10 February 2019

Interdisciplinary learning for the Expressive Arts: is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Eighteen months ago, Kathryn Lewis, Head of Faculty for Expressive Arts at Ysgol Nantgwyn (a new ‘through-school’) was a secondary school music teacher, with no particular interest in working across artforms. Now, she’s a champion for interdisciplinary learning in Wales, and says that teaching subjects in complete isolation seems unthinkable to her now. We spoke to Kath ahead of our networking event The Venetian Blind Effect – how open are we to the interdisciplinary arts? (Tues 5 March 4-6pm, Sherman Theatre), where we’ll be exploring our hopes and fears about interdisciplinary learning in the Expressive Arts in schools.

Tell us why you have such a belief in the power of interdisciplinary arts?

Before this all started, I had no experience in teaching other artforms. I’d been in the school (Porthcawl Comprehensive) for 12 years, and had only spoken to our art teacher once! I was a keen musician from an early age and that was always going to be my path – there seemed to be no need, and no encouragement, to look at the other artforms. In fact, when I was at school my options didn’t allow anyone to take more than one arts subject.

Then I became part of the Pioneer group of teachers, looking at the Areas of Learning and Experience (AoLEs) outlined in Professor Donaldson’s Successful Futures report, ahead of the proposed curriculum reform in Wales.

All of a sudden, I was in a room with people from across the disciplines who were being asked to consider whether arts could be taught in an integrated way – and initially, the response from secondary teachers was a resounding NO!

Understandably, they said things like, we have a GCSE in Art, Music or Drama to work towards, or, I’ve spent my life being a subject specialist, how can I possibly do this?

What was amazing was that primary and special schools did a real number on us! They shared stories of how they taught, and this, combined with more discussions, presentations from specialists, and personal research by all of us, convinced us that yes, it could – and in fact should – be done! Also Kay Smith of Pencoed School was a secondary teacher who’d already started the process. As drama isn’t a national curriculum subject, she’d always feared it would be cut. She inspired us to believe that change could happen.

We focused on ‘What matters’ and looked at processes that were common to all our disciplines. And we came up wth key words that we felt encompassed our AoLE:

Explore & experience

Create & express

Respond & reflect

That was a turning point in bringing us together as a group.

How did you take that back to your school?

That was the challenge. I’d been part of this thinking through process, had time to research, discuss, and explore ideas. But my colleagues weren’t part of that journey.

Initially, they said no way could it work – even from a logistical point of view. In a lot of schools, the placements of departments and buildings don’t even allow for that.

My deputy head said, ‘don’t frighten the horses’ and suggested I do things in small steps. So I suggested that we did an interdisciplinary project with the year 6s that they’d continue in year 7 when they joined us. We chose The Lion King.

At one point, a colleague said to me “I’m really concerned about standards, at this point in the term they’d have learned the musical elements, but all we’re doing is African drumming and art”. And I said, “but we can be teaching them about timbre, and pitch; rhythm and dynamics; all those things,  while we’re doing it – and link them with elements in other artforms.”

It was a lightbulb moment for me – I realised we just had to completely reimagine how we approached subjects. It doesn’t make sense that you just dryly learn about the musical elements, without any context. That isn’t our experience in the real world.  I realised there just wasn’t enough context in the way we were teaching. For example, every music department does a unit on Blues, yet very few link it to history and geography who are at some point talking about the slave trade and abolition of slavery.

And when you start to look more generally at creative habits of mind, you realise that these are encompassed across all disciplines. The process of making, exploring, responding is exactly the same no matter what specific artform you’re working in. And students completely see the links across the subjects and through the creative process, and that will stay with them for life.

Kath recommends finding out more about Paul Collard’s creative habits of mind. Watch a video presentation.https://education.gov.scot/improvement/learning-resources/Why

Learn more, get inspired and take part in discussions – book for The Venetian Blind Effect

Can you give us some examples of how that worked in practice in the first school you trialled it in?

