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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Creative engagement - the place of arts-rich education in Australian schools

Gillian Gardiner
Education Adviser, Australia Council for the Arts

The purpose of art study is not to make artists out of our young people; it is to help them become
complete human beings
(York 2004).

A considerable body of international research into neurological function and cognitive development now substantiates what many teachers, artists and parents have intuitively known for a long time - the arts are critical to education and learning.

The arts are basic to a child's personal, emotional, social and civic development. Only the arts educate the whole person as an integrated individual: educating the senses, the mind and the emotions. The arts educate the soul (York 1998).

The arts can provide young people with authentic learning experiences that simultaneously engage their minds, hearts and bodies. While learning in other subjects often focuses on development of a single skill or specific understanding, the arts regularly require students to multi-task - engaging and nurturing their cognitive, social and personal competencies simultaneously.

This article summarises key benefits of an arts-rich education, drawing on the categories developed in Champions of Change, an often cited U.S compilation of key research reports (Fiske 1999).

Reaching students who are not otherwise being reached and providing new ways of engaging all students

'If only he had the same interest in his schoolwork as he does in that loud music!' or 'I wish she would pay the same attention to her studies as she does to fashion!' are common exasperations for parents, particularly of adolescents. The arts can draw on popular culture to reach out to many of these students.

It is common for young people who are considered to be low achieving or 'at-risk' to become the high achievers in arts learning settings. Often these young people have been 'acting out' because conventional classroom practices are not engaging them.

The arts, because of their multi-modal delivery, offer a natural fit for different styles of learning. The arts nurture young people's cognitive, social and personal competencies. The arts engage all five senses. The arts offer opportunities to learn by seeing, thinking, moving, collaborating, problem solving, speaking, reading, writing, scripting, recording, shooting film/video, visually expressing, touching, molding, modeling, cutting, pasting, shaping, forming, presenting, responding, the list goes on. These opportunities can apply to subjects across the curriculum, well beyond The Arts as a Key Learning Area.

The arts enable learners to deepen their self-perception by having them think through their responses to a variety of real-life situations, and by giving them a practice or 'dry run' at testing the consequences of various actions in a safe environment. For obvious reasons, drama is particularly successful in this regard.

Improving students' self awareness and capacity to connect with others

Creating an artwork can be an intensely personal experience. The artist, in this case the student, draws on their personal resources to generate the result. Because their 'whole person' is engaged in this way, the student feels invested in ways that are deeper than just knowing the answer to a given question.

The arts also invariably involve communication - especially the inter-relationship of reading, writing, listening and speaking - and an understanding of the broad ranging means of verbal and non-verbal communication, which form the bases of human thought and interaction (South Australian Government 1996).

Twenty students will create twenty different artworks in response to the same stimulus/question, providing a rich tapestry for discussion of the topic at hand.

Different cultural heritages find expression in the arts, so the arts can also enhance students' understanding of the values, attitudes and practices that contribute to social justice and effective participation in our multicultural society. In a recent study in an urban Australian primary school, where a majority of students are recently arrived immigrants and/or do not speak English as a first language, an integrated visual arts project enabled children to express their thoughts and feelings about recent traumatic experiences for the first time (Australia Council 2004).

Transforming the learning environment

When the arts become central to the learning environment, schools and other educational settings become places of discovery. Many teachers report how the arts have changed the very culture of their school - the integrated arts program they have undertaken has led to walls between disciplines and classrooms being broken down - both figuratively and physically. Surveys undertaken in schools that have tried arts-infused learning commonly report positive changes in school climate (Fiske 1999).

Providing learning opportunities for the adults in the lives of young people

Teachers and artists involved in arts-rich or arts-infused learning projects regularly report that they learn just as much as the students from their involvement (Fiske 1999). Children and young people can provide fresh perspectives on artistic practice, and offer insight into new ways of viewing the world. By working with children and young people, artists discover new ways of thinking about their practice, because they need to open it up in a way that encourages students' understanding, access and experimentation. The expertise of teachers helps them see their work in an educational context, which is different to the creative one to which they are accustomed.

When teachers and artists work together to plan and develop learning programs with central arts pedagogies, many frictions emerge. The creative and often unstructured working styles of artists are often not compatible with the outcomes-focused learning and assessment requirements teachers must fulfill. There can be resistance from both sides, even as they try to accommodate each other. Arnold Aprill (2003) calls this resistance 'generative friction', because it is only through this tension that truly arts-rich teaching and learning practice can emerge. We know that teachers and artists need support and assistance, in the form of time and professional development, in order to get full advantage from these kinds of creative partnerships.

Providing new challenges for already high achieving students and connecting learning experiences to the world of real work

For talented or gifted students the arts can provide unlimited intellectual challenges, reducing tendencies toward boredom and complacency.

There are no right or wrong answers in the arts. Multiple outcomes are allowed and even encouraged. Researchers have found that students learning in and through the arts are often motivated for the learning experience itself, not just for good marks or exam results (Fiske, 1999).

The complex and multidimensional learning that takes place in the arts sees students developing the skills and capacities needed in the environmentally responsible Australian economy and society of the 21st century. The arts encourage the application of planning and design skills, goal setting, reasoning, aesthetic judgment and imagination.

U.K. academic Shirley Bryce-Heath found the arts 'hold the opportunity for kids to play around with ideas in their head and then carry it out with degrees of success and failure, or something in between' (Kellam, 2004). She describes how the arts can move students beyond simply using their own experiences and opinions as a basis for interaction. Immersion in the arts exposes students to sophisticated problem posing and hypothetical reasoning.

The added dimension of authenticity the arts provide is of course due to the act of creating real tangible artwork - students can be acknowledged and validated as artists themselves through exhibitions, publication and performances of their work. According to Richard Louv, 'Even if a child's drawing of a summer vacation never hangs anywhere more prominent than a refrigerator door, that act of creation can unlock a young mind in ways that scientists and educators are only now beginning to understand' (Louv, 2004).


Australia Council. Commentary by the author regarding a presentation by Anne Bamford on preliminary findings of the NSW Education and the Arts Partnership Initiative project, in Perth in May 2004. The final project report is due for publication later this year.

Fiske, Edward (Ed.) Champions of Change : the Impact of Arts on Learning. American Education Partnership 1999

Kellam, Susan 'The Arts Are Basic to Achievement: An Interview with Shirley Brice Heath', Connect for Kids. Accessed 05/08/2004.

Louv, Richard 'Why children need an arts education renaissance, Artists Helping Kids. Accessed 21/05/2004.

South Australian Government Educating For The 21st Century South Australian Department for Education & Children's Services 1996

York, Alexandra. 'The Fourth 'R' In Education - Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and Art' ArtsReformation.com. Accessed 05/08/2004

Key Learning Areas

The Arts

Subject Headings

Arts in education
Curriculum planning