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The awkward arts: Why the teaching of the arts should be challenging for schools

Written by: Martin Robinson
Photo by Paul Green on Unsplash
9 min read

Schools love to measure things. They like to collect these measurements up and present the numbers as an ineffable truth about a pupil’s progress. The data is exact and can predict what a child might get in a GCSE in a particular subject at some time in the future. And this works reasonably well for subjects in which measurements can be precise. The whole point of the arts, however, is they exist entirely in a world where things aren’t precise. To put it another way, the arts are the subjects that are unapologetically subjective. This is why the arts are awkward – they exist at the point a person looks upon the world, finds it wanting and through an art form or two, seek to make a difference in that world in some small way:

“Here is my art.”

In schools, therefore, the arts aren’t merely part of a transfer of knowledge from teacher to pupil. Nor are they mainly about the use of reason to capture and express a point of view or an argument drawing upon facts from the world. They can be this but, often, they are the application of knowledge of an art form and skilful development and practice of technique – mixed with intuition, feeling, self-expression and involvement of personal taste, sensibilities, and downright awkwardness. This is the world made more from the Mythos than the Logos. The arts are an invitation to take part, to make your own art, to decide what is good from what is bad, and what is beautiful and true, and what is shocking and revolutionary.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the columnist Alison Pearson bemoaned the subjective nature of the Drama A level, suggesting that: ‘Not one student predicted A* or A had achieved their grade. In fact, by some cruel inversion, the best students had ended up with the worst results.’ That her son was one of those caught up in this, makes her observation all the more poignant. Schools find themselves slipping down exam tables and sons and daughters find themselves having to search, unexpectedly, through clearing if they don’t get the grades they were expecting.

The suspicion is, that in our high stakes accountability system, the perfect knowledge to teach would be that which ignores the pupil’s point of view entirely: ‘Here is something, memorise it, test it, tick it = learnt it’. No subject should be taught in this limited way, of course, all should involve the conscious input of the child. But in the arts something else has to happen too. We try to stave off the conscious input, lest it merely involve the prejudice of the ignorant seer of new art for the first time. The shock of the new can often result in a negative view. Instead, we say: ‘Here is something, don’t respond yet, learn about it, try to copy it, from this develop your taste, your ability to discriminate, compare and contrast, bring it into your repertoire, respond to it, adapt to it, understand it, feel it, adapt it to you, reject it, accept it, argue about it, make it… create what you want to create based on all you know…’ But the school wants a grade to put on a spread sheet, and the arts are the awkward squad in the school.

A great arts department is a partnership between the art, the teacher and a child’s quirkiness. The great Jacob Bronowski wrote (1951, p. 5):

We have fallen into the habit of opposing the artistic to the scientific temper; we even identify them with a creative and a critical approach… But the human race is not divided into thinkers and feelers, and would not long survive the division.

And, of course, artists think and scientists feel but the latter move towards an attempted objective view of the world whilst the former move in the opposite way. In schools how this is managed can make a mockery of all sorts of tracking systems which rely on more objective judgements than any arts department can manage.

Barnett Newman, the abstract expressionist wrote: ‘We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life’, we are making [them] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.’ (cited in Danchev, 2011, p. 326). It would be easier if arts in schools were not about making new stuff but were about recreating older stuff.

Actually, this is a problem for the arts. Too often there is a rush towards ‘creativity’ without enough knowledge of the tradition. Does your drama department spend enough time teaching vocal technique, corporeal mimetic skills and developing the use of mask and grotesquery in commedia dell’Arte? Maybe arts teachers in schools free themselves too soon of the necessary knowledge of their art and leave budding young artists rudderless on a stormy sea of feelings with no technique to express them successfully. This is the problem with ungrounded pursuits of creativity. Schools don’t kill creativity, many simply don’t nourish it enough; without roots the blooms never see the light of day.

The arts are there to help us look out onto the world and look into ourselves to connect the universal with the particular, to find something as a listener, as one who sees, as one who seeks to understand both from the perspective of being in an audience, or an arm chair; or on a stage, or in a sound studio playing a guitar. The art teacher helps ground the child by introducing her to a discipline that gives them the language through which they can express themselves. And this is what it is about: art, artist, audience. The artist looks at the world through the perspective of her artform, expresses her particular view about the world in a way that she hopes will connect with others, and they, the audience, experience this particular work and hopefully find something about themselves within it. Art is all about this ‘aboutness’.

Intentionality is the philosophical term used to describe the ‘aboutness’ through which we look out into the world. When I look out into the world and see my child I see her differently than you see my child. When I see a sunset after a day full of joy, I see it differently than when I experience the sunset on a day full of disaster or melancholy. The thought of a bacon sandwich is a far better thing for me than it is for a vegan. Every day is the best of times and the worst of times, each of us sees things from our own viewpoints. The arts give us a way to communicate our perspectives; they are an expression of our subjective insights into a range of truths and aesthetic understandings of the world, from the beautiful to the sublime. Mixed with technical ability and skills to recreate our viewpoints and make them anew, we share our ‘aboutness’ with others and this becomes part of a collective intentionality – where the ‘I’ becomes the ‘We’ and the ‘You’ looks upon ‘Us’ through the ‘eyes’ of another. Here we bring tradition, criticism, the shock of the new and the comfort of the known to bear witness upon new creations. ‘Is this good, is it true, is it beautiful?’ We ask ourselves and we adapt, discuss, intuit and feel, through discussions with the budding artist, as teachers and as human beings responding to the work.

