Exploring the possible in Arts Education

“Art gives meaning to our lives and helps us understand our world. It is an essential part of our culture because it allows us to have a deeper understanding of our emotions; it increases our self-awareness, and also allows us to be open to new ideas and experiences. It keeps me happy and once I have done some creative work, I feel more confident in myself.

Boy, 13, Asian, Auckland
NZers and the Arts | Ko Aotearoa me ōna Toi, Creative New Zealand, 2020

Dr Claire Coleman, University of Waikato

This article offers two central provocations and invites us to be hopeful about the future of the arts. Firstly, this article challenges the prevailing deficit narrative surrounding the arts in contemporary New Zealand schools. Secondly, it questions the siloed nature of the arts within the New Zealand Curriculum, invites new approaches, and features work created by future teachers that gives me hope for the arts in schools.

I don’t dispute the precarious position of arts education in Aotearoa NZ or the legitimate concerns (many of which I share) about classrooms without dance, music, art and drama. There is a wealth of conversation about what isn’t happening, isn’t funded and isn’t valued, but what about what is? Amidst the negative discourse around arts education, we need to remember that teachers themselves are artists and engage in creative practice, often out of necessity, on an hourly basis.

The NZ Curriculum divides the arts into four discrete disciplines (dance, drama, music – sound arts, and visual arts). However, this is rarely how we engage or experience the arts in the world. For example, how often do we dance without music or paint without imagination? And how much art-making is now done digitally?

Battle weary

As I sat listening to expert voices and the familiar refrain of arts education reverberating around the room at the Drama NZ 2021 conference, I grew despondent. I heard messages like the arts are essential; the arts are our passion; the arts are marginalised; and the arts have disappeared – all true and all well-trod. Many of the voices bringing these messages are those of vital and exciting teachers with decades of experience both in their art form and in battling for it, on a daily basis. As arts educators, we know this, we feel this, and we have energised the conversation on the arts on multiple occasions. But we have also returned from these passionate arts gatherings to be bogged down in the micro-battles that educators face every day with students, colleagues, institutions, timetables and more.

Comrades, not adversaries

Introduced in 2000, The Arts in the New Zealand Curriculum specified four separate disciplines: Visual Arts, Drama, Dance, and Music – Sound Arts. All four are unified within the curriculum through four pedagogical strands which recognise the arts as places for doing, exploring, making meaning, and understanding ourselves and our culture. The arts are recognised for their ability to cultivate students’ key competencies through co-constructed learning that promotes critical thinking. Classified as four discrete disciplines, however, the arts are positioned in competition with each other for resources, expertise, status, and of course that most precious commodity, time. No wonder teachers don’t think they can fit the arts into the timetable! In an effort to give each discipline its due, has the arts just become too much and too many – the unslayable four-headed hydra of the classroom?

United we stand, divided we fall

Perhaps we should look to the position of the arts in non-Western cultures for guidance. Within Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, the curriculum document for Māori-medium schools, Nga Toi (The Arts) offers an integrated framework that encompasses a diverse range of arts practices and honours cultural aspects. Similarly, Te Whāriki, NZ’s early childhood curriculum, conceptualises the arts holistically: all four disciplines are considered collectively when engaging children in the arts for a range of personal, social, and cultural purposes.

Following the removal of national standards, there is renewed interest within NZ primary schools in subject integration, including arts integration as a pedagogy for teaching and learning. Recent publications recognising the value of engaging with literacy through drama or mathematics through music are valuable, but what about rethinking the integration of arts with other arts? What is it about the arts that are most important? Isn’t it worth trying to do things another way?

Prompted by new Teaching Council requirements, the Graduate Diploma in Primary Teaching at the University of Waikato teaches through a conceptual model that integrates curriculum and reflects the complexity of teaching and learning. In TEACH 412/512 Te Kaiako hei anga Whakamua: The future-focused teacher, preservice teachers engage in future-focused thinking through arts and technology. Asked in their first assignment to respond to a key arts concept through a chosen arts medium, the following examples showcase the benefits of working conceptually as well as the opportunities available when preservice teachers explore and create not only as educators but also as people. It is important to note that this was a compulsory paper and that the students whose work is featured below were not necessarily those who might self-identify as artists or as having “strengths” in the arts. The assignment task thus invited all students to engage in the arts and reinforced the power and potential of the arts for all.

The examples below, including students’ actual assignment submissions, are shared with the students’ consent and with approval from the University of Waikato Division of Education Ethics Committee. Students’ real names, real first names, or selected pseudonyms are used in line with each student’s personal preference.

Teachers as artists

Fusing the arts and technology together, Leia explored creating music through manipulating ordinary objects and recording them to create a sequence of sound. This process of inventions sparked her appreciation that through art, learners may connect and elevate their experience beyond everyday life.

Anna Hatton offers a visual commentary on the implications of human activity upon nature. She collected rubbish from the side of the road, painted the items with nature scenes, and then repositioned them back on the roadside. Exploring the concept of transformation, Anna recounts this as “an opportunity to collect this rubbish and turn it into something new”.

Through the reworking of a popular, well-known piece of music, Taki Morehu-Cookson’s work draws attention to the mispronunciation of Te Reo and his own connection to the language. A clearly enjoyable endeavour, Taki explained that he found surprising connections to other international students whose language often suffers a similar fate.

Kazerra created a pottery work to explore and raise awareness of child poverty. She employed the arts to make meaning of her future teaching context in Aotearoa New Zealand. Through the process, she recognised that the arts require experimentation trial and error, and that when students have space to create, connections can then be made in a variety of different ways.

All together now!

Teachers are creative and can outsmart the limitations of time and money (or, inevitably, both!) to seize upon opportunities and provide quality arts experiences for their students. The examples above show how pre-service teachers were able to engage with the arts, linking a range of disciplines both within and beyond the arts curriculum, resulting in powerful learning for all.

To resist the negative discourses around the arts in NZ education, we need to broaden our understandings of the arts to encompass new forms, new media and new ways of engaging. We need to value the essential commonalities of arts experiences to enable participants to lead their own learning and create new ideas. Let’s accentuate the positive, disrupt deficit assumptions about arts education, and recognise with hope that teachers are creative intellectuals who can offer quality, varied arts experiences.


Dr Claire Coleman is a lecturer at the University of Waikato and programme leader for graduate initial teacher education. Her PhD examines the potential of process drama as an enactment of the philosophies of critical pedagogy. Claire is passionate about embodied and creative pedagogies for transformative education. She facilitates an after school Drama club at Silverdale Normal school and is a strong advocate for arts pedagogies. Her current research examines the parallels between ILE spaces and arts spaces and cultivating creative, collaborative environments.

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