At Porthcawl, we started with a summer drop down day, where pupils were taken off timetable and immersed in music, drama, art, linked to one theme – The Lion King. They were encouraged to ask ‘big questions’ – to think about what they wanted to know. We looked at all sorts of things – status, identity, hierarchy, African tribes …

In September, they had Expressive Arts written on their timetable but each discipline was taught discretely as well.  Starters and plenaries were cross-curricular, so the stimulus to the music lesson might have been a  piece of art, for example, or opening discussions about what they did with their art yesterday.

The response from learners was really positive and I think it was this that convinced my colleagues. Students said all the lessons all made sense, they liked that the music, art and drama teachers all knew what they were doing in other lessons. I no longer said, “Don’t tell me about that now, we’re in a music lesson now”. It was great that I could talk to them about what went well/ not so well in the art lesson. In a pupil survey, they were asked “Where do you feel most safe?” and 90% said Expressive Arts.

So from then, each half-term, music, arts and drama teachers had a morning or afternoon together to look at lines of enquiry and what the next themes would be. Then we planned collaboratively using Office 365 and Google Drive, and the Head of Expressive Arts coordinated things.

Each scheme of work led to a final project that showcased the three disciplines. This really made sense – you could still discretely assess their progress in individual subjects, but they also got a judgement that tracked their general creative process.

How is it working in your current school?

In Ysgol Nantgwyn, years 7 and 8 were originally having thematic learning for Expressive Arts, Humanities and Health and Wellbeing but we realised that it was a step too far at this early stage.

So this January, we split the thematic work into ‘Creative’ and ‘Life’. Each Expressive Arts teacher has two classes and is responsible for teaching Art, Music and Drama.

We plan collaboratively, and each provide specialist input for our colleagues. So I plan the input for Music and provide resources and professional learning guidance, exemplars and moderation, taking into account that a non-specialist will be delivering it. The upskilling is incredible. I feel confident I can teach Art and Drama because the other teachers are providing that support and input.

Then in year 9, ready for exams, we’re recommending that they go into specialist subject lessons – although qualifications are changing and there is likely to be an Expressive Arts GCSE.

Isn’t all this just more work for teachers who are already overloaded?

Teaching always does require significant professional development, there’s a continuum from new teacher to leader, so you HAVE to engage in new practices and pedagogy whether you like it or not.

Haberman talks about a poverty of pedagogy – we’re working hard but not progressing. Schemes of work should be evolving all the time – it’s not an excuse that there isn’t time.

Kath recommends reading The Pedagogy of Poverty vs Good Teaching by Martin Haberman.

A lot of teachers have said it’s excited them, and invigorated their teaching. They can feel unburdened, as if they’ve removed the shackles of their preconceived ideas of what, for example, a music lesson is. For me, teaching six music lessons a day, can be exhausting, so I’ve loved teaching Drama and Art, because it’s different. So wellbeing-wise this approach also has advantages.

Change is hard, but it’s worth it if we’re to keep progressing the pedagogy.

Kath recommends reading about the Kubler Ross change curve

Finally, can you give us some small steps that people could be taking right now – starting with teachers?

  1. Ask your SLT if the Expressive Arts teachers in your school can have a half-day to look at all the schemes of work for Art, Music, and Drama, together. See if there are any crossovers, if anyone’s unit of work excites anyone else, and ask if you can choose a scheme to do together.
  2. You could choose a unit of work from each subject, and do one per term or half-term. Initially you could trial it for a half-term such as the first of year 7. Get feedback from your learners to help you make the case.

And is there anything that artists and creatives should be doing to prepare for this more interdisciplinary approach in schools?

  1. Set up a profile and an opportunity on the A2:Connect website to make teachers aware of you. Contact your local school/s and ask for a meeting to let them know what you offer. Read five tips for artists on getting your arts project into a school.
  2. When you deliver in a school, encourage the teacher to take part, as part of their professional learning.
  3. Be open to having a meeting with the teacher after the session (consider offering this as an additional service or part of your ‘package’). Show them how you deliver your session, and give advice on how they could do it using the skills, knowledge and resources they have.

Listen to ‘Emma & Tom’s PGCSE podcast’ interview with Kathryn

Learn more, get inspired and take part in discussions – book for The Venetian Blind Effect

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