Where Are We Going With Drama in the Primary Classroom?

The whole school plan presented by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority shows how the primary school curriculum is imagined as consisting of three layers. The first depicts the school’s main priority as comprehensive in nature with a strong focus on literacy and numeracy, holding within it a number of initiatives such as a resilience welfare program and a drive for ‘healthy eating’.  With its priorities clearly named, the second layer is described as an integrated approach to the programming of the domains of Science, Humanities/History, Design and Technology, Civics and Citizenship and Health. The third layer is the provision of instruction by Physical Education, Language (Italian) and Visual and Performing Arts Specialists.

The description of the primary school in the example is one which is similar to the kind of primary school I typically worked in as a drama specialist and teacher artist in Western Australia up to 2008. The usual arrangement on the timetable for me was that my drama lessons I offered during the classroom teachers’ duties-other-than-teaching time(aka DOTT-time).

However, as a drama education researcher and writer, I am aware that co-existing around the VCAA curriculum plans are literally thousands of articles, blogs and dozens of reports and books on advocating the access to the educational benefits of Drama and The Arts for every primary student in every Australian school. Similar pleas are made by arts education lobbyists in the UK and USA.

For example, publications like Transforming the Curriculum through the Arts, which holds many examples for using the Arts across the F-6 curricula around Australia, is exemplary in making the Arts accessible to all primary schools. The publication, written by former Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA) president, Professor Robyn Ewing in collaboration with Robyn Gibson, show how the writers’ passion for improving literacy through the Arts is in no small way informed by their own foundational experiences as primary teachers. Professor Ewing is also responsible for the 2011 Australian Council For Education Research’s report on The Arts and Australian Education.  Focusing on defining both intrinsic and instrumental benefits of an arts education, Professor Ewing nonetheless places caveats on the current research to show the gaps and assumptions in its scope and methodology. In particularly, she names the main cause of contentions as proof for a ‘direct causal relationship’ between studying the arts the enhancement of academic attainment.

Attributing a direct causal relationship between study in, through or of the Arts, and improved outcomes in other areas is problematic because there are so many other variables in classroom learning that cannot be controlled. While a correlation between arts involvement and certain effects in study participants has been established in a number of large studies, documented by Fiske (1999) and Deasy (2002), there is no demonstration that the arts experiences caused the effects. It is not possible to prove whether improvement in a test score is aided by the learning in an art form itself. The diversity of the Arts makes capturing the outcomes through conventional correlational studies problematic (Eisner, 1999).

Referring to Australian research commissioned by various agencies such as the Australian Centre For Educational Research, the Australian Research Council and the Australian Council, Ewing brings together significant findings from 1999 onwards to make the case that arts education as a critical link to the most effective forms of pedagogy, in terms of the engagement of students and for eliciting a sense of ownership and responsibility within the learning process itself.  Professor Ewing concludes that

Ensuring that arts experiences are at the centre of the curriculum can: facilitate students’ active involvement in learning, helping them make links with their own knowledge and experiences; enable a range of possible meanings to be explored and represented; challenge stereotypical assumptions encourage creativity, flexibility and tolerance of ambiguity; encourage creativity, flexibility and tolerance of ambiguity; provide opportunities for students to reflect and dialogue collaboratively; provide opportunities for students to reflect and dialogue collaboratively; take risks and try again when something is unsuccessful – understand that getting things wrong is part of effective learning; and apply understandings to their own personal context or other contexts.

Are we there yet?

As the subtitle of Robyn Ewing’s 2011ACER Report, Realising Potential suggests, the reality for Australian schools (and their counterparts in the UK and the USA) is that they are not running systems-wide arts-based curricula. Quite the opposite! There are many reports, for instance, that highlight the under-confidence of primary teachers to use drama in the classroom. In fact, the basis of Robyn Ewing work to implement School Drama, a drama and literacy program run jointly by the Sydney Theatre Company and the University of Sydney is predicated on the fact that

…many primary and middle school teachers do not feel confident in their knowledge of and expertise to embed the arts in what is often regarded as an already overcrowded curriculum. Ewing, Robyn & Hristofski, Helen & Gibson, Robyn & Campbell, Victoria & Robertson, Alyce 2011-10-01, ‘Using drama to enhance literacy: the school drama initiative.(Report)’ Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 33(7).

