Sceptics take a leap of faith as maths meets movement

18th December 2009 at 00:00
Aberdeen University programme strives to demonstrate that arts have a place right across the curriculum

Portknockie is a down-to-earth sort of place, a north-east fishing village most famous these days for prodigious success in "village in bloom" contests.

It is most certainly not a centre for the arts, as one of its natives, probationer teacher Ruth Donaldson, explains: "We're too busy fishin' and growin' floo'ers."

Ruth used to subscribe to the local consensus that art was an "airy fairy" pursuit, far removed from the graft and practicalities of everyday life. But the 21-year-old, who works at Arduthie Primary in Stonehaven, has had a dramatic change of attitude. Now she would think little, for example, of asking pupils to convey their feelings about a building - through dance.

Ruth's mindshift is explained by an innovative week-long programme for third-year Bachelor of Education students at Aberdeen University called Arts as a Tool for Learning Across the Curriculum, or ATLAC.

It throws together unlikely combinations of school subjects and expressive arts - maths and dance, science and storytelling - to show students that the arts are not a frivolous add-on but can have a profound impact on every aspect of their teaching.

The idea sprang from Arts Across the Curriculum, an action research project funded by Future Learning and Teaching and researched by Strathclyde University. It had brought together teachers and professional artists in seven local authorities, including Aberdeen, to take classes simultaneously covering the arts and other subjects.

The Aberdeen University staff shared a common view that the approach should be built on through initial teacher education. Their institution was particularly well suited for such a move, thanks to its pioneering Scottish Teachers for a New Era primary B.Ed.

It brings more theory and research into teacher training and allows students to take courses outside the school of education; one of its three guiding principles is to ensure "engagement with arts and sciences".

The scheme ran for the first time in 2007-08, following close work between the university and two city council arts co-ordinators, Linda Lees Hislop and Annette Murray.

ATLAC is obligatory in third year at Aberdeen University (there is also an optional fourth-year course, but an initial experiment with the postgraduate course did not last).

Over one intense week, students take part in seven two-hour sessions, each with a different artist demanding that students come out of their comfort zones.

Maths and dance are all about patterns and geometry, they learn. By performing a half-turn, fractions come to life.

Science and music bring pitch and rhythm into play: students have to invent a musical instrument of cardboard tubes, and there are giggles of delight when it manages to parp a few notes.

One of the most memorable tasks is blindfolded painting. The idea, says B.Ed course co-ordinator Anne Valyo, is not to think too hard. Many students protest they cannot draw, and are stunned to discover the quality of their paintings.

ATLAC ideas have a profound impact when taken to schools, says Mrs Valyo: "Pupils really remember what they've learned. And things that they mightn't have tackled before, they have a go at."

The programme was scrutinised in an internal report last year, whose findings were largely positive. ATLAC allowed "wider scope for creativity", which led to "potentially deeper curriculum knowledge for both the students and the pupils".

Some teachers who worked with ATLAC students were concerned that the focus would switch too far from the topic of study. In two out of 18 cases, "the school ethos appeared to be in conflict with the ATLAC approach and a preference for a more direct form of lesson delivery was noticed".

One student had a particularly hard time with a teacher, as "it was too many ideas and not enough structure for her . she thought that I wasn't giving anything and she said I was not taking any initiative".

In many cases, however, hardened attitudes melted away. One student recalled teachers advising: "Oh, the boys won't want to dance." Yet the student found "they weren't just running around, they were really playing with the space and pattern and dynamic".

One student extolled: "You can't teach maths and language without involving what you see, what you hear, what you taste, and all those things are expressed by the expressive arts."

The report stressed, however, that off-the-cuff creativity works best in the context of careful preparation: thorough planning is "crucial".

Ruth Donaldson, as one of the new generation of teachers to emerge from the ATLAC project, addressed a national expressive arts conference recently. She spoke with the zeal of the converted.

"The arts can be used by every teacher," she said emphatically. "Every child can benefit from using the arts."


A typical ATLAC week brings together:

- maths and a dancer;

- science and a storyteller;

- social subjects and a film-maker;

- language and a visual artist;

- religious and moral education and an actor;

- health and wellbeing and an artist;

- technology and a musician.

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