Here is my post for the TES from earlier this week:
The Guardian gushes: At a time when arts are squeezed in some schools, teachers are embracing them as a tool to teach the environment without realising it is this insidious belief that the arts are merely a pedagogical tool that is leading to a paucity of engagement with great art.
The tragic figure of the starving artist in the garret eking out an existence is such a romantic image that it has informed great works of art like Henry Wallis’s ‘The Death of Chatterton’ and Puccini’s sublime La Boheme yet in the future our art will be a dreaded commercial enterprise trying to turn people into environmental warriors.
‘At primary school children are ‘learning songs about climate change and the environment… It’s a fun way to learn… we learn the ‘compost and growing’ song and produce artwork in relation to it, too. The arts and other curriculum areas are continually connected. Teaching the children to be sustainable has nice science, humanities and responsible citizenship links.’
Instead of singing the ‘Ode to Joy’ these children are singing odes to compost.
Instead of making pots inspired by Grayson Perry or Bernard Leach children are making:
‘footballs out of recycled paper, carrier bags and elastic bands, and they discuss global issues around poverty, fairness and fair trade…’
Instead of wrestling with Sophocles, Shakespeare and Sarah Kane pupils are engaged in:
“farmer drama” sessions have been encouraging students to put themselves in the position of those working within the supply chain.
Now of course Sarah Kane isn’t suitable for primary children, nor for adults if the Daily Mail review that called her first play a ‘disgusting feast of filth’ is to be believed. But primary schools are essential breeding grounds for artists and audiences, future amateurs and professionals and also the foundations for what Chesterton called the ‘soul of a society’. By embedding the arts in the service of farmer drama and compost songs, and by hiding real art in project based learning, children will not know the deep truths that making difficult art can uncover. This starts young, with specialised art teachers teaching art, to children, as subjects in their own right.
In primary schools pupils should have art, music, drama and dance lessons and not only in the service of the rest of the curriculum. If teachers want to teach ‘the whole child’ then do this through the depth of study not merely by ticking some breadth boxes in the name of arts coverage as ‘a useful tool in explaining subjects that may otherwise be considered complex or inaccessible’
Apparently there are now 1,700 fewer drama teachers teaching in UK schools than there were in 2010. I don’t have any information as to how accurate this figure is and what the figures are in the constituent nations of the United Kingdom nor how it compares to other subjects, suffice to say it adds to a general impression that the arts are in decline in schools.
Many of the various voices who decry the decline use utilitarian arguments to make their points. I think this is a mistake.
If the arts were to be removed from the curriculum, would it be a bad thing? If we take a strictly utilitarian point of view then the bare bones of the curriculum would suffice. Literacy, Maths and Science are the subjects that seem to rise above all others in our hierarchical view of subject worth. Arguments for drama’s inclusion in the examined curriculum that suggest it is important because the entertainment industry generates a lot of wealth for the country are ridiculous. For a start you don’t need a GCSE in drama in order to become an actor; and though I’m sure studying ballet, piano etc. has a more obvious utility I expect most who study these arts don’t end up adding directly to our GDP through their work in the entertainment world. Some drama teachers don’t even teach drama in schools with the idea of developing actors. Which is where another utilitarian argument comes in, that drama develops the skills that employers want: collaboration, creativity and communication skills. Even if we put aside the notion that skills are not easily transferable, there is a leap of faith to be made that children who have, say, delivered the lines:
All the dead voices.
They make a noise like wings.
They all speak at once.
Each one to itself.
Rather they whisper.
What do they say?
They talk about their lives.
To have lived is not enough for them.
They have to talk about it.
To be dead is not enough for them.
It is not sufficient.
They make a noise like feathers.
Like leaves. (2.98-118)
will be better at working for HSBC, McDonalds or at bricklaying than those who haven’t… The very idea is a bit far fetched.
Another argument goes like this – STEM subjects are important (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) so let’s stick an A in there too because arts are important too. This utilitarian approach falls apart very quickly. In the first place engineering hardly features as part of the curriculum in most schools. Technology is also in a parlous state. In fact STEM is all about S&M, but that makes a rather unfortunate acronym. To chuck in an A, seems to add to an already unsteady mix. Call it what you will but STEAM is not about giving the arts a privileged position in the school curriculum, it is about subsuming some shallow arts practices into an ‘integrated approach to learning’. STEAM is a cop out, entirely devoid of art, it is a corporate middle-manager’s idea of art, and is no way to ensure real arts practice remains part of the school experience.
