Arts education in Australia

Could this one thing make students love school again?

School refusal has been labelled a “national trend” by the Senate education committee. Primary and secondary children are not attending school and it is not because of cold symptoms or COVID. The problem of school refusal is international. The Dutch program “Knowing What Works” identifies interventions that work in helping young people who struggle with attending school. The report claims that education is essential to young people’s development and that the interaction between the service providers, such as psychologists, the student’s parent and teachers contributed positively to the student’s capacity to return to school. In Australia, school refusal is not a new phenomenon, but it has gained considerable attention following the impact of the 2020 and 2021 COVID-19 shutdown periods on our school students. The Productivity Commission reported that the national primary school attendance rate was 87.8 per cent in 2022, a 4.5 per cent drop from 2021. Furthermore, the Australian Professional Teacher’s Association submission stated that “a lot more time today is spent on student wellbeing issues than even five years ago” (p143).

There is no doubt that primary school-aged children’s socialisation has been hampered by the COVID lockdown periods of 2020 and 2021. The impact of isolation on the mental health and wellbeing of students is a prime concern. During the COVID lockdowns in Australia in 2020 and 2021 many families were forced to stay home and somehow work out how to learn online. For families in lockdown routine was difficult and surviving day to day became the priority. Students struggled with the “lack of face-to-face connection with teachers … felt incredibly disconnected and isolated from peers” (p7). The impact on parents’ own mental health and coping capacity cannot be underestimated. For many children the world became “frightening” with children displaying symptoms of fear, worry and sadness.

Worldwide people turned to some form of creativity as a way to cope and to connect. View from my window attracted 3.8 million members on facebook. Time reported that TikTok became the “uncontested social media platform” for all ages with dance challenges. Teachers innovated, developing “various ideas to engage students whilst teaching them and attempting to make learning fun for them which would help assist their want to learn.”(p13).

Primary arts teachers devised some amazing learning activities that unified and inspired their students and their families. Household items became art-making materials, everyday clothes became costumes and any space in the house or garden became a self-tape studio for children to make videos to share with their peers. But for teachers monitoring student engagement online was prohibitive. They could not see immediate feedback through students’ body language and facial expressions, “you did not know if the students were actually there, listening and working” (Ziebell & Roberston, 2021, p17). Teachers as well as students missed the social interaction of learning at school.

State and Territory education authorities provided supporting materials, such as Queensland Department of Education’s fact sheets to help parents support their children returning to school, highlighting the importance of routine and planning for the day ahead. The Federal government launched the world’s first National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy in October 2021. In their 2021 study, Ziebell and Robertson found that respondents in primary schools were a little more positive about the level of support for students than their secondary school respondents. In primary schools, greater emphasis was placed on student wellbeing than on maintain academic standards. But now in 2023 school refusal and student mental health and well-being is of continued concern.

Returning to school for both students and teachers has meant readjustment to face-to-face learning and to functioning within the whole school environment. Queensland independent school primary teachers in Ziebell and Roberston’s study have focussed on “rebuilding rapport with their students”(p20) but the return to school in NSW teachers were concerned that the disruption to transition points in schooling such as commencing school, completing Year 6, starting secondary school, will have ongoing negative effects on students (Fray et al., 2022). Additionally, in the first year of returning to school, limitations on extra-curricular activities such as performance and public speaking, as well as inter-year mingling for peer-support stifled students’ socialisation within the school. These were activities students looked forward to. NSW teachers noted behaviour issues such as anxiety, frustration, aggression and some reported evidence of self-harm. Teachers attributed poor social interaction among students on their return to school to the lack of face-to-face contact they had with peers during lockdown (Fray et al., 2022, p.9).

The impact of lockdowns on students’ academic achievement has received much attention, but  teachers experience the day to day behaviours which are a result of lack of social contact: increases in challenging behaviour, tired and fatigued students, and students’ lower capacity to engage in learning upon return to the classroom (Fray et al, 2022, p10).