And, back to school with a bump, putting a number on this is absurd. ‘How do I get a 9 sir?’ is the first step towards bad art. This is not to say that all art is ‘good’ but this ‘goodness’ cannot be found through an objective criteria-based list, nor through a number that the school insists is imposed.

The arts must comply with our systems. They must have books and words and tests we can mark. They must have progress that is easy to see. They must have numbers every week, fortnight, half term, term, and year… numbers in which accuracy is never achieved. And those numbers must be sold as if they are accurate. That sketch is a 4, that composition is a 1, that play is a 9 and that poem is a 6. And here is a list of targets you need to achieve in order to attain the highest grades. This kills art, but it does make grades.

In terminal exams there is a suspicion that arts subjects are ‘easier’ than sciences, Dr. Robert Coe, then of Durham University, presenting research on comparisons between arts grades and science grades said: ‘At A-level, science, maths and technology subjects are not just more difficult than the non-sciences, they are without exception among the hardest of all A-levels. At GCSE, the sciences are a little more difficult than the non-sciences.’ (Coe, 2008) But, in 2016, Tom Bramley, writing for Research Matters, Cambridge Assessment, suggests that all comparative studies face huge problems: what is meant by difficulty? Is it more difficult to answer questions in a written science test than to dance, play the piano, or perform as Othello? We can be clearer that we ‘know’ the value of the written test than we ‘know’ the value of the performances. Added to this, the fact that students pick and choose which subjects to take, which, in the arts, means that students might be showing considerable talent in them, for Bramley: ‘subjects… will appear easier than they really are, if people choose them based on their ability in those subjects.’ (Bramley, 2016) But as the ‘subjective’ arts subjects can also be open to the vagaries of one practical examiner’s personal tastes, it is possible that a student might find themselves missing out on a place in a prestigious university, or a school might find their league table position shaken by unexpected grades, no wonder the performing arts keep seeing numbers of students taking them up as an option at A- Level dwindle in these highly-accountable times.

Should all this matter? Maybe the subjective nature of the arts is a strength, rather than a weakness. The arts teacher can happily call a piece of work ‘bad’ or, at least, ‘not as good as your last piece of work’, they can show someone’s great piece to inform the work of another, they can see where things aren’t quite coming together, they can advise, cajole, inform, enthuse, and slap down any budding piece of work but they do this through human qualities of doubt and uncertainty, knowing full well that the imprecision of subjectivity informs the whole process step-by-step. Their view as teacher is imbued by how they see it as much as it is imbued by the views of the pupil and, especially in times of strife and discord, that particular pupil’s parent: ‘My son is a great singer, you’re just tone deaf!’.

School systems must be paramount. Without systems that work across the school there will be anarchy. Trouble and a touch of anarchy never goes amiss in an arts class. Anarchy and Culture and Discipline. What to do? Ignore the arts and plough on with systems regardless?

Perhaps schools could stop expecting accurate progress grades from Arts departments; waiting instead for a bottom-up reporting system from arts departments pointing out when a student is doing remarkably well or when one is clearly finding the going problematic. When I was head of department I introduced ‘Cause for Concerns’ and ‘Exceptional Performance’ pro-formas to deal with the more subjective nature of the subject. Beyond this, however, there is a more radical, and unlikely suggestion: ditch A levels and GCSEs in the arts. Carry on, by all means, with LAMDA, Trinity exams and the rest which are more centred on the arts forms but instead of formal high stakes exams have performances and exhibitions, sketch books and impro, celebrations and poetry recitals, write novels and plays and dance to your heart’s content. Don’t put all this in extra-curricular, make the space during the school day, invest the same amount of money or more, employ full time staff on excellent salaries to deliver a rich arts programme and give pupils an experience of the arts beyond the mundane ‘how to get an A or an 8 or 9’.

Teach Art for Art’s sake.

References

Bramley (2016) The effect of subject choice on the apparent relative difficulty of different subject. Available at: https://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/374638-the-effect-of-subject-choice-on-the-apparent-relative-difficulty-of-different-subjects.pdf (accessed 6 September 2019).

Bronowski J (1951) The Common Sense of Science. Faber & Faber.

Coe (2008) Science and maths exams are harder than arts subjects, say researchers. The Guardian (1 July 2008). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2008/jul/01/schools.alevels (accessed 6 September 2019).

Danchev A (2011) 100 Artist’s Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists. London: Penguin.

Pearson A (2019) Can your children trust their A-level results? I used to think so until my son opened his… Daily Telegraph (13 August 2019). Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/can-children-trust-a-level-results-used-think-son-opened/ (accessed 6 September 2019).

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