I believe it’s not difficult to see reasons for such a state of affair.

Firstly, there is the overall ‘change-fatigue’ within education systems which are no more exempt from ‘digital disruption’ and other forms of change than other workplaces, organisations and businesses. As a curriculum writer, I’ve participated in the writing of several versions of evolving curricula frameworks since the late 1990s. Certainly, my personal experiences resonate with Dilkes’, Cunningham’s and Gray’s 2014 synopsis of “The New Australian Curriculum, Teachers and Change Fatigue” presented in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education. Working as a Curriculum Improvement Officer for the Education Department of WA between 1996 to 2000, for instance, I experienced first hand the effect which the first wave of curriculum reform to an outcomes-focused education had on the morale of school staff. As the writers have noted,  the “fine line between apathy and cynicism” is problematic, to say the least, when implementing a curriculum dependent on achieving a common understanding of criteria-based standards.

As a result, perhaps another reason for resisting the arrival an Arts education to lodge itself at the centre of the curriculum comes from the momentum which is created by ‘legacy issues’. For instance, there is a common belief that all schools are time-poor organisations in which school leaders and teachers never have enough time to do what is really needed. Small wonder then that an arts-based approach is often favoured when students are ‘at risk’ or ‘not engaged’ with the mainstream curriculum.  By contrast, in the ‘real world’ of attainment levels and league tables ‘the evidence’ which cannot conclusively draw a causal link between learning in the Arts and academic achievement continues to hold sway in pedagogical debates.

Like the ‘damning’ report from the UK’s Educational Endowment Foundations’ “in-depth review from Durham University with a very specific brief: ‘to identify the most promising ways in which learning through the arts can support disadvantaged young people to achieve key educational outcomes’.

This comprehensive review examines over 200 pieces of existing academic research, covering a broad range of subjects including the traditional fine arts as well as modern dance and movement, hip hop, poetry and creative writing. The report identifies a number of strategies for which there is some evidence of positive impact on attainment. Learning a musical instrument, for example, is associated with improved wider educational outcomes for children, from their early years through to secondary school. But there’s a catch. Our understanding of how the skills we develop through arts activities can be transferred to other areas of learning is not straightforward. It’s undoubtedly the case that, as the report notes, integrating arts in the school curriculum introduces fun into lessons, and that, in turn, leads to students experiencing greater enjoyment. What is a lot less clear is if or how that enjoyment necessarily results in better learning. The report concludes that, though there are promising leads, at the moment there just isn’t enough robust evidence to be able to demonstrate a causal link between arts education and academic attainment.

The author of the report  explains in her summary of the research in November 2015 in The Conversation that she found no evidence to displace the current practice by schools to give greater currency to maths, science and literacy in a competitive global economy, which also saw the competition within international education systems leading  “to greater focus on these subjects in our schools”.

It’s hardly surprising then that after seven years of working on the framing of The Arts in the Australian Curriculum, as a result of the 2014-15 Curriculum Review, as noted by Madonna Stinson & John Saunders , “not one state education authority has guaranteed that the [arts] curriculum, as written and in full, will be implemented. As a result, Drama remains outside the educational entitlement for all children in Australia.”  [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]


Reading all four levels of the VCAA curriculum planning documents for primary schools shows that the provision of curricula in the Visual and Performing Arts through specialist teachers replicates the system used in Australian secondary schools for the last 40 years. While I would need to verify the case I see no indication in the examples, for instance, that specialists are included in any teaching and learning teams across levels or in the schools Curriculum and School Improvement teams made up of curriculum leader and teacher membership.

As someone who introduced drama for the first time into secondary classrooms from the late 1970s, I understand the irony that specialisation has resulted in, through its unintended marginalisation of the subject, expressed through terms like ‘it’s just drama’ and ‘drama as a soft option’.

