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Episode 147: The importance of Arts in school

Using different parts of your brain, creative expression and more. Is the purpose of the Arts in school misunderstood? How important is the process of the learning Creative Arts in our education system? Plus, find out more about Adam's hidden artistic talents.

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Profile of Andy Psarianos expert educational podcaster.

Andy Psarianos


Andy was one of the first to bring maths mastery to the UK as the founder and CEO of the independent publisher: Maths — No Problem! Since then, he’s continued to create innovative education products as Chairman of Fig Leaf Group. He’s won more than a few awards, helped schools all over the world raise attainment levels, and continues to build an inclusive, supportive education community.
Profile of Adam Gifford expert educational podcaster.

Adam Gifford

In a past life, Adam was a headteacher, and the first Primary Maths Specialist Leader in Education in the UK. He led the NW1 Maths Hub’s delivery of NCETM’s Professional Development Lead Support Programme before taking on his current role of Maths Subject Specialist at Maths — No Problem!
Profile of Robin Potter expert educational podcaster.

Robin Potter

Robin comes to the podcast with a global perspective on parenting and children’s education. She’s lived in ten different countries and her children attended school in six of them. She has been a guest speaker at international conferences, sharing her graduate research on the community benefits of using forests for wellness. Currently, you’ll find Robin collaborating with colleagues and customers in her role as Head of Community Engagement at Fig Leaf Group, parent company of Maths — No Problem!

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Podcast Transcription

Andy Psarianos

Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.

Robin Potter

Hi, I'm Robin Potter.

Adam Gifford

Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.

Andy Psarianos

This is the School of School podcast.

Welcome to the School of School podcast.

Hi everyone. Welcome back to another episode of the School of School podcast. And today we're talking about the importance of arts in school.

So we've got Adam here and Robin here. So go on guys, what do you think, is arts actually important in schools? Or is it just one of those sort of things that we can forget about when other things happen?

Robin Potter


Adam Gifford

Go for it, Robin, what are your thoughts?

Robin Potter

Wow, a big topic. But yes, absolutely arts, that would... I take it, that would encompass... Let's break down what that actually means. Are we talking music, drama, creative arts, drawing, painting? Did I miss something?

Andy Psarianos

Yeah, all of the above, I guess. Right?

Robin Potter

All of the above. Music. Yeah, I think it's a very important part of school. Can you imagine going to school and not having those opportunities to improve those skills or use your creative energy in those types of artistic ways?

Andy Psarianos

See, I expect a lot of people wouldn't agree, right? A lot of people would say, "Well, look, school is about the three Rs," right? "It's all about you got to learn how to read, you got to learn how to add. Arts, well, that's just basically playtime."

Robin Potter


Adam Gifford

Yeah. I agree with Andy's starting place, that people may not agree. And I think that part of that comes from what are we held accountable for at the highest level? And it's the results that's English based, so reading and writing and maths.

And so I guess it would be... no, easy is the wrong word, but hopefully you know where I'm coming from here. If the onus is on that in terms of assessment, I think there's plenty of people that would make a choice that that is the focus of learning, and it gets the lion's share.

I disagree with that, but I think that that's evident in schools. And I think that you have to have that balance.

Andy Psarianos

So what's the purpose of teaching creative topics to students, the arts? I think it's pretty clear with things like reading and writing and mathematics, it's pretty clear what you expect, what you want. But what is it that you want when you teach somebody a creative topic, the arts or however you want to define it?

Robin Potter

I think it's using a different part of your brain as well. I don't know, I keep going back to... when you were talking about maths, I keep going back to maths, no problem. And I picture our textbooks and I think, "Wow, can you imagine if all of our creative staff weren't here because they never got to explore their creative abilities in school?"

And our textbooks might look a little bit different and not nearly as exciting. So all the colour and the beautiful images... I'm going off on a tangent, but Adam, I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Adam Gifford

I'm going to bring this back to schools. And I think that part of the problem with the arts is that it's got an identity problem and that people just think it's a bit of a free for all. Like, "Yeah, come in, you can paint or illustrate or do drama or dance or whatever." And it's kind like, "Yeah, just sort of spend half an hour, man, it's free flow. And just do that from the time that you're five all the way through to 11. And just relax, just take it easy."