Another utilitarian argument goes that the arts are important to mental health, they might well be, though there are clearly some people involved in the arts who have mental health problems so whether art makes them better than they would have been or adds to their problems I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess.
The arts are important on their own terms. Studying drama might help you become a great director, actor, and/or informed member of the audience. Beyond that the arts are a study on what it is to be human, they tap into our subjective experience of the world and help us to make sense of our lives. This enrichment of the subjective realm is difficult to quantify and by trying we reduce the very art we wish to protect. A school that shrinks the arts provision that its pupils are able to access is making a decision about what they think their priorities should be. If they are guided by utilitarian choices then it is easy for them to cut back on arts programmes because it is far less easy to justify the arts on these terms than, say, Maths. But if they are guided by the desire to educate their pupils as to what is important to them as human beings to make sense of the world and their place within it, then they will do their very best to ensure the arts have a proper and sustainable place in their curriculum.
“In the popular imagination,” writes Tim Blanning in his wonderful book ‘The Romantic Revolution’, “Beethoven was the romantic hero par excellence: the lonely, afflicted, uncompromising, utterly original genius, ‘a man who treated God as an equal’…” This vision of creative minds echoes down the centuries. The tortured artists in their garret, often poor, wearing black, maybe, ‘in mourning for their lives’…
The great artist, driven, mad eyed, wandering lonely as a cloud, the true artist rises, like poetry for Goethe: ‘like a hot air balloon… and gives us a bird’s eye view of the confused labyrinths of the world’…
But back on earth the ‘four Cs’ of the 21st Century ‘soft’ skills that are paraded before teachers as what is needed for children to succeed in the soon to come world are: communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity.
If we look at visions for the 21st century classroom we see primary colours, bean bags, formica topped tables with groups of children engaged with some screens and smiling and laughing as they work on some group activity. The assumption is collaboration = creativity.
The contrast with the tortured artist, alone in his garret, shouting at the falling plaster from the ceiling, couldn’t be more stark. Is ’19th century’ creativity, a joyless lonely affair, that accidentally produced great art…?
It was with little surprise that I read: “…there is substantial scientific evidence that collaboration, rather than sparking creativity, results in group think and mediocrity. What does result in creativity? Simple: solitude.”
The Washington Post reports that:
The more social interactions with close friends a person has, the greater their self-reported happiness. But there was one big exception. For more intelligent people, these correlations were diminished or even reversed. More intelligent individuals were actually less satisfied with life if they socialized with their friends more frequently.
In an Inc article Geoffrey James reflects that:
being around other people keeps keep creative people from thinking new thoughts. Indeed, there are few experiences more mind-numbing for a creative person than being forced to interact with dullards on a daily basis.
Even if your office is full of geniuses, they’ll be less creative en-masse than if they can work and think alone. In short, it’s difficult and maybe even impossible to “think out of the box” when you’re literally inside a box (i.e. an open plan office) that’s full of other people.
Isn’t this the problem with the four C’s approach to teaching and learning? It is not modelled on great creativity produced over centuries by our greatest geniuses, rather it is fashioned by a fifth c: the ‘Corporate’ vision and the schools that follow this approach rather than ‘unleashing creativity’ will find themselves producing conventional corporate types who won’t upset any apple carts but will fit into group think activities so beloved of the open plan, group work, trendies that inhabit the world as portrayed so deliciously in the comedy programme W1A.
If you want great creativity, nurture great artists and teach them how to express themselves, rather then flood their minds with group work overkill in every lesson.
An innocent tweet? Apparently, for some, it was all too much. Comments about rows instead of groups, chairs facing one way and not the other followed… and ‘seating plans’ it became a proxy battleground for traditional and progressive minded teachers to make their points. Our tweeter even got called an abuser and a probable victim of abuse… I kid you not…
anyway, my view:
The first classroom I taught in was, actually, a school hall. Through the windows was a view of a tower block. I was told to teach the class away from the windows because the ‘bullet’ holes in the windows were caused by a disgruntled ex-pupil who lived in the flats and was taking pot shots at the school with whatever calibre of BB gun he possessed.
The last classroom I taught in was a ‘black box’ where the entire room was painted black and heavy black curtains covered the windows which, in any case were over six foot off the ground. So ‘views’ were not really my thing, most of the time.
As for chairs and tables…
I didn’t have them. A seating plan was an odd thing in my mind. Chairs and tables were scary enough, when I had to teach a cover lesson in a classroom I was struck by how little freedom the teacher had to move around and how easy it was for pupils to ‘hide’ what they were doing.