The Emerging Priorities Program funds projects that assist school communities to respond to emerging priorities in school education, including to meet the ongoing challenges of COVID-19. An examination of primary student, teacher and parent experiences of arts learning online during COVID-19 lockdown, is examining primary arts learning online. By listening to primary students, teachers’ and parents’ recollections of arts learning online, the study will identify evidence of the Personal and Social capability and develop examples of practice intended to support teachers and students returning to school.The national survey is open now for teachers, students and parents who were connected with primary schools in 2020 and 2021.

Dr Linda Lorenza is a qualitative researcher and arts practitioner whose interests are in the performing arts, arts education, and applied arts in health and rehabilitation contexts. She is Head of Course for the Bachelor of Theatre and teaches theatre, acting and drama. Lorenza is a chief investigator, with Don Carter, on the Emerging Priorities Program research into arts online learning.

Dr Don Carter is a senior lecturer in the UTS School of International Studies and Education, he specialises in working with teachers to investigate innovative writing pedagogies to improve student performance and outcomes across the curriculum. Carter is a chief investigator, with Linda Lorenza, on the Emerging Priorities Program research into arts online learning.

Why we must urgently rescue arts education now

Australian governments have taken a limited view of the Arts, artists and the imperative of quality arts education for our children and young people for decades. They have neglected or ignored the research that education in, about and through the Arts, especially when authentically integrated across the curriculum, is a strong predictor of long term student success, In fact an arts-rich education is a far more accurate predictor of success than results in particular test scores (Schleicher, 2019).There is an urgent need for us to exercise our democratic responsibility to change this story for current and future generations. We need to demand that appropriate funding, resources and support are provided for the Arts and quality Arts education.

The Arts are part of our heritage and core to what makes us human. They are central to our development as compassionate and responsive individuals because they help us make meaning of ourselves, others and our worlds. Engagement in the Arts also contributes to our ongoing health and social and emotional wellbeing  (World Health Organisation, 2019; Workman, 2017)Recent global and national trauma has also underlined how arts-rich experiences can aid recovery and renew hope for young and old alike (see for example, Teritotoi and The Banksia Initiative).

In Australia now, a neoliberal approach to education is increasingly at odds with the need to ensure every learner has access to meaningful arts experiences and processes throughout their schooling and higher education. Federal and state education Ministers frequently call for a return to ‘the basics’. The continued emphasis on high-stakes testing privileges technical approaches to literacy and numeracy and constrains teachers to teach to these tests ignoring their own professional expertise and artistry. Teachers frequently assert that they do not feel empowered to focus on the imaginative or creative when planning learning experiences.

Such a siloed and overcrowded formal curriculum measured so narrowly reinforces a one-size-fits-all formulaic pedagogy and inevitably leads to a reductive or narrowed curriculum that ignores the inter-connectivity of minds, bodies and souls. Despite the rhetoric about 21st century skills including the importance of critical and creative thinking, well developed communication and collaboration skills (NEA, 2013; Jefferson and Anderson, 2017) a competitive academic curriculum prevails.That leads to learner anxiety, disengagement and fatigue multiplies (Whitlam Institute, 2012).

A highly significant and increasing body of research, scholarship and professional practice demonstrates unequivocally that embedding arts-rich or quality arts processes and experiences across the curriculum makes an important contribution to the way we engage in learning and how we learn (for example, Catterall, Dumais & Hampden-Thompson, 2012 Deasy 2002; Winner, Goldstein & Vincent-Lancrin, 2013). Engaging in quality arts processes and experiences enhances our academic and non-academic success (see for example, A New Approach; Martin et al, 2013 ) and nurtures our imagination and creativity (Gibson & Ewing, 2020 .  Every child therefore deserves an arts-rich curriculum to enable them to experience multiple ways of knowing, thinking, doing, interpreting and being (Gadsden, 2008). This kind of learning becomes even more critical given the ‘post-normal times’ described by Sardar (2010) . Times in which old orthodoxies are disappearing in lives characterised by uncertainties, contradictions and chaos. Sardar insists that: ‘The most important ingredients for coping with post-normal times … are imagination and creativity’ (Sardar, p. 48). He suggests that we all need to listen to a broad spectrum of human imaginations.

