'It didn't make any sense'

3rd October 2008 at 01:00
The presence of a creative person in the classroom will not always help young people develop creativity. Emma Seith reports

The jury is still out on whether spending millions teaching subjects through the arts makes any difference to pupils' attainment - or even their creativity.

Researchers who studied the pound;1.2 million Arts Across the Curriculum project concluded that the contribution of the artists involved actually hindered pupils' learning in subjects like physics and chemistry.

The Scottish Arts Council project, launched in 2005, ran for three years in seven local authorities. It aimed to increase achievement and motivation, embedding the arts into learning and teaching more radically by using dance, drama and music in a range of subjects from modern studies to modern languages.

Teachers did note some improvements in test scores and a reduction in the need to re-teach topics. But, according to the Strathclyde University researchers, evidence that attainment improved remained "elusive". They said: "Evidence from the literature suggests that such gains might only be expected to occur after consistent, long-term participation."

Although the programme encouraged pupils to use their imagination, generate their own ideas and work in new ways, it also failed to impact on creativity.

"While the presence of the artist along with the teacher is beneficial, the mere presence of a creative person will not help young people develop creativity or creative thinking skills," the report states.

More time was needed, the researchers suggested, for teachers to build on the lessons with the artist.

Some pupils even reported that the artistic aspect of the lesson had obscured their understanding and that they would have learnt better without it.

Concepts in physics and chemistry, for instance, would have been easier to grasp if they had just been told about them, rather than "jumping about kidding on we were light bulbs".

Another pupil told researchers: "It didn't make any sense, it was just a laugh."

For the analogies to be effective, the researchers concluded, they had to be "carefully chosen". In a subject like physics, using an art form was not always appropriate.

They reported: "Young people might grasp some physics concepts more easily if they are encouraged to relate them to their experience of playing snooker or football, rather than representing the concepts through dance or other art forms."

The project was found to have benefits, however. Over 80 per cent of pupils thought it was easier to learn the topics presented in the lessons with the artist, and almost three quarters thought they could remember the ideas more easily.

Pupils talked at length in focus groups and interviews about the lessons being "fun", "interesting" or "less boring". In particular, they said they remained on-task for longer, because there was less listening and writing - more "getting on with it", as one pupil put it.

The approach was also found to promote collaborative working; three-fifths of pupils said they worked with pupils they did not normally work with. And 70 per cent thought that taking part in the lessons with the artist made them more confident.

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