Arts-based approaches

One powerful way to beat the trauma of school transition with joy and fun

On the Monday post lockdown, schools again reverberated with the sounds of all their kids in the playground. In this pandemic much has changed but perhaps none more than schools and the work of teachers. For many parents, teachers and students there will be justifiable anxiety about what students have missed out on. There will be no doubt be a  rush in some classrooms to cram missed syllabus content into kids (which will soon be forgotten) as well as re-establish routines. There might be a better way to manage the return to schools by looking at what  our neighbours across the ditch have done and are planning when they reopen later this year. 

Schools in Aotearoa New Zealand have used the arts and creativity to support students and teachers make a meaningful transition back to classroom learning. An on line resource, called Te Rito Toi was created by the University of Auckland, in partnership with the NZ Principals Federation and the the teachers union that represents over 90% of all Primary teachers. The site provides lesson plans and advice for teachers to use the arts and creativity to help students reflect on their lockdown experiences and consider how they might use those experiences to make their learning more fruitful as they meet their teachers and classmates again. 

A central pillar Te Rito Toi is that arts-informed curricular approaches are powerful for individual and community recovery after disaster, strengthening social support and building hope.

For students it is a gentle way back into schools that promotes opportunities for students to create and reflect on how the world has changed during lockdown and at its heart children catch up with relationships before catching up with learning. 

For students, it is a gentle way back into schools . . . children catch up with relationships before catching up with learning.

The program is based on decades of international research into what the arts do, that they qualitatively shift the kinds of talk that happen in classrooms and provide students with opportunities to recognise how the pandemic has disrupted their lives and schooling. It also provides creative processes for them to respond to their experiences as they re-join their school communities. 

In 2020 the University of Auckland team (who developed the program) carried out a research project with eight schools around Aotearoa about the use of Te Rito Toi in schools. It found that the lockdowns were just another layer of trauma along with multiple traumas happening in the lives of children and their families-the pandemic just exacerbated what was already happening. This was especially true in areas where Covid hit hard and where there are existing traumas such as poverty and dislocation. 

When children are busy working hands-on in the arts, teachers observed that it was easier to have meaningful one on one conversations about their worries and concerns. This research demonstrates that the arts provide a space for safe dialogue with the adult teachers about their anxieties such as ‘will my grandad die? What will happen if they do?’ All the big questions best handled outside a whole class discussion. The research found that coming back to school to some joy and fun, along with the excitement of painting, drawing, dancing and moving was critical in supporting student wellbeing.  Many teachers in this study, recognising the trauma of transition decided to put aside those more formal kinds of structures to excite kids about being back at school. 

In New Zealand Te Rito Toi has been very popular. The lesson plans feature different mediums of expression and provide ways for children to build relationships, explore and describe emotions, engage with possibility, and reimagine the world. The Te Rito Toi team have delivered webinars to over 40,000 teachers around the world that have inspired similar resources in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Hungary. The Te Rito Toi online resources have been used in the US, Canada and Australia. This enthusiastic take up recognises that while routine and syllabus content are critical, they are not enough to support this massive transition and readjustment. The NZ Ministry of Education have joined the Principals Federation, the teacher unions in endorsing  the approach for schools in Auckland when they return after months of lockdown. 

Te Rito Toi focusses on classroom-based curriculum resource post-crisis. Schools cannot go back to ‘business as usual’ post-disaster and resume normal routines as if nothing has happened. They must address with children the fact that the world has changed and help their students make sense of that change. These resources provide ways for children to reflect and create on their own experiences in a safe way and helps them to make sense of how they might be feeling. As our classrooms spring back to life we might look across the ditch to see how a dose of creativity and the arts can make spaces for our young people to process, reflect and respond to the changing world around them rather than just expecting them (and us) to just get on with it.  


The CREATE Centre hosted a Webinar, Coming Back To School Through The Arts, featuring Prof. Peter O’Connor(University of Auckland) and Prof. Julie Dunn (Griffith University) in October, with discussion of some of the resources from Te Rito Toi and how they can be used effectively to support young people returning to school. Professors Peter O’Connor and Julie Dunn highlighted how critical attending to the intrapersonal and interpersonal capacities and needs of children rather than just their ‘academic’ needs. The webinar helped educators understand the background and applications of this arts education resource in and beyond Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Dr Michael Anderson is Professor of Arts and Creativity Education at The University of Sydney and Co-Director of The CREATE Centre.

Professor Peter O’Connor is the Director of the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation at the University of Auckland and an Advisory Board member of the CREATE Centre

Arts-based approaches to teaching literacy: stop all the testing and do this

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)

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