Teachers who explain the seating plan is so they can get to know the names of the children might have a point, it was always a struggle to get to know everyone’s name, especially as, in the drama room, the little actors were always changing their names – to fit with the character they were playing. Nightmare. But getting to know the name isn’t about them sitting in the same place and reading it off a plan pinned to a teacher’s desk – it is about remembering who they are… making an effort. Difficult, much easier to call every kid ‘darling’ but that was a step too ‘dramary’ for me… so i’d just point and shout: “You…!” Although I would alternate between choosing groups and pairs and allowing friendship groups and pairs mostly it was done by chance – who was near who after another activity. Final groups for a long term group project were always done in negotiation between the pupils and me.
Later I purchased some ‘seminar chairs’ for moments of writing and a white board on wheels; I positioned both the chairs and white board in different areas of the room depending on whim. In the end, habit meant this became a usual place. And in our sixth form ‘seminar’ room, the seats faced a board with the students backs to the windows. Made sense in so many ways.
It is interesting how our views are shaped and exposed in such unguarded moments as planning a classroom layout and/or writing a seating plan. The teacher who tweeted the ‘view’ from her classroom is most probably an excellent teacher, with a fixed whiteboard, with an excellent point of view, and her classroom layout might express her darker purpose… teaching and learning are important acts that need focus and concentration… on the subject being taught.
Trying to fit a personalised curriculum around the desires of a child is a dangerous idea. If we only ever follow the extreme individualisation where the child’s own innate tastes are paramount we might never move out of McDonalds.
The argument for personalisation goes hand in hand with the idea that much that is studied is of equal value. As long as they’re reading something it doesn’t matter what it is. Why not let a child pursue their own interests? Well, because sometimes those interests might not be in their own best interests. Great Art teaches us truths, just as much as science can. Just not the same ‘type’ of truth.
In a conversation with a science teacher about ‘why we teach Shakespeare’ I suggested it’s because his message is universal, a great expression of the human condition, and exactly the sort of thing that a great education should be focused upon. Absorb a child in the words of Shakespeare and she has a companion for life.
‘It’s all subjective,’ was the reply…
And I tried to reply: yes we are talking about the ‘subjective’ but some things are better than other things and, as teachers, we need to teach children how to make the right choices – how to discern quality in all the arts, how to develop taste, how to open one’s heart to beauty and how to get involved in the conversation. It is important that the teacher opens the world of the subjective so that it becomes a place in which a child can traverse confidently.
For Kierkegaard it was the subjective truth that mattered. For him:
The subjective thinker is not a man of science, but an artist. Existing is an art. The subjective thinker is aesthetic enough to give his life aesthetic content, ethical enough to regulate it, and dialectical enough to penetrate it with thought.
It is the passionate embrace with this ‘subjective’ truth, which is a constant striving towards something, knowing it has depth, knowing it has infinite engagement and argument at its core which works like Shakespeare continue to have for us that make them great.
‘I’m a relativist.’ Said the science teacher. ‘There are objective truths which is the realm of science and everything else is relative.’
For Kierkegaard objective truth suffers for once known it no longer needs us to engage with it deeply. For some this is why they miss Shakespeare’s importance, because they switch off when they are told he is ‘good’.
But the scientist who is striving, wanting to know more, engaged in a struggle to find out is on a similar trajectory to those trying to find the truth in the subjective realm. This, not quite known, quest – keeps us involved. This is the realm in which science and art can come together.
Shakespeare is great, but how great? Shakespeare tells us truths but how true?
The need to teach a pupil about quality is a central tenet when creating a curriculum for them. The alternative to quality driving our decisions, perhaps pandering to what we think they might like, is relativism – where everything has equal value, no truth, this just opens us up to a vile petulant cynicism. And instead of the engagement with great art we have personalisation of the worst sort. Whatever you think is good, is good. Not about truth, just individual gratification. The ‘well, it’s my opinion’ argument gets us into dangerous areas. The inability to grasp the importance of subjective truths changes the centre of gravity from a relationship with great works into a full focus on one’s own self:
From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable
Mussolini (talking about his ‘relativism by intuition’)
Despite the person, who came to my school talking about how they arrived at estimated grades, saying that they should never be used as ‘target grades’, the school informed us that the data generated was to be used as a target grade for every pupil.
A grade set by English, maths results at key stage 2 will be used to create an aim for a pupil in year 10, a ‘minimum’ expectation in the GCSE exam…
This was not all. I was then instructed to not only inform my pupils but to get them to write the grade on the front of their books so that they would remember it when ‘OfSTED’ came in. In order to ensure this was happening some SLT came into classes and asked a pupil or two: ‘What’s your target grade?’ If they didn’t know, they’d get told off. If they didn’t know, the teacher would get told off.
