explore how they would best like to navigate the world once they have to be active members of society. Different alternatives need be experimented with, analysed and discussed, and informed decisions made in a safe space where mistakes can always be rethought, reworked and rectified. How do teachers do this? They need to bring artful thought and attitudes to bear on real-world problems and projects, both in the classroom and across the curriculum.

Arts education encourages the development of unique and essential dispositions necessary to achieve this. First is the ability to stretch ourselves in order to further explore opportunities. This often involves taking a leap of faith into the unknown. Teachers of all subject areas typically hope their students will learn to think not only critically, but also creatively. No creative breakthroughs will be made in any discipline, however, without taking this leap into the unknown to explore different possibilities. This is difficult to do without making mistakes along the way. In the current educational climate, mistakes are often seen by teachers and students as shameful, humiliating and to be avoided. It is in the arts classroom that we can all learn to emphasise a playful messing around, embracing mistakes as opportunities. This, however, is meaningless unless we then focus on developing the second disposition of engaging and persisting, which involves committing to a project and ensuring that it is followed through to completion. That is how we learn to move beyond our mistakes and envision a solution. Learners need a time and space to evaluate situations, reflect on them, question and then explain how the situation is to be resolved.

While arts students are taught how to mix paint for an artwork, choreograph a dance, compose a piece of music or direct a scene from a play, they are also taught a remarkable array of mental habits not emphasised anywhere else in the curriculum, mental habits which develop the skills important for success in numerous career paths and life. Much study has been done on how artistic skills may be transferred to other learning areas and to improve performance there. This is, however, not the main benefit of having arts education as an essential part of any curriculum. We need arts education because, in addition to introducing students to an aesthetic appreciation of the intrinsic value of a creation, they teach other modes of thinking we value, modes of thinking that enable an authentic, insightful participation in life and society. If our primary demand of students is that they master gadgets and recall established facts, they will be ill-equipped to deal with the social and environmental problems they will face once they have left school. Those who have learned the lessons of the arts, however – how to see new patterns, how to deal with mistakes and how to envision solutions – are the ones most likely to come up with the novel answers most needed to ensure a meaningful future for all.

Education is at a moment of both opportunity and urgency. The ability of South African educators to make needed improvements in public education has everything to do with whether our society will be able to address the critical and pressing issues of democracy, economy, environment, interdependence and cohesion that we face as a global community. Arts education methodologies provide useful strategies for communicating across differences, engaging and persisting in spite of frustration and difficulty, and envisioning and creating innovative solutions to the challenges of our shared future. They also provide valuable experiential knowledge to build on as the education community seeks to recreate professional practice, re-imagine issues of teaching and learning, and hold itself to new standards of shared accountability.

It is for these reasons that it is stated in the Constitution and highlighted in the White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage that access to, participation in and enjoyment of the arts, free expression of all cultures and the preservation of one’s heritage are basic human rights. They are not luxuries, nor are they privileges, as one is generally led to believe. Tshikululu clients invest in society as they believe they have a shared responsibility for shaping the dynamic world around them in ways that are economically, environmentally and philosophically sound. The creative arts sector is therefore an essential component of any social investment portfolio.