Millions of dollars have been spent on targeted programs to improve literacy and numeracy learning outcomes around Australia. However this year’s NAPLAN data shows stagnation in terms of data improvement, with a downward shift in performance levels for writing.
We don’t believe this lack of movement in data is matched by a lack of impact in the classroom. On the contrary, we believe the current focus on formal, regulated programs in reading and writing, including in early childhood education, is having an enormous negative impact. As we see it, there has been a narrowing of focus and a preoccupation with test results. The unfortunate flow on effect is increased anxiety and behavioural issues as children are labeled as ‘difficult’ or ‘slow learners’ and disenfranchised from their learning. There are huge increases in exclusions of children from the earliest ages. According to media reports more than 1,000 prep year students in Queensland were suspended for bad behaviour last year.
Adding to narrowing of what happens in the classroom is the current obsession with certain types of ‘evidence-based’ practice such as targeted programs in direct instruction, phonics, and atomised, decontextualized approaches to teaching writing as lists of grammatical features and structure. Schools are spending thousands of dollars on literacy and writing programs as well as systems to measure and monitor children weekly, even daily. However, these programs rarely translate to children becoming more confident communicators and ‘meaning makers’ who feel in control of the forms and means of their expression.
We are not claiming there are no literacy and writing programs out there making a difference. There would be many. But we are blogging to tell you about some we call arts-based approaches.
What is an arts-based approach?
Within education, the arts incorporate the five areas of Dance, Drama, Media, Music and Visual Arts. Each have specific processes, skill bases and disciplines that they draw on. These different arts areas have some similar elements and approaches, including knowing through doing and creating, with children learning to express ideas and emotions through voice, movement, actions and different expressive forms. The arts can be taught as discrete single discipline areas, or in combination with other learning areas or arts areas. So we can talk about arts learning but also ‘learning through the arts’. In primary schools, teachers may use arts processes and strategies to teach content in other learning areas and this often helps create more engaged and experiential learning.
Examples of arts-based approaches we have implemented include using drama to support learning in English, History, Geography and Science. In one example Sue Davis created a program where year 5 students were enrolled as ‘spacetroopers’ who have to research various planets to locate one where water might be found. They then had to prepare for a space trip to that chosen planet. Throughout the unit children were involved in writing in a diverse range of forms including written reports, letters and diary entries. At the end of drama sessions when children had ‘experienced’ the content and learning, they were sometimes running to their desks to pull out their books to write.
Positive impacts of working with an arts-based approach
There is a range of research that consistently demonstrates the positive impact of arts-based approaches for improved academic and social outcomes for students in schools. The international research includes Critical Links, an important compendium of findings from numerous studies on student academic and social learning through the arts. There are consistent positive associations between dramatic enactment with reading comprehension, oral story understanding and written story understanding.
More recent research from the US includes meta-analysis work that found Drama and arts-based learning programs can have a significant impact on improving language arts and academic learning programs. Another study with students who had learning difficulties indicated the use of drama strategies improved student motivation, narrative cohesion and language acquisition. A growing body of Australian research supports the international work ranging from the impact of arts programs, including research for the Songroom through to classroom based work with a focus on literacy development in the early years. This and other work in secondary schools by University of Sydney researchers shows the impact of arts-based programs can be substantial.
Sydney Theatre Company’s work with an arts-based approach in Australian schools
An example of an arts-based approach with positive results for student literacy and writing is the Sydney Theatre Company’s School Drama™ project. This program was pioneered by Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, who were Co-artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company at the time, with Professor Robyn Ewing from the University of Sydney. School Drama™ teams teaching artists (with performance and/or applied theatre background with an acting background) with a classroom teacher. They work together with primary school classes to use drama strategies and children’s literature to make English and literacy learning come alive.
A key feature of the program is to help build the participating primary school teacher’s capacity to use arts-based strategies. Each school and teacher begins the program with a particular literacy area they want to improve and they engage in careful benchmarking of pre and post literacy data.
John Saunders, Education Manager at Sydney Theatre Company, was an experienced secondary drama teacher when he then took on managing the School Drama program. He believes something very special happens when children are having so much fun with drama they forget they are learning. As they are busy enjoying themselves they are increasing their ability to visualise, comprehend and write. He tells a story about how, after working with the children’s book about the Stolen Generation called The Burnt Stick by Anthony Hill, children said they felt like they didn’t do any writing at all because they had had been ‘learning in our way, a fun way’. In fact they had been writing every lesson, but it hadn’t felt like ‘work’. Such programs are successful across whatever area of literacy is in focus, however children who are behind usually show the biggest improvement.
In his research John found that while the program leads to improvements in academic areas including literacy it also impacts on so-called ‘soft skills’ or ‘non-academic’ areas such as empathy building, confidence, motivation and engagement. Research by independent evaluator Robyn Gibson supports these findings.
When learning approaches such as these focus on experience and active learning, children become confident in using language and literacies within real and imagined contexts. Data on impact is growing and is providing insight into more innovative, transferrable approaches to teaching literacy.
Unfortunately politicians and policy makers rarely recognise our projects, including professional learning models we have piloted and researched, or any other arts-based approach. Arts-based programs are simply not acknowledged as vehicles for improving valued academic outcomes.
We believe if governments invested just some of the millions they invest in improving NAPLAN scores into arts-based programs, such as School Drama and related professional learning, the results would be astounding.
John Nicholas Saunders is a former secondary school teacher and the current Education Manager at Sydney Theatre Company. He holds a Bachelor of Creative Industries (Drama), Bachelor of Education (Secondary), Masters of Research and is currently studying for a PhD. John’s classroom work together with his research has focused on Drama as pedagogy and its benefits for student literacy, engagement, motivation and empathy. John has extensive experience in Arts Education and has held positions as a senior curriculum writer, head of department; Board member of Playlab Press, President of Drama NSW and Drama QLD. He currently holds positions as: President, Drama Australia; Honorary Associate, The University of Sydney; Chair, Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) Education Network; and Drama representative, National Advocates for Arts Education. In 2014 he was awarded the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Science (CHASS) prize for future leader in the field and in 2016 he published ‘The School Drama Book: Drama, Literature & Literacy In The Creative Classroom’ with is colleague, Professor Robyn Ewing.
Susan Davis is Deputy Dean Research for the School of Education & the Arts at CQ University, Australia. Her research has focused on drama, arts-education, engagement and digital technologies. She is one of the Co-Convenors of the Arts Education Research SIG of AARE and a Board member for Drama Australia and the Sunshine Coast Creative Alliance. Sue was previously a drama teacher and performing arts Head of Department and has created and managed many arts-based projects in collaboration with various education, arts industry and community groups. Susan was one of the convenors of a Creative Education Summit held at ACMI in 2016, with summit outcomes contributing to an Arts Education, Practice and Research group submission to the “The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy”. She was also invited to present further evidence at a roundtable for the inquiry.
(Featured photo by Grant Sparkes-Carroll)