Daily Bow: Build a Puppet, Ace a Test

Daily Bow LogoThese days, stories about music and increased test scores are, to say the least,  ubiquitous. This is not one such story, but–and this is the important part–it could be. As modern science and psychology progress, it has become readily apparent that there is no such thing as a linear path to education. Traditional wisdom has divided the many pursuits of the human race into tidy, self-contained disciplines: there’s art, science, education, music, and so on and so forth. This era has seen the erosion of almost all imaginable boundaries, whether they be social, economic, artistic, or geographical, and, as such, the time of the mono-disciplinary approach has passed. Fusions and syntheses of things once thought to be distinct entities are now commonplace in all fields, from cooking to art to music to education. Traditionally, much of the discipline-to-discipline transfer has been in one direction: a non-traditional discipline was brought in to make a traditional one more effective. Take East-West fusion cuisine, for example. Much of the early efforts in this direction brought Eastern touches to familiar Western cuisine. Now, as the phenomenon has evolved, some of the thinking is moving in the opposite way: Western flair to Eastern cuisine, or, more commonly, a true balance between the two elements.

What does food have to do with any of this? Similar evolution has applied to the relationship between arts and education. As science first began to play a role in deciphering how the brain best learns, operates, and thinks, these educational advances were applied to enhance music learning. We have learned more efficient types of practicing based on findings in the field of motor learning, and these scientific findings have been applied as a kind of garnish to the tradition of music education. Much of the history of the interaction between science and the arts is in that same direction: science used as an enhancer for artistic learning. At first, there wasn’t much talk of an exchange in the other direction–not much talk of how the arts can enhance education. When it did go the other direction, though, it has historically been the simple more-music-better-brain-higher-scores type of relationship. There wasn’t much thought of using the arts as a teaching tool for anything outside the arts; any test score results were recorded as essentially incidental, almost passive.

This type of thinking is changing, though. Arts are now being used to actively teach seemingly unrelated disciplines, and one of the most comprehensive examples of this type of thinking lies in the work of British educationalist Paul Collard. Collard is the chief executive of Creativity, Culture and Education (CCE), a British charity funded by the UK government since 2002. The idea behind the organization is to foster creative learning programs in schools. Each project involves linking schools and creative professionals such as artists, performers, architects, multimedia experts and scientists. A recent project involved a disadvantaged UK school whose students were struggling on science exams. Collard’s organization suggest that they hire a professional dramatist, who enlisted the student’s help in creating a play about genetic diseases. The students came up with the story, wrote the play, and performed it, and–in the course of all of that–somehow managed to learn so much more about their topic of choice that they ended up performing 15% better on their exam. The long and short of it is this: the arts can have more than a passive and incidental effect on learning. It’s not just an unseen process of forming new neural pathways that means that participating in the arts invisibly makes kids better in some academic disciplines. The arts are a real educational tool that can be intentionally and actively applied to break the mold of learning by book or by rote.

Collard’s efforts have now gone global. CCE has a program called Creative Partnerships, and it has involved more than a million young people and 90,000 teachers in Britain and several European countries. Collard was recently brought into Australia by Western Australia’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, Michelle Scott. Collard traveled to Perth for a two-week residency and brought his educational precepts with him to conquer the issues of disengaged and vulnerable youths in Perth’s schools. Collard’s main concept is simple, and it is that creative thinking will engage more students than traditional teaching, and, of his strategy, he says that “the trick is to embed it into the curriculum.” To this end, he aims to incorporate as many arts-based projects into school curriculum as possible, employing real, professional artists to help the students:

One primary school did a whole year’s work built around Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The play is about people waiting for someone else, and they have no idea who they’re waiting for or how long it will be. The artists involved had the view that this is the experience of seven to eight-year-olds — it’s what happens most of their lives, waiting for an adult to turn up and explain.”

A professional theatre company wanting to perform the play was invited to workshop it with the children. “They all wrote little Godot-like scenes, designed the poster and the set. The professional company ended up with a wonderful production, and the kids learned about theatre and philosophy.

The idea is to provoke creativity in young minds, not, according to Collard, to promote competence in any one field of the arts. “Our government has the statistic that we have not yet invented 60 per cent of the jobs young people in school today will end up doing in their lives,” says Collard. “So school can’t be a place where you go to acquire the precise skills for employment, but where you acquire generic skills that will prepare you for that life.” A recent Creative Partnerships endeavor, helmed by  director of Perth’s International Arts Festival (and British expatriate) John Holloway, resulted in students building giant insect puppets (guided by professional scientists and artists) and crafting a stage show (staged by professional circus performers) that opened the next year’s festival.

Collard’s work is commendable and imaginative, and its interaction with the visual arts is particularly inspiring. Not only does it foster more creative education, but it provides artists with a long-overdue position in the mainstream educational community, creating the possibility for employment as more than just the garnish on life or a fringe community that exists separately from the rest of the world. It leaves one to wonder, though, whether the arts can be used to further push the educational envelope, and if the incorporation of more artistic disciplines would make even greater inroads on the plight of the disengaged or disadvantaged student. Instead of a play, one wonders what the composition of an operetta about insects might do for a student’s understanding of insects, music, drama, composition, and staging? Collard’s CCE is one of the most interesting organizations around–and it’s understandable that musicians would want in! More and more, people are creating their own jobs, their own fields, and their own disciplines, and musicians would do well to take a leaf from Collard’s book…just as he would do well to take a leaf from ours!

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