What are the arts?

The arts are the very best of humanity; how we express that which is to elusive to say with words. “Through the arts, we touch transcendence and go beyond the mundane and the practical to the eternal and ideal.” (Wilson 2010, p. 17) Throughout human history we have made art; some of the oldest surviving art in the world are cave paintings in Indonesia dating back almost 40 000 years and evidence of body adornment can be dated back 400 000 years. (Dinham 2020, p. 3) Many would argue that it is art that makes us human, that it is what separates us from other species, that art is not essential to our culture but IS our culture. (Gekoski 2014, p. 338)

The oldest know cave paintings. (Mott 2016)

Now, perhaps more than ever in human history our daily lives are dominated by the arts. At the time of writing we are in the middle of a global pandemic, through enforced isolation to slow the virus spreading, the world has turned to the arts; People sing from balconies in Italy.

Online retailers are selling out of chalk and poster paint as children around the world colour rainbows across their homes to bring passer-by’s hope.  

Rainbows to raise spirits. (Dowse 2020)

Dance challenges to teach appropriate hand washing techniques take social media by storm. 

Education and social connection everywhere has moved online, utilising platforms made useable by graphic designers and everyone, everywhere binges on Netflix and tunes out to Spotify. It is fair to say that without the arts the Coronapocalypse and accompanying isolation would be much less possible and we certainly wouldn’t have the memes to find to find the humour in the darkness.

The Victorian Curriculum states; “The Arts enable students to develop their creative and expressive capacities by learning about the different practices, disciplines and traditions that have shaped the expression of culture locally, nationally and globally.” And defines six artistic practices that all Victorian students should be educated in; Dance, Drama, Media Arts, Music, Visual Arts and Visual Communication Design. (VCAA 2020) To acknowledge the arts as essential to the education is in itself an acknowledgment of how essential the arts are to humanity.

When we engage with the arts we are engaging with human spirit; with that that cannot be expressed with words. Through the language of dance, we can communicate emotions and stories far too complex for words. Through drama we can embody characters other than our own and make meaning of the world. The media arts are integral to modern life and allows us to become critical communication users. Through the aural art of music, we celebrate joy, wade deep into sorrow and tell tale of what it means to be human. The visual arts allows us to tap into a primal human need to make meaningful marks, through it we express emotions, provoke through and relate our experiences to others. Visual communication design is unique to the Victorian Curriculum, essential to modern life as it permeates every aspect of our communication and provides us with aesthetically pleasing, easily digestible information.

Why are the arts essential?

Recently the Australian Education Council released the Mparntwe Education Declaration, stating that all Australian young people have right to become “creative confident individuals, that have a sense of self-worth and self-awareness.” (2019)

The arts are perhaps the most powerful tool that educators have to achieve this aim; “The Arts contributes to the development of confident and creative individuals and enriches Australian society.” (VCAA 2020) Research has shown that through the arts students improve across all learning areas; the skills and abilities that students gain trough the arts transcend subject areas and allow students to experience embodied education that unlocks their creativity and ingenuity, improves self-esteem, and increases analytical and communicative practice, crucially students that participate in the arts are more academically engaged and motivated across all subjects. (ACARA 2014)

The benefits of art education cannot be overstated, a growing body of research as outlined by Robyn Ewing’s 2010 review The Arts and Australian Education: Realising Potential shows that arts education improves; cognitive ability, students who experience art do better at school, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, attitude and behaviour are improved and there is a lower drop out rate. (p.14) Through participation in the arts students also gain an increase in compassion for others (Bowen & Kisida 2019, p. 3) leading to improve social participation both in school and the community and increased mental health benefits as a result. The outcome of this research into the benefits of arts education are clear; the arts is an essential learning area and should be compulsory across all levels of education. (Ewing p. 18)

Each of the artistic disciplines outlined by the Victorian Curriculum also have their own intrinsic benefits. The sheer joy that children experience making art should never be undervalued. The thrill of moving our body and voice to express ourselves is at the core of human experience. The dramatic arts are an extension of pretend or dramatic that children readily engage in making it an easily accessible tool for self-expression. Socio-cultural play is understood to be a crucial key in unlocking a student’s ability to learn. Vygotskyian theory that underpins much of what we understand about education today claims that it is through social interactions that we learn and that through play we learn the rules of the culture to which we belong. (Smidt 2009, p. 114) Drama also allows students to experience play for longer, for many students the transition to secondary schooling signals an end to play as peer pressure and the physical environment discourage it, drama class allows for a socially acceptable way to continue to play.

Looking to the visual arts we can think in terms of visual literacy, we expect students to become critically multi-literate to multi-modal texts. Visuals are present in much of these texts, so the ability to be visually literate ties very closely to all literacies. The ability to make meaning from images is crucial, our society has become increasingly dependent on the images as an instant and universal language. (Bamford 2003 p. 2) Clearly teaching visual literacy must be done through visual mediums; media arts, painting, drawing and design to name a few, all promote an appreciation and understanding of the principles and elements of images promoting critical visual literacy.