But what you find is that there's a process to each of those disciplines, and they are disciplines. And they're a learned skill, it's not something that's just... Yes, of course we hear about those people who, I don't know, pick up an instrument, and they can have no formal training and 10 years later or however long they're very good at it. But probably what's lost in that is the amount of practise time in between and going through a learned set of skills.

And I think that's where the arts gets misunderstood, is if it's like, "Right, we've got this formal structure with English and maths, and that's what learning's all about. And we learn this and then you learn this and then you learn this." So are the arts, you learn to draw or paint or anything as part of a process.

And the people who are working in companies in those fields, man, I know a number of actors who have made it onto the big screen, I know them personally. The amount of work they've put in, the discipline that's attached to it. It's certainly not just been a career of, "Yeah, just go out and sort of, I don't know, freeform, free flow for half an hour a day and you'll make it onto the big screen." It's a nonsense.

So I think that it's got a bit of identity crisis in that it's underestimated just what a learned skill and what a set of skills there are to be, to really find your potential in those fields.

Andy Psarianos

So creativity at the heart often is about communication, right? And it's about telling a story in one form or another, be it an emotional story or just a recollection of something that's happened or something that could happen, fiction, whatever. And it seems like we underestimate how important that actually is, and also the visual aspect and the audible aspect of communication.

So it's like reading a transcript, let's say read the transcript of this podcast and see if you get the same emotion and the same kind of clarity out of it. You don't, right? You have to hear it because this is an audible format.

I mean, it's important for us to transcribe it, but I guess my point is that just a conversation is very different than writing something down. You have to structure it entirely different.

And painting, again, is something like, it's all about communication often. Well, you're trying to tell some kind of story usually with a painting. And you're often doing it using visual metaphors, like you're using other things to represent either an emotion or an impression that you had when you looked at something or when you imagined something.

And those things are things that you need to learn, you need to work those muscles in order to become proficient at them. And it's hard, because when you recognise it right away, when you say, "Oh, that person is a great storyteller," be it whatever their medium is, you recognise it right away.

And you realise how much influence those great storytellers have on society, because ultimately that's how we think, that's how how we believe, we remember, we tell stories. It's probably one of our most important methods of communication, right?

And it's not a new idea. I mean, as far back as there's records of what you would call humans, there's been some kind of creative expression, as far as we can tell anyway. Obviously that's not my domain, so I don't really know, that might be a false statement. But certainly representing things in abstract forms has been something that we've been doing for a really long time. Cave drawings, for example.

Adam Gifford

Yeah, for sure, for sure. And all of these things rely on a skillset. And in order to do them well, it relies on a skillset that's been developed with the same care and attention, and process, and time, and all of those things to get it done well.

But I think where it tends to fall down is the emphasis... Or two things, the emphasis on the reading, writing and maths in national assessments. And I guess you could argue that's the cover of a school or the face of a school, alongside Ofsted reports. Whilst that doesn't give the full reflection of that school and that community, that these are the nationally available stories of that school. So, of course, schools want to do those things well.

And I think the other thing that, if I'm speaking from personal experience and that of other colleagues, is that sometimes those are the areas that are scariest to teach. And in primary school, we're not experts. We come into it and we might have a bit better of an understanding in one area than another, but there might be other areas that sort of scare you to bits.

So, for me, initially it was music and singing. Honestly, I can belt it out in the shower, but put me in front of a group of people, I'm terrified. So I think-

Robin Potter

Oh, come on, give it a shot right now. Let's hear a few bars.

Adam Gifford

No, I shan't, I shan't. But what I will tell you, there's a politician sideways step there, Robin, I had no chance to dodge it. We had this wonderful sort of thing where all the children learned... The first time it happened was the oboe. And we all learned it together, and we did a concert together with all the parents and the rest of the school and whatnot. Honestly, I don't know that I've ever been more nervous in my life. It was just cold sweat, sort of no sleep stuff.

And the other thing too is that I think the other thing that makes it a wee bit harder for the arts, I think, to get the focus that they deserve is that in your teacher training you 're probably more likely for the school to invest in you to be a better teacher of maths or English. I think that that's probably the reality, as opposed to finding out.

And I've only been fortunate that I know some people who have done very well in certain fields, and I've taken it to an education side with them to say, "Well, what do you reckon? I'm about to do a lesson on painting, what are your thoughts? Here's the things that I struggle with. What's your advice?"