Each art form is a discrete discipline with distinctive knowledges, skills and understandings. Each embodies different kinds of literacies, different ways of making and representing meaning (More than words can say). At the same time, each art form involves processes that include play, design, experimentation, exploration, communication, provocation, use of metaphor, expression or representation, and the artistic or aesthetic shaping of the body or other media (Ewing, 2011). Different art forms thus enable us to develop a better understanding of ourselves, others and the world because the Arts activate our thinking and challenge our traditional systems and ways of being. Students themselves discuss how  arts and cultural learning fosters their imaginations and creative intuitions as well as their self-efficacy in ways that other learning does not (for example, Saunders, 2019Thomson, Hall, Earl & Geppert, 2018). The Arts disciplines therefore can and should play an important role in fostering our imaginations, creativities and gaining deep understanding of and competence in the multiple and ever-increasing literacies needed today.

The CREATE Centre, University of Sydney, is co-hosting an event Arts in Crisis, with the Australian Theatre for Young People on Monday 2 May at 5pm in ATYP’s Rebel Theatre, in Pier 2/3, Suite 2, 13A Hickson Rd, Dawes Point, Sydney. The panellists will consider the current crises in the Arts and Arts Education from their own experience  and perspective. The panel and audience will collaboratively imagine, with an impending election, what changes can enable an arts-rich education for all children and young people together with arts-led healing for our communities. To register:

The event will also be recorded and made publicly available afterwards. If you are unable to attend in person, please select the ticket option to have the video link sent to you. 

Robyn Ewing AM is Professor Emerita, Teacher Education and the Arts and Co-Director of the Creativity in Research, Engaging the Arts, Transforming Education, Health and Wellbeing (CREATE) Centre. Her teaching areas include primary curriculum, especially English, literature, drama and early literacy development. Robyn is passionate about the arts and education and the role quality arts experiences and processes can and should play in creative pedagogy and transforming the curriculum at all levels of education.

Not every principal will love the arts but every arts teacher does. They need support

Australians have leapt online to participate in arts events. More than 30% of Australians have engaged with arts events online and more than 40% have participated in some form of art-making in any of the artforms, dance, drama ,music, media art or visual arts.

That shows the Australian appetite for arts of all kinds.  But what happens at a school level?  The arts is one of the eight learning areas in the Australian Curriculum. While each state and territory has a particular approach to how the curriculum is put into place, schools are best placed to determine how to deliver the arts to their students.

 Ultimately the school principal decides the allocation of time and resources for learning areas.

 Not every principal is going to love the arts, but every arts teacher does. High-quality arts occurs when students and teachers share the tools of creation and this collaborative approach cultivates the student’s individuality rather than focusing on fulfilling pre-specified outcomes. I undertook case study research of eight NSW Specialist arts teachers. These teachers identified that it was not actually the curriculum but other factors within the school which influenced how the arts were positioned.

The values held by the school are led by the school principal who must fulfil required accountability requirements from NAPLAN to mandated curriculum, in addition to managing the day to day running of the school. The principal may be focused on the outside perception of the school, evident in the number of student enrolments, NAPLAN ranking on the My School website and other external high stakes test results such as the Year 12 school completion rankings. Yet, the principal could be focussed on the internal workings of the school including the students’ learning experiences, teacher autonomy and a sense of community within the school.

Six factors were associated with the principal’s focus which determined the place of arts education within the school: student numbers; curriculum regulation; resources allocation; teacher autonomy; student autonomy and interest and a culture of community. Within these factors I found that the teacher’s anecdotes identified if the principal held an outward focus on the public perception of the school or an inward focus on the student learning experience.

Student enrolments and curriculum regulation

Outward focussed leadership centred upon numbers of students enrolled in the school or within a subject.

One teacher reported that in one year group, French was timetabled for just four students, but although ten students wished to enrol in it, drama was not timetabled as the school had set a minimum quota of twelve students.

