What Place For The Arts?
In the hierarchy of teaching, the arts are often at the bottom, perceived as being both less academically rigorous and less important than mathematics, science, and languages. I believe, however, that art education holds a unique and vital place in education, and that it is marginalised to the detriment of our students.
Art education is invaluable for the depth of personal growth it affords those who study it. If the aim of secondary school education is to teach students critical thinking and personal responsibility, I would argue that no subject is better suited to teaching these skills and values than art. The exploration of themes in art encompass the whole spectrum of human nature and achievement from mathematics, science, history, literature, philosophy, and anthropology, to religion, politics, ecology, esoterica, aesthetics, and symbolism. The process is one of continuous exploration and risk-taking, encouraging students to grow as individuals by exploring their sense of being in relation to the world. It is predicated on making mistakes, on exploring many paths in pursuit of often very complex thinking – with (in contrast to other subjects) no correct or incorrect responses to guide their efforts. It requires its students to become aware of their own cognitive processes, to position themselves critically in response to often difficult issues, and to learn to trust their own judgement in limitless and unbounded terrain by taking personal responsibility for their continued exploration.
In short, making art is difficult. It is mentally and spiritually challenging. Because there is no correct answer it takes great courage, and students must rely increasingly on their own judgement as they approach the senior level.
I believe the benefit of art education is that it affords students a safe space from which to discover the necessary confidence to develop their own judgement. But more than this, it helps them to recognise that there is a larger context for their work – that their learning and growth is directed at life beyond their time at school. I believe that art education in school instils those habits of thought and self-reliance that will prove invaluable to students no matter what path they follow afterwards. I believe it teaches them things that will be universally helpful to them throughout their lives: communication skills, critical thinking, personal responsibility, boldness of attack, the will to take chances, the courage to fail and to try again. As a teacher I therefore encourage independent thinking and far-ranging exploration – both conceptually and practically.
Increasingly people are acknowledging that there is more than one kind of intelligence; that intelligence and cognition are multi-modal, and that traditional academic subjects privilege only one aspect of a very complex interaction. Popular wisdom has it there are two major modes of knowing and understanding the world: the discursive and the non-discursive. The former is the mode that encompasses the scientific and logical, as well as those fields of inquiry that proceed through verbal and written language. The non-discursive can be defined as that which resists projection into the discursive form of language and is difficult to hold in conception, and perhaps impossible to communicate. Art has its own language, and like all languages it provide a deeper way of understanding and engaging with the world. Like other languages, it too resists translation, or at least cannot be translated without losing something of its meaning, but like all languages is opens up new ways of engaging with the world.
Results that matter
I believe there is a difference between teaching for life and teaching for exams. Academic qualifications are becoming less and less an assurance of success in the world outside of schools and universities. There is not necessarily a correlation between academic success in school and success in life – and preparing our students for the latter is vastly more important than the former as they move in to an uncertain and unpredictable future. Teaching with exam-success in mind may get good results in the short term, but isn’t necessarily good education; teaching for life is good education, and will also, necessarily, get good results in the long term.
For this reason I believe that the focus of good education should not be solely on the importance of exams and marks. The focus of good education should not be on getting something ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in standardised settings, or on chasing after the intangible notion of perfection. Rather, the focus should be on teaching students to think for themselves, to make their own decisions, to follow their intuition and inspiration, to make their own mistakes, to own those mistakes, learn from them, and realise that without them there can be no growth.
Good marks are not in themselves a reflection of any student’s abilities or character, and should not be what real learning is about. The qualities of character that art develops in students is, I feel, more important for the students than the results on their report cards. I believe that instilling in our students a lifelong desire for learning and a willingness to make their own decisions and carry the consequences thereof will lead to better results overall, across all subjects, than exam-oriented teaching.