Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

By Brad Haseman, Executive Vice President, Kadenze, Inc. & Professor Emeritus, QUT
This blog post was first published by the National Advocates for Arts Education (NAAE) to mark UNESCO International Arts Education Week
May 24-30, 2021

International Arts Education week reminds the world that the arts and learning are tightly bound and have been for a very long time. We are reminded that, throughout the twentieth century, arts educators were a dynamic force to challenge and disrupt the Transmission Model of education, rebranded these days as Direct Instruction.

Here, in broad terms, learning encounters are structured and sequenced by the teacher, with content presented to students and directed at them. The most virulent version of this approach has learners sitting quietly in rows, passively listening to the teacher who pronounces the skills, wisdoms, and values they will need for life. And well, maybe that was all that was needed, for the 1800s!

But even then, this approach was never seen as sufficient. Back in the early 1800’s that great university builder Alexander von Humboldt stressed the importance of Collaborative Learning, “Collaboration operates through a process in which the successful intellectual achievements of one person arouse the intellectual passions and enthusiasms of others.” Humboldt’s notion was rebranded in the 1940’s by Morton Deutsch and later elaborated on by David and Roger Johnson influencing our understanding of Cooperative Learning today; “Cooperative learning… involves students working together to achieve common goals or complete group tasks – goals and tasks that they would be unable to complete by themselves”.

Then in 1934, John Dewey (Ahh who can forget ‘Art as Experience’?) set up his stall for Active Learning reminding everyone that “Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process.” This constructivist thread, whereby students determine the focus, content and direction of their learning, has been aligned with and amplified into Inquiry-based Learning, described as more than asking a student what he or she wants to know. It’s about triggering curiosity.

It was inevitable that, sooner or later, the term Experiential Learning would be used; one which pivots around reflecting on life’s concrete and direct experiences. Kolb defines Experiential Learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience.

The most recent disruptive model to emerge is Creative Learning defined by John Spacey as “the process of acquiring knowledge and abilities using creative processes…as opposed to simply trying to memorize information.” In our age of innovation, the knowledge economy, software as a service, and the creative industries, commentators like Ken Robinson argue that “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” It is a driver of comparative advantage for modern economies.

These are all species of pedagogy designed to disrupt the transmission model of teaching and learning. All are much needed, as the transmission model stubbornly holds sway, strengthened by regimes of national testing and standards of attainment to measure the performance of students and educational systems. Yet it is a curious thing; the proliferation of these positive pedagogies all have a common root, a DNA which remains broadly unacknowledged. They can all gather, in part, under the umbrella of Arts-led learning.

When a teacher, no matter the discipline, places the arts at the centre of the teaching and learning process, the following are unavoidable: passions and enthusiasms, collaboration, expressive inquiry, common goals, cooperative discovery, active construction of meaning, grasping and transforming experience, curiosity, student autonomy, concrete and direct experience with something that matters personally, open-ended inquiry, and engagement through all the sensory capabilities of knowledge making.

The ears and eyes are not the only sensory pathways to cognition. Indeed, the full sensory apparatus of the body activates cognition alongside the emotions, the imagination, the memory and the spiritual dimensions of consciousness.

Why is it the capabilities of the arts to lead learning remain un-recognized and under-valued? After all they have a philosophical and educational pedigree built on the work of Davis Hume, Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant.

Maybe best to leave it to a poet to explain why?

The Arts I expected nothing from.
Good company when they are sober.
But totally unreliable.

When Roger McGough, the satirical Liverpool poet, wrote this in 1978, he was speaking directly to teachers (the volume of poems was called In the Glassroom). Those of us fighting to secure the arts in education at that time smiled wryly recognising both the truth and swingeing irony in the metaphor. And the notion that there is something unreliable, untrustworthy even, about the arts in education remains sadly persistent, despite all the evidence. Take just one telling example.

Robyn Ewing’s comprehensive international report for the Australian Council for Educational Research is a commanding case in point as to why and how the “Arts can help transform learning processes and practices in schools to ensure that education is inclusive and meaningful for all” but has been set to one side by many educational policy makers and curriculum designers.

Celebrating International Arts Education week this year, 2021, cannot be the same as in previous years, with the old biases tolerated. For a new and promising opportunity awaits arts educators, and immediately. As the world slowly emerges from a global pandemic, educators everywhere are struggling to imagine what the lasting effects might be.

Certainly, the emergency shift to online education we saw in 2020 marks an opportunity for change and educational reinvention. Increasingly known as HyFlex courses (a crash-merge of Hybrid-Flexible), teachers are being required to build new educational orders by blending classroom, synchronous and asynchronous modes of delivery.

We are entering a period where the experiential power of arts-led learning (together with all those species of learning that wish to claim part of the action) can transform contemporary classroom and online learning design. The uninformed sidelining of the arts in this must not linger. Instead, this is the moment for art and design educators, and organizations providing resource and learning design support, to assert the inclusive contribution of Arts-led learning in live and online settings. The quest for fuller engagement is not just ‘good’ for learners, but ‘good’ for the art and science of modern learning design itself.