Whilst all arts education benefits students, recent studies have shown that music education affects neurological development, strengthening the links between brain hemispheres and larger areas for self-awareness. (Sample 2013) Music, in particular singing has also been shown to alter brain chemistry, releasing serotonin and dopamine leading us to feel uplifted whilst simultaneously strengthening neural pathways allowing for my complex thought processes. (Babbitt 2020)

The evidence is clear, arts education grows bigger, more complex brains. The question should not be “why teach children arts?” rather “how can we afford not to teach children arts?”

An artful childhood

I had the privilege of having an artful, art filled childhood. It could be said the art runs through my veins, I am the daughter of a visual artist and an experimental musical performance artist. My mother was always creating; sewing our clothes and toys, painting or simply doodling whilst on the phone, stories of my father’s experimental music or street art performances were family legend. School holidays were often spent with my maternal grandmother teaching us oil painting or with my paternal grandparents, a primary school principal and preschool educator providing us with endless craft supplies.

The Hurstbridge Learning Co Op

My early years are distinguished by life at an alternative learning co-op, a parent run school allowing freedom for child-lead education rich in the arts. It was in many ways an immersive arts experience; the school itself a work of art, murals adorned walls, fabric and yarn hang from trees and embellished room dividers, half of the main room was a visual arts space where paint, paper, clay and recycled craft supplies were readily available. Surrounded by lush gardens and an adventure playground set amidst a magnificent gum tree forest.

Someone was often strumming a guitar, we sang ‘the unicorn song’  and ‘puff the magic dragon’ endlessly, we danced ‘bush dances’ and fairy jigs. We put on puppet and thespianism shows and played dramatic games that went on for years, where we embodied the characters so much, they became a part of our very identity. We collaborated on art projects, each decorating a cardboard box to form part of a dragon for a local parade for instance. We wrote our own newsletter and printed it ourselves on an old cyanotype machine.

Even when we moved, we took the world with us, inspiring the two teachers of our new tiny school, we continued to dance, sing and sculpt our way wherever possible.

These early experiences gave me a passion for the arts that has provided many opportunities to me throughout my life and has ultimately led me to the realisation that it was unique, and it shouldn’t be. The arts have so much to give, yet many people believe that they aren’t artistic or creative. I believe these beliefs come through a lack of value placed on the arts when they were children. As highlighted by Sir Kenneth Robinson in his famous Ted Talk, schools by their nature so often kill creativity. (2007)

How should we teach the arts?

Art, in all its forms, is a sensory experience that students need to feel in their bodies as they learn it, they are forms of praxis. (Dinham 2020 p.32) Students need to experience the process of making art; to mix paint on a pallet, to twirl across a dancefloor to embody how an evil monster would laugh. This allows students to learn in a kinaesthetic way in which knowledge is locked into the body and remembered through the body.

The arts need to be taught in an authentic way in which students create their own meaning by engaging with arts activities that explore and engage with ideas that are personally relevant. (Dinham 2020, p.127) An inquiry-based approach is best in which the teacher provides a framework based on a relevant topic or interest area. This can then be interpreted into reflecting on personal experience, how other artists have approached this topic and critical reflections leading to students own creative thinking and problem solving around the issue.

The teaching of the arts should be an organised, explorative journey in which every outcome is valued and there is no right and wrong. A wide range of instruments and materials should be provided for students to use in new and interesting ways to best tell their interpretations of the inquiry topic. Children (and many adults) are so quickly discouraged from making art because they want things to be prefect, to not make mistakes, to flawlessly replicate an image from popular culture; by focusing on process and experimentation this can be overcome so that simple joys of experience can overcome pressures of outcomes.

The arts in schools provide an avenue to easily differentiate learning, we all experience the arts in our own way and can produce vastly different outcomes to the same initial stimulus. Though supporting this we can demonstrating this we can encourage all students to value their own unique abilities and perspectives. “Since arts education places emphasis on the quality of a child’s engagement in the learning journey, you can legitimately asses their conceptual understanding and interpretation within the framework of their abilities.” (Dinham 2020, p. 102)

Children innately experience the world through their senses and social interactions, the arts provide an opportunity for educators to tap into a child’s world to extend their understanding and abilities. The power of the arts to transform educational experiences signifies that the arts should be central to any schooling, that we should not so much teach the arts but teach through the arts.

The arts has given me so much throughout my life that I am passionate to share with primary students; the arts have taught me to think and to feel, they have shown me experiences well beyond mine that gave me compassion, they have taught me who I am and how its ok to be who I am and they have given me simple and pure joy; every child has a right to experience these same gifts.

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Sample, I 2013, Music lessons in early childhood may improve brain's performance, The Guardian, Australia. Retrieved 10 April 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/nov/12/music-lessons-early-childhood-brain-performance
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Handwashing dance [original]- "ghen co vy", 2020, YouTube, Quang Đăng, 21 February, retrieved 10 April 2020
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