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Knowledge: a dirty word in arts education?

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  • Education
  • Creativity
  • Education
  • Arts and society

A few weeks ago, at around about the same moment Nick Gibb was in the West Midlands speaking about the importance of a knowledge-based curriculum, I happened to be speaking at a Westminster Education Forum conference, where there was a lot of consternation about the role of knowledge in education. Here’s an attempt to try and figure out why knowledge is a dirty word for many arts educators.

At the Westminster Forum, I’d been updating delegates on the RSA’s Learning About Culture project, in which (together with the EEF, IoE and BIT) we’re evaluating five cultural learning projects, to find out how they support children’s reading and writing (among a number of other things). One delegate asked whether our focus on literacy wasn’t just playing into the latest DfE fad and shouldn’t we be more interested in the skills that people will need for the 21st century. I tried to reassure the questioner that literacy is neither faddish, nor the sole concern of the Department and added that ‘reading’ isn’t only the ability to decode writing, but the ability to comprehend meaning from texts.  Written ones, of course, but by extension other cultural artefacts with layered, elusive or obscure meaning and room for interpretation; a critical part of anyone’s cultural education, never mind their ability to negotiate the world.


 Cultural Capital vs Knowledge?

Although it’s getting a bit of a drubbing from various sources, the 21st century skills meme recurred throughout the session. One of the threads, somewhat confusingly, was a simultaneous championing of ‘cultural capital’ and disavowal of a knowledge-based curriculum. Although I’d left the stage (and no doubt people had already heard enough from me), I felt compelled to challenge this, requisitioning the mic and reminding delegates that cultural capital is, in fact,knowledge. If it is desirable that all children, regardless of their social class, have good reserves of cultural capital, knowledge is exactly what you want to focus on.

Since then, I’ve been puzzling over this seemingly widespread opinion that ‘cultural capital = good’ and ‘knowledge-based curriculum = bad’.  Unsurprisingly, the word 'cultural' feels like home territory for those working in the arts and cultural education and  ‘cultural capital’ is regularly (but incorrectly) assumed to be connected to a beaux-arts rich education. While on the other hand, many assume that a ‘knowledge based’ curriculum in the arts necessarily means prioritising book-learning and the history or theory of an art form (propositional knowledge) over technical or craft (procedural) knowledge, practical activity or professional cultural experiences. That assumption’s not entirely unwarranted: our current, reformist government has been on a mission to introduce more ‘rigour’ (trans: ‘more writing’) into arts GCSE and A level that has seen the balance shift away from procedural knowledge. But many imagine a deeper distinction between ‘knowledge-based’ subjects and ‘skills-based’ subjects, leading to an assumption that a knowledge-based curriculum would be narrow, exclude the arts and design and certainly that it would exclude any focus on transferable skills. This distinction is incorrect, however: arts subjects are knowledge based and skill in the arts derives from deep and well-rehearsed knowledge of form, materials, technique, context etc. It’s not the knowledge-based curriculum that’s at fault, but the relegation of procedural and contextual knowledge.


 Skills vs Knowledge?

Understanding the skills and knowledge divide is complicated because the term ‘skills’ is used in relation to both tightly defined, domain-specific skills and generalised (e.g. ‘21st century’) competencies and personal attributes.  Many arts educators feel like the point of the arts in education is to learn this second category of skills from the arts, more than it is to acquire knowledge/ skill in the arts. That what children learn through the arts in the curriculum is self-expression, humanisation and a way of engaging with the world through metaphor that helps them to perceive and express the ineffable. Developing theoretical or technical expertise is a lower priority than developing what might be called’ human capacities for flourishing’: creativity, collaboration, self-expression etc.  and treating them as opportunities to build knowledge diminishes their value.

Take for example this ‘grid method’ approach to teaching and assessing development of procedural knowledge in drawing. A child at this school (St Martin's in Solihull - you can read about their knowledge-based curriculum here) has been asked to copy a portrait of Dali over the course of two years of study.

 Drawing grid


You could unpick lots about the design of the assessment (‘did the yr7 kid know that accurate copying of the stimulus was what was being measured?’, ‘Surely they could have got there quicker with better feedback from the teacher or the class?’), but a great many art educators will look at this and question not the technical learning, but the artistic expression in these drawings.  Many will say that this progression of images does not demonstrate progress in artistic ability – only in how accurately a student can copy. That a focus on accuracy as the measure of success is an attempt to teach children that the valuable thing is to limit one’s imagination, one’s will, one’s creativity. They will say that the conditions in which this has been learnt are not those that are conducive to developing future artists – e.g. a democratic classroom, primacy of the artist’s thoughts and feelings – nor for cultivating a respect for artistic expression in those not destined to become artists. It demonstrates the imposition of the will of the teacher, and by extension the state, over the will of the child – anathema to the free expression prized in art and in society.


Creativity vs Knowledge?

The implication is that arts education is there to teach us that we are all interpreters of the world, all entitled to expression, that meaning and value are constructed, subjective and fluctuating and therefore subject knowledge is of limited importance. That’s what’s led many arts educators to make the art classroom a place of making rather than a place of training, where children’s freedom to express themselves is prioritised. The trouble is that in spite of the best intentions, this notion of how best to teach the arts is ultimately infantilising, rather than developmental. Whether its Ken Robinson or Mark Rothko, the assertion is that the natural creative expression of the child is something fragile and worth preserving and that knowledge, training, discipline get in its way. They are right of course: school is not interested in preserving the child’s ability to express herself in the way she already can, but in providing the dexterity, the vocabulary, the knowledge with which she might go beyond instinct, accident and play and be expressive in ways that can resonate more deeply with others.