 Curriculum regulation in NSW also played into this situation as languages are mandated in years 7 and 8 but drama is not. Schools may allocate lower priority to learning areas that are not directly associated with high stakes testing such as NAPLAN and the Higher School Certificate. Independent school teachers in my study noted that their principals considered the My School profile of the school contributed to public perception of the school.

By contrast, two other teachers reported high levels of student participation in the arts supported by their respective principals who were inwardly focussed on the student experience. Creativity was valued in learning at one school where the principal recognised that students who participated in the arts achieved top academic results across learning areas. At the other, a primary school, students were busy with rehearsals for the musical production as well as class activities leaving no time for behavioural issues. Additionally public perception of the school was enhanced through the whole school musical production.

Resources allocation

Timetabling the arts within the school day, provision of physical resources such as paint, instruments, suitable space and allocation of specialist arts teachers contribute to positive arts experiences within the school.

Teacher autonomy

Teachers with strong subject-knowledge and belief in their students’ capacity continue to teach the arts against the odds within their schools. But collaboration and collegiality among teachers across learning areas in a school is more conducive to teacher career satisfaction and job longevity.

Student autonomy and interest

The random allocation of arts curriculum to teachers who are not confident to teach the arts may limit the learning that takes place and potentially make the classroom boring for students. Students need to have control over their learning, and particularly in the arts students will develop their creativity, risk taking and collaborative problem solving. These serve to inspire the students’ interest. But, expectations of outcomes limit the students’ view and force them to measure themselves against pre-specified outcomes. In the arts students learn through making mistakes . Curriculum interpretation that focusses on only on the final outcome, misses the meaningful learning that actually occurs in the process of making the artwork or performance.

A culture of community

Teachers in this study reported a range of arts activities in their schools that created a culture of community. One regional teacher ran a school holiday drama camp which gave more isolated students the opportunity to connect with peers. Teachers reported that through their participation in the arts students felt they were contributing to and were part of a larger community.

The student experience is more than curriculum

The inclusion of the arts in the Australian curriculum legitimises it as a learning area. As teachers in my study have reported, it is factors outside the curriculum that ultimately determine the place of the arts within the school. High stakes testing and the MySchool website do not provide a true three-dimensional picture of the student experience in any school. School principals need to focus on the students’ learning experiences within the school. Additionally, teachers need to buy into curriculum reform to ensure positive action.

And principals should get behind their hard working staff.

Linda Lorenza has a PhD in arts education and curriculum policy and is head of course for CQUniversity’s Bachelor of Theatre degree, lecturing in acting and theatre studies. She is recognised for her education work in the Australian arts industry at Bell Shakespeare, where she was involved in the Theatrespace longitudinal research study into the influences on young people’s attendance at theatre; and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  Her recent research includes teachers’ responses to curriculum change in the arts.

Curriculum review: where was NESA’s consultation?

This column by Debra Batley is the first of two columns discussing the recent NESA announcement.

NESA’s announcement on Monday 15th January that its curriculum overhaul was powering on into 2021 by cutting over 80 elective school developed courses not deemed “core” had several disturbing aspects to it. There was next to no consultation in this decision and it was particularly unsettling given that it followed closely on the heels of NESA’s December blanket dis-endorsement of all providers of professional learning in NSW (with the exception of DOE, AIS NSW and Catholic Schools). The decision around professional learning was also done in the name of curriculum reform, and was completely without consultation – the Professional Teacher’s Council lost endorsement, along with almost every professional teaching association in NSW. 

This is not what the Geoff Masters‘ review promised. This document was aspirational: it gave a reasonable time frame, talked of the importance of collaboration with key stakeholders in the writing of new curriculum documents, and left teachers with hope that the review process would be positive for both students and teachers. 

