Arts partnerships in contemporary education
I’ve been thinking this week about arts partnerships in schools, and the current state/status of this work in Melbourne. It was inspired by my conversations with Arnie Aprill from CAPE [Chicago Arts Partnership in Education) on Sunday and Monday. Arnie has been in town this week, talking ideas and possibilities and being generally inspiring. He held a forum at ArtPlay on Monday night for artists, arts organisations, teachers and school leaders, and a group of about 30 of us gathered to discuss the territory in which we work.
Monday’s discussion began with questions, including:
“How do we talk to people about the work that we do, and communicate its importance, without getting angry and pushing people away when we come up against resistance – because there is often resistance and misunderstanding?”
“How do we communicate in this way internally, within arts organisations, where engagement with education sites and communities is not the main focus of the organisation’s existence?”
“And what is the impact on the artist of working in a resistant, or non-receptive environment?”
“How can I ignite my fellow teachers’ creativity?”
AA: In partnerships, we need to remember that the delivery model (where an individual or organisation comes in to deliver you something – a product or package or experience that they have already determined that you need, that is not necessarily tailored to your specific environment) doesn’t work. CAPE projects are in fact in partnership with teachers. The visiting artist is not just there to liberate the students, they are there to liberate themselves and the teachers and to build respectful relationships with each other.
Arts partnerships in education are not so much about “access to the arts” (which positions the artist or arts organisation as somewhat power-endowed and benevolent in sharing their arts-knowledge-power), as much as they are about Active Democratic Participation through longterm partnerships and relationships.
“How will I know what the kids have learned through the project?”
Arnie talked at length about the importance of documenting projects, of documenting the process and seeing this as an important product or outcome of the project (along with the ‘official’ outcome itself). In other words, rather than thinking about process vs. product, lets re-frame the issue by recognising that process IS product! Interview the children on camera, he suggested. Ask them to tell you what they’ve learned. It is a powerful confirmation of the growth and development that takes place in their minds through a creative, arts-based engagement with a subject, any subject.
In the examples he showed us, the children are actively involved in documenting their thinking, and creating visual displays of their learning. Vivid, engaging wall displays are common in CAPE schools, and children regularly walk the corridors, reading about other classes’ projects. CAPE’s work is very influenced by the ideas within the Reggio Emilia approach to learning and in Reggio Emilia, they believe that “the walls are the 3rd teacher”.
Remember too, Arnie urged, when you are assessing a project’s impact, that there is ongoing thinking taking place beyond the end product of the project. Therefore, in addition to documenting the earliest parts of the process, it may be important to continue to look for impact, and document this, after the project has formally ended.
We talked about the importance of arts in education being rooted in contemporary arts practice. There is no need to have to cover “traditional arts approaches” first – just jump straight into contemporary languages, suggested Arnie. (I think this is standard practice among teaching artists in Melbourne, but perhaps school-based arts teachers feel more pressure of expectation to cover the classics and archetypes first).
Further to this, Arnie saw contemporary arts practice (and therefore contemporary arts practice in education) as moving beyond the idea of mere self-expression, to incorporating expressions of complex social responsibility and understanding. The arts can be a powerful vehicle for encouraging children and schools to engage with the issues and challenges of the contemporary world. Frequently, this practice makes visible an intentional care of the built and natural environment, of social access and equity, and cultural citizenship.
Lastly, we talked about “why we do it” and what these kinds of projects can foster in the students and teachers that take part. We were reminded of the cardinal rule of not solving everything for the kids. Adults often suffer from “difficulty greed”, suggested Arnie, where they keep all the challenges for themselves – perhaps to control the outcomes, perhaps because of a lack of trust in the children, or a fear of it being too difficult and therefore disheartening for the child. But these projects should be all about options, rather than about selecting “the right” genre or mode of expression. And they have collaboration and ideas at their core, which makes them undeniably relevant in contemporary world marketplace. For children at school today, to be a poor collaborator may mean to be virtually unemployable in the future, such is the demand for creative thinkers who can work collaboratively towards goals.
This was all very positive and inspiring, and a welcome affirmation of why we are committed to this area of artistic practice. However, I was also aware of my feelings of pessimism which I felt uncomfortable to voice within the forum. It has become so much more difficult to be an artist in a school in Melbourne. You will not meet an educator in Melbourne (perhaps also Australia) today that is not aware of how much schools have changed over the last few years. Particularly in primary schools. Where once primary schools were often a joyous bastion of possibility, flexibility, and responsiveness to new opportunities, things are now much more rigid. It is much harder as a visiting artist to structure projects in ways that give the children the sustained access to the arts activity that allows really deep learning to take place. The timetabling flexibility has all but gone in many, many schools. And most would agree it is the arrival of standardised testing and the requirement of fixed blocks of learning time for literacy and numeracy each day that have led to this change – these components have had a ripple effect that has blocked out other parts of each school day.
Arnie ended his presentation with a vision of the new trends and ways of thinking that are gradually taking hold in schools and other sites for learning. These were exciting – an emphasis on interdisciplinary learning, project-based work, greater connections between schools and communities… these are talked about a lot here too, and they are recognised aims in the Essential Learning Standards for schools. However, they sit uncomfortably alongside the demands of a rigidly-timetabled curriculum and constant testing. They can particularly take flexibility away from small schools and disadvantaged schools.
The trouble is that voicing these thoughts can become a whinge-fest (non-Australian readers note, ‘whinging’ is complaining) at forum like this. And while forums such as Monday night’s can offer us fantastic tools for advocating with principals and teachers and school councils for the importance of these partnership projects, they don’t necessarily answer the question that started our forum: “How do we talk to people about the work that we do, and communicate its importance, without getting angry and pushing people away when we come up against resistance – because there is often resistance and misunderstanding?”