Knowledge: a dirty word in arts education? - RSA

Knowledge: a dirty word in arts education?

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  • Education
  • Creativity
  • 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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  • 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. 

  • The issue of creativity in schools won't get any closer to being resolved unless we start being a little smarter about what we mean by creativity. Kaufman's '4C's is a decent starting point in that it shows the various levels of intensity and purpose in creative activity and action. Personally I think this helps me decide what I am trying to do with students, why and how.

  • I wondered if the polarisation of knowledge and skills really applies to the arts, when we have a form of embodied knowledge that could be the meeting point of skills and knowledge. Martin Fautley was written about this debate in music regularly. 

    • This is a very interesting article and thread. I am not a professional educator and am conscious that I should be wary of joining such a discussion but here goes. I have heard that there are other goals in education that build on "knowing" and "doing", namely "being" and "being together". It seems to me as an amateur musician that learning to play a musical instrument maxes out on all four. There is a lot of theory and knowledge that has to be learned if meaningful progress is to be made. Reading music for example is a skill to be acquired, and beyond that appreciating the rules of harmony allows a deeper understanding of the music. Learning historical facts about one's instrument, about the development of orchestras, and about composers and their historical context is important and aids interpretation of music. So far, we can recognise typical features of a school subject: acquiring knowledge and practical skills. To play an instrument well, in order to tell the story and communicate effectively, requires something more than knowledge and technical skill, and this is where creativity seems to come to the fore. When that happens in a group of players, something very sophisticated is achieved. The skills of listening, thinking independently, and solving problems in groups come into sharp focus. These require a sophisticated understanding of self and of others. I liked the reference above to measuring outcomes. It might seem easier to measure the initial things in the journey towards mastery of a musical instrument, eg, ability to read music and learn historical context etc, and harder to measure effectiveness in musical communication, but I am not sure it is terribly difficult really. It seems to me that if we aim to teach children how to be and how to be together, building on their knowledge and skills, the "point" of knowledge becomes clearer. It is impossible to "just look up" the knowledge you need in the moment you are making music - it needs to be there, likewise the practical skills need to be at one's beck and call. But those are not enough. It seems sad and wrong to me that musical instrument tuition is something that children have to pay for in state schools, beyond the one free term or year that is paid for by HM Government funding of Music Education Hubs. Are the ideas of learning how to be and how to be together familiar in education? Thank you for this article and the responses.