Unrealistic timeline

Instead, we have an unrealistic timeline. How can curriculum possibly be written, piloted, tested, sent out for consultation, adjusted, and teachers trained in the 18 month time frame that the Minister’s office has given NESA? The results of a short timeline are already emerging, with shortcuts in collaboration and consultation with key stakeholders being taken. Education is often a political football, however there is a growing perception that minority parties such as One Nation are ‘running the table’. It would be good to see the evidence basis for these latest reform decisions. 

Had teachers had been consulted on the culling of elective subjects, they probably would have replied that a large body of evidence suggests students do better when they are intrinsically motivated in their learning, have self-determination and autonomy. They maybe would have mentioned that researchers such as the late Sir Kenneth Robinson have found that educational outcomes are improved by learning across domains. 

Furthermore, they may have argued that school developed electives are particularly relevant to the school’s context. The culling of electives assumes a ‘one size fits all’ approach for their organisation (100 hours or 200 hours). Some schools in NSW take the opportunity to offer electives on a semester basis (50 hour courses). One well known Northern NSW School includes subjects such as Philosophy and Cosmology amongst their semester long elective offerings. Performing Arts High Schools have developed courses such as Circus Skills and Musical Theatre. Two of the biggest electives at my school are content endorsed courses; they are looked forward to by students, and I am certain they attract enrolments to the school. As a teacher I dread finding out that Year 9 Music has been placed on the same line as Outdoor Education – I know this means a small music class. 

Whilst the Hon. Sarah Mitchell may not see the value in these courses, for some students, these are the subjects that ignite their passions. 

It is somewhat ironic, that whilst the curriculum reform agenda is pushing for a depth as opposed to a breadth of understanding, the NSW Government is opposed to the idea of a child becoming an expert in printmaking – “this can be included in visual arts”. I would have thought that 100 hours of printmaking – which can include nine main types, and a multitude of subtypes – would actually model deep learning and provide students with practical skills. Disturbingly, even though the  Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration expresses a desire for “all learners to explore and build on their individual abilities, interests, and experiences”, the recent curriculum review decision seems to contradict this. 

What is core curriculum anyhow?

The elective decision also raises the question of what is ‘core’ curriculum. A blanket rule with this decision was that all languages were to be retained. The result of this is that some subjects with very low enrolments are protected (such as Sanskrit), whilst subjects with large enrolments (Physical Activity and Sports Studies – CEC) are potentially listed as electives to be ‘cleared out’. The weight of evidence supporting the idea that educational outcomes are better for students who have access to a broad curriculum is enormous. Furthermore, it is the students who need it most, who are the ones in danger of missing out. The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration states that students, whilst needing the fundamental skills of literacy and numeracy, also require learning in other domains. The study of elective subjects can contribute to this learning. Often through the well-being and motivational benefits this brings, a student’s overall learning is supported. It is clear that there is an academic hierarchy in NSW; however, a blanket decision to remove electives won’t fix it. A better solution would be using the knowledge of teachers evidenced in designing and writing some of the outstanding Endorsed Courses available for everyone. Philosophy anyone?

Debra Batley is a high school music teacher in North Western NSW. She is a current doctoral student at UNSW and her research area is in educational equity and its interaction with creative arts curriculum. In 2017-2019 with funding from AIS NSW she completed a 2 year long school based research project, examining the impact school based music tuition could have as a remediation tool for older readers who were not meeting stage outcomes. Debra is also the Chair of ASME NSW and is a passionate advocate for high quality music education for all students.

When the going gets tough artists & arts educators get going with innovative ways of connecting and learning

As 2020 lurches through multiple uncertainties the Australian arts community, already feeling the effects from budget cuts and a stripped back Australia Council funding round, discovered many members do not have  access to the Government’s stimulus measures. Australian artists and arts workers united early in April for a day of action under the hashtag #CreateAustraliasFuture to remind us all how much the arts matter in our lives, especially during a time of social isolation.

There is no doubt the arts community is in a tough place at the moment.  But despite the gloomy outlook, we are seeing artists and arts educators, survive, adapt and some ways even thrive in this time of change. Arts educators in universities and schools are working in different ways with students, rethinking practice, and redesigning how the studio works in an online COVID-19 world.  