When I refused to get my pupils to put their grades on their books I got told off. I kept not doing it. After a threat of disciplinary procedures I eventually got my pupils to write the grades inside the books, whilst telling them they were nonsense, that in the drama room we didn’t care about the grade we just cared about the quality of the work. I was also expected to ‘grade them’ accurately every fortnight to see if they were ‘on’ target. This, again was ludicrous. Nigh on impossible in a drama class, well, at least, in my drama class I argued. And as for a one sentence improvement comment, a ridiculous waste of time. Feedback is verbal, I argued, in situ, to the child and is far more than a glib comment. None of this ingratiated me with my line manager.
All we needed, I told my pupils, was to make great work and maybe you’ll get a great grade… if the examiner is good enough.
I remember going through the ‘target’ grades with a class and a girl who loved drama, who was very enthusiastic and new to the school; I called her name, she came up to me to get her target grade…
She had tears in her eyes. I told her it was ludicrous. That I didn’t think it mattered, that tests in English and maths had no bearing on how good she was. She was to become such a great student, producing memorable work and was an extremely important member of the class.
I can’t recollect what grade she got in the end, it was either a B or an A, no matter. The other day I saw her on a terrestrial TV channel acting in a drama serial and acting superbly.
Whether her target grade had been an E or a B, it wouldn’t matter. The grade is a distraction. What the aim should be is not a grade but a profound engagement with the subject.
Yes we might need to get grades as currency but if we make this currency the be all and end all of our learning we cease to focus on the subject and instead see it as little more than the means to get a job or place in a college. Or just a fifth GCSE. Or Eighth. Cynical instrumentalism. The emphasis becomes less about the fascination with a body of knowledge and more about grade capital.
Estimated grades might have a purpose in the back office of a school, but they should not be shared as target grades with individual students. Especially outside of the subjects that were graded at key stage 2. Even in these subjects I think the sharing of the grade might be of little benefit. The focus in the classroom should be in the learning of the material, the knowledge needed, not ‘what do I need to do to get a C or a 4 or a 5…’
This is why I’d like to see us shoot the target grade…
Every subject is different, it has its own rhythms and constraints around which a positive classroom culture can be created. Getting changed for PE, putting on lab coats, getting out exercise books and pens, all these seemingly mundane rituals are an essential part of creating a positive working atmosphere.
In the drama room I have no chairs, there are no ‘set’ places for a child to sit, they can run free, make a lot of noise and get away with doing anything they want because, if challenged, they can say: ‘But, we was only acting sir…!’
The drama classroom is thus a terrifying place for the non-specialist cover teacher to venture into and deliver a lesson because all the more usual paraphernalia of the classroom culture are missing. Chaos, far from being hidden away, is in the ascendancy.
This is why, to me, discipline is an essential component of a classroom culture. It’s the same in every class, of course, and the discipline that works best for me is that which is drawn from and refers to the nature of the subject being taught as well as that of the class being taught, the school in which the lesson takes place and the character of the teacher teaching it.
As a drama teacher, the first concept I teach a class is ‘how to centre’. Specifically, how to be quiet, how to be still, and how to obey commands. This, I suggest, is the most important state to conquer. Students have to stand in a space, equidistant from each other, from walls etc. with their arms by their side, feet shoulder-width apart, back, neck, head straight and eyes closed. And, before you ask, this is adapted for individual students who are physically unable to do it. They breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. I then do some other physical exercises and when I say ‘centre’ they have to adopt the ‘centred’ position within 10, 5, then 3 seconds.
This physical focal point is the heart of the classroom culture. Once mastered they learn how to move into other states, how a slight change of the foot or arm, a change in where the ‘centre of gravity in a character’ might be. They see how important the neutral position is, in order ‘to act’, ‘to do’, they need to start from neutral.
In other lessons I teach in classrooms, I use the same idea, to create pause, focus, reflection. An expectation of individual attention to themselves, I call it ‘sit down, shut up, eyes down, read…’ (or write). It doesn’t matter what it’s called. The point is to have a place where all know there is silence, stillness, reflection, and it feels calmer. This can be the normal state for most of the work in a classroom, but, importantly, it is not a punishment state. This is an essential part of the ritual and discipline of the teaching of the subject and it is present from day one. ‘When I say: ‘——————‘, you do ‘———————-‘. And, later, once mastered, I pick up on their reading or writing. They get to learn that it is important that they do it, because I will question them on it; if writing, it is important they do it, because I will read out what they’ve written. (Not all, of course, but always one, two or more.)
