Tuesday 19 November 2019

The Value of Arts-based Learning

[This article was written for a brochure ‘10 Years, Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning’ published in November 2019)

(In this article I’ve made some words ‘bold’. They are, if you like ‘key words’ which I think are important in helping us understand what the arts are, what they’re for and why they’re important’. )

I’ll begin with some questions: 

how do we know about the world around us? 
how do we know who we are? 
how do we know about how we fit into the world about us? 
how do we know how we think? 
how do we get to know about how others think? 
how do know about how our forbears thought about these things?

These are important matters. If we don’t ask them, we are passive; we accept what is given to us; we hand over our rights as human beings to others. If we look at those questions we can see that they are about our survival, about how we might co-operate to survive and about the meaning of what we are doing here. 

Science helps us with some of these questions. It does this by coming up with hypotheses (what ifs),  testing them and if they appear to be valid, seeing if doing the same tests again we come up with the same results. The results of the sciences have produced the world we see and use. The arts come up with hypotheses too but in general the arts are much less interested in seeing if these what-ifs are ‘valid’.  And the arts are mostly not very bothered about whether exactly the same results turn up again and again. In fact, they are usually more interested in results being different rather than the same.

The arts may not start off by trying to answer that list of questions. It may be that the answers start to happen when we produce art, take part in it, or ‘receive’ it in some way or another as an audience. 

How do they do that? 
And what do we mean by ‘the arts’ anyway?

The core idea with the arts is some kind of making or doing. The making and doing will nearly always involve producing something new, and it will nearly always involve taking something that is already there and changing it. The phrase we can use for that is ‘transforming sources’ and this connects us to ‘change’. But what do we change? That depends on which kind of art! 

Dance changes the body. We change the shape or speed or rhythm of our bodies or the amount of space we take up - and much more - when we dance. 

To make music we change sound using scraping, tapping, blowing, plucking or changing our vocal cords. 

To paint or draw we change pens, brushes, paints, pencils, paper, canvasses. 

To sculpt we change stone and plaster and other materials. To make other visual art pieces we can assemble objects - humanly made or found in nature. 

To write, we change language and express this with our voices, computers, pens, paper. 

To design, we change design tools and materials to come up with shapes that can be used to construct things. 
To make films we use machines to capture sounds and images and string them together in sequences. And so on.

This tells us that one of the thing we do when we practise the arts is we play with the materials we change. Some might call that ‘investigating’ materials. We investigate paint, we investigate language, say. This helps us to find out what is possible. What is possible to make and do with the ‘stuff’ that we are changing?  (‘Possibility’ is an important word in the arts too.)

Every time we take part in the arts, we start with something that is already there. We learn from what has gone before, whether that’s the materials we use, the stuff we find, or what other artists have made before us. As we get to work, we learn things about ourselves like ‘what is possible to make or do - given I am who I am?’ ‘what is possible for this group of people to do - given that the group is this particular group?’ 

This means that at the core of the arts are discoveries: discoveries about what the ‘stuff’ we are using can do, and what we can do as individuals or together.  

This is exciting: it’s about our potential as human beings: our potential to think, to imagine, to be, to do and to make. It’s about how we can extend our minds and bodies beyond what they did yesterday. 

So if we go back to those questions I began with, we can see that it’s through experimenting with the ‘stuff’ we use that we can indeed begin to find some answers:

How do we know about the world around us? - If we play with ‘stuff’ we find out how it works, what shapes we can make with it, how fast or far or glittery or wobbly or smooth it can be - that’s about the ‘qualities’ of materials.  (And much more of course!) 

How do we know who we are? - If we play with stuff we find out what kind of people we are, how confident, how sad, how angry, how careful we are (And much more!)

How do we know about how we fit into the world about us? - If we play with stuff we can relate what we do to what others are doing and how they do it. 

How do we know how we think?  - As we make and do the arts we can listen to ourselves thinking. As we say to ourselves, ‘I’ll try that, I’ll experiment with that, we can also ‘monitor’ ourselves thinking, or remember how we were thinking as we were making and doing later, after we have finished the work of art. Memory is often important in art: the memories we use as we make the art, the memories of making the art, the memories of other people’s art.  These memories are a major part of who we are, and how we behave in the world. Taking part in the arts helps us find out what these memories mean, what matters, what’s good, what’s sore, what’s bad, what’s warm.

How do we get to know about how others think? If we work with others, we co-operate through listening to others and hearing back from others what they think about what we say and do. 

How do know about how our forbears thought about these things? If we look and hear and study the works of others we get insights into how people thought about all these things before us, whether that’s from something made yesterday or 3000 years ago. 

Over many years I’ve worked with the Barbican Guildhall arts team with thousands of children. We’ve explored many of the arts: painting, sculpture, poetry, stories, music, video. This has nearly always involved working in several art forms at the same time, often being an audience one moment and then making something new in another medium. This takes us to that all-important word ‘interpretation’. How might we ‘interpret’ some photos by writing poems? How might we ‘interpret’ the stories of our families’ lives by making models? This is a form of concealed abstract thought: picking out elements in one art form that we can express in another, finding themes common to both but expressed in different ways. 

All this work has involved huge amounts of co-operation with artists from many genres working together to enable children to see the possible, saying in effect:‘you can match what we try to do by trying to do things too.’ 

Teachers and parents who see their children over time have told us many times that they have seen their children feel excited and fulfilled by this kind of work. It is a way of thinking about yourself as a producer, a co-operator, a person looking for possibilities, looking for what can be done with the ‘stuff’ they’re working on. 

This tells us something profound: when we change the ‘stuff’ we use, we change ourselves

I’ve been very lucky in my life because from the time I was very young to now, I’ve had time and space in my life to both be an ‘audience’ to the arts  in theatres, art galleries, cinemas, or with books and listening to stories and songs but also to make the arts that suit me - poetry, plays and stories. I ‘use’ the arts to help me understand the world and to help me understand other people to help me understand myself, and to help me see myself in the world. 

For the last 45 years or so I’ve also been lucky enough to have had the pleasure of helping children make and do the kinds of things that I’ve been doing. I’ve seen them discover possibilities about themselves and my work at the Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning has been a huge part of that. It has affected what I write, how I write and how I work with children.