How the arts community is helping us as we isolate

In this time of social distancing and self-isolation, the arts are helping us connect. For example the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and other performing artists are working online to  #KeepTheMusicGoing, the Australian Ballet launched the ‘At home with ballet tv’  and numerous Australian musicians raised money for a non-profit organisation by playing free in the Isol-aid  online festival. Visual Arts organisations such as the National Gallery of Victoria has launched online drawing classes so you can get quaran-crafty. UNESCO organizations such as the International Society for Education Through Art  (InSEA) have initiated ways to keep us connected when we are forced apart physically through drawing via #inseadrawcloser

These are just some of the ways the arts community in Australia are still connecting with us.

The benefits of arts education in schools 

We probably don’t need to remind you of the abundance of evidence that exists about the impact and benefits (both instrumental and intrinsic) of the arts and arts-rich learning environments both inside school sites and more broadly in and amongst broader communities.  

In schools the benefits of the arts  include increasing young people’s self-esteem and engagement in learning at school, improving learning outcomes in other areas of the curriculum, and through assisting young people with social behaviour and their connection with others.  In the broader community the arts have been harnessed  to enhance notions of wellbeing including personal health, personal development, social support, social inclusion, social capital, urban renewal or neighbourhood regeneration, tolerance, as well cross cultural connections, creativity and economic development. 

With greater emphasis placed on the instrumental benefits of the arts, others have argued that vital components and two essential aspects related to the intrinsic worth of the arts are being overlooked.  First, individuals participate in the arts for pleasure, stimulation, and meaning, not necessarily for the purpose of better test scores or to stimulate the economy; intrinsic benefits are the starting point for all other types of benefit.  Second, intrinsic benefits are not strictly private and can contribute to the public domain. 

In creating these successful rich learning ‘in’, ‘with’ and ‘through’ the arts experiences in many instances artists or arts educators take on key roles to enable these public and private benefits to occur.   Arts educators in higher education settings are applying the dynamic skills and dispositions they have developed over time to innovatively respond, step up and lead in a range of ways.  

Stepping up to lead

Our educator colleagues are leading change in a number of social media spaces such as on Facebook pages, with Twitter handles and creating Instagram posts These sites are being used to share a range of collaborative resources for arts educators across the country and globe.  

Many members of the Australian Association for Research In Education Arts special interest  group, the  AARE Art Education Research Practice (AEPR) SIG, are engaged in leading, supporting and shaping the communities in which they are involved.  

Some examples of the work we are doing

Margaret Baguley from the University of Southern Queensland, Kathryn Coleman from the University of Melbourne, and Abbey McDonald from the University of Tasmania have developed a digital learning and teaching space to support collaboration and help with resourcing schools and Visual Arts educators across the country. This evolving Google doc has over 40 curated resources and growing. 

Also Narelle Lemon from Swinburne University has used her arts educator background to develop the series of podcasts, Welcome to ‘Teachers supporting teachers’, which provide insights into being and becoming a teacher at this current strange time.  Sue Davis from Central Queensland University, has also stepped up and produced a living digital resource Arts Education Challenges for schools to use.  

The work of Helen Cahill, from the University of Melbourne, and colleagues from the Youth Research Centre earlier this year developed Research-informed approaches to supporting student wellbeing post-disaster, a valuable resource for educators, when the focus was on bushfire recovery.  This generous resource includes a range of arts –based strategies that are also germane to the COVID-19 world we are living in.  

Our multi-modal response

We know from this small sample of digital work and leadership in arts education and from our connections, that sophisticated and conceptual teaching and learning is abundant in Australian arts education.

Over the years our AARE Special Interest Group colleagues have shared their leadership, innovation and entrepreneurial strategies for advocating and activating arts education in their institutions. Many have been online in some way for a decade or so.