If it takes a minute, five minutes, a whole lesson or term, this is the most important lesson to get across, because from here all other positive elements of a flourishing classroom culture can flow.
Of course, it’s not the only part. It’s, literally, just the start.
An article in Schools Week reports:
A free school in Newcastle that does not teach humanities, arts or foreign languages has been branded ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in its first inspection.
The education watchdog singled out the “unacceptable” absence of subjects at Discovery School, which also omits physical education, in its report from an inspection conducted in May.
“The curriculum is failing to meet pupils’ needs and does not prepare them for life in modern Britain,” it said.
The school focuses on: ‘science, technology, engineering and mathematics.’
STEM, an acronym that implies narrowing of the curriculum, is meant to be all about preparing for life in the modern world, a life of robots, 21st century skills and a global market, it is good to see that OfSted believes there is more to life than just these narrow goals. Some would argue this narrow focus is a result of utilitarian thinking.
Jeremy Bentham, the great utilitarian, devised a curriculum for secondary schooling that emphasised science and technology rather than the subjects of Greek and Latin, a curriculum that would be clearly lacking in breadth. John Stuart Mill, a great admirer of his mentor Bentham, described him as being a great thinker but one who lacked the natural feelings that belong in a human being.
As a child Mill was home educated and kept away from other children by his domineering father. He learnt Greek at the age of three and read a lot of Plato, in the original, by the age of twelve. He was never allowed a holiday as the potential of ‘idleness’ worried his father.
His father encouraged John Stuart to think for himself: “Anything which could be found out by thinking I was never told, until I had exhausted my efforts to find it out for myself.” But this education, he thought, turned him into: “…a mere reasoning machine.”
Mill later suffered a mental breakdown and became very depressed. He said that he recovered from this crisis by reading the poems of Wordsworth:
They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under the influence.
Mill moved on to Coleridge and was to describe him and Bentham as ‘the two great seminal minds of England in their age’.
Science and technology should be a central part of the curriculum AND so should poetry, the arts, humanities, languages and physical pursuits. This is the right sort of education for the human being. As Charles Darwin put it:
If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry & listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, & may possibly be injurious to the intellect, & more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
Where Ofsted says: “The curriculum is failing to meet pupils’ needs and does not prepare them for life in modern Britain,” they are referring to life beyond the narrow confines of utility and this is to be applauded.
And don’t think that by turning STEM into STEAM you solve this problem. STEAM is a bastardised acronym in which the arts are subsumed into some sort of cross curricular service of commerce, science and/or tech, this is not art, it is subterfuge.
Ron Berger’s famous ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ is a great lesson about how redrafting and feedback can help a child create a more accurate ‘scientific’ drawing of a butterfly. In the context of the task picture six is clearly the ‘best’ depiction of the butterfly.
If one removes the context and no longer looks for accuracy and, instead, tries to judge the drawing on its own merits – art for its own sake, which drawings are the ‘best’? I would argue that, artistically, one and four are the ‘best’.
How about these three Turner’s, which is ‘the best’?
In terms of ‘accuracy’ maybe the first one, but the third, of a fire at the Tower of London, in 1841, a watercolour ‘sketch’, has an immediacy of response that might represent a different sort of ‘accuracy’, that of the artist responding to a moment in time in a way that captures something of the event beyond an accurate depiction of it. In fact, for many years, this was thought to be a painting of the fire in 1834 at the Houses of Parliament, does this mean the picture is not as good as it should be? Well, it was only a sketch but it did help Turner in developing his Art. This, from 1844, is a finished work:
The art teacher has to rely on knowledge and intuition to decide what is ‘best’, sometimes this is not so easy, especially in a lesson where Austin has already drawn the best butterfly in the first five minutes.
Paul McCartney ‘dreamt’ Yesterday, and remembered it the next morning, quickly working out the right chords, but always thinking in the back of his mind that somebody else must have written it and he remembered it because it came to him so easily. Had a teacher overworked the tune with my ‘imaginary Paul as a music pupil’ who had come up with that tune – saying it needs redrafting, it might have ruined the tune. A lesson which has a given amount of time is often too short for work to be completed. Sometimes it is too long. What to do with those minutes if a child has already created a great piece?
Well, Paul, had to work on the lyrics, ‘scrambled eggs’ was not as good as ‘yesterday’…
But arts teachers need to think what happens if a pupil comes up with perfection straight away? I mustn’t ruin it and I need to feed their aesthetic judgement and taste to ‘know’ when good is good. How do we teach a child to ‘know’ when something is good…
And not, merely, accurate?