Why we must urgently rescue arts education now

By Robyn Ewing

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.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

4 thoughts on “Why we must urgently rescue arts education now

  1. Great article.
    The arts are a gateway to the heart, soul and spiritual. Without them we can become automatons.
    The greatest complication we have is government/s controlling far too much in education. The STEM concept derives from wrong thinking and consequently the wrong educational drivers, ie “we know where the jobs are going to be in the future, so that is our focus”.
    This is a grave error which will continue for years to come, having the potential to make human relationships, jobs and organisations colder and more impersonal.
    Long live the arts!

  2. Simon Crook says:

    While I agree with your arguments for the benefits of arts education, from an exam success standpoint (HSC Band 6), the arts are being artificially (and unfairly) propped up This inequity needs to be redressed at HSC level while arguably a greater exposure to the varied arts is needed in K-10.

  3. Kevin C. Kingswell says:

    How most of the whole world admires the current President of Ukraine.
    A true Statesman in his inspired and inspiring diplomacy—even I venture to suggest, to his most unrelenting critics.
    A gifted and well-trained artist who chose to stay and to resist—even to the point of seeking peace terms with his merciless enemies.
    The ‘A’ must be kept in STEAM/STEAMM ( a USA addition of Medicine) in education, lest we descend into further, refined barbarism.
    Moving from the head to the heart, in compassion—crowning mindfulness with heartfulness.

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