What we have witnessed during this time of social isolation is that the attributes and capabilities we know underpin arts education, our arts educators hold and lead with in their sites of learning. We have witnessed this over the few months through bushfire recovery and now with the online teaching that is happening – the ability to be open minded, empathetic, innovative, problem solve and articulate complex reasoning skills in multi-modal sites and spaces are the cross cutting, transferable capabilities of the arts.  The online space is just another site to conquer – an attitude that Lexi Lasczik and Peter Cook, from Southern Cross University, have shared over the years.   

In this post we wanted to showcase how, when the going gets tough, arts educators get going.  We know that the generative and collaborative spirit of arts educators sharing their resources will continue. We hope you see this as a call to action to share your own shifts in practice and to lead in times of change

Please visit our AEPR SIG Facebook page to check out other resources we are sharing.

Kathryn Coleman is a senior lecturer in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. She is an artist, researcher and former teacher. She is the Australasian representative on the Board of Directors of Association of Authentic, Experiential and Evidence Based Learning (AAEEBL) and World Council Representative for the South-East Asia Pacific Region for the International Society for Education though Art (InSEA). Kathryn is on Twitter @kateycoleman

Mark Selkrig is an Associate Professor in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. He works in the fields of teacher education and creativities and the arts. His research and scholarly work focus on the changing nature of educators’ work, their identities, lived experiences and how they navigate the ecologies of their respective learning environments. Mark is on Twitter @markselkrig

Arts education is vital to help foster creativity and innovation

I have a dream that this nation will achieve its full creative and economic potential and that Arts education will rightfully be seen as central to making this happen. It worries me that current thinking and policymaking around national innovation concentrates on increasing participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects while the teaching of the Arts (dance, drama, music, media arts and visual arts,) is rarely even on the innovation agenda.

It is not that I begrudge the attention STEM is getting, it is just that I believe if we want to be a truly innovative and creative nation we need to put the Arts, very firmly, back in the mix. We should be talking about STEAM in schools and universities with the Arts very much in the centre of it all.

There exists a popular narrative, used to drive the STEM education agenda in Australia (and elsewhere), that says there are significantly declining enrolments in the Sciences and other STEM disciplines. However I question this narrative as justification for major initiatives. I will come back to that later.

First up what are we talking about, when we talk about innovation and creativity?

Innovation and creativity

Creativity and innovation involves putting things together in new ways, it involves risk-taking, experimenting and refining, valuing the role of productive failure, it involves making and doing, and is often collaborative and co-creative. While creativity is about the capacity to putting things together in new, novel and different ways, innovation is often seen as putting them to work and out into the world so that they meet a need, want or interest.

However these capacities don’t get switched on when people hit the world of work, they need to be cultivated across the education lifespan in all subjects in as many ways as possible.

Unfortunately the nurturing of creativity and innovation often seems to be at odds with the direction of many current initiatives in education. I have concerns about mandated curriculum and standards and everyone doing the same thing, the same tests, meeting the same benchmarks. I am particularly concerned about certain subjects or areas of learning being valued as more essential or more important than others.

Why the Arts subjects are important when it comes to innovation and creativity

The focus on STEM, without similar focus being turned to the Arts and Humanities does not appear to be justified by recent research about the impact of technologies on our lives. It is hard to deny that all aspects of life and the world of work are undergoing rapid transformations, many brought about by developments in technologies across nearly all fields of endeavour. Recent research from Oxford University notes however, that while robots will assume the role of many people in many sectors, growth continues in those that rely on creative capacity and social interactions, people, services and experiences. They are not optional areas of focus for education, but essential for opening up future study and work opportunities.

The importance of valuing other areas of learning and related industry sectors is also evident when examining economic development within various industry sectors. Industry growth and projection reports identify that education itself is one of Australia’s major export industries. Other projected growth areas identified by the Reserve Bank include household and business services, food, arts and recreation.

A Deloitte report also identifies industry sectors such as agribusiness, tourism, international education and wealth management as ones that are growth sectors for the Australian economy.

To do well in these sectors may require knowledge and skills in some or all of the STEM areas, but also relies on understanding people, design, experience and communications: the Arts subjects.

