Wherefore Arts Thou? + technology + science + … The integrated or ignored learning areas

Dr Claire Coleman, University of Waikato

Show me the planning!

One of the best parts of my job as a teacher educator is visiting emerging new teachers, schools, classrooms, and most importantly children. I love to see what is going on in classrooms, talk to the kids, find out what is new, and support a new teacher as they find their way in the profession. I walk around the classrooms, look at the artwork, read students’ stories, talk to the teachers, and of course observe the preservice teacher for their evaluation. The one thing I am invariably less keen on is looking at the preservice teacher’s planning folder, which brings me to the topic of this post – the learning areas that are consistently notable for their absence.

In most planning folders I see, literacy and numeracy have pride of place and plenty of planning. Weekly timetables also feature ‘unofficial’ subjects like Go Noodle or Jump Jam, and yet several learning areas appear to remain in the wilderness within actual classrooms. That is not to say that schools aren’t doing any science, arts, or technology (etc.), and invariably I can find the other curriculum areas if I look hard enough. However, if I have to look really hard to find them and they remain only the auxiliary companions to other learning areas, are these learning areas really getting their due?

National Standards no more

Unfortunately, as an arts lecturer myself, this finding is not much of a surprise. Preservice teachers arriving at my university drama class frequently describe the drama they have seen on their school placements as either non-existent or exclusively represented by the school production. I appreciate the difficulties that teachers face: With increasingly complex teaching spaces, diverse student populations, and limited time, something has to give.

National standards and the associated pressure around literacy and numeracy results dominated primary schooling in New Zealand from 2010-2017. Several academics cite the impact of National Standards upon the narrowing of the taught curriculum and the sidelining of other subjects. However, we are now almost 3 years on from the demise of National Standards, and arguably the situation – though different – doesn’t appear to be much better for the “outlier” learning areas. Is the initial optimism over the end of these standards just that – merely optimism? Despite enthusiasm over the opportunity to put the ‘magic’ back into schooling, surely we can’t expect it to appear as if by magic? Teachers need more than enthusiasm; they need expertise, resources, plans, and support.

It’s integrated, innit?

There is merit in the government’s hope that each New Zealand school will provide a bespoke culturally sustaining, context-specific, community-focused local curriculum committed to the principles of the New Zealand Curriculum or Te Marautanga o Aotearoa. School leaders and communities should be encouraged to interpret the national curriculum according to their school’s context. It is here, perhaps, that outlier learning areas gain representation through integrated approaches such as inquiry learning and problem-based learning. I believe in integration, connecting the curriculum, and ensuring that education is future-focused, interesting, and offers students meaningful and authentic learning experiences that both challenge and excite them. Interactive pedagogies are vital for engaging curious minds, cultivating creativity, criticality, and encouraging 21st-century skills. Happily, the outlier learning areas are well suited to these pedagogies: The arts develop key competencies, technology invokes creativity, and science invites questioning. 

Despite the initial lack of visibility, I have no doubt that these outlier learning areas are indeed incorporated in most primary schools. However, the concern for me is how much and how well. Since the heady days of Specialist Arts advisors, the online resources to support arts education have languished, with many new teachers simply relying upon Pinterest for arts ideas. The recent increase in funding for Creatives in Schools provides some encouragement for the arts, but places responsibility for conceptualising, managing, and enacting these Arts projects on already overworked teachers. Finding the right creative expert, establishing a collegial relationship, and planning projects all require time and energy – resources that are in short supply, perhaps particularly in our most vulnerable school settings. Inevitably, schools with fewer resources focus on ‘core’ subjects, leaving the arts, technology, and science for students who can afford STEM toys and private instructors. 

Arts in a time of COVID

During the COVID-19 pandemic and enforced ‘home schooling’, many of the outlier learning areas gained a renewed lease of life. The Papa Kāinga / Home Learning TV schedule provided programming across the curriculum. Kai Time Cooking and Science with Suzy were particularly popular in my house. Authentic and experiential contexts were employed out of necessity as children counted teddy bears on daily walks, built cushion forts, or made dinosaur movies. We know, however, that in addition to the inequalities of access to devices and Internet, the learning opportunities available in the home are further impacted by a lack of time, money, and capacity. The disparity of COVID home education experiences highlights the need for schools to ensure that they provide a diverse and rich range of experiences across and through the learning areas. 

The arts came to the fore during the lockdown. Movies, music, books, and an assortment of artworks all available online provided the opportunity to travel and explore new worlds while staying at home. A range of artists reconceptualized their work so it could be delivered online, and social media became less about liking someone’s lunch and more about sharing and creating in the arts. Research shows that engaging in the arts benefits our health and, as such, may serve as a first responder to COVID in terms of supporting mental health and wellbeing. 

A call to arts in action

The arts are fundamental to our wellbeing and to a healthy society that is capable of critiquing the world that is, and of imagining the world that might be. Without opportunities in the arts and other learning areas, the narrowed curriculum will grow narrower, the economic and social divide will grow wider, and our lives will grow a little greyer. Now that we are back to ‘normal’, what can we as educators do to resist, renovate and reimagine to enhance the colour, breadth and richness of the arts, in education and in life?

Dr Claire Coleman is an arts lecturer at the University of Waikato and programme leader for graduate initial teacher education. Her recently completed PhD examines the potential of process drama as an enactment of the philosophies of critical pedagogy. She is passionate about embodied and creative pedagogies for transformative education. Her current research examines the shift to ILE spaces within schools and the cultivation of learning cultures for collaboration and creativity.

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