Blowing Off Steam On Arts Education & Declining PISA Standards

The Battle To Give Every Child An Arts Education

Those of us who have been working in arts education since the 1970s and 80 have experienced a ‘battle for ideas’ within the curriculum for the right of every child having access to the arts in their lives. This has meant joining with colleagues to advocate for resources, funding and formal recognition of drama and other performing and visual art forms.

Arguably, the culmination of that movement can be seen in the work of the esteemed panelists, chaired by Professor John O’Toole, and writers of the Arts Learning Area in the Australian Curriculum. As Associate Professor Sandra Gattenhof noted in the introduction to new 2014 Arts curriculum:

This is a historic moment in Australian Arts curriculum. For the first time ever – and even internationally I would argue – we have a curriculum that provides an entitlement to five art forms – Dance, Drama, Music, Visual Art and Media Arts for all young Australians. That’s never happened before.

Yet at the moment of our greatest victory, as Professor O’Toole, reveals in the HELPFUL LINK at  ‘Uncrowding the curriculum – the potential of the arts: A forum on the future of teaching and learning in the arts in Australian schools’ (Colloquium at University of Melbourne), the Review of the Australian Curriculum shows that the achievement was short-lived as we continue to ‘fight’ for our subject within educational debates: in particular,

  • The position of drama education within a hierarchy of subjects in an ‘overcrowded curriculum’ consisting of core curriculum and elective subjects;
  • The funding of literacy and numeracy initiatives that feed into PISA league tables, NAPLAN scores, STEM education; and
  • The use of data and feedback in education from quantitative and qualitative sources.

How our best intentions are brought low!

The context outlined above is the background for a presentation I gave at the Drama Victoria conference on Thursday, 1 December entitled Blowing Off Steam: An elder’s view of the gaps & omission of fighting against anti-arts education rhetoric. 

I regret to say, however, that I failed to deliver the main mission of my presentation which was to show the applicability of neuroeducational research to my colleagues that I hoped would galvanise them to value how the arts were fundamental to 21st-Century Learning which include the skills of the so-called 4Cs of Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication and Collaboration.

I panicked when, despite the best effort of the technicians on hand, the visual cues I was going to use in my workshops did not happen.  Ironically, with all the wisdom of hindsight, I had over-invested in the technology to demonstrate how teachers in a digital age might potentially call on a collective agency for communicating the value of their work. Listening to each workshop participant ‘blowing off steam’ on the alienation and under-appreciate they were feeling in their schools, however, I remember thinking how interdependence and collaboration I wanted to advocate, and which I passionately believe we taught through the artistic processes of drama in our classroom, needed to be better understood and communicated more than ever before. Indeed, I had planned to use the metaphor of ‘juggling’ to explain the feats we often confront when dealing with challenges in our teaching life, particularly when we are put on the spot to explain exactly what we do and why we do it.

Instead, still believing in my message, I ‘soldiered on’, trying to piece together the terrain of using a new ‘digital’ perspective to the problem of conflicting goals in our schools between arts-based learning, the policy-driven STEM initiative and valuing the passionate professionalism of the drama educators before me.

The Arts Lobby Gets A Special Mention In The Review For Being A Direct Cause Of The Overcrowded Curriculum

It is clear from reading the introduction of the Review of the Australian Curriculum Final Report (2014) the reviewers were persuaded that the curriculum was out of control in its time requirements, especially for primary teachers. They make a special mention of the arts education lobbiest who ‘fought’ hard for the ‘essential nature’ of content related to their discipline. 

The Reviewers are persuaded that the lack of integration of the curriculum in the primary years – particularly in the humanities and social sciences – has exacerbated the issue of an overcrowded curriculum…One strongly argued reason was that this was due to the many compromises ACARA made to accommodate the very vocal advocacies of some groups about the essential nature of content relating to their discipline. The arts curriculum was particularly singled out in this regard.

Consequently, as Madonna Stinson & John Saunders state in Research In Drama Education (2016),  “the nature and structure of the framework remains in question with regard to what aspects of the curriculum will be supported for implementation in each state. At the time of writing, not one within a State education authority had guaranteed that the curriculum, as written and in full, will be implemented.”