Is there really a crisis in the uptake of STEM subjects?

A review of senior secondary enrolments in several states over the past 20 years reveals that in most cases all students have to/or tend to study an English and a Math subject. When it comes to the sciences, Biology is the top or near top elective subject and while there is some drop in the percentage of Physics and Chemistry enrolments it is not perhaps as extreme as we have been lead to believe, and in fact in recent times in Queensland, for example, there has been an increase in the numbers for Chemistry enrolments.

Enrolments in sciences have not been dropping more substantially than other subjects over the last 20 years using Queensland data as an example. While percentages of total year 12 enrolments might be 5-10% lower, this has to be considered in the context of increased subject choices including vocational training courses. It is clear that the pattern of enrolment of the Arts and Humanities also shows similar decreases in percentages too. When it comes to the most dramatic drop in enrolments over the past 20 years it is actually Accounting (20% to 7%) and Economics (19% to 5%) that have seen the most dramatic declines.

Similar trends can be identified in New South Wales and Victorian data, though the strength of Chemistry seen in Queensland is not necessarily reflected in other state data.

While there is no doubt that there are still issues with enrolments in STEM by different target groups, including girls and students from low SES backgrounds, regional areas and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, these are not new issues. However a focus on increased enrolments in STEM per se is not likely to change that. Other strategies that focus more on pedagogy, combining STEM and arts based approaches are more likely to have impact (and have been the basis for strategies in places such as Korea).

So what should we be doing?

It is important that capacity building in creativity and innovation be supported across the years of formal education (including early childhood, primary and secondary education) and tertiary study, including teacher education. This requires a shift beyond STEM and the ongoing focus on ‘basic skills’ in major educational drives, and to look at the cultivation of ideas and passions, calculated risk taking, how to work through failure, problem-finding and problem-solving and resolution of ideas into products and forms.

This requires an approach that recognizes that creativity and innovation can be cultivated across diverse learning and industry fields. If the current obsession with STEM is to continue, as I said previously, it should be converted to STEAM, with the Arts at its centre, at the very least, or perhaps ESTEAM to recognize the importance of Entrepreneurship as well.

Other key points

Here is my list of other key points and issues we need to tackle.

  • We need to see the arts, education and teacher education as being integral to a national innovation agenda
  • We should be specifically teaching teachers and children about innovation and creativity and to value the different knowledges and skills that can contribute to innovation
  • Include scope for more specialisations in primary education degrees, including in the arts and humanities
  • Recognise that there needs to be space for people to develop different interests, depth of knowledge and experience. Some of this can be supported through formal learning programs, but can also be supported through after school programs, partnerships and informal learning
  • Reduce the focus in educational agendas on NAPLAN and standardized test instruments and reports. We can’t mandate that everyone learns the same things in the same ways for 10 years of schooling and then expect them to do things ‘differently’. We need room for people to develop interests and expertise in diverse areas, so room for electives, special projects and enterprises.

If our governments recognize the importance of creativity and innovation for our future national prosperity (as the current parliamentary inquiry would indicate), attention must be paid to learning that promotes problem-solving and inventiveness, social innovation and entrepreneurship, and multiple forms of communication and expression. To do this effectively Australia needs to give just as much attention to the Arts as it is currently to the teaching of and participation in STEM. These areas are all fundamental to cultivating innovation for the future of our economy and our world.


Susan Davis is Deputy Dean Research for the School of Education & the Arts at CQ University, Australia. Her research has focused on drama, arts-education, engagement and  digital technologies. She is one of the Co-Convenors of the Arts Education Research SIG of AARE and a Board member for Drama Australia and the Sunshine Coast Creative Alliance. Sue was previously a drama teacher and performing arts Head of Department and has created and managed many arts-based projects in collaboration with various education, arts industry and community groups. Susan was one of the convenors of a Creative Education Summit held at ACMI in 2016, with summit outcomes contributing to an Arts Education, Practice and Research group submission to the “The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy”. She was also invited to present further evidence at a roundtable for the inquiry. 

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