Like Writing off the Paper: Report on Student Learning in the Arts

Publication Details

This research investigates the characteristics of student learning in the arts, and notes the implications for teachers of the arts. The report also identifies some indicators for teaching and learning beyond the arts.

Author(s): Chris Holland and Peter O’Connor. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: 2004

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Executive Summary

It's using your imagination. [It's] like writing off the paper.
It's more physical so you can actually instead of writing
it down you can actually show what you are thinking.

(Intermediate School Arts Student 2003)

This research investigated the characteristics of student learning in the arts, and implications for teachers of the arts. The study revealed some indicators for teaching and learning beyond the arts. Central to the findings are the following key characteristics and indicators:

  • Students learn in the arts in an environment of `structured chaos', in which critical reflection and deeper understanding about their lives can occur
  • The arts provide pedagogical contexts where more human and negotiated relationships can exist
  • The arts provide co-constructed learning environments in which students and teachers have permission to experiment and learn from each other

The arts therefore provide opportunities for teachers to use the arts to:

  • Shift from traditional transmission models of learning, environs and routines
  • Plan and deliver units to enhance non-linear, chaotic learning cycles
  • Develop mutually respectful, negotiated, co-constructive learning relationships
  • Practice skilful interventions which lead to critical understandings
  • Facilitate high levels of student interaction and sharing of ideas.

This model of student learning and teaching shifts teaching practice towards the model suggested in the Ministry of Education's Best Evidence Synthesis (2003). The model provides opportunities for re-thinking teaching and learning with diverse students and in other curriculum areas.

Learning in the arts seems to invite the imagination, presence and engagement of participants in a more holistic way than traditional transmission models of learning. These disciplines are regarded by students and teachers alike as qualitatively different from other learning at school. This different quality in arts learning is recognised by teachers as demanding a more flexible, informal approach to teaching than is required or perhaps even possible in traditional transmission models. While the parameters of this research prevented us from exploring the extent to which these claims are true, there were indications that other learning areas would benefit from the different relationships, expectations and techniques typical of quality teaching in arts classrooms.

Learning Dimensions

In order to have a basis for investigating the learning of students in arts classrooms, a framework of learning dimensions was used for categorizing student behaviours. It was also used as a springboard for discussion with teachers. This framework highlighted students' movement in and through different dimensions of learning (generating, applying, reflecting, refining, connecting and transforming), and, as such, could be applied to any curriculum area. Teachers found these dimensions a useful way of looking at how their students were learning. However, in classrooms where teachers were new to teaching in the arts or where relationships, expectations and techniques were more akin to traditional transmission models, teachers tended to focus on generation and application, and students tended not to engage in the more complex dimensions of reflection, refining, connecting and transforming. Below are some key findings from the research:

1. Structured Chaos

The research found that, in the arts, movement in and through the different learning dimensions was not necessarily sequential or linear, but `chaotic', in terms of entering, leaving, and returning to each learning phase. That is, learning in the arts is characterised by engagement in different iterative cycles of learning. For instance, in skillfully managed classrooms, teachers and students might generate new ideas and approaches, leading to meta-cognitive connections, refinements, further reflections and new applications. In such learning environments, reflection occurs throughout the learning process rather than at the end phase of the learning, and students continuously refine and critically reflect on their own and others' work as they generate and apply new understandings.

2. Negotiated Relationships

Students in this research commented frequently on the shift of relationship inherent in arts teaching, a shift away from the traditional hierarchal student teacher relationship to a more negotiated relationship. It was described as a risky business that allows teachers to be less `teacherly'. Students and teachers reflected on the positive manner in which arts teaching allowed for more human interaction. This relationship is shaped by, and shapes, the less formal physical, social and pedagogical context. The informal environment of the arts classroom is such that a great deal of flexibility is demanded of teachers. Students move about in rooms where desks are often absent. They sometimes work outside the classroom, and seldom work entirely on their own. This represents either a more relaxed or a more threatening environment for teachers.

3. Co-construction and Co-Artistry in Learning

Students with students and teachers with students are actively engaged in the co-construction of learning, as students are often equal partners in the creation of new knowledge and new art. Indeed, teachers acknowledge that some students may possess at least as much knowledge of the subject as the teacher through extra-curricular activities. Both teachers and students feel they have permission to experiment and take risks. In the arts learning environment, students have permission to talk purposefully, share ideas and to allow others to use those ideas. They are aware that there is no right and wrong, and that copying is legitimate. Skilful teacher interventions encouraged reflection and maximised the quality of that co-construction, through positive critical dialogue about the work.

What does this mean for professional development?

Developing open relationships with students, more flexible approaches to learning dimensions, and skilful interventions to encourage critical reflection in these disciplines, can be a challenge to teachers new to teaching in the arts. For those teachers seeking such a co-constructive environment, teacher guidance can be offered to strengthen their ability to manage and facilitate:

  • The shift from traditional transmission models of learning, environs and routines
  • The planning and delivery of units to enhance non-linear, chaotic learning cycles
  • Mutually respectful, negotiated, co-constructive learning relationships
  • Learning within high levels of student interaction and sharing of ideas
  • Skilful interventions which lead to critical understandings.

Benefits and limitations of the research

Teachers learned professionally from their engagement in this research. Teacher feedback to facilitators indicated that involvement in the research had encouraged them to reflect more on their teaching. Facilitators developed their research capabilities during this research. However, they noted that further development of this role would be useful. Some issues impacting on the quality of data gathered, included:

  • Lack of quality arts teaching in some classrooms of selected schools
  • Insufficient time to adequately train facilitators for their research role
  • Tensions for facilitators between professional development and research roles
  • Tensions experience between time commitment for professional development and research
  • Lack of continuity of researcher presence in schools
  • Lack of data available to draw useful conclusions about gender and ethnic differences.

Further research

It is hoped that this research will provide useful data for teachers and the Ministry. However, a more in-depth exploration is needed to capture specific teaching strategies which impact positively on arts learning in the classroom and in the school, and of how these strategies can benefit other curriculum subjects. This could be achieved through a larger, more ethnographic approach to the research, in which researchers worked continuously developing case studies in arts-rich classrooms. It is suggested that such research might focus on how arts teaching relationships, methodologies (e.g. informal learning, flexible learning) and processes (in particular the structured chaotic cycle of learning) can impact on learning in all curriculum areas.