By Professor John O’Toole AM
“A slow starter … sometimes tries but is easily distracted and could do better”. This ‘school report card’ was my summing up in a recent article for a Special Edition of Art Education Australia of the first five years of implementation of the Australian Curriculum: Arts.
The report card for the effect it has had so far on tertiary education policy would be rather bleaker than that. This may be because those principles and their policy implications for both arts and education are not sufficiently explained in the published curriculum, nor yet well understood.
As the Curriculum’s Lead Writer, in that article I tried for the first time to tell the whole story of that curriculum and the cardinal principles on which it is based – the ‘inside story’ (my version anyway). Here are a few of those principles.
The curriculum process was both democratic and consultative, and - almost - consensual in philosophy and practice. It deserves to have those principles better articulated, to assist in the curriculum’s full national implementation, and the necessary policy shifts in both arts and education. One key trigger for the Arts’ inclusion in the second round of national curriculum subjects was the verdict of two National Enquiries into Music and Visual Education - the two arts most historically and systemically established in schools - that arts teaching across the nation, particularly in the primary years, was at its best excellent, mostly patchy and at its worst woeful or absent.
The curriculum was ratified in 2013 with those principles embedded if not visible, and the five years since have seen some progress and some new and not-so-new obstacles in establishing the first of those principles: the entitlement of all Australian students to education in the arts. That means entitlement throughout the primary years to an introduction to all the five art forms (Dance, Drama, Media Arts, Music, Visual Arts) and to at least one specialist study at secondary level, and a reasonable amount of choice. Note the alphabetical order of the list, denoting the second principle: of parity among those arts.
The rationale for bringing the arts together into one single subject - as distinct from the solid pragmatic front presented by the unified Arts Teachers Associations NAAE that succeeded in getting the Arts accepted as a single core subject - was based on the least well-understood and least well-explained of the principles, that of aesthetic knowing.
Though quite distinct in appearance, process, techniques and skills they all share a common epistemology, that is different in kind from, for example, scientific or linguistic knowledge. It sounds obscure but the person in the street has no problem in thinking of ‘the arts’ generically as well as specifically. Necessary corollaries to that principle were the twin principles of a.) autonomy (to prevent what teachers of all art forms know too well, their art being just a handmaiden of another art or subject, where ‘integration’ means subjugation into service) and b.) connectivity (to address how to teach multiple arts like opera, masks, contemporary hybrids, and all those involved in Aboriginal corroboree).
The two predictable major attacks on these principles (notably from primary Principals, territorial art-form specialists and the teachers’ unions) can both be addressed first by new paradigm thinking, and second by simply pointing out successful examples in contemporary schools (those “best” examples).
Both need major policy shifts into that new paradigm thinking.
The first question is of adequate time for introducing five arts in ‘the overcrowded primary curriculum’ – a myth always used to block curriculum innovation. (Q: “You expect us to teach eighteen minutes a week of dance, drama etc…?”). This can be addressed by another of our cardinal principles, that we won as a surprisingly easy victory, by pleading the very different time scales and pedagogies needed for each art-form: the content is organised in two-year progression, not a weekly timetable. (A: “Do you mean you can’t find any time in two years to teach a bit of dance, drama etc?...”).
The second question, of teachers’ adequacy of skills and knowledge, especially among primary generalists, is more complex, but the new paradigm provides a start. That was demonstrated by our own advisory trial groups, who, contra their unions and their principals, welcomed the opportunity to try all the arts. They acknowledged that unlike teaching nuclear physics or constitutional history, every teacher has a massive basic if unacknowledged familiarity with all the arts and a measure of critical discrimination developed over their lives, that can provide a start for any but the most resistant or poorly trained.
But just a start. Tertiary training and professional development, of both teachers and artists, is where the biggest policy shift is needed. Australia has a well-trained cohort of secondary specialist arts teachers, who are already providing valuable Professional Learning through the teachers’ associations. However, there are few primary specialists, and even fewer well-trained generalists. Add to this the external challenges of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and constant political pressure for literacy and numeracy at the expense of the humanities.
Teaching artists and artist-teachers are urgently needed to address the severe and endemic arts deficit in most pre-service generalist education, and the equal pedagogy deficit in most artist training. To comply with the Australian Curriculum, all pre-service teachers now need arts education, and most artists being trained in our conservatoria will spend some at least of their careers in educational contexts. However, many education faculties and conservatoria traditionally and still ignore one another, and few as yet work closely together on this new imperative. With a will, this gap could easily be closed.
John O’Toole was Foundation Chair of Arts Education at the University of Melbourne, and previously Professor of Drama and Applied Theatre at Griffith University. He has been teaching, writing and researching arts education for almost fifty years, on all continents, and has written numerous books, both textbooks and research. He is also a playwright and director. He was Lead Writer and Writer for Drama in the Australian Curriculum: Arts (2009-2012) and in 2014 he was awarded Member of the Order of Australia for services to drama education.