Education strikes a bargain with learners; trading innocence for experience. So, let’s not be in doubt: schools do kill a kind of creativity, but rather than ask how we can prevent this, perhaps we should be asking whether the creativity that they offer in its stead is more empowering, more liberating, more generous, more valuable.  Designing our curricula and classrooms for what children might be able to do next, rather than what they do now does force a compromise. A knowledge-based art classroom with increased emphasis on technical discipline requires schools to be less immediately demonstrative of the value of free expression, but, ultimately provides learners with greater ability to be in command of their desire to express themselves.

Which would you prefer? I know what I’d go for…



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  • I try to keep a close eye on this debate on social media and see the point of view that artistic expression may be somewhat thwarted by 'training'.  However, I would also argue that great writers like William Faulkner knew the rules, but were able to break them for effect in some of his greatest literary works.  I doubt that he could have achieved the effects he did without experience and education.

    I guess our challenge is how do we provide access to cultural capital, whilst enabling new cultural worlds to be explored and respected?

  • I am surprised that anyone even gives the 'knowledge v skills' debate much breath, being IMHO a deliberately divisive construct and typical of the #BinaryEdThinking permeating these fair echo chambers tho do appreciate that if left unchallenged we may one day wake up in some utopian hell in which it is the status quo.

    On this I would commend the sensible views presented in 'Inspiring School Change - Transforming Education through the Creative Arts' 2017 C. Hall & P. Thomson in which I made the attached highlights the other evening.

    I have to take exception to Mr McGill's comment 'It’s not schools that kill creativity, it’s the system' as, again it's not that binary. Sorry to criticise some of your colleagues but I do believe there are some schools that do kill creativity (evidence: some are shutting down the arts and creative subjects) though yes, the while the system we are moving to does kill creativity it is possible to deliver a creative education within it, as one school leader in an 'Outstanding' Primary in Sunderland said to me "Ofsted are clear, they value creativity. But it takes brave leaders".

    The light in the tunnel for me is that our school leaders have a brave leader in Geoff Barton who is doing a wonderful job to advocate for the arts and creativity.

    See him speak on this at an event I co-curated here: 

  • It’s not schools that kill creativity, it’s the system. 

    After 25 years in schools, I’ve never met a teacher who does not value the knowldedge domain of their own subject - many often argue subject complexity when challenges about curriculum content by colleagues who teach outside the subject. 

    I do agree that there is lack of understanding re. knowledge-rich curriculum which is cited by Gibb on a weekly basis. The ‘rigour’ dialogue is tedious and as you rightly point out, is simply more writing. 

    One student I know has sat 33 individual GCSE examinations this summer for 10 subject qualifications! Mental health in our young people has never been higher ...

    The crux of the matter is this. The Department for Education have created an EBacc (English Baccalaureate ) league table measure for schools - students must complete a set number of subjects at GCSE level. The Government want 90% of all pupils to meet this by 2025. The reality in schools is leaders narrow the curriculum offer for pupils so that they can meet those measures to avoid a) a poor OfSTED report that tests curriculum offer and exam performance b) poor examination results reported by DfE. The result? More exclusions by pupils who are forced to study subjects they do not want to study; teachers teaching to the test etc. 

    DfE league tables are the real problem in our schools and why we have such a divide in what is being taught within the curriculum. 

  • I would be very surprised if the writer or those contributing to this discussion, so far, are artists.

    Formal art education and its associate debates belongs to a different eco system altogether......possibly the equivalent of the debates held in the 

  • Afraid I don't follow your argument.  The kind of creativity on offer in a standardised assessment based arts education system is about what Prof Welby Ings calls "embellishment" and "small scale adaptation" it is not, ultimately creative thinking, it is not creating anything new, simply fitting into predesigned and "values based" systems which preclude vast swathes of our young people.  It is not empowering beyond highlighting the imperative to fit into existing systems and tinker around the edges.  Children are being indoctrinated into a knowledge based curriculum before they have had the opportunity to experiment or find their feet, knowledge should be held up as inspirational rather than dogmatic and in some classrooms it is, however the ever right-lurching ideological educational agenda is squashing this out more and more.  If you can 't assess it, you can't measure it, and if you can't measure it it isn't of any value.  Try telling that to Deschamps, Shakespeare, Basquiat, Toni Morrison - any of the great creators. I agree with your statement "It’s not the knowledge-based curriculum that’s at fault, but the relegation of procedural and contextual knowledge." - BUT this relegation is ultimately devastating.  Let's look at children's mental health, social inequality, and cultural capital - there is so much more to cultural capital than knowledge!! It is about access, understanding and ownership - that's what creates cultural capital.  And if we are not allowing children to experience culture, without telling them how they should be thinking and feeling about it, so their 'knowledge' can be assessed and we are not giving them the space, time and tools to express themselves freely within our educational establishments we are creating a generation of drones with no outlet for their ultimate frustration and misery, except for the occasional riot or arson attack.  I for one, find this 'knowledge based' approach to be the ultimate waste of potential - both for our brilliant teachers and our young people.  Reducing the arts to a spreadsheet approach so we can measure it?  No thank you.

    • I don't think we can be creative in vacuum: without me knowing *about* music I couldn't compose, and without knowing *of* musical works with ideas that I can draw on for my own work (reflecting on the processes they take, the inspirations they have acknowledged as well as aesthetic issues). I think we don't need the polarisation of creativity and knowledge, and we need to develop a shared understand of creative/artistic knowledge that is beyond facts. I've found my students love getting to know music, learning about its genesis, reception and providence. I don't just ask them to compose blindly - we respond to pre-exisiting works, using them as a springboard for creativity. I want them to know music through engaging with it critically as well as creatively. For me, music education is more than *making* music from scratch. It's developing a confidence to respond to what we hear, whether that be an explanation of the process, an attempt to replicate it or an original response that demonstrates an understanding. 

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