I was reminded of the debilitating effect this has on a teacher’s morale when I recently presented a workshop at the Drama Victoria conference in November 2016, looking at how best to advocate the importance of drama to colleagues in schools.

Each participant had a story to tell about feeling undervalued.  However, one teacher’s remarkable tale of neglect continues to stay with me. The teacher, a male, who was part of a secondary school where he was head of an Arts Faculty, related how he and his visual and performing arts staff had gone along to a presentation put on by another department in the school to demonstrate an outstandingly flexible and innovative way of teaching and learning in the classroom. On seeing the demonstration and hearing the ideas behind their colleague’s pedagogical approach, the whole of the arts faculty were gobsmacked!! There before them stood a much-lauded example of ‘what works best’ in the classroom which was remarkable similar to the approach which their arts-based pedagogy had been implementing in the classroom for decades.

While everyone in the group sympathised with the overlooking of their colleague’s arts-based work in his school, I was stunned for a different reason. How was it that the school leaders and other teachers in the school did not know that such a dynamic form of teaching and learning already existed in their own Arts Faculty? How could decades go by and an invitation never be issued by the Arts Faculty to discuss what happens in its classrooms?

Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that such an occurrence is improbable, I’d like to vouch for the seriousness of teacher’s story through my own experiences of the ‘silos’ that exists in our subject-dominated secondary schools, as well as in the mindset that specialisation brings to the way in which a teacher plans and implements curriculum.

What route is now before us for arriving at ‘arts-at-the-centre-of-curriculum’ destination for our primary schools?

Other Solutions? Or Do We Need To Dwell With The Problem A Little Longer?

There are several places in the world that offer a solution for incorporating arts education in schools through ‘creative partnerships’ between working artists and classroom teachers. STC/USYD School Drama is an example of such an approach, as are programs run out of the Lincoln Center in New York and the John F Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts in Washington DC. There are also other forms of creative partnerships imagined such as in the UK through the provision of an ArtsMark and Arts Award.

These models for offering an arts education to primary students and teachers are worthy alternatives and much has already been written about them.  My hesitation to speak more in depth about them at this moment, however, comes from the belief that they too are attempting to solve a central dilemma in education and organisational management, and that is ‘what should be the relationship between generalist and specialist in our workplaces?

This is not just a dilemma for Drama and The Arts in the education system, as many professional journals and blogs in education shows.  For instance, debates over generalists and specialists are currently occurring around the primary school’s delivery of STEM subjects, According to The Educator  “all new primary school teachers may soon need to obtain a specialisation as part of a Government push to improve Australia’s international rankings in the disciplines of maths, science and foreign languages.” This is opposed by the Australian Primary Principals Association but favoured by Melbourne Graduate School of Education’s head of Teacher Education, Stephen Dinham. In a more conciliatory tone, the Canadian blog In Education publishes a dialogue between generalist and specialist teacher educators in Mathematics, Shaun Murphy of the University of Saskatchewan and  Florence Glanfield of the University of Alberta, which explores the commonalities and differences on how they teach pre-service teachers. The discussion concluded with the following ‘final thoughts’.

 At the core of our wonders around specialist and generalist constructions is the understanding that teacher identity is foundational. In mathematics teacher education, this bears consideration because it is not just about content, but teacher identity creation. The curriculum commonplaces of learner, teacher, subject matter, and milieu (Schwab, 1978) shape our understanding of curriculum making. Subject matter is no more important in this theory of curriculum than the other commonplaces. If, as mathematics teacher educators, we privilege content over pedagogy, if we place our knowing over the knowing of the learner, then we are not engaged in curriculum making and we end up limiting the practice of future teachers. We would like to suggest that the unifying force among the commonplaces of curriculum is the identities we bring to our work as curriculum makers.

I view their final thoughts as a kind of challenge in which we gather the detail of what it takes for us, as teachers, to be curriculum makers.  I shall read the VCAA’s four levels of interrelated curriculum planning with a view to designing an alternative arts-based model that looks to finding the commonplaces of teaching and learning which inspires me whenever I find myself in a primary school.