We need to look at the bigger picture


Sometimes a journalist write gold!

The following article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald – 7 June 2010 and is probably the most enlightened and well researched article I’ve ever seen written about how visual arts education is being left behind in Australia… even though the rest of the world has recognised its value!

Read it… enjoy… and then read My Final Report

‘Visual Arts are often left behind, to the detriment of education’, says Ainslie MacGibbon.

Australia seems to be ignoring a global move towards understanding the significance of art in education, the president of Art Education Australia, Marian Strong, says.

Strong, a member of the reference group developing the arts component of the new national curriculum, has just returned from the second UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education in Seoul where she was ”embarrassed” by Australia’s failure to even respond to an invitation to make a submission on a road map for arts education.

“Every country was asked to respond and there was no response from Australia,” she said.

”It was rather embarrassing … they started at the As, going through Angola and other countries, and just nothing from Australia. There seems to be a global movement in understanding the significance arts has in education and Australia seems to be missing that.”

The UNESCO road map states that it aims to: ”explore the role of arts education in meeting the need for creativity and cultural awareness in the 21st century and places emphasis on the strategies required to introduce or promote arts education”.

Strong says Australia hasn’t appreciated the importance of art in providing students with a broad education, particularly in today’s very ”visual” world.

”Creating art is action research – reflecting, thinking, reflecting again, creating. It is a very demanding cognitive process, one that would benefit our 21st century students,” she says.

There is growing evidence that continued participation in visual arts complements core areas such as maths and literacy and contributes to students’ emotional well-being.

Strong is not convinced this has been acknowledged in the proposed national curriculum.

She was part of an initial advice group which had two meetings with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, which is responsible for a national curriculum from kindergarten to year 12 in specified learning areas. She has particular concerns about the initial advice paper for the Australian curriculum that was circulated.

”The initial advice paper was very disappointing,” Strong says. The way it was written didn’t reflect current theory, practice or research for visual arts in any depth. There was no clear, cognitive rationale. It indicates that all five art forms – music, visual arts, dance, drama and media art – are to be taught equally.

”This is ludicrous and will diminish the high quality practices that are in place for visual arts in many schools. I am concerned the terminology ‘visual and performing arts’ has been dropped.”

She says it is implausible and impractical that the five art forms be taught equally. ”The suggestion that there should be two hours a week for arts until year 8, which then needs to be divided between the five art forms, leaves less time for visual arts [and music] than what is happening now,” she says.

”This could have disastrous ramifications for visual arts … UNESCO is recognising the value of the arts as an integral part of any student’s education. We cannot allow anything to be written that cuts back on visual arts and redirects emphasis and resources to NAPLAN [tests] and the like.”

Strong says the ubiquity of images in young people’s lives has transformed the way they learn and perceive the world and new skills are needed to enable all young people to make sense of the visual world.

Today’s predominance of visual images means aesthetics and creativity are just as important as literacy skills or technical knowledge. ”The visual arts provide career paths for a few, but for many more they provide basic key competencies and general skills,” she says.

Strong says students in art classes learn ”a remarkable array of mental habits not emphasised elsewhere in the curriculum. These habits include observing, envisioning, innovating and reflecting”.

Dr Kerry Thomas, of the school of art history and art education at the University of NSW, says NSW has an approach to teaching visual arts that sets it apart from other states. During the 1990s, NSW rejected a proposed national curriculum, favouring its own established syllabus for visual arts, informed by research on child cognition and creativity.

“In NSW we don’t reduce what the students make to the creativity process alone,” Thomas says. ”Visual arts is a practice in itself, with a body of knowledge and practical reasoning – an arena for learning how to overcome obstacles. If there are too many criteria in place, students will adapt their work to the criteria.”

Thomas expresses concern about the ”generic competencies” of the visual arts component proposed under the new national curriculum: “as it stands there needs to be serious revision – what is proposed is a diminution of what is currently available in NSW.”

Thomas identifies Artexpress as a “powerful driver in setting expectations and standards in visual arts in this state. Since the late 1960s we have had generations of students looking at what other students can do – providing something to aspire to”.

Artexpress is a joint venture of the NSW Board of Studies and the Department of Education, presented in association with metropolitan and regional galleries. Artworks are selected from work submitted for the HSC.

Last year 9850 students submitted works as part of the visual arts examination (making it the 10th most popular subject) and 300 were selected for Artexpress exhibitions across NSW. The Art Gallery of NSW has first selection from the 300 works to build its exhibit.

Susanne Jones, Artexpress co-ordinator at the NSW Department of Education and Training, says that about half the students featured “end up doing something art-related, others pursue disciplines such medicine, architecture and engineering – but they still use their experience in visual arts, where they developed a sophisticated conceptual understanding of the world in which they live. To get through HSC visual arts you really need to be on top of things – and highly capable.”

Natalie Fong completed her HSC at Strathfield Girls High School last year. Visual arts was her favourite subject. ”It was time-consuming, but not at all stressful – to me it wasn’t work at all. It’s what kept me calm during the HSC: if I wanted a break I would turn to my artwork,” she says.

Fong’s intricate sculpture of shoes was selected for Artexpress.

Rebecca Soon, a former Hornsby Girls High School student and another artist from the Artexpress exhibition, says “Art was my outlet, the way I relaxed and got through the HSC.”

[ SMH | Text-only index]

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