Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Focus on national tests robs children of true learning

Wake up, Australia, or we'll have a nation of unimaginative robots.

School is back and it is a matter of regrettable fact that large numbers of children in state and independent schools will be subjected to a style of teaching directed exclusively to producing satisfactory results in national literacy and numeracy tests and consequently scoring high ratings with My School.

I want to make my stance very clear from the outset: NAPLAN tests and My School have nothing to do with the education of a child. This abhorrent and insidious method of assessing children, teachers and their schools needs to stop now. Principals, teachers and parents need to stand up and be counted and resist this unnatural activity, which only succeeds in turning education into some sort of cheap competition in which the last consideration seems to be the mind of the child.

Screaming the words literacy and numeracy from Canberra does not constitute having an educational policy. In fact, the race to become the most literate and numerate schools with the best rankings nationally is exacting a terrible price.

Evidence is now available that schools all over the country are cutting back on arts education to devote more time to subjects that will make children literate. It can be demonstrably proven that activities used in teaching for the national tests destroy individuality, stifle creativity, stultify thought and make all children respond in the same way - a sort of educational circus in which the children are the trained animals and the teachers the poorly paid ringmasters.

The very things that promote literacy and numeracy are the arts, beginning with serious arts education in the early years. If we want a creative nation, an imaginative nation, a thinking nation and a nation of individuals, then we must increase the time for arts education, especially music education. If we want a nation of non-imaginative robots who can do tests, then we are well on the way to achieving that condition.

Parents need to know that it is through participation in arts subjects that the mind, imagination, spirit and soul of a child are stimulated. Through this stimulation comes a bonus in all other areas of learning.

Music, for example, when it is properly taught, requires an extraordinarily high level of listening and concentration from the student. It requires the student to have a capacity to work in the abstract, an ability to work across several skill areas simultaneously and the ability to rationalise this verbally.

Children's involvement in musical activity has a profound effect on the development of the child's general learning. It is now proven beyond doubt that children who are engaged in arts activities, especially music, have advantages in all areas of learning. The research is in, proven and beyond doubt. Why, then, with the evidence so overwhelmingly supporting children's involvement in arts education, would schools decide to reduce teaching time in these important fields?

In supporting statements of this nature, let's examine one school in Victoria, the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, where senior students spend half a week on the academic curriculum and half a week on their chosen arts discipline. Each year the students from this school seem to do extraordinarily well at the year 12 examinations in spite of only spending half the time on academic work.

How can this be? My view is that they are highly motivated children who have, early in their lives, encountered enlightened parenting and teaching and are motivated to work hard in all disciplines in an environment that promotes creativity, imaginative thinking and individuality. In short, most of them have had early, prior opportunities.

All children in Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark seem to have such opportunities; why can't all Australian children? By ignoring arts education we say to our children: ''You are too stupid to have good education in the arts - your brains will never cope with intense learning in music, for example, so we will only do the bare minimum with you in any arts education and really concentrate on getting you through your NAPLAN tests.''

Wake up, Australia, before it's too late. Teachers, parents and children need to let governments know that we are heading into a cultural and educational crisis unless we address these issues now.

Richard Gill is the music director of Victorian Opera.

This article was first published in The Age on 9 February 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pop goes the Weasel

It’s time to stand up and let the world know, at least in Australia, that if we are to be a truly creative nation then we need to nurture creativity from the start of a child’s life and we need to do it properly.

Music education, the prime mover in nurturing children’s creativity, is often maltreated by people, let’s call them teachers, who think that children should have a diet of only popular music, because, AND WAIT FOR THIS...THE CHILDREN LIKE IT!

What fabulous reasoning; children tend to like sugar: should they therefore have only a diet of sugar?

By giving children ONLY popular music you say to them in an oblique but very forceful way: ‘ Children, you are too dumb to understand any music other than popular music.

Your brains will never understand Jazz; you will never get any European folk music or world music or fusion or crossover jazz/classical/ethnic music because you are not capable of listening to anything other than pop music.

‘So children’, says the music teacher of limited imagination, and even more limited ability, ‘let’s play the latest pop song and see how it’s just like every other pop song.’

The real tragedy is that there is some crackerjack pop music out there which, in conjunction with a wide range of all sorts of other music, could really have a profound impact on children’s musical development. Comparing, contrasting, examining a broad range of styles and genres is the life-blood of a music program. Music education is not about entertainment.

Would History be taught with the view that we will only study Australian history from 1900 -1905? That could be fun and entertaining!

Would Geography be taught with the view that we will only study mountains in Victoria? We love mountains and hate seas and plains and valleys!

Would arithmetic be taught with the view that we only really need to do addition up to ten? My children don’t like any numbers above ten!

If this Federal Government is really serious about creative Australia, really serious about education and genuinely interested in literacy and numeracy then it would put its money where its mouth was and fund music and arts education as a priority, taught properly by teachers who know something about music, teachers who are serious about music as a subject and not disc jockeys.

Parents need to know that children, who receive only pop music and nothing else, are being short-changed in a significant way.

How is it that in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Argentina, for example, where music is studied and taught sequentially as a serious subject that there has been no deleterious impact on the literacy and numeracy results of students? In fact just the opposite: these countries excel in all fields of educational endeavour precisely because of their arts and music programs, in which pop music, by the way, plays a very minor role

Wake up Australia; we are behind the eight ball big time-but we can change it; you can change it-you can show concern-you can write to education ministers and politicians, even when they seem not to be understanding the problem they still need to hear that there is a problem and it can be fixed. Watch this space.