What are the arts for?

Howard Gardner (1990) suggested that the arts provide three interconnected developmental pathways: helping to develop a child’s perception, conceptualisation and productive activity. Eisner (2002) expanded on this connection between the arts and learning, articulating 10 key lessons:

  1. The arts enable children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships
  2. Problems can have more than one solution and questions can have more than one answer
  3. The arts celebrate multiple perspectives (there are many ways to see and interpret the world)
  4. In complex forms of problem-solving, purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity
  5. The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor numbers exhaust what we can know
  6. Small differences can have large effects
  7. The arts allow us to think through and within material
  8. The arts allow us to say what cannot be said (a work of art can allow a release of poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job)
  9. The arts give us experiences we can have from no other source and, through such experiences, allow us to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling
  10. The arts’ position in the school curriculum symbolises to the young what adults believe is important.

Eisner’s work is crucial in recognising the reasons why art forms should be taught to young people – it isn’t necessarily to achieve the highest standard of representation but rather to ensure that the processes of learning itself are facilitated. Too often today, teachers (who themselves may have had a poor experience in arts education; Gregory, 2005) may concentrate on the physical outcome of the arts rather than being able to utilise the processes to develop cognition (Ofsted, 2012; Efland, 2002). This rather narrows the list above and reduces the impact of learning in the domain of the arts.

The importance of values in arts education

As attention is beginning to shift towards a reconsideration of the curriculum, it is timely to make sure that the processes of learning are better understood, in order to ensure that there is meaningful breadth and balance. Marland and Rogers (2002, p. 12) stated that ‘in many ways, the core of the contribution of the arts to the overall curriculum is the emphasis [they bring] on values’. If the arts are reduced to demonstrations of ‘skills’ alone, they lose their importance and influence. There are many subtle ways in which such values can be seen, understood or experienced. These might include the amount of time offered for teaching them.

Values applied – from training teachers to opportunities in the classroom

As an example, a recent study for the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) found that primary teachers training on an undergraduate route at a university might find that they have only 90 minutes allocated to art and design in the whole course of study (Gregory, 2017). When allied to the fact that few training opportunities in the subject will be offered to them post qualification (NSEAD, 2016), it is little wonder that the majority of lessons observed in school by inspectors were below good (Ofsted, 2012). The Cambridge Primary Review added to these concerns as it captured the practice in schools (Alexander, 2009). There remains little evidence to suggest that things are generally improved – although there are, of course, very positive projects reported from across the country.

Arts in education

These indicators are not confined to these shores, but it is worth noting that there are some aspects that are peculiar to England. As the National Curriculum (DfE, 2013) indicates, the subjects of art and design, as well as music, are compulsory elements within the taught curriculum in England. Drama is mentioned within the English curriculum and dance in physical education. Analysis of the curriculum indicates the extent to which the main emphasis has shifted from understanding and making towards learning historical facts and appreciation (Hallam et al., 2007). This move can be seen across the art forms (Downing et al., 2003) and perhaps represents the most significant variation from the arts education experienced by previous generations. This is then compounded by those who seek to use the arts to prove a point; See and Kokotsaki (2015) concluded that there was no evidence that the arts led to a rise in academic standards. This view was predicated on an extensive review of the published literature but not one study they reviewed had actually set out to show that the arts made such a difference. Similarly, in the past few weeks, I have been asked several times whether it can be shown that the arts can improve pupils’ attendance rates. It seems there has been a shift in the arts being viewed as justifiable in their own right, towards a perception that they contribute to particular forms of knowledge or act as vehicles for achieving other ends.

Looking for strong leadership in the arts?

Over recent years, Arts Council England (ACE) has sought to strengthen children and young people’s entitlement to arts education through the development of the Cultural Education Challenge (ACE, nd), establishing regional Bridge organisations and encouraging both Artsmark and Art Award schemes.

As the education system has been restructured, the availability of local authority advisors has reduced significantly, so there is a genuine question about how school teachers can improve their knowledge or how school leaders can be satisfied that their provision in the arts is good. Research has shown that the quality of subject leadership in school can be poor but regarded locally as very positive (Gregory, 2014). But, as already noted, the arts subjects are often disregarded in school improvement plans in favour of the (apparently) more important core subjects. ACE responded to this by partnering with several arts organisations to develop a series of guides for governors and trustees (see ACE/NSEAD, 2016).

The various subject associations (including Music Mark, NSEAD, etc.) are today the strongest educational advocates for the arts in education. As membership organisations, they provide varying levels of advice, publish reports and resources, and organise CPD opportunities. They also provide a timely irritant in the political and educational landscape and frequently work with the DfE and Ofsted to argue for a better arts education.

Conclusion

I have sought to acknowledge the indicators around us in schools of which we need to be mindful – the pressures on the system are redeemable, and can be improved. The challenge for us all is the strength and depth of our belief that this is what we must invest our energy in, for the sake of the pupils we seek to educate.

References

ACE (Arts Council England) (nd) The cultural education challenge. Available at: www.artscouncil.org.uk/children-and-young-people/cultural-education-challenge-0 (accessed 20 May 2019).

ACE/NSEAD (2016) Art and design education: A guide for governors and trustees. London: ACE. Available at: www.artscouncil.org.uk/document/art-and-design-education-guide-governors-and-trustees (accessed 2 July 2019).

Alexander R (ed) (2009) Children, Their World, Their Education: Findings and Recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review. London: Routledge.

Department for Education (DfE) (2013) National Curriculum for England. London: DfE.

Downing D, Johnson F, Kaur S et al. (2003) Saving a Place for the Arts? A Survey of the Arts in Primary Schools in England. Berkshire: National Foundation for Educational Research.

Efland A (2002) Art and Cognition. New York: Teachers College Press.

Eisner EW (2002) The Arts and the Creation of Mind. Yale: Yale University Press.

Gardner HD (1990) Art Education and Human Development, Volume 3. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.

Gregory P (2005) A deserved experience? Journal of European Teacher Education Network (JETEN) 1(2): 15–24.

Gregory P (2014) An investigation into the contribution made by primary art coordinators to the development of the teaching of art: The evolution of identities, understanding and practice. Unpublished EdD Thesis, University of Greenwich, UK.

Gregory P (2017) How long does it take to train a teacher in art and design? International Journal of Art & Design Education 36(2): 130–133.

Hallam J, Lee H and Gupta MD (2007) An analysis of the presentation of art in the British primary school curriculum and its implications for teaching. International Journal of Art & Design Education 26(2): 206–214.

Marland M and Rogers R (2002) Managing the Arts in the Curriculum. Oxford: Heinemann.

NSEAD (2016) The National Society for Education in Art and Design survey report 2015–16. Available at: www.nsead.org/downloads/survey.pdf (accessed 2 July 2019).

Ofsted (2012) Making a Mark: Art, Craft and Design Education 2008–11. London: Ofsted.

See BH and Kokotsaki D (2015) Impact of arts education on the cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes of school-aged children. A review of evidence. Education Endowment Foundation/Durham University. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/evidence-reviews/arts-education (accessed 20 May 2019).

Additional resources

International Society for Education through Art: www.insea.org

Music Mark: www.musicmark.org.uk

National Association for the Teaching of Drama: www.natd.eu

National Society for Education in Art and Design: www.nsead.org

One Dance: www.onedanceuk.org

World Alliance for Arts Education: waae.edcp.educ.ubc.ca