And some of that's been really sage advice that their experience, the only reason why... But that wouldn't have happened, I don't think my head teacher would've said, "Adam, we're going to send you on a course to help children paint better." I'm not convinced that that happens very often.

Robin Potter

Which is, to me, such a shame. But it's my own opinion.

And I think coming, again, from the parents' perspective, I can't imagine my kids going to school and not having the opportunity to take an art class, or be involved in the high school musical, or in elementary school being a part of a play. It would just... To me, it's missing out.

And again, like I said, I believe, like you said, Adam, it's a skillset. And you can apply those skills in all kinds of other areas of your life. And as you've just said, even as a teacher, having that creative background and using the arts to help in your teaching. I mean, some people claim that they're entertainers, not educators, maybe because they have a bit of drama background when they're up in front of their class, and they're using those skills.

I don't know exactly, but I feel like it's such an important part of the curriculum, that I can't imagine my kids going to school and coming home and having just done maths and science and reading, and that was their whole day. It just seems like we'd be missing something crucial.

Andy Psarianos

Yeah. Well, it's part of being human is being able to express yourself creatively, right?

And I think that we've become fixated with sort of our view of the world, our modern view of the world, which is very much STEM-based and science and all that kind of stuff. But if you go back and if you look at many First Nations across the world, I mean, the creativity is not only something that they used, but it is their identity. It is how they see themselves and how they see the world and how they express the world.

And it is a worldview and it's one that needs to be... And it's one that's probably longer standing than any other kind of way of viewing the world. And it's an important part of what makes us human.

So I think, if nothing else, you see it in children, there's a yearning, there's kind of a desire to express yourself using creative means, be it sound, be it pictures, be it dance, or whatever it is. And I think if you don't let people explore that side of themselves, it almost feels like a part of themselves has been put in a box and hidden away, right?

And a lot of that stuff has been traditionally learned in social environments, and by sharing and by partaking in events, and all that kind of stuff. And school seems like a natural place for that to happen.

But I suppose it's... I think, Adam, you kind of touched on it a little bit at the beginning where you said, I don't remember exactly how you said it, but it's like this emphasis on the things that we measure in school as being the emphasis, is kind of like people are driven to metrics all the time. So if you're measuring math scores, or English scores, or reading scores, or whatever it is, writing, vocabulary, all the mechanics of it, then that becomes what matters, right, because that's what you're being measured by.That's what you're being judged by.

But can you judge someone's, I don't even know what the right word is, proficiency in creative arts fairly? You can measure their participation or their enthusiasm maybe, but who's to say that that piece of music that that 7-year-old did was better than that other person's music, right?

Adam Gifford

And I think too, and I don't think that you're suggesting this for one second, Andy, but I don't think... I think one of the worst things we could do is then go down an avenue of trying to do that, and so everything becomes measured in schools.

That would just be like nightmare's film.

But I was thinking about what you just said about that, putting something in a box. On the weekend something made me laugh out loud and smile really, for whatever reason, I don't think I was down in the dumps or anything, but it really cheered me up.

I was walking through... was it a shop? I don't know. So music came on anyway. And this wee tot in a wee stroller just started shimmying, just left to right, getting into it. Totally instinctively, right? Totally instinctively. Now, that sort of reaction, how can you deny that? That's just raw. That's not because they've been taught to do that, that was just inherent in that child. And I thought, "How lovely."

To your point, Robin, I think the best schools do do this. I think they realise the importance and the richness of developing and valuing that side of humanity, and that side of our culture and cultures within schools. And long may that last, putting that... It's just valuing it and giving children a space to succeed in something.

That they may well succeed in other stuff, but to succeed in some stuff which I've had with some children where that's been their greatest success. And proud as, really proud of what they've done. Whereas in other areas, that may not be the same message that they're hearing.

So yeah, I think we have to just keep that as a balance. We have to have that. That that, I would argue, helps success in other areas.

Robin Potter

Agreed. And as they should right? They should feel proud of themselves to have those kinds of skills, because not everybody does. Or doesn't have the chance at least to explore or grow those skills. So for the kids that do and that they feel good about themselves, hey, keep dancing like nobody's watching.

Adam Gifford

Yeah, absolutely.

Andy Psarianos

Thank you for joining us